I have to start by admitting to you that I had a very difficult time with this passage. I have spent weeks staring at it, praying about it, and what seemed like endless hours of research. I was looking for that point of brilliance that would dazzle and amaze you, once more showing my preaching skills, once more being the "Golden Boy." But, up until Friday night I drew a blank. I had nothing, nada, zip. So I started reading the passage over and over again each time getting a new thought, and then writing them down. This is what came out.
To me anyway, this passage is pretty straight forward. Mark's intention of placing this story where he did seems to be pretty clear. It is sandwiched between 2 stories of discipleship. On one side you have the story of Jesus sending out the disciples 2 X 2 to share His ministry, and on the other side is their return from that ministry, and in between is the story of John's beheading. It's an obvious connection from this story to that of discipleship. A lot of my research went in that direction, reminding us that the Christian call is maybe a call to suffer, or maybe it is a call to face death, standing up to the evil powers of the world and not back down as they scream horrible threats at us. I thought that would be my sermon to preach. It would be easy to write. Add a couple of quotes, a sad story, talk about the bible, and voila a sermon. But, God won't let me go there, He won't let me take the easy way out.
So then I thought about writing my sermon to assign blame. I could place the blame on Herod and his family. Then I could expand by placing blame on the power structures, exposing the powers that be, another easy sermon to write. Establish the wickedness of Herod and his family and friends, present some contemporary examples of this form of wickedness, place some blame, and voila, a sermon. But, God won't let me go there either.
It is true, most everyone in this story seems easy to blame, there seems to be plenty to go around. So, why can't I blame these people? Why can't I hold these ugly acts against them? Because blaming limits my ability to hear the whole story. When I place blame it allows me to feel a sense of superiority. Then the temptation is too great to avoid finding contemporaries so I can continue the blame game. It's the liberals who are to blame, or it's the conservatives, or the homosexuals, or the heterosexuals, or the rich, or the poor, or the addicts, or it's the kids today. You can fill in the blank, there is always someone to blame. It's safer to blame, it's easier to blame, it hurts less to blame. When I blame, I don't have to see myself in the story, when I blame, I give up my power to change.
But, there is another direction to go, the more dangerous of the choices, the road less traveled. So, I have danced around it long enough. It's time to head down that road less traveled. It's time to go where God was telling me to go, to face the ugly truth, it's time to face why this passage was so hard for me.
When I read from the bible I try to identify with the people in the story. I figure out which one is closer to who I am, and it helps me to understand what is being said. In this story I want to so badly identify with John the Baptist. Mark's gospel begins with John, Chapter 1, verse 1. It is clear to me that in Mark's mind, John is critically linked with the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. The gospel writers portray John in 2 roles, that of a prophet and, as a forerunner. The prophetic part of John is of one who came out of the desert to proclaim the coming of the kingdom of Heaven, and issue the call to repentance. He wore a camels hair cloak and a leather belt. He ate locust and wild honey. The second role, a forerunner was a military term that was used to describe soldiers who would run ahead of the army to either announce or prepare for it's arrival. John announces and prepares for the Kingdom of God by announcing and preparing for the one who is to come after him, who was to be more powerful than John. He also scouts the territory, because the resistance that John receives, Jesus will receive.
This story of John's death is the only story in Mark that is not about Jesus, or maybe it is. Mark is saying that John's ministry points out the beginning of the story of Jesus Christ, John's death signals the beginning of the death of Jesus. John was a man with a mission, a man with convictions, a man who did the right thing regardless of the consequences, and a man that makes no sense to me at all. And yet, I want to identify with John, the honorable one, the one with convictions, the one who does the right thing regardless of the consequences, a man who trusted God so much that he risked his life and lost it. I want to identify with John so much, but I can't. But I do find that I identify Herod. The one without honor, the one who changes his convictions to whatever pleases him, the one who is more concerned with his own image. Herod is a man who makes much more sense to me. He is the man I am closer to if I am to be honest with myself.
I have identified with shady people in the bible before, but they were people who eventually changed their ways. They were people who usually ended up having convictions, who did the right thing eventually. They were people whose biggest inability is one of not understanding what was happening around them. Herod, his biggest liability is is own sense of power. It is his sense of self importance, his misguided attempt to be revered, to look good, to be the "Golden Boy".
