The Rev. Melanie McCarley
Given the Gospel with which we are faced this morning, perhaps today’s sermon should come with a rating of “For Mature Audiences Only”. The story of the death of John the Baptist as recounted in the Gospel of Mark is nothing less than a sordid, tawdry and tragic tale. It seems more appropriate for a tabloid than a book of Holy Scripture. Yet here it is, the tale of how John the Baptist—that wonderful prophetic figure who forms a hinge between the Old and New Testaments is done in as a result of a boozy promise made by an older man besotted with a dance done by a scantily clad teenager.
If it doesn’t make you angry, it should. How can it be that such a vital figure in salvation history gets murdered as a result of a vulgar event. This is no glorious martyrdom where the slain is given the opportunity to make a public declaration of faith, it’s a beheading in a prison cell—swiftly enacted and stupidly arranged.
How did it happen? To understand, we need some history. And for this I need to credit both Scott Hoezee and Craig Keener who point out that John the Baptist was probably the only figure who had the courage as well as the holy pluck to stand up to Herod Antipas.
And about Herod. This is neither the Herod who was around when Jesus was born and arranged for the “Slaughter of the Innocents”, nor is this the Herod who persecuted the early church. This is a middle Herod—sandwiched between the other two. True enough, he’s as immoral as his compatriots; he’s also weak.
This Herod was originally married to a Nabataean princess whom he divorced in favor of marrying his brother’s wife, Herodias (whom many scholars theorize was also Herod’s half-sister). This decision made Herod guilty of a number of sins (adultery and incest being among them); it also angered the king of the Nabataeans—imagine how you would feel if this happened to a daughter. In fact, the King of the Nabataeans was angry enough to launch a military conflict in which Herod was roundly defeated and embarrassed. Nevertheless, despite all this, Herod marries Herodias, and no one, no one save John the Baptist, had the moral fortitude to point out how wrong this was.
Powerful, immoral people are rarely eager to have their sins pointed out, and so we shouldn’t be surprised that John the Baptist (who was never known for his tact) winds up in prison for questioning the king’s morality and publicly rebuking him for his deeds. And this is what brings us to the evening of that fateful party when Herod’s lust for his niece (turned stepdaughter—who is also named Herodius, though we know her as Salome) and the evil machinations of her mother behind the scenes, all line up to lead to the beheading of John the Baptist. Herodius’s daughter dances and Herod, who is most likely besotted with her beauty as well as drunk, promises the young woman most anything she wants—up to half the kingdom (apparently, even a drunk Herod was wise enough not to promise her everything). And Herodius, whom we suspect knew Herod well enough to know precisely what would happen, tells her daughter to ask for John’s head on a platter. Herod, we are told was grieved. But, a promise is a promise, and John loses his life.
To put it bluntly—with the sole exception of John the Baptist—today’s story is rife with guilt—the guilt of Herod, Herodius and even her daughter who was made complicit in the murder of a righteous man.
To my ears, as I listen to this story—it seems as though it could just as easily be plucked from the headlines in 2021 as it was in the first century of the Common Era. “Righteous prophet assassinated by Lust-ridden politician”. This is the world in which the first Christians lived and (quite frankly) this is the world in which you and I live today. Same old, same old—there’s nothing new under the sun. So, what is the message? Where is the Good News, for those of us who hear these words this morning?
First, today’s lesson is a reminder that doing the right thing doesn’t always result in a happy ending. Secondly, it highlights just how badly the world in which John the Baptist lived and the one in which you and I dwell, needs to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ.
At issue isn’t whether John the Baptist should have kept his mouth shut and avoided political commentary (for, after all commenting on a ruler’s marriage is certainly political); at issue is the understanding that faithfulness to God’s truth can bring about suffering and even death. And yet—even here in this story we are reminded that what has the capacity to cure what ails this sin-sick world in which we live isn’t something as simple as social commentary, political uprisings, and the institution of better law and order. What this story highlights is that we are in need of a solution far more startling and unimaginable. What a world such as ours needs is the death and resurrection of God’s Son. We need to be reminded that neither the rulers of this world, nor the evil which surrounds us have the capacity to speak the last word in terms of God. We need to hear something new, something gracious, something hopeful in the midst of what can be a most un-gracious world. Not some made-up happy ending; not a story whose brutal conclusion encourages us to play it safe and placate the powerful, but something which speaks to us of the nature of the God whom we love and who loves us in return and the greater reality of God’s plan both for John the Baptist, as well as for us and for our world. This is a challenging story, with an even more challenging conclusion. Mark sandwiches this grim tale in between the disciple’s success in ministry and the Feeding of the Five thousand. Why? Why does. He put thi story here? Perhaps it is a reminder to us that speaking God’s truth comes with a price, but it does something more, it offers us a deep wellspring of courage to continue to confront the evils of our day with a certainty that God’s truth will, indeed, win out in the end. The conclusion for us is that only the Gospel (the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ) has the power to let us hope for a vision of what it truly means to be human and made in the image of God. This is a story from Mark leading us to the understanding that the cross is indeed the key to the Gospel. A story, which holds Good News for everyone in the end. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
“Center for Excellence in Preaching, Scott Hoezee, Mark 6:14-29
Craig Keener in The Lectionary Commentary (Eerdmans, 2001)