"R-Rated Good News" - Mark 6:14-29
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 his daughter Herodias 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.
I read some pretty cool, creepy, gory, gruesome stuff over my vacation last week. Specifically, books with titles like “The Girl on the Train,” by Paula Hawkins, and “Dark Places,” by Gillian Flynn, and “The Dead Key,” by D.M. Pulley. They’re all stories about horrible crimes – dark dramas about missing persons and morbid murders. Stuff recommended to me by my wife, actually, who generally chastises me for reading and watching movies about such titillating tales. (Maybe she’s finally coming around.) So I thought it was funny that, when I got back from vacation and Pastor Aaron and I decided to swap preaching responsibilities, I ended up with this crazy, creepy, horrible story about Herod and Herodias and John the Baptist, literally losing his head.
The story goes that Herod, the King, had caught wind of this Jesus, from Nazareth, and about how he had started to gather disciples from out in the villages around Galilee. He gave those who would listen to him authority over unclean spirits. He gave them some pretty detailed instructions, too, about how to travel and where to go and what to do once they got there. And his followers hit the road and proclaimed the good news, they cast out demons and they healed people who were sick from all kinds of things.
And along with all that Herod was hearing about Jesus, came all kinds of rumors and questions about how something too good to be true really could be. So, there was suspicion that Jesus was some kind of prophet, like Elijah or Elisha, from way back in the day. But Herod had this crazy fear that Jesus wasn’t really Jesus at all, but that he was John the Baptist – whom Herod, himself, had had beheaded. Yeah. Herod thought Jesus was John the Baptist, come back from the grave.
And so – maybe to prove that Jesus really was Jesus, or maybe just to tell a really good, gory, gruesome kind of tale – Mark’s Gospel writer goes into the details of just how Herod came to execute John the Baptist.
See, like Jesus, John the Baptist, was preaching and teaching and proclaiming the Good News. He was baptizing with water. He was paving the way for the Messiah. He was demanding repentance and promising forgiveness. He was announcing the Kingdom of God, which, if you were a king, like Herod, would really get your attention, and make you worry some, and threaten your power even, if you didn’t understand the difference between God’s Kingdom and your own.
And that’s why Herod didn’t like John the Baptist. He respected him, we’re told, regarded him as a holy, righteous man. Feared him, as such, even, enough that he wouldn’t have him killed – as his wife had asked – but, instead, Herod kept John imprisoned and under watch.
But then, this creepy King Herod, who likes to watch his daughter dance at dinner parties, gets himself into a pickle. (Yeah. Some people believe it was that kind of dancing and that kind of creepy.) Anyway, when his daughter dances for the king and his guests, Herod tells her he’ll give her whatever her little heart desires. Maybe he’d had too much to drink. Maybe he was trying to show off for his friends. Maybe he was just so enamored by daddy’s little girl or maybe his sickness had been satisfied, who knows? But when she runs out to ask mommy what she should ask for, her mother sees the opportunity to get what she’s wanted all along. And that was revenge against John the Baptist for suggesting that her marriage to the King was unlawful, or immoral, or unrighteous, or whatever.
So, in her effort to win the “Mother of the Year” trophy, Mrs. Herod tells her little girl to ask daddy for John the Baptist’s head – On. A. Platter. And when she does, King Herod has to oblige, because he’d already struck that deal. An oath was an oath, back in the day. A promise was a promise. The King’s word was the King’s word – even for a creep like Herod; even when offered to a child; especially when offered in the presence of others. So, John the Baptist was as good as dead. And his head was delivered, that evening …on a platter …to the child … for her mother. (Crime writers these days, like Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins, might learn a thing or two from Mark’s Gospel!)
Like I said before, on the surface it reads like not much more than a good, gruesome, gory kind of story – if you like that sort of thing as much as I do. But smarter people than me have said it’s no mistake that Mark tells the story as he does; that he places it where he does, right after Jesus sends his first disciples out into the world to begin their ministry and right before they return to hear more, to learn more, to be fed some more at the feet of their teacher.
Among other things, this story reminds us that following Jesus isn’t easy – even if you’re as cool and as faithful as John the Baptist. Life as disciples can be hard. Proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom – stuff about repentance and the forgiveness of sins – isn’t always what the world wants to hear, what people want to believe, what any of us are always prepared to do. It cost John the Baptist his head, after all.
But the good news in all of this for us, still today, is the same Good News that John the Baptist proclaimed and promised and believed for himself, in spite of so much ugliness: that someone better was coming; that something better was on the way; that God, in Jesus Christ, would arrive and overcome and undo all the ugly, the gruesome, and the gory. God, in Jesus Christ, would offer grace where there is judgment; love where there is hatred; light where there was darkness; life where there was death, even. Because, you see, Mark’s Gospel really tells this story as a foreshadowing of what would happen to Jesus, himself, soon enough.
Even Jesus Christ, the Messiah – especially Jesus, because he was the Messiah – wasn’t removed from the dangers of the world around him. Jesus showed up to enter into all the ugly, fearful, ungracious ways of this world to let the rest of us know we could to – that we don’t have to be scared of all the drama or sadness or struggle or sin or darkness or dying that surrounds us so much of the time.
And when the struggle comes… when the sadness hits… when the loved one dies, when the marriage ends, when the friendship fails, when the you-know-what hits the fan we’re reminded, not just that life in the world hurts – and that it’s hard a lot of the time. We’re reminded, too, that this is God’s world. And it’s into this world – into all of this struggle and sadness and sin that God’s love comes. And it’s into this same world – and all of its darkness– that we are sent, too, with Good News and the great promise, that God’s love for the whole of it wins every time – in Jesus Christ.