King Herod heard about all this because Jesus’ had become famous. A lot of people were saying that John the Baptist had come back from the dead and he could now do all these miracles because he had become a supernatural being. Some said that Jesus was Elijah. Others said that Jesus was a prophet like the other prophets that lived long ago. But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I had beheaded, has come back from the dead.”
Herod himself had sent out men who arrested John and chained him up in jail because he had married Herodias (his brother Philip’s wife). John told Herod, “It’s not legal for you to marry your brother’s wife.” Herodias was resentful toward John and wanted to kill him, but she couldn’t because Herod was scared of John. Herod protected John because he knew that he was an honorable and holy man. He usually became agitated whenever he would listen to John; nevertheless, he enjoyed spending time listening to what he said.
A suitable time came about during Herod’s birthday party. Herod threw a huge dinner party for the celebrities, the military officers, and all the movers and shakers of Galilee. Herodias’ daughter came in and did a sexy dance for Herod and his guests, and they were thrilled by her performance. The king said to the girl, “Ask anything you want from me and I will give it to you.” He made [a lot of] promises to her like, “I’ll give you anything you want, up to half of my kingdom.”
She went and asked her mother, “What should I ask for?”
The mother said, “The head of John the Baptist.”
And bam! She hurried back to the king to make her request. She said, “I want you to give to me, right now, on a platter, the head of John the Baptist.”
The king was panicked. He didn’t feel as if he could refuse her request because of the promises he had made, and because he wanted to look good in front of his guests. And bam! The king sent out an executioner with orders to bring back John’s head. The executioner went and beheaded John while he was still in his cell. Then he brought back the head on a platter and gave it to the girl. The girl in turn gave it to her mother. When John’s students heard about it, they went and took the corpse and gave it a decent burial.
I’ll admit to you all that I had a difficult time with this passage. I spent weeks staring at it, researching it, praying about it, looking for that point of brilliance that would dazzle and amaze you all, once more showing off my preaching skills, once more being the “golden boy.” But I drew a blank. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Most of the time I can read a passage of the Bible and a poem, a story, a song, a personal experience springs to mind. In this case, however, nothing has sprung. It’s a difficult story, an ugly story.
Theologically, it is a strait forward passage. There is nothing lying behind the surface to be discovered. Mark’s intention in placing this story where he did in his Gospel seems to be clear. This passage is sandwiched between two stories about discipleship. On the one side, there is the story of Jesus sending out the twelve disciples to heal and preach and exorcize demons; in short, to share in his ministry. On the other side, the disciples return from their ministry. In between is this story about John’s beheading. There is an obvious linking of this story to that of discipleship. It is often used to demonstrate the cost of discipleship.
One of my favorite theologians, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, would have probably went in that direction if he were preaching this morning. Bonhoeffer would remind us that The Christian call is a call to suffer. It is a call to face death. It is a call to stand up to the evil powers of the world and not back down as they scream horrible threats to us, as they whisper promises that we can escape suffering. The evil powers of the world remind us that the name of the game is not “stand up for your convictions” the name of the game is “play ball.” Like a game show host, the evil powers of this world parade prizes, luxuries, money, they tell us that “all this and much more can be yours if you just play ball.” They show us the obituaries of those who stood their ground” of those who did not play ball” they remind us of the very real possibility of what happens to those with convictions. They remind us that a cross or an executioner’s block ultimately awaits those who set out upon the path of discipleship.
I suppose that under normal circumstances, that is the sermon that I would feel comfortable preaching. It’s an easy sermon to write; a few Bonhoeffer quotes here, a sad story there talk about the Bible, throw in a poem, and voila . . . a sermon. But for some reason I can’t go there. This passage won’t let me take the easy way out. There is another direction to go . . . the more dangerous of the choices – the road less traveled…
This is also a passage which is often used to assign blame. It begins by placing the blame against Herod and the members of his immediate family. It often expands, assigning blame to power structures; exposing the “powers that be.” Another easy sermon to write: establish the wickedness of Herod and the wickedness of his friends and family, present some contemporary examples of this form of wickedness, assign some blame, and voila – a sermon.
