Mark 6: 14-29
Marilyn McKelvey Tucker
15 July 2012
Marilyn McKelvey Tucker
15 July 2012
Holy God of every time and place,
may the words of my mouth,
and the meditations of our hearts,
be acceptable to you
Our rock and our redeemer.
NRS Mark 6 14King 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." 15 But others said, "It is Elijah." And others said, "It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old." 16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised." 17 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. 18 For John had been telling Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." 19 And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20 for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When Herod heard John, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. 21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22 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." 23 And he solemnly swore to her, "Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom." 24 She went out and said to her mother, "What should I ask for?" She replied, "The head of John the baptizer." 25 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." 26 The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27 Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John's head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28 brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
The Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God.
This text would appear to have all the makings of a Shakespearian Tragedy. If I’d told you the story we would be reading Sunday involved a king who thinks a man he killed has come back from the dead to haunt him, a power hungry wife, a court full of people in front of whom the king must save face, a rash promise with disastrous consequences, and that the only honest person in the story suffers the most you might think I was talking about Macbeth, and not the passion of John the Baptist.
Yet even as I speculate on what a seventeenth century play adaptation of this tale might have been like, I cannot determine who I would cast as the tragic hero. Is it the foolish ruler in the delicate position of pleasing Rome and not angering the Jews to the point of rebellion? Is it the honest to a fault prophet who, not content to call the common folk and religious leaders to repent, has to stick his nose in politics and angers one of the most powerful families in the region? Is it the outraged, bitter, and thoroughly ruthless wife Herodias who has traditionally born the full blame for the death of John? Or is it the poor girl caught in the middle, the daughter, and step-daughter just beginning to come of age in a house full of betrayal and intrigue, in a court as decadent as Rome, in a region tottering on the brink of civil unrest? I found myself pitying each character, and I can’t imagine any of them as wholly villain or wholly hero.
And you know who is conspicuously missing from this passage? God! Jesus is only directly mentioned in this story when we are told the rumors going around about him. God isn’t directly mentioned at all, and the Spirit, so prominently present in our other story about John, descending in the form of a dove at the baptism of Jesus, doesn’t make a peep.
Mark, our succinct, straightforward and realist of a Gospel writer not only includes this lengthy tale of terror about John, instead of continuing to focus on his protagonist Jesus and the disciples, but he includes it in what seems to me to be an odd place in the gospel itself. In Mark’s timeline of Jesus’ ministry John has already been executed. Mark tells us that Herod was afraid of Jesus because he thought he was John, who he had already killed, come back from the dead. So why sandwich this gruesome story of execution between Jesus’ empowering and sending of the twelve which we heard about last week, and their joyful return?
Believe it or not, I have a theory. I think Mark interrupts the story of the disciples’ ministry precisely for the purpose of taking us off the high horse, to unsettle us, and to remind us that bad things happen, and that just because we are faithful, does not mean that we will be spared the harsh realities of life.
John suffers a violent death because of a proud and foolish king, a bitter and angry woman, and a self-absorbed and ignorant girl.
Bad things happen to good people.
Where was Jesus when John was arrested? Where was God when Herod was trying to decide whether or not to keep his promise? Why didn’t the Spirit come down and make the executioner miss at the very last second?
Why do spouses break their promises? Why after years of dating does a boyfriend decide he has no intention of proposing, ever? Why does a son die before his parents, or a daughter fall terribly ill and end up on a list for a heart transplant? Why does a fifty-something adult turn onto 70 going the wrong direction and collide with another car, killing himself, the father and one of three children in the other car? Why do people carelessly choose their words, blithely hurting the ones they love? Why does a mother of three in her thirties get breast cancer for the second time? Why do we let anger and bitterness eat us up from the inside out, poisoning ourselves and our relationships?
At the Stephen Ministry meeting this week we talked a little bit about the sappy theology of would-be-comforters when a loved one has died. During the visitation for an infant who died in my home congregation I saw an older lady tell the parents, “God just wanted another little angel.” The baby’s mother went from sobbing to livid it three seconds flat and I bet if her husband had not been holding her hand she would have thrown a wicked right hook that might have sent granny along as another angel herself. Really? God needed another angel and so this family had to lose their only child? Another time I heard a deacon in the congregation trying to comfort a woman going through a difficult divorce by saying, “everything is God’s will.” Really? It was God’s will that this woman’s husband cheat on her and decide to leave their marriage even though she was willing to try and work through it? I know people mean well when they say things like this. That they want to offer some comfort in the midst of the bad things we don’t understand. But maybe, when something terrible happens, and we don’t know why, we should say we don’t know why, instead of trying to comfort with a sappy line based on flimsy theology.
This passage in Mark ends with the body of John laid in a tomb. Before we know it, Mark will be telling us about another body laid in another tomb. Another violent death, ordered by a political figure who knew the victim to be a holy man, but still bowed to the pressures of what was popular. Death is a certainty for every human, even the one who was fully human and fully God.
So where is God when holy people are violently executed? Where is God when loved ones die, or relationships become broken beyond repair, or a job loss makes one’s financial situation go from bad to hopeless? When even our messiah lies dead in a tomb? When the Psalm on your lips is Psalm 22 “My God my God why have you forsaken me?” And not Psalm 23 “the Lord is my shepherd I shall not want.”?
The good news is that even when it seems like God is not there, God is. God has promised to be there, and God’s beautiful and overwhelming promise is something which we as people of faith can be certain of, even more certain of than death. God promises that we are loved, forgiven, and empowered, and God will not take any of those gifts away. God is there in a way we will never fully understand, but in a way in which we can always fully trust.
And even when faced with death, the tomb is the not the end of the story. Jesus’ resurrection gives us all hope beyond death. Death is not the end of our story. At the worship and music conference this year on the day we remembered All Saints Day a note in the bulletin stated, “Death is not just turning off the lamp. Death is turning off the lamp because the sun is coming up.”
For Christians, the certainty of death is matched by the certainty that God is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living.
Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed! Hallelujah, and Amen.