I have read some really awful books in all the reading I’ve done. And some of these books have been very well written. Let me give you an example. I recently read a book entitled “Flyboys,” which was very well written. It is about Navy pilots during World War 2 from the time of Pearl Harbor up until the surrender of Japan. It was very well written but it contained very awful stories about how the Japanese treated pilots who had been shot down and captured. Claire will sometimes read the books that I’ve read but I told her that she should not read this one. The details of what the Japanese did to these pilots as well to thousands of other civilians are just too graphic and gruesome. But there are important lessons that we can learn from truly awful events.
The next part in the Gospel of Mark contains a very gruesome story for the death of John the Baptist is hard to read. Yet as we have seen before, Mark is very purposeful in including things in his gospel. Mark wants his readers to know that following Jesus and being associated with the mission of Jesus is not for the faint of heart. There are obstacles and very real dangers that those who are involved in the kingdom must face and we read of that in the death of John the Baptist. Let’s read Mark 6:14-29.
Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great, the Herod from the time of Jesus’ birth. He was the king of Galilee and Perea from his father’s death in 4 B.C. to AD 39. He is called king but actually this royal title had been denied to him by Caesar Augustus in spite of his wife Herodias’ great desire to be a real queen. Mark’s use of the word “king” may reflect local custom but it may also be Mark’s way of getting a jab in on Herod who could only pretend to be a real king. It was the mission activity of Jesus and The Twelve throughout Galilee which got Herod’s attention from all the reports from people who had been healed.
Verses 14-15 refer to three popular views as to who Jesus was. Some thought that Jesus was John raised from the dead because of Jesus’ miracles. John is not known to have performed any miracles during his ministry. Since Jesus was performing miracles, it caused some to believe that John had been raised from the dead and that gave him the power to do miracles. The view that Jesus was Elijah reflects the viewpoint of John’s followers. They knew John was pointing to the messenger of the covenant and so they assumed that Jesus was Elijah, the one promised in the Scriptures. The third view was that Jesus was “just” an ordinary prophet, not like Elijah whose coming would bring the end of the age. He is one more prophet in the succession of prophets who have spoken and acted for God in Israel’s history.
All of this introduces what happened to John the Baptist at the hands of Herod. Bothered by an uneasy conscience by John’s execution, Herod feared that John had come back to haunt him and says, “John, whom I beheaded, is risen!” Jesus was thus likely unknown to Herod until after John’s death. He felt that in Jesus he was confronted with John once again but now returned from the grave with the resulting magical powers which were at work in him. Mark includes this as a tribute to John the Baptist but also to point forward to the death of Jesus. This is Mark’s way of saying that this is the kind of thing that will happen to Jesus and the kind of thing that can happen to his followers as well. And that is true for followers today as well.
Sister Dorothy refused to be silent in the midst of such injustice. She continued to teach the local peasants how to farm the land without deforestation while simultaneously mounting a vocal campaign against illegal land grabbing. She lobbied the Brazilian government and named those who were exploiting the people and the land she was called to protect and serve. As a result, this small, elderly nun became a threat to the loggers and was soon marked for death. Even though she knew this, Dorothy said. “I don’t want to flee, nor do I want to abandon the battle of these farmers who live without any protection in the forest. They have the sacrosanct right to aspire to a better life on land where they can live and work with dignity while respecting the environment.” She often wore a T-shirt that said, “The death of the forest is the end of our life.” Even though she had premonitions of her death, she hoped that her status as a nun would protect her.
On February 12, 2005, Dorothy was walking to a meeting where she was to discuss a new settlement for the area that had been granted to the peasants by the Brazilian government; however, it was in a proposed tract of land valued by illegal loggers. As she walked to the meeting along with two peasants from a nearby village, two gunmen emerged from the bush. They asked her if she had any weapons. She said that her only weapon was her Bible, which she opened and began to read. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the peacemakers.” And as she read, she was shot and killed. Christians who stand up to evil powers are still facing dangers today and the threat of death, just as what John the Baptist faced.
