Reading: Mark 6:14-29
Earlier in the year from January through to April we spent fourteen weeks journeying through the Gospel according to Mark. This is one chapter we did not visit. John is there during both Advent and Lent telling us and everyone with ears to hear to repent. It may surprise you that although John is very much high profile from almost the opening words of the gospel, other a few sort of one-liner references, it is not until now in the sixth chapter we encounter him again and it’s not really him we meet with but rather it is an update on how life has been for John. In fact, it is an account that is looking back on how John’s life had come to an end. What startling news reporting this is. The man who baptized the people in the River Jordan is dead. The thundering prophet has been beheaded. Mark makes this latest announcement with a thud, no build up, no gentle introduction to soften us up for the blow about to be landed on us. Some were saying John the baptizer has been raised from the dead. What!? John, dead? Mark has our attention from the outset and the details soon follow. John’s prophetic voice had got him into trouble. He charged the highest ranking local bureaucrat with making an unlawful marriage, that ensured his fast track into prison. Herod Antipas had put aside his legitimate wife to marry his half-niece, Herodias, daughter of one of his half-brothers and the ex-wife of another. Herod is employed by the Romans to govern part of Galilee. He is a somebody, and his new wife doesn’t like being scolded and certainly not by a lunatic nobody. Imprisonment ought to have silenced John but Herodias wants him dead, and we already know she’s going to succeed. It is as though we are standing in the wings as this non-masterpiece of theatre unfolds. Herod was both puzzled by John and attracted to him. Apparently, he wasn’t too afraid to listen to what John had to say. It was Herod’s father who ordered the slaughter of male infants when he learned of Jesus’ birth. Herod the younger is content with imprisoning this holy man, but his wife is up to something, and when we lean in closer we hear there’s going to be a birthday banquet. Banquets mean drinking and dancing and a loosening of the kind of self-control that could otherwise keep an innocent man alive.
As soon as we hear of the banquet we know the date of John’s death. The foolish promise is made by Herod, a man overfilled with wine and food, besotted with power and with the youth and beauty on display. The words he uses when he makes his fatal promise have been used by another king long before him. In the Book of Esther, Queen Esther used the drunken promise of a king to save her people. The queen in our story uses the promise to ensure a murder. Once the dancing daughter has done her job, she has to run out of the room to ask her mother what to ask for. It’s a little detail that heightens the suspense. When the request is finally spoken, the words “the head of John the baptizer” are made. The girl may have been a pawn up until now, but this little queen-in-waiting adds a gruesome detail of her own. She is the one who asks for John’s head “on a platter.” And she wants it right now. What on earth is this awful story doing here? The story starts with questions about who Jesus really is. Again and again the stories of Jesus and John connect, even before birth we learn their mothers are cousins and other similarities unfold in both their stories. John is the one who is preparing the way. John has a message to give for the people he has a dedicated group of disciples; Jesus’ ministry follows a similar pattern. The innocent John is killed by powerful people who are threatened by his truth telling. Jesus, too, dies at the hands of anxious political authority. Herod knows that John is not deserving of death; Pilate tries to derail Jesus’ execution. It would appear that speaking the truth in the corridors of power can lead to some kind of danger, doing good and doing right things does not always protect you from being badly hurt no matter who you are, master or disciple. Just before John’s beheading, Jesus sends the twelve out to teach, preach, and heal with nothing to sustain them but their faith. After the gruesome platter is brought into the banquet, the disciples return to Jesus and report their success. Another one of those Markan sandwiches that we uncovered earlier in the year where one story is topped and tailed by another. Good and successful ministry, it seems, happens right alongside violent opposition. Is it enough to make some people choose a safer course in life rather than being a disciple of Christ? It just might be that’s the message for us today at our time of the journey with all that is going on. Could it be that when we try to follow Christ, we follow too safe a course, we are quite happy sitting in that mighty comfortable seat at the banquet, simply waiting for others to do the work. If nothing else, this story reminds us that it can be easy to dismember our faith in order to not risk standing out. By the same token, we decapitate what we say we believe in when we neatly place it into a Sunday ritual behaving as though it was something that has little or nothing to do with the rest of our lives. The story of John’s beheading is shocking, and it’s meant to be to shock us out of complacency in a faith that comes at little or no cost. But all of us who would follow Christ are called to confront, as well as we can, the wrong we see around us, and confrontation is never comfortable. To pay that price is to stand with many who followed the path that John prepared for the One who came after him. May we too be willing to follow in the ways of Christ our saviour and Lord and never shy away from standing for the truths that he reveals.