Sermon for St Margaret’s, St Mark’s and Bersham on John the Baptist beheading July 15 2018
Our gospel reading this morning starts with the words “When King Herod heard about this”. The “This” that Mark is writing about is the events from the gospel reading last week. Jesus sent out the twelve disciples into the neighbouring towns where, filled with the Holy Spirit, they preached the good news about Jesus, they were able to cast out demons and when they anointed people with oil they were healed of a variety of illnesses.
This news does not give Herod much cause for excitement, instead he is filled with great fear as he remembers that he has executed the prophet called John the Baptist, now there is someone who not only heals others but his disciples can too. In his guilt he panics that John the Baptist has come back from the dead, even more powerful than before. The gospel writer then fills us in with all the gory details, just in the same way that a film script might have flashbacks today.
Our flashback is going to start a little earlier in the story than Herod’s. You might remember that when Jesus was born about 30 years earlier King Herod the Great was king. When this King Herod died the title of King should have been passed to his son, also named Herod. However, the Roman Emperor at the time, Augustus refused to give him the title, and he sliced up Herod the Great’s kingdom and shared it between all his surviving sons. The other gospel writers refer to Herod using the correct term of tetrarch but Mark uses the term ‘king’ perhaps as a form of irony, or possibly is scornfully mocking Herod, as after this story has taken place but before the gospels were written down, his nephew Herod Agrippa was awarded the title King by the Emperor Gaius Caligula, Herod followed his wife Herodias’ prompting to also request the title but he was refused it when a stash of weapons was found in his possession, leading to his dismissal and exile.
So King Herod, or Herod Tetrarch as we should more properly refer to him, is a power greedy man, who likes to get his own way. He married Herodias, his niece, who was also the wife of his half-brother. According to another contemporary writer of the time, Josephus, when Herod Antipas has stayed with them on his way to Rome, Herod Tetrarch had fallen in love with Herodias. She saw that marriage to him would be a step up the social ladder, and agreed as long as divorced his current wife. This marriage caused protests amongst the Jews as it was considered incestuous under the law in Leviticus.
So in steps John the Baptist. Here is a man who not only doesn’t really care what people think of him, his strange way of dressing and odd diet, but is also not afraid of speaking the truth. He has called out the Pharisees and the Jewish leaders on their need for repentance. And now he calls out Herod Tetrarch and tells him it is not lawful for him to have married his brother’s wife. Herod wants to kill John the Baptist to get rid of the voice of conscience in his ear. But he also feared him as he could see that he was a righteous and holy man. So instead he threw John into prison. Not for doing anything wrong, but for speaking the truth.
Mark tells us in chapter 1 that it was as John the Baptist was thrown into prison that Jesus starts his earthly ministry. And so John should now be able to play his ace card. He might be in prison, but he is the cousin of the new miracle worker in town. He’s the baby that leapt in his mother Elizabeth’s womb when her sister Mary, pregnant with Jesus, came to stay. He’s the man who has baptised the only man who didn’t actually need to repent of his sins. He’s seen the Spirit of God descend on his cousin like a dove. He’s the man who proclaimed “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, the one whose sandals I am not worthy to untie”.
He knows the Psalms that God is his present help in trouble. And he knew that his cousin Jesus was about to start on a very powerful ministry. He was healing the sick and driving out demons. But Jesus doesn’t come and set him free from prison. So after a while, John gives Jesus a little nudge, we are told in Matthew’s gospel that he sends his disciples to come and ask Jesus a question. Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else? He’s been there for Jesus all these years, but where is Jesus when he needs him? Maybe he’s been rooting for the wrong person after all.
Jesus sends back this answer with the disciples for John “Go tell John what you hear and see. The blind receive sight, the lame walk, people are cured of leprosy, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me”.
Wow! I’m sure this wasn’t the answer that John was expecting. I am healing all these other people, but you, I’m not coming to rescue you. I’m not sparing your life. You have done so much for me already, but your place is in prison. Your place is talking with Herod Tetrarch and showing him not just the error of his ways, but how to follow the ways of God’s kingdom. If this hardship does not cause you to fall away then you will be blessed. This is your path.
If we believe Jesus to be just and true in his actions, then it becomes clear that what we might consider to be fair and equitable is not actually how life is going to be. Jesus calls us all to make disciples, but for some that might be in easy circumstances, the disciples were given the power to drive out demons, and to heal by anointing with oil, but for others like John, with the gift of prophecy, proclaiming God’s truth in the darkness, the circumstances where we have to minister may be very different. Difficult. Costly. Ultimately leading to death.
On the beach after his resurrection when Jesus asks Peter if he loves him 3 times, he also tells him that when he is old he will stretch out his hands and be carried where he does not wish, indicating that Peter too would be executed on a cross. And he then tells Peter to “Follow me”. And Peter looks over at the disciple John and asks “What about him” And Jesus says, don’t worry about him. Worry about you and the path I have prepared for you. The path that will bring you much blessing but also a path to a cross.
I imagine that most of us would prefer the path of the disciples from last week story that have caused Herod Tetrarch’s flashback. To be able to cast out demons, to heal the sick, to be able to shake the dust from our feet and walk away from a place that does not welcome us. But that may not be the place that God is calling us to. If we are following the path prepared for us by God the actions of others may cause us great pain or distress. When Herod Tetrarch was presented with the request by his step-daughter Salome for John the Baptist’s head on the plate, he could have put into practice some of the teaching he had received from John, he could have refused the request, but instead, he bowed to peer pressure and the humiliation of not wanting to appear weak in front of his friends at the party and grants her request. I’m sure it wasn’t God’s will that John was beheaded, the ultimate will of God is that we would all see the error of our ways and turn back to him. But instead Herod acted out of his own desires and foolishness. But whatever the hardship, the suffering and the pain that we might experience, God also promises to be there with us, to never leave us or forsake us, but he will walk alongside us as a friend, with his Spirit acting as our advocate, so in times of trial when we know we are following the path that God has called us to, that is the promise to which we must cling. Amen.