This is my sermon on the Gospel passage for July 15, 2012, Mark 6:14-29. (From Common English Bible). It is a dramatic passage and one that cries out for an emotional delivery.
Herod the king heard about these things, because the name of Jesus had become well-known. Some were saying, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and this is why miraculous powers are at work through him.” Others were saying, “He is Elijah.” Still others were saying, “He is a prophet like one of the ancient prophets.” But when Herod heard these rumors, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised to life.”
He said this because Herod himself had arranged to have John arrested and put in prison because of Herodias, the wife of Herod’s brother Philip. Herod had married her, but John told Herod, “It’s against the law for you to marry your brother’s wife!” So Herodias had it in for John. She wanted to kill him, but she couldn’t. This was because Herod respected John. He regarded him as a righteous and holy person, so he protected him. John’s words greatly confused Herod, yet he enjoyed listening to him.
Finally, the time was right. It was on one of Herod’s birthdays, when he had prepared a feast for his high-ranking officials and military officers and Galilee’s leading residents. Herod’s daughter Herodias came in and danced, thrilling Herod and his dinner guests. The king said to the young woman, “Ask me whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.” Then he swore to her, “Whatever you ask I will give to you, even as much as half of my kingdom.”
She left the banquet hall and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?”
“John the Baptist’s head,” Herodias replied.
Hurrying back to the ruler, she made her request: “I want you to give me John the Baptist’s head on a plate, right this minute.” Although the king was upset, because of his solemn pledge and his guests, he didn’t want to refuse her. So he ordered a guard to bring John’s head. The guard went to the prison, cut off John’s head, brought his head on a plate, and gave it to the young woman, and she gave it to her mother. When John’s disciples heard what had happened, they came and took his dead body and laid it in a tomb.
Danger and arrest. Courtly intrigue and manipulation. Vanity and murder most foul. Why are these in the bible? Especially within the gospel of Mark; within the good news of Jesus Christ.
To be truthful, all these things are rather common place in the Old Testament. There’s some rousing and rowdy tales of prophets and monarchs, of war and peace, of capture and exile.
But it strikes us as being out of place within a story about our savior’s life. And yet…his life was cut short because of intrigue and manipulation; because of vanity. There was danger for him. And arrest. And finally death.
Do you begin to see? John the Baptist’s death points us to Jesus’ own death. In 15 short verses, it foreshadows and anticipates the fate of Jesus.
But why did John have to die? He and Jesus were cousins. They had similar ministries. Jesus came into his own ministry only after John baptized him.
If we listen to Josephus, a Jewish historian of the first century, we learn that John had quite a following. Enough people followed his teachings to present a problem to the Roman control of the region and to the Herodian Tetrarchy. Other peoples’ repentance and reflection is a bad thing when the rulers want to control them.
If we listen to Herod, we hear a man who is concerned that John has been raised from the dead and now works within the person of Jesus. Others in his court think Jesus may be the risen Elijah or another prophet. But Herod is convinced; it is John that has returned. This would not have been unusual with in first century Jewish belief. This isn’t resurrection as we tend to think of it. It’s much more functional and purposeful – to have one’s character put to work in another.
It does sound as though Herod has a guilty conscience and we find out that he was the one who ordered John’s death.
Let me take a moment, though, to clear up a question of identity. This Herod is not King Herod the Great. This Herod is one of his sons, Herod Antipas. Herod the Great died around the time that Jesus was a small boy. And at his death, his region was divided between his four sons. Herod Antipas was lucky enough to get the Galilee.
So, going back to the history books, we learn that this Herod, the son, is almost as big a scoundrel as his father. He divorces his wife, a princess from an adjoining region, because he has had an affair with his brother’s wife, Herodias. The two of them marry and this is when John the Baptist enters the story.
John is bold enough to tell Herod he’s done a bad thing. It isn’t lawful for him to marry his brother’s wife. It’s the law. It’s in Leviticus, chapter 20!
And this is John’s fatal mistake. Herodias is no wall flower. She is a strong-willed, determined, and vindictive woman. For his impudence and meddling, Herodias wants John dead. But her husband? Well, Herod kind of likes the guy. He likes to listen to him teach and preach. Herod actually respected the guy though John could confuse him easily; Herod found him righteous, holy even. But with a harridan for a wife, what’s a king to do to keep peace in the palace but imprison the poor guy.
So Herod throws John in jail but he protects him from his wife’s anger. And that would have been that except for Herod’s own pride.
In due time, a feast is prepared for Herod’s birthday. The birthday boy invites all his buddies in the court, all the generals of his army, and all the elite citizens of Galilee. It’s a veritable who’s who of men in the region. Of course, there’s a party for the women, too – they’re just across the hall in another room!
