Pentecost 7 B 2021
Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
When I read the Gospel text for today, I wished I had booked a vacation. The text is a terrible story of the beheading of John the Baptist. And yet it is also intriguing, and the text is filled with drama, conflict, conspiracy, and a violent resolution. We may not like the story, but the text has inspired plays, operas, and even a few paintings over the years. Even so, as compelling as it is, I have a hard time saying “Thanks be to God” when I read the text.
So where do we look for meaning in this violent account of the beheading of John the Baptist? Do we raise the issue of Herod sticking to his promise, no matter what the cost? Or is it a story about the wrath of Herodias, who would have gone so far as to kill John the Baptist with her own hands if she had been given the chance.
And what about Herodias’ daughter, Salome? Is this a tale concerning the exploitation of a teenager? Or is it a story about broken relationships and heartache? I think you would agree with me that there is a lot going on in the text today.
But what really takes the cake this morning is the fact that there is not a single note of hope or joy contained within the text. Instead, what we hear is a tale of anger, revenge, resentment, and death. And get this, this is one of the few stories in Mark’s Gospel in which Jesus is barely even mentioned.
Instead, the plot revolves around two men – John the Baptist and Herod (the Roman puppet king of Galilee) and two women – Queen Herodias (formerly married to Herod’s brother Philip) and Herod’s niece/stepdaughter Salome.
Now, the text begins by telling us that Jesus and His disciples were attracting a lot of attention. So much so that people were talking. “Some were saying, ‘John the Baptist has been raised from the dead; and for this reason, these powers are at work in Him.’”
This frightened Herod. He remembered that it was he who put John the Baptist into prison. Scholars now think that Herod put John the Baptist into prison to keep Herodias and her henchmen from killing him, a kind of protective custody arrangement.
We also know that Herod respected John the Baptist, and feared him, and that he liked to listen to him. The problem though was that John the Baptist could not keep his mouth shut. And he confronted Herod, saying “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”
This angered Herodias and put Herod in a difficult position. So, he sent men to arrest John the Baptist and put him in prison hoping that this action would end the controversy and calm Herodias. But it did not. And things continued to deteriorate until the whole situation reached a boiling point at the birthday party that Herod threw for himself.
And what a party it was. Food, drink, entertainment. And all the important people were there to celebrate the birthday of King Herod. It was an occasion to party and to have fun and to make merry with all the high-ranking people in the community. No expense was spared, and no item overlooked. Herod wanted to make sure no one would forget his birthday.
And King Herod was successful. I am sure that no one in attendance forgot the activities or the entertainment that was provided for them at this occasion.
We are told that the star attraction for the evening was none other than Herod’s niece/stepdaughter, Salome, who danced in such a memorable way that Herod told her she could have anything she wanted, even half of his kingdom. So, when Salome asked her mother what she should request, Herodias found the vehicle for her deep-seated anger. Her response was quick: Ask for the head of John the Baptist.
And she did. Salome requested that John the Baptist head be served on a platter. And this request caught King Herod off guard. In fact, he was shocked and did not want to grant this request. But he had told his niece/stepdaughter that he would grant her whatever she wanted; and he could not lose face in front of his important guests.
The text states: “The king was greatly 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. The soldier went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then she gave it to her mother.” And after the grotesque scene ended, what was left of John was claimed by his disciples and laid in a tomb.
As I said at the beginning of the sermon, what an awful story. And to confuse us even more Jesus is barely mentioned in the text. But as I read the text, Jesus is the key to understanding the story. Why? Because we must remember that this account in Mark’s gospel appears at the very point where Christ’s fame and success is growing and word about Him is spreading.
Just as the opening verses of Mark’s gospel link the beginning of Christ’s ministry with the work of John the Baptist, so too, John’s death is a foreshadowing of Christ’s Passion. And even though the means of execution will be a cross rather than a sword, the end will be the same.
If I had to give this sermon a title, I would entitle the sermon “A Tale of Two Banquets” because soon Mark’s Gospel will describe a second, contrasting meal… the feeding of the 5,000 people in the wilderness. And Mark’s Gospel will encourage us to sense the contrast between the two banquets. While Herod’s banquet was a banquet of death, Christ’s banquet will be lifted-up as a banquet of life.
Even so, Mark’s Gospel will also point out that following Jesus will not be easy. And the road will be rocky. And resistance can be expected. For the fact of the matter is that we too live in a world where it is easy to compromise truth, justice, and compassion if it will benefit us or we are pressured to do so.
Herod could have made a different choice; but power, prestige, and the desire to be number one had replaced God in his life. Though Herod loved to listen to John the Baptist, he would not risk his reputation and the respect of the people to spare John’s life.
And that is the warning in the text. The Gospel text highlights that we are always in danger of making choices that undermine our faith and align us not with God’s Kingdom, but with the principalities and powers of this world.
A little compromise here… a little laziness there… and in no time we find ourselves in a place that is far removed from where we should be standing as a faithful, committed follower of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Our lives are filled with choices. Herod chose loyalty to his kingdom and the power it afforded him. He presided over a banquet of death. Jesus calls us to belong to Him, to speak the truth no matter the cost, to do the best we can to bring justice for all, and to go live lives of compassion and concern for those in need.
And if that is the message that we learn from this text, I can end the sermon with the words “Thanks be to God.” Amen.
Let us pray: Almighty and Eternal God, you know our problems and our weaknesses better than we know ourselves. In your love and by your power, help us in our confusion and, in spite of our weaknesses, make us firm in faith; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.