Preached at a neutral pulpit site in Massachusetts on July 12, as part of a first call interview.
Preface to Gospel text:
This text from Mark’s Gospel begins with Herod’s internal reflections on hearing about the work of Jesus and his disciples as they went about the countryside casting out demons and healing the sick. We hear that some people were attributing this work to Elijah or to one of the Hebrew prophets or John the Baptist. Herod says to himself, “John, who I beheaded, has been raised.” Herod had originally arrested John the Baptist and threw him into prison because John was speaking out against his marriage. We hear the story of John’s death in today’s Gospel. This strange flashback story in Mark’s Gospel is included by the Gospel writers to make a point about who Jesus is, what he does, and why he has come into the world.
King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, ‘John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.’ But others said, ‘It is Elijah.’ And others said, ‘It 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 Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias 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.’ And he solemnly swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.’ She went out and said to her mother, ‘What should I ask for?’ She replied, ‘The head of John the baptizer.’ Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’ The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
Greeting: Grace, peace and mercy are yours from the Triune God. Amen.
Thank you so much people of Redeemer, for welcoming me into your midst as guest preacher, as I explore the possibility of a call with a congregation in the New England Synod. I am blessed to be here today and I thank you for your hospitality. Pastor Cindy is probably silently giving thanks right now that she does not have to preach on one of the most bizarre passages in Mark’s Gospel, and I am wondering how in the world I happen to be preaching on the beheading of John the Baptist as part of a first call interview. Since awkwardness shared is awkwardness diminished, or something like that, together let’s dig a little bit deeper into today’s Gospel text.
This ghastly birthday party seems to include all the worst things that humanity can offer. Corrupt officials, abuse of power, child abuse, sexual objectification, drunkenness, violence, false imprisonment, AND murder. It is tempting to think that this horrible little birthday party is something confined to the excesses of the Greco-Roman world, but unfortunately that is not true.
We too are held prisoner to the oaths and expectations of this broken world. We lust for power and influence. We objectify others. We hold grudges and nurse bitterness. We hurt each other and kill each other. Black churches burn while we debate whether or not we live in post-racial society. Cupcake shop owners debate whether or not they should have to provide cupcakes for a gay wedding when over half the country still legally allows for workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. ISIS militants kill dozens of people vacationing on a beach in Tunisia for no apparent reason at all. There is no doubt that we live in a “Herod’s birthday banquet” kind of world.
However, it is dark inside us too. The expression “I’d like to have their head on a silver platter” came from somewhere, and it’s because we know all too well the uncontrollable anger and resentment that Herodias experiences. I have more than a little bit of Herodias in me, and I suspect that the same might be true for all of us. We all know the white hot blinding desire for revenge, and while we might not act on it, we are still held prisoner to it.
If we only read this story as a stand-alone text, it is a grim prognosis for the state of our world and of our humanity. We must look before this text and beyond it. John the Baptist comes into the world shouting “Prepare the way of the Lord!” and as all the people of Jerusalem come to him to be baptized he says, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me” and heralds the coming of Jesus into the world. Jesus is God showing up and doing a new thing and it is no wonder Herod is conflicted and frightened. People were being healed, demons were being cast out, and the disempowered were finding their identity as beloved people of God. It was a threat to the status quo, to the systems of power that humans have used throughout all of history to attempt to order our world. Like all those who benefit from maintaining the existing power structures, Herod was resentful that something new was happening. He tried to put an end to the in-breaking of the kingdom of God.
But fortunately Herod’s birthday banquet is not the only banquet in Mark’s Gospel. Immediately following this passage is the feeding of the 5,000, an entirely different sort of banquet. The “one more powerful than I” of whom John spoke is here in the world, walking among the people. Jesus hosts this banquet, in the middle of nowhere with thousands of hungry people. People who were the outcasts and unclean of their day, people who had no power or influence to offer, who came because they were like “sheep without a shepherd”, the lost, the lonely, the forgotten. And Jesus not only has compassion for them and teaches them; he feeds the crowd with only five loaves and two fish. And there were twelve baskets full of food left over. At this banquet greed and lust and fear have no place. Just the breaking of bread together in a place filled with compassion. Through this simple act, Jesus is making a statement about the radical love of God for all people.
While it seems like we live in a Herod’s birthday banquet kind of world, Jesus came into the world and says, “This is not the abundant life that I want for you!” Abuse of power is not the end. Corrupt political authority is not the end. Violence is not the end. Abuse is not the end. Even death is not the end. Behold! I am doing a new thing here. I have compassion for the great crowd of broken people in this world. I will shepherd you and feed you and prepare you for the journey. You may feel as if you do not belong anywhere, and yet, you belong to me. You are mine.
This is good news for all of the broken, lost, and lonely people of the world…which is all of us in one way or another. Those of us who participate in the systemic injustices of racism and white privilege, and those who suffer under our continued ignorance. For those of us who have power and influence, and those of us who labor under that power. For aging adults who despair at their waning years, and for parents whose hearts are broken over and over again by their children. For all the gay teenagers who wonder if they belong in church or anywhere else. For those of us who continue to give free rent in our heads to the resentments and blinding anger towards people, things, and institutions. For those of us who act on those resentments, and those of us who seethe silently for years. For those of us who would be invited to Herod’s birthday party, and those of us who would be at Jesus’ banquet in the desert. Christ came into the world to save us from ourselves and bring us new life.
Brothers and Sisters, let us cling firmly to this promise: Jesus is God putting on flesh to dwell among us. God is doing a new thing in Jesus, breaking into the world to conquer sin and death. And we are made anew each day in the image of God as we are given new life. God wants more for us than to be ruled by our resentments and lust for power. God wants us to come to the table and be loved and accepted just as we are, among the other beautiful and broken people in this beautiful and broken world. THIS is a reason to throw a party! Amen!