For the entertainment, Herod’s daughter is asked to perform. Now here’s where Hollywood and the bible take slightly different paths. Hollywood would have you believe that Herod’s daughter is Salome, she who dances with the seven veils.
In Mark’s gospel, she is named Herodias, after her mother. And in the Greek, she is called a “korasio”, a young girl, a maiden. Not a woman. And this makes what happens a bit squirrely to our ears.
I’d like to think her father asked her to come in and show his buddies what she’d learned in dance class. But sadly, she wouldn’t have been taught ballet. Close to an age where she could be married off, she would have known dances that would have caused Herod’s guests to, shall we say, sit up and take notice.
Our modern sensibilities are shocked by this – this poor young girl asked to strut her stuff for strange men. We would be appalled. And yet, there are modern parallels. Cheerleaders for pro sports. Toddlers and Tiaras. I’m sure you can think of others.
Young Herodias is applauded and her father is so grateful for her performance that he offers her whatever she wants – even half his kingdom if she wants it. The young girl is still naïve enough that she doesn’t know how to answer and runs to her mother. “What should I ask for? What?”
And her mother sees the opportunity she’s been looking for, a way to get even.
“Ask Daddy for John the Baptist’s head, dear.”
The perfect go-between, the young girl returns to the banquet room and even raises the ante a bit.
“Daddy, bring me John the Baptist’s head.” She adds “I want it on a plate and I want it right now.”
I can almost see her stomp her foot. A spoiled little girl learning her lessons well.
Well, what is Herod to do? In front of all his buddies, in front of all the movers and shakers of his corner of the world, he’s promised his daughter whatever she asks. He can’t take it back, can he? He’d lose face in front of all those men. He’d be shamed. Herod is devastated. He can no longer protect John. A guard is sent to the prison. And what seems like moments later, he returns bearing John’s head on a plate and presents it to Herod’s daughter. She, in turn, runs across the hall to present it to her mother.
This is a story of rejection. It’s a rejection so much worse than what Jesus experienced in Nazareth that it leaves us breathless in the scope of John’s suffering.
And I’d like to focus on John now for a moment. As Mark describes him, he’s a bit of a free spirit. Ascetic in the extreme, he’s clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. In Mark’s gospel, John was arrested some time after Jesus baptism but before Jesus returned from his time in the wilderness. He was a truth-teller and didn’t like the ruling powers or leaders of the temple or the synagogues. They were so wrapped up in ritual and their own importance that he called them nasty names and predicted dire fates for them in the gospels of Matthew and Luke.
John is a truth-teller and he didn’t care about the consequences. His faith, his belief, his strength all came from God. And so he wasn’t afraid to tell Herod how wrong he was.
John kind of reminds me of the small hero of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. Though young, that child is the only one who told the emperor the truth. Deceived and flattered by scam artists, opportunists, yes-men, and those who feared him, the emperor was caught with his pants down, as it were, in public. The boy told him the truth without fear and without guile. “You’ve got no clothes on!”
This is the gift of John, and of Jesus. Both of them had the facility to speak truth to power, whatever the consequences.
It takes courage to do that.
Courage to stand your ground.
Courage to speak out.
I told a friend earlier this week that true courage isn’t necessarily being brave – it’s doing what you need to do even though it might scare the hell out of you. That’s also strength!
I’m amazed at the strength people have, especially when they are standing up to power.
I’m amazed at the courage of Anita Hill who spoke out about sexual harassment.
I’m thankful for the courage of Margaret Sanger who spoke out for the right of women to reproductive health care, for the foresight of Susan B. Anthony who worked for the right of women to vote, for Jane Adams who pioneered social work, speaking out for the poor and disadvantaged.
I’m humbled by Archbishop Romero of El Salvador who was martyred because he spoke out about government corruption and oppression.
I’m grateful for the courage of Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont who continually uses his own standing and power to speak truth to others in power.
I’m glad for the work of Michael Adee and the Rev. Janie Spahr, for Lisa Larges and the Rev. Tara McCabe who fight for the equality of all people and for the right of all people to marry.
And, I’m grateful for Martin Luther King, Jr. who fought for the civil rights of oppressed people.
These men and women are prophets in their own time. Some see far into the future, and others see in the here and now.
Who are your prophets?
Who are your truth-tellers?
Who do you know, that like John, speak truth to power? With strength and without fear.
I hope and pray that each of us may have and use that opportunity to speak our minds and our hearts, strengthened and emboldened by our faith in God, reassured by the grace of Jesus Christ, and inspired by the Holy Spirit.
May it be so.