But I can’t go there either. It’s true, everybody in the story seems to be out of line: Herod, Salome, Herodias, there seems to be plenty of blame to go around. So why can’t I blame these people? Why can’t I hold these ugly acts against them? I can’t because I know that blaming limits my ability to hear the story. When I assign blame, it only allows me to hear the story with a sense of superiority. I objectify the figures in the story and they cease to be real. Then the temptation is too great to avoid finding those contemporaries so I can continue the blame game. “It’s those Liberals who are to blame,” or, “It’s the conservatives,” or the homosexuals, or it’s the heterosexuals, or the rich, or the poor, or the addicts, or it’s the kids today, fill in the blank – there is always someone to blame. It’s safer to blame. It’s easier to blame. It hurts less to blame. When I blame, I don’t have to accept any of the responsibility. When I blame, I don’t have to see myself in the story. But when I blame, I give up my power to change.
Well, I’ve danced around this long enough. Time to venture down that road less traveled. Time to face up to the ugly truth. Time to face why this passage is so hard.
In this story, I find that I want to identify with John the Baptist. Mark’s Gospel begins with John the Baptist. It is clear that in Mark’s mind, John was vitally linked with the “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”(1:1).
The Gospel writers present John as fulfilling two roles: that of “prophet” and “forerunner”. The prophetic portrayal of John the Baptist is that of one who came out of the desert to proclaim the advent of the Kingdom of God and issue a call of repentance. He wore a camel’s hair cloak and a leather belt. He ate locust and wild honey. John’s self-presentation and action, as described by the Gospel writers, cast him in the role of Elijah; the one who was to appear before the coming of the Messiah.
The second role is that of a “forerunner.” A forerunner was a military term that was used for soldiers who ran ahead of the regular army, either to announce or to prepare for its arrival. The forerunner is a herald or a scout. John announces and prepares for the Kingdom of God by announcing and preparing for the one who was to come after him, who was to be more powerful than John.(1:7) He also scouts the territory; it is obvious that the resistance that John will meet is the resistance that Jesus will meet.
The passage this morning is about that resistance; it is a report of John’s heralding and scouting activity. The narrative about John’s death is the only story in Mark that is not about Jesus; and yet, it is. Mark is stating that John’s ministry designated the beginning of the story of Jesus Christ; John’s death signals the beginning of the end for Jesus. John is presented as a man with a mission, a man with convictions, a man who did the right thing regardless of the consequences, and consequently, a man who makes no sense to me at all.
And yet, I want to identify with John, the honorable one, the convicting one, the one who does the right thing regardless of the consequences, a man who trusts so much in his God that he risked his life and lost it. I want to identify with John but I cannot. I find that I identify with Herod – the one who is without honor; the one whose convictions are changed by whatever pleases him; the one who does the wrong thing; the one who trusts in his own power and his own promises; the one who is concerned with his image. Herod is a man who makes much more sense to me. He is a man with whom I can identify. He is the man that I am closer to when I am honest with myself.
I have identified with “shady” characters in the Bible before, but they were usually people who eventually changed their act. They were usually people who eventually had convictions, who did the right thing eventually. They were people whose biggest liability seemed to be their inability to understand what was happening around them. Herod, on the other hand, is a different case. His biggest liability is not his inability to understand, it is own sense of power; it’s his own sense of self-importance; it’s his own misguided attempt to be revered, to look good, to be the “golden boy.”
When Herod heard about Jesus, he said that John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. This is not necessarily a resurrection confession made by Herod, after all, Herod had the head. He knew better than anyone that John was, in very real terms, dead. The statement seems to be more of an outcry of exasperation: “Man, when is all this going to end? It’s John the Baptist all over again!” With this Mark relays the story of John’s death at the hands of Herod.
Herod had arrested John because John challenged the validity of his marriage to Herodias. This may seem like an over-reaction on Herod’s part, but a popular prophetic figure who used Scripture to denounce the legitimacy of a ruling family was a serious political threat. Herod knew that his legitimacy was weak in the minds of the populace. John’s accusations that Herod’s marriage was an offense to God had the very real possibility of removing what little loyalty the people had for Herod. So Herod shut John up in a very literal sense. He arrested and imprisoned him, getting John out of the public arena and reducing his political threat. This arrangement also allowed for Herod to offer some protection of this troublesome prophet, whom, Mark tells, he loved to hear preach.
