Don’t be afraid!
King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some said, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” But others said, “He is Elijah.” And others said, “He 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 it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.
But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. For when Herodias’s daughter 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 to you.” And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.” And she went out and said to her mother, “For what should I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist.” And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb. (Mark 6:14-29 ESV)
What has King Herod heard? That the disciples of Jesus were going out telling the people to repent; that these followers of Jesus had cast out demons and that they had anointed many who were sick and healed them. (cf. Mark 6:12,13) The question on people’s lips was ‘Who is this Jesus?’.
It is a question of joining the dots, so to speak, where message and sign and person and situation all combine – so we read in Mark – last Sunday – Jesus coming home and teaching in the synagogue bringing his disciples along but the locals question his learning and wonder where the power is coming from for his signs and whatever conclusion they reach, it causes offence – and before that, Jesus stilling a storm, Jesus healing the demoniac and Legion – as do all the demons – states a declaration about this Jesus – that is just too hard it seems for the people. A woman with bleeding slips through a jostling crowd for healing and gets it (and understands a truth about Jesus as well) and Jairus’ daughter is raised. Who is this Jesus?
‘Maybe he is John the Baptist raised from the dead, or Elijah, or Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.’ Well Herod has worked it out.
This Herod is Herod the tetrarch, Herod Antipas, Herod now married to Herodias – but who is described as his brother Philip’s wife – I bet that made for a fun Hanukah with all the family! But he’s with Herodias because he can – he’s powerful, privileged – of course all rules and laws must accommodate him – and Herod knows his behaviour and also that John the Baptist called him out on it. Caught between an angry privileged wife, who like all privileged people expected the rules to accommodate her and between his fear and unease about what to do with a righteous and holy prophet – as he regarded John – Herod was stuck – until alcohol and a dance which pleased him – no point in going there with any details and the text doesn’t – turns into rash promises of largesse. It didn’t cost Herod much – not really – a bit of angst perhaps but the privileged are pragmatic – others always pay – and so John is beheaded and his head becomes a trophy. We know this about Herod because Mark records this as a historical retrospective to explain why Herod regards Jesus as John the Baptist raised from the dead. Long before Banquo and Macbeth we find a king with a guilty conscience and that can affect your perspective and view of life. We have no record that Herod ever received the only cure for his behaviour – seeing Jesus for who he really is and receiving from Jesus forgiveness – in fact he rejected Jesus for his not performing tricks – signs – and was happy for the Roman
court to deal with him. Jesus, it would seem, was a has-been curiosity to Herod. And John the Baptist ? Did he haunt Herod at times? We can only speculate.
And what of John the Baptist? Mark’s account here is about John in the past tense – he’s dead already – there is no speech – no questions from him via his disciples to Jesus. Mark 1 begins with John in action – fulfilling Isaiah – preaching – calling in the wilderness – repentance – baptising – all leading to forgiveness and the One who is so much greater than he was – he would baptise with the Holy Spirit.
We have today’s Gospel and since the 4th century the Martyrdom of John the Baptist has been variously observed at the end of August – not because Herod saw the error of his ways but because of the consequences of a task from God when spoken to earthly power which didn’t like it – and had the power to do something about it. We can imagine personal sulks, angry retorts, mob rule and violence – all are possible when you tell people things they don’t want to hear. Like the town crier who gets people’s attention and announces the news so John’s role was to point to Jesus – to the Lord’s anointed – the Messiah, the Christ – and to tell it how it was because, like Jeremiah before him, John’s message was tough – repent – and that can be generalised and we can take it or leave it – or it can get specific and personal and the reactions can vary – anger, humiliation, shame, more anger, wanting to pay back – we know of such things – we might need to further repent of such things! – but the goal of the telling is repentance – such messages are, in truth, a kindness – the diagnosis needs to be accurate and true so that the medicine can be applied.
The goal of the crier is faithful transmission of the message. It would seem that John failed – he was executed after all, and neither Herodias or Herod came and said ‘sorry’. John’s life ended in the prison – not old age – not in the Wilderness Nursing Home with great grandchildren – it ended the way it did because of human evil and because he served the Lord. Yet I suspect the lectionary compliers added today’s Gospel to not say ‘don’t be like John – he got it wrong’ but to say that discipleship is viewed as faithful by the witness to the way, the truth, and life and not by the world’s reaction.
We need to be careful here that we don’t suggest that what happened to John is the lot for all witnesses to Jesus. In our current political / social climate we need to be very cautious about talking about Christian persecution or seeing any social or political or personal antagonism toward us as suffering or persecution when it could also be regarded as our coming to grips with a changing world that no longer defers to us and accords us privileges. Who knows what the future holds for us organisationally and also personally? Observances like today remind us of the landscape of discipleship – just as weather maps sometimes have hurricanes on them. They’re not foregone conclusions.
John’s witness in life and death testified to God interacting with this world – God rolling up his sleeves to deal with sin – God coming among us and while John said he wasn’t worthy enough to handle the Lord’s sandals, he may have had difficulty doing that since the Lord seemed bent on serving sinners because Jesus hadn’t come to be served but to serve.
And that is still happening today. Jesus comes among his people to serve – through words, water, bread and wine – and his words help all his witnesses no matter when and where we live – ‘I love you’, ‘Don’t be afraid’ and ‘Peace be with you’ are often heard – a beginning and an end with other messages and insights in between – to comfort and to challenge, to guide us in how best to serve those around us no matter how they are reacting.
Jesus and his love and presence supports us today and every day – no matter the crowd or the silence of being alone. The divine story from Genesis until today continues – a story of sin and grace – that is, our sin and God’s grace – not the other way round. That’s what the disciples of Jesus live and witness – and truly there is no need to be afraid for nothing can separate us from the God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord.
- Mark 6:14 - 29