This is the sermon the Rev. Karen Calafat preached on the Seventh Sunday afte Pentecost, July 11, 2021.
You know it is going to be bad when your favorite organist sends you Sunday’s hymns with the added note, “I'm just thankful I don't have to preach on this Gospel...sorry for you!”
And, of course, when I read it, I was sorry for me, too! The Days of Our Lives couldn’t compete with this Bible story which is clearly more soap opera than fairy tale. I can think of a few other heads that might have been better served up on a platter. But John the Baptist’s who was just an eccentric prophet paving the way for Jesus to come and be the Saver of Souls? So where is the Good News in all of this? I promise to try to get there in the next 8 minutes.
You know the comic strip, “The Family Circus,” by Bill Keanes. There is one where the little boy is saying the Lord’s Prayer. “…forgive those who trespass against us. And leave us ninety-two temptations….” Perhaps that is what Mark’s gospel is about – 92 temptations and NONE of them avoided!
Scott Hozzee from the Center for Excellence in Preaching writes, “How sordid. How tawdry. How stupid. How tragic. It’s all here in Mark 6 where we learn to our shock and sadness that …, John the Baptist himself, was done in because of a boozy promise made by an oversexed older man who had been turned on by a scantily clad teenager - niece turned stepdaughter - who did a dance for him and his equally besotted party companions.”
The reason John was in prison in the first place is because he confronted Herod and told him it was wrong for him to marry his brother’s wife. Herod wasn’t really sure what to do with John. He believed John was a prophet and was even intrigued by the things John preached, but he did not like being told that he was wrong about anything, especially about his heart’s desires. Herodias obviously had feelings about John’s confrontation as well. She held a grudge because he dared to point out her wicked ways, a grudge that led to John’s demise.
“According to an article by Craig Keener in The Lectionary Commentary (Eerdmans, 2001), “John the Baptist was probably the only figure who had the courage to stand up to Herod Antipas. This is not the Herod who was around when Jesus was born nor is this the Book of Acts Herod who later persecuted the church and killed James, among others. But what this middle Herod shared with those other two was a real nasty streak of immorality, self-aggrandizement, and corruption. (Sounds like a politician!)
Herod had been married originally to a Nabatean princess whom he later dumped in favor of marrying his brother’s wife, Herodias. As Woody Allen might say, the heart wants what it wants, and Herod’s heart wanted Herodias. So even though it made him guilty of multiple sins (adultery among them) and even though it angered the king of the Nabateans (to whom Herod’s first wife fled in humiliation after Herod took up with his sister-in-law Herodias)—and even though this later led to a military conflict with the Nabateans in which Herod was roundly defeated and embarrassed—nevertheless Herod married Herodias, and no one except John the Baptist had the moral fortitude to point out how wrong it was.
Perhaps if John had just stuck to baptisms and some harsh pronouncements about the Pharisees…, he might have been OK. But John landed in prison because he confronted Herod’s immorality…” and his head on a platter was the final dish served at the party.
If you were to be reading the Gospel of Mark straight through, this grotesque story of evil desires and corrupt behavior would seem abrupt and out of place which may point to its significance. Immediately preceding this recounting of John’s murder is Jesus’ sending of the twelve disciples – you recall, when they were sent two by two with nothing but the clothes on their back and sandals on their feet. They were out and about doing ministry - healing the sick, casting out demons and anointing with oil.
Herod had heard of Jesus and all that his disciples were doing. He believed in resurrection and his guilty conscience kicked in. He thought Jesus must have been John the Baptist resurrected. This causes the flashback telling of John’s demise. Immediately following this account in Mark, we have the disciples returning from their travels, gathering around Jesus and the feeding of the 5,000. (Now, this is beginning to sound like Good News…)
So why did Mark place the story of John the Baptist’s death between two happy, hopeful events?
Do you know anyone who has been through life unscathed? Anyone who hasn’t been met with challenge, disappointment, loss or unfairness? Do you know anyone who hasn’t been impacted in one way or another by the evils in our world?
I can think of one evil event almost 20 years ago now that impacted all of us that are old enough to remember – 9/11, when evil came into our country and murdered over 3,000 innocent people. Evil exists and will sometimes get close enough to disrupt our well-being. Our hope in the midst of evil is Jesus, the Christ. This account of Herod and John the Baptist foreshadows what will happen to Jesus. “Herod, like Pilate with Jesus, wishes to protect John but ends up killing him; the ones responsible for engineering the death, Herodias in John’s case and the Jerusalem religious leaders in Jesus’, do not themselves have the power to accomplish their goal and must exert external pressure on the governing official to do it for them. In John’s case, however, the almost whimsical nature of the events that lead to his gruesome beheading portrays a level of evil that is chilling in its pervasiveness. Placing this episode right in the center of the disciples’ most positive activity to date shadows their success with a foretaste of failure.” (NISB, p. 1819)
Life happens. Evil is real. But the Good News is that good is real, too. Did you catch the compassion at the end of the reading? Did you hear the good? John’s friends, the disciples, came and took his body and laid it in a tomb. Yes, something horrific, unfair, tragic and evil happened to John, but love buried him. The loving community gathered together and tended to their friend.
Now, please do not go out and lose your head, but know when you are going through tough times, unfair experiences, encountering the evil that exists in our world, we are in this together. We are here for each other, whether going on a solo mission or going out two by two. Whether at a feast for 5000 or simply breaking bread together, Christ is in our midst. Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection are our comfort and our hope. There is nothing we experience in life that is beyond the Good News of God’s grace and love through Jesus Christ – the Saver of our Souls.