19 January 2021
We so easily forget the danger of being followers of Christ. Of the choices we may be forced to make and the dilemmas we may be placed in. We cannot say we have the peace of Christ without also knowing that does not mean the path will be painless or simple.
The story of John the Baptist is not often part of the readings, we avoid it preferring to skip onto the five loaves and two fish. But we won't get it if we leave out the bad bits.
This story of john the Baptist follows a few weeks where we have had readings about severed heads. First David and the head of Goliath, then the Philistines parading the heads of Saul and his leaders after their victory over Israel. Now Mark tells the story of another head.
Once again the one who has power gets the head to display. Its the head of that strange forerunner of Jesus, Who preached in the desert places about the coming messiah. Large crowds streamed out in the wilderness to hear a prophet and repent of their ways. John baptised Jesus and about six months later we are told John's head is lying on a platter at King Herod the Tetrach's anniversary banquet.
It's not a good look for Jesus' work when the guy that gave the references is beheaded!
Jesus had been sending out his disciples do great things. Jesus' actions, we are told, stir Herod into remembering, to worrying. Others ask who is Jesus, and suggest Elijah or a new prophet but Herod knew, it is John the Baptist returned, whose death plucked at Herod's conscience.
Herod, a puppet King of the Roman emperor, had married King Aretas' daughter - King of Petra -as a strategic move. He then became entranced by his brother Philip's wife , Herodias.
His divorce of King Aretas' daughter provoked a war with that nation. The sex scandal of the new marriage was the talk of Jerusalem but John the Baptist provokes Herodias' wrath by openly saying what people are thinking - he criticises the relationship. Nothing is new is it. John the activist must be silenced. There is no freedom of subversive speech, even for a prophet, in a tetrachy under Rome. John is flung into the dungeon of Herod.
Herod meets with him and comes to respect John as a man of God - and I guess that is the scariest factor about weak puppet leadership. For regardless of this, this awful episode happens.
Herod is at his anniversary dinner, surrounded by his top officials. The army chiefs, the advisors, this is a State occasion not a private party, all those he had to maintain his power over and use were there. In response to his stepdaughter's [and neice's] dance, he offers her any request and on her mother's guidance she asks for the head of John the Baptist.
The dance had been a dance of death. Herod looks at his guests, they have the power to make him or break him, and he can't lose face.
Herod serves the empire, his own needs and his wife's pressure and gives the order.
Its too late - when a powerful man gives an order - its done. The head arrives, the banquet finishes on this note of death.
This Herod is the one who will later, according to Mark, condemn Jesus and send him to Pilate with the rider that they want him killed.
So who is winning here? John the good man is dead. Herod has won it seems.
We get the message - Jesus is not immune from the forces of politics.
John's disciples come to tell him about what they have done. We can only guess why, but maybe to grieve and to say what next?
This whole story could come out of any repressive regime today where any dare speak truth.
Its not by accident that Mark places another banquet next.
Jesus, we are told tries to go away to a deserted place, maybe to absorb the news about John. What will Jesus do? The immediacy of the danger to Jesus if he continues is clear.
But Jesus is followed by the crowds. He looks and sees that they are like sheep without a shepherd, maybe the suggestion is that when prophets like John get killed there are no shepherds left. Jesus has compassion on them and feeds them with the five loaves and two fish.
Another banquet, but one which ends in life.
We prefer the story of that feast without Herod's feast being it setting. We do tend to avoid that which takes us out of comfortable ways.
Nadia Bolz-Weber tells her story and comments on this passage this way. She tells of when she was questioned about the little Lutheran church she was planting "Do you think the church you planted will get really big?" "Um," she said, "well...no "There's just not a huge market for the message 'Jesus bids you come and die'," she explained that . "People don't exactly line up around the block for that. But 'Jesus wants to make you rich!' seems to be doing really well right now."
She continues, "It's easy enough to understand the attraction. On one level we all want to be victorious, successful and wealthy. So if someone is willing to tell us that Jesus happens to also want that for us, well, sign us up! That's good news
Except that it isn't. It's not good news, just tempting news. Jesus knew that.. He knew how tempted people would be to hop on the Superman-miracle-worker-healer--star bandwagon.
This is why, in Mark, Jesus keeps instructing people not to not tell anyone about the healings and miracles—because there is no way to know what this God/man is about based only on miracles. We only see who he is when we look upon the cross. The problem is that we'll choose the miracles every time..
Maybe this is why the Gospel writer puts the John the Baptist story here, totally out of time and place.
The disciples are riding high on the power of Jesus' healings, teachings and miracles, and it is in this state that Jesus sends them out. Just before this story , Jesus tells them to do their work in poverty and to expect rejection. Just in case we don't get it yet—in case we think that this thing is about our own glory — we are reminded about of John the Baptist.
If we think that this whole following-Jesus thing is about glory and not the cross, we are faced with the stark contrast between Herod's glory, wealth and power and John's suffering, poverty and weakness..
It isn't about cash and prizes. It's about a suffering God who offers us life and salvation, a God who bids us come and die.
Is there a line queuing around the block yet?
Throughout the ages we find people who knew that it would take more than a decapitation to stop the truth of God, more than a crucifixion to stop the Son of God, and more than persecution to stop the mission of God. "
The good news is about God's dance of life, which comes out of, not avoids, but comes out of death. It’s the feast that feeds thousands from very little, the message which tells you and me that our little bit, our lives, can and will be blessed that others might know life that is lasting.
After all the important guests at Herod’s party would never have known what we know -- that after Herod was sealed in his grave, you and I would be thinking about John the Baptist and rejoicing that the good news is still on the prowl right here.
Ref With thanks to blogger Nadia Bolz-Weber Blogging towards Sunday for her insightful passage which I have freely borrowed.
Rev. Margaret Anne Low
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