When Herod heard about Jesus, He said it as John the Baptist raised again, but I don't think this is necessarily a resurrection confession made by Herod. To me the statement seems to be maybe more of an exasperation statement. Man, when is this all going to end? It's John the Baptist all over again, when is this going to end? Herod had John arrested because he challenged the validity of his marriage to Herodias. A popular figure that used scripture in public to declare the illegitimacy of the family was a serious political threat. This arrangement also allowed Herod to protect John from his wife, because Mark tells us that Herod loved to hear John preach.
So then, Herod has this party. It was his way to show off in front of all the important people, the military leaders, and the first families of Galilee, and all of his supporters and potential supporters. Then, his stepdaughter danced and Herod was so pleased that he promised her anything, even half of his kingdom, which he really didn't have. Herod made empty promises in front of important friends and supporters. So she took the opportunity given and coxed by her mother, asked for John the Baptist's head on a platter. Herod not wanting to lose face in front of all these important people had to concede. The man who was allegedly protecting John conceded. And John, the honorable one, the man with convictions, the one who did the right thing, and took the road less traveled, died.
As I mentioned earlier I try to relate to the people of the bible. From Moses to Judas, I know in me there is the possibility of being either one. So, I believe that the bible should be used to point the finger myself and not others, seeing myself as I truly am, and reminding myself of who I am capable of being if I am not careful. When I am not careful, I behave like Herod. I don't think Herod was an evil man, I think he was just doing the best he could do with what he had. He was just trying to hold on with what he had left. I think Herod became Herod by default and not decision. I believe that if I had the power that Herod had, my palace would be filled with all the severed heads of those who stepped on my toes, because on my best day I am no better than Herod.
So then, the question comes up, who among us is better than Herod? Who among us has not twisted events, facts, or details to suit our own purposes? Who among us has not placed more value on our own image than on human need? Who among us has not given into the easier of 2 choices, doing the wrong thing simply because it was the easy way, because the right thing was just simply to terrifying? Who among us has not given into our own pride, or fear, or our own sense of superiority? Who among us would not have cut John's head off if we were in that same position?
So maybe this is a sermon on the cost of discipleship after all. Only the cost is not where we end up, but of seeing who we really are. Or maybe it is a sermon about blame, only we find that we are all equally to blame. We are all equally to blame when it comes to abuses of power, when it comes to suffering, when it comes to death, when it comes to the deaths of the honorable ones. The ones who do the right thing. No one get's out without owning up to a piece of the responsibility. Maybe it is a sermon about both of these things, but if you and I Identify with Herod, then maybe, just maybe this is a sermon on grace.
Grace is a word that is often used, but seldom pondered. It is a word that some use in very limited terms. It is a word that we sometimes use to justify our actions. But, grace is not an abstract concept. It is not a means that allows me to justify my actions. Grace is the only thing that allows me to get up one more time. It is the only thing that allows me to face my past, a past that is filled with severed heads and bogus promises, a past of which I am very seldom proud. Grace reminds me that even though I am, on my best day, just like Herod, I am somehow a part of God's activity in this world, even though I have severed a lot of heads. This story is about the good news of Jesus Christ, and that good news is that maybe, just maybe, through the Grace of God, I may make it through the day without adding another head to my collection. You know, for someone who had nothing to say, I have been saying it for a long time. So now, how do I end this sermon? How do I end this long nothing to say? How do I present grace in such a way that it can stand up to the person I know I am?How can a little word stand up to a giant past?
The thing about life is that so much of it is trial and error. Some of us have made so many mistakes that we are afraid to try. We have made so many errors that we don't feel worthy to try. Yet, when God calls us, He does not call us as the people we will become, He calls us as the people we are. And I can guarantee that there is not one person here whom God is not calling. On one occasion, when I was doing some research, I found the Heidelberg Catechism, and in that I found these words that have echoed in my head since I read them. The question is asked, what is your only comfort in life and in death? and the answer is, That I belong, body and soul, in life and in death, not to myself, but to my Faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of His own blood has fully paid for my sins.
You see? That is the good news brothers and sisters, we do not belong ourselves, we belong to Jesus Christ. The Christian promise is not that we will be free from pain, fear, pride, violence, or abuse, the Christian promise is that whether we receive pain or cause it, whether we find ourselves in the position of John the Baptist or of Herod Antipas, we belong to Jesus Christ......... Amen