II. The key element in this story is Herodias’ grudge against John seen in verses 17-20.
John had boldly denounced the unlawful marriage of Herod to Herodias. When John had been on the eastern bank of the Jordan River near Bethany he was in Perea and it is likely that Herod had taken him prisoner at this time. He was likely held at the fortress-palace of Machaerus in this area. For Herod, John’s preaching was explosive for two reasons. First, Herod was already threatened by his enemies across his eastern border and he couldn’t afford to have the locals in an uproar at the same time by John’s preaching. And his preaching stirred up his wife’s furious grudge against John. Herodias was the niece of Herod and her marriage with Herod Antipas was adulterous and shocking because the Law of Moses clearly prohibited such a marriage. The imprisonment of John was thus silenced John’s proclamation to the people. And it also protected John against the whims of his wife. But while in prison, Herod also listened to John with an undeniable fascination.
According to the fable, another good person in Sodom was an old preacher who had come to the cities as a young man fifty years before. He was appalled by the greed and gluttony around him. The major interests of the people were money, partying, and sex. They did whatever benefitted and pleased them. When someone was ill in the street, they looked the other way. They were indifferent to the poor and homeless among them. They only wanted more and more for themselves. The young man was so disturbed that he started to preach on the streets about caring for others. But no one paid attention to him.
This went on for years and he became known as an excellent preacher. He spoke of the joys of loving everyone and helping the poor. He helped the homeless. He warned of God’s wrath. No matter how hard he tried to get them to change, the people of these two cities wouldn’t listen. They thought he was weird. When he was an old and tired man, a boy listened to one of his sermons and then shouted, “Why do you preach so much old man? Don’t you know people won’t change?” The old man said, “Oh, by now, I know that.” “So why do you keep on preaching?” asked the boy. “So they won’t change me,” said the old man. We are to be bold in proclaiming the truth no matter what, for if nothing else it will help us from being changed.
III. Finally let’s look at Herod’s feast and John’s tragic end in verses 25-29.
Herod was celebrating his birthday with a banquet for his leading and important men. It seems like Herodias was biding her time but eventually she deliberately sent her daughter to the feast to dance, in order to convince Herod to grant her desire. Josephus identifies Herodias’ daughter as Salome. She was likely in her middle teens at the time of her infamous performance and was clearly still under the strong influence of her mother. The dance pleased both Herod and his guests, perhaps because it was indeed the princess who was dancing in a very seductive way.
In a boisterous way appropriate to the feast and the presence of his esteemed men, Herod invited the girl to ask what her reward should be, confirming his words with an oath. Giving half the kingdom is a proverbial picture of generosity which Salome would have understood was not to be taken literally. Still generosity fit the occasion and would clearly win the approval of his guests. Of course Herodias was behind the scenes prepared for this situation. When Salome asked what she should ask for herself, Herodias responded with a bluntness which betrays her viciousness: the head of John the Baptist.
Herodias’ request didn’t shock Salome, who went back to Herod to tell him of her demand. The grim detail of the platter seems to be her own; an expression of black humor inspired by the banquet in progress, and reflecting Salome’s own twisted thinking as well. Herod was reluctant to grant the request but decided that he had no other choice since he had sealed his invitation with an oath in the presence of his great men. So John was beheaded by Herod’s special police in the dungeon of the fortress and the head was presented on a platter, first to Salome and then to her mother. John’s followers’ final act of ministry was to take his body and bury it in a tomb.
What Mark understands by this suffering scene is clarified in Mark 9:9-13 where Jesus clearly says that John the Baptist was the promised Elijah. That confirms that Jesus is the Messiah and that those who are associated with him are called to be in dangerous places and must be willing to die for him.
Following Jesus today may mean being in situations that are difficult or even dangerous. Yet we must be bold and speak the truth, not in a manner that needlessly offends but in a way that challenges yet still loves those with whom we speak. You may find that others in your work place think you are naive or ignorant because you are a Christian. Being bold for Jesus may cause you to lose friendships if your friend doesn’t like what you are saying or doing. Being bold for Jesus can cause tensions in families as well. Yet if we face hardships or even dangers for being bold for Jesus, remember that no matter what may happen, the kingdom is secure and solid, as are we; and that will never change!
We know story, don’t we! We are facing a time of potential unrest and perhaps upheaval in our deeply divided nation, but we know the story. We may have people in power who are immoral, but we know the story! Some may lose much, but we know the story! Let’s remember that the kingdom of God is certain no matter what may happen and remember that no one can kill off the body of Christ.