This morning’s scripture passage tells the story of the beheading of John the Baptist. It’s not exactly a bedtime story – more like a soap opera. I had some difficulty finding an image to put on today’s bulletin cover that wasn’t really gory. The story is memorable – and also quite unusual, for a number of reasons. This passage is one of the longest narrative scenes in the Gospel of Mark; it’s the only one in which Jesus himself doesn’t appear; and it’s told as a flashback. This story of John’s execution in many ways parallels and foretells that of Jesus’ own death – a reminder of the extreme cost of discipleship.
In last Sunday’s lesson, Jesus said that “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” Then he sent his disciples, and “they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.” Jesus had begun a movement that was getting increasing attention. Which brings us to our reading for today:
King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When the daughter of Herodias herself came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
The author Sue Monk Kidd once wrote “The truth will set you free, but first it will shatter the safe, sweet way you live.” Another variation of this verse is “The truth will set you free, but first it will make you PO’ed” (the word “angry” might be a better one to use in a sermon).
Today’s passage from Mark definitely isn’t safe or sweet; in fact, it’s quite gruesome. Most of us are accustomed to hearing about John the Baptist during Advent, as we anticipate the birth of Christ. In the middle of the summer, I suspect few of you would expect – certainly not look forward to – a sermon on John’s beheading. It’s summertime! We’re all trying to relax, to take it easy, to let down a bit, be comfortable and content. And yet, we need to listen to the words of scripture, no matter the time of year. We need to talk about what the Bible wants to talk about – the way, the truth, and the life. Too often today the truth gets labeled as “fake news” when it isn’t what we’d like to hear, when it isn’t what WE think is true, when it isn’t what’s pleasing to our ears. So today we’re confronted with one of the oddest, toughest, most gruesome moments in all of scripture. Today we hear about the huge birthday party that King Herod threw for himself.
This King Herod is Herod Antipas (not the Herod who caused all the bloodshed when Jesus was born). He’s having a party with his new wife, Herodias, who just happens to still be the wife of his brother. Their arrangement doesn’t quite fit legal requirements, and John the Baptist has been calling him out for it. John hadn’t been afraid to remind Herod: “It’s against the law for you to marry your brother’s wife!”
So now Herod’s partying with all his generals, his cabinet, his press secretary, all his advisors. The new wife, Herodias, has her daughter come in and dance in honor of the king. Herod is so impressed, he says, “That was the best dance I’ve ever seen. Ask me for whatever you want.”
“What should I ask for?” she whispers to her mother.
“John the Baptist’s head,” Herodias replies. “I’m going to shut up that truth-telling preacher once and for all.”
The gospel writer says that Herod doesn’t want to honor her request, but at the same time, he fears looking weak in front of all his highfalutin friends, so he gives the order. John’s head is cut off, brought on a plate, and presented to the daughter, who proudly (and so gruesomely) presents it to her mother.
And all John did was speak the truth. The truth about Herod and his brother’s wife, but also the larger truth – about the importance of repentance; the larger truth that was shared through his entire life as he pointed always to Jesus, “the thongs of whose sandals he wasn’t worthy to untie.” John was murdered because he preached the truth to Herod that nobody else dared to utter. When a prophet speaks truth to power, power often strikes back. When a prophet speaks truth to power, the prophet can expect persecution.
Today’s story reminds us that the task of following Jesus will never be easy. We will get flak and face resistance. We live in a world where those in power live with the fear that their authority will be challenged. Our leaders may not be as outwardly wicked as King Herod – although I can think of some who might be close – but they’re often just as spineless and willing to compromise their values if they think it will win some votes and guarantee their election.
Every day, we can see Herod’s court in our own world – wherever the powerful are possessive and fearful of losing their place of privilege. Every day, we can see Herod himself living in all who believe that their place in the world is held only by grasping and treachery. Herod lives right now in all who know what’s right and fail to do it.
Herod could have made a different choice, but power and prestige had replaced God in his life.
We too have choices. We too are always in danger of making decisions that undermine our faith and align us not with God’s kingdom, but rather with the principalities and powers of this world. We too are tempted – making a little compromise here, or by giving into a little laziness there. Then one day we wake up in a place that’s a far cry from where we intended to be, as faithful, committed followers of Christ.
Today’s passage is a call to discipleship, to confident anticipation of the coming reign of God. It’s a call to us, to our church, to live lives of confident, active expectation; to be part of a committed group of faithful disciples whose radical loyalty is to God – ultimate, unwavering loyalty to the new world coming. The new day announced by John and embodied by Jesus is dawning. No power of this world can hinder it.
Jesus calls us to belong to Him, speaking the truth no matter the cost, proclaiming God’s kingdom of mercy and grace, and living lives of compassion and care for those in need. Jesus calls us to live beyond ourselves. I pray that we may answer that call. Amen.