Herod had a birthday party. It was an occasion to demonstrate pomp and power. It was basically an opportunity to show himself off to the important people and the military leaders and the first families of Galilee, all of his supporters and potential supporters, all of the backs that he had to scratch. Then, Herod’s step-daughter danced. Herod was so pleased that he promised her anything, up to half of his kingdom, a promise, incidentally, in which he was in no position to grant. In reality Herod possessed no kingdom. He was a vassal of Rome. It was Rome’s kingdom. Only Rome could divide his kingdom. Only Rome could take it away. Herod made an empty promise in front of his important friends and supporters. A promise that everyone knew was bogus. And she took the opportunity that was given to her in an empty, self-important promise. She asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Herod conceded. The man who was allegedly protecting John conceded. And John, the honorable one, the convicting one, the one who did the right thing, who took the road less traveled and did the right thing, died.
I guess I should stop here and mention a presupposition which I hold when I approach Scripture and the individuals described therein. I believe that these people are pretty much just like me. From Moses to Judas, I know that within me I have the possibility of being either one. I believe that the Bible is not something to be used so that I can point my finger at others. I think that the Bible is to be used so I can point my finger at myself, seeing myself as I truly am, reminding myself of whom I am capable of being if I am not careful.
When I am not careful, I behave just like Herod. I don’t believe that Herod was inherently evil. I believe Herod was doing the best he could with what he had. He was trying to hold on to what he had left. I believe that Herod became Herod by default and not by decision. I believe that if I had the power that Herod had over life and death, my palace would be decorated with the severed heads of those who stepped on my toes. My palace would be adorned with the heads of those who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when I was attempting to look good in front of my peers. My palace would be littered with the heads of those who were less important than the stupid promises that I would make—than the stupid promises that I had no right to make. My palace would be cluttered with the heads of those whom I was supposed to be protecting. On my best day I am no better than Herod.
Who among us is better than Herod? Who among us has not twisted events, facts, details, to suit our own purposes? Who among us has not placed more value on our image than on human need? Who among us has not intentionally given in to easier of the two choices, (the road most traveled), did the wrong thing simply because it was easier, simply because the right thing was too terrifying? Who among us has not given into our pride, our fear, our own sense of superiority? Who among us would not have cut of John’s head if we were in Herod’s position?
Perhaps this a sermon on the cost of discipleship after all. Only, the cost is not in where we end up, but the cost is seeing who we really are. Perhaps this is a sermon about blame after all. Only, we find that we are all equally to blame. We are all equally to blame when it comes to abuses of power, when it comes to suffering, when it comes to death, when it comes to the slaughtering of the honorable ones, the convicting ones, the ones who do the right thing. No one gets out without owning up to a piece of the responsibility. Perhaps, in the final analysis, it is a sermon about all these things, but to me, it is principally a sermon about grace.
Grace is a word that is often used but seldom pondered. It is a word that some of us use in very limiting terms. It is a word that we sometimes use to justify our actions. But grace is not an abstract concept, nor is it a means that allows me to justify past and future sins. Grace is the only thing that allows me to get up one more time. It is the only thing that allows me to face my past, a past that is filled with severed heads and bogus promises, a past of which I am very seldom proud. Grace reminds me that even though I am, on my best day, just like Herod, I am somehow a part of God’s activity in the world, even though I have severed a lot of heads. This story is about the good news of Jesus Christ! And the good news of Jesus Christ is that maybe, just maybe, through the grace of God, I may make it through the day without adding another head to my collection.
For someone who had nothing to say, I’ve been saying it for a long time. And now, how do I end this sermon? How do I end this long “nothing to say”? How can I present grace in such a way that it can stand up against the person that I know I am, so it can stand up against the people that we all know we are. How can a little word stand alone against a giant past? I guess that’s not really my job. My job is to remind you of that which I have been reminded. How it is heard by you is up to God.
The problem with life is that so much of it seems to be trial and error. Some of us have made so many errors that we are afraid to try. Some of us have made so many errors that we no longer feel worthy to thy. Yet, when God calls us, God does not call us as the people that we will become. God calls us as the people we are. And there is not a person here whom God is not calling
I have the words of the Heidelberg Confession echoing in my head. The first question asks “What is your only comfort, in life and in death?” The answer is:
That I belong” body and soul, in life and in death” not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins… (4.001)
Good news, friends! We do not belong to ourselves but to Jesus Christ! The Christian guarantee is not that we will be free from pain, fear, pride, violence, and abuse. The Christian guarantee is not that we will no longer be the cause of pain, fear, violence, and abuse. The Christian guarantee is that whether we receive violence or cause it, whether we receive pain or cause pain, whether we find ourselves in the position of John the Baptist or of Herod Antipas, we belong to Jesus Christ. Thank God for that!