“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.” (vss. 23-24)
I’ve had a week of blood and death – death and blood! Two deaths, to be exact, of two old friends, and two rather bloody fights that I’ve been involved in (working the corner in both cases).
Of course the blood and death didn’t really have anything to do with each other in my case, except that these were all very intense experiences that have dragged me through an emotional maelstrom, leaving me feeling reflective and thankful and rather emotional, and very tired.
It seemed fitting for me, at any rate, having endured an intense week of blood and death, to begin this week with a Gospel story that unites these two themes with their two long-time companions – sex and alcohol – to bring to us a story that is both violent and bloody and obscene to the last detail!
Yes, I could have done with “The Lord is my Sheppard” this week, or “Come to me, all ye who labor and are heavy laden”, but it was not to be! Instead we got the story of the death of John the Baptist!
And the problem is not just the fact of the tragic death of John in itself. It’s all the grizzly detail that we are given in the text. It’s as if we got the Hollywood, X-rated version of the story, which is weird, for with most tragic stories you read about in the Bible, you get the ABC version.
Compare, for example, the Biblical account of Herod’s later murder of James (the brother of John) that we’re given in the book of Acts: “About that time, Herod arrested some people who belonged to the church and mistreated them. He even had James the brother of John killed with a sword.” (Acts 12:1-2) The end! That’s it – short, succinct, tragic, but we get over it and we move on!
But not in this account of the death of the Baptist! We get first the surly details of Herod’s personal life that give rise to the criticism he gets from John. We get the imprisonment, the party, the dance of the young girl, and ultimately the grizzly details of how John’s head was served to the girl’s mother on a dinner-plate!
It would have been quite a scene, and it must have been quite a dance, and I did consider trying to recreate the atmosphere this morning by attempting a dance myself , but I decided that, even though I do look good in a dress, my rendition of the dance of the seven army surplice blankets could never do it justice.
At any rate, the real question is ‘What is this story doing here?’ And I don’t just mean ‘why this week?’, but ‘what is this passage doing in the Bible at all?’
It’s almost as if at some very early meeting of the Bible Society someone said, “We’re just not moving enough copies of this book! We need more sex and violence in here”, and so Mark piped up and said, “how about I include an extended account of the death of John the Baptist?”
OK. I’m sure that wasn’t really it. Indeed, the obvious reason this story is so drawn out is for the sake of the followers of the Baptist. John was a very popular guy and his disciples no doubt wanted to know the details. Even so, there’s not much that’s encouraging in this story for the followers of the Baptist. It’s not as if any of his last remaining words were recorded in this story. Indeed, we hear nothing from John in this story, as by the time he makes his personal appearance he is no longer able to speak! And that is disappointing, as I think it would have been very helpful to know what were the last words and last thoughts of the Baptist.
We like to assume, of course, that when it comes to the death of a great man like the Baptist, that they go out full of courage and faith like Maximillian Kolbe.
Kolbe, you might remember, was the Catholic priest murdered by the Nazis who departed this earthly stage singing hymns from his starvation bunker until the guards got so sick of it that they finally finished him off with a lethal injection.
But not all martyrs die quite so gloriously. If you read the last recorded words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for instance, who was also murdered by the Nazis, you’ll find someone with far more self-doubt and questioning. I suspect that the Baptist was closer to Bonhoeffer in this regard than Kolbe, for the only words we hear from the Baptist while he was in prison are words of doubt! John messages Jesus from prison, you may remember, asking Him, “Are you the one we were waiting for or should we wait for another?” (Matthew 11:3)
John had been so confident early on – both about Jesus and about his own work, proclaiming Jesus as the ’lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world’ (John 1:29) while railing as openly about Herod’s personal indiscretions as he did about everything else that ticked him off.
Perhaps John had thought himself untouchable, or perhaps he didn’t care what happened to him at that stage? But things began to look different from the inside of his prison cell, and John had doubts.
Did John die still full of doubts, or did the response he received from Jesus satisfy him, such that he died in peace? We do not know. We know nothing of the inner life of John at the end but only of the grizzly details of his martyrdom – of the way John ticked off Herodian, Herod’s wife, of Herod’s wild party, of the seductive dance that lured the drunken king to promise up to half his kingdom to the young seductress, and of the girl’s grizzly request.
And so we come back to our original question – what is this story doing here, this story of drunken debauchery and murder? What is it doing in the Bible?
If it’s here for the benefit of the disciples of John the Baptist, it doesn’t really have anything encouraging to offer them, and I’m sure it’s not the final chapter of the life of their master that they were hoping for.
Of course we don’t know exactly what John’s followers were expecting but we do know that John was regularly compared to Elijah, and I expect the disciples of the Baptist expected his career to follow a similar course
Elijah had been the mouthpiece of God to the political leaders of his day. He challenged King Ahab and Queen Jezebel and had multiple death threats made against him. Nonetheless, God kept Elijah safe, and eventually he saw the tables turned on those who tried to imprison him and kill him.
I expect the disciples of the Baptist expected his career to follow a similar course. And then they got the news that John’s head had been served on a platter to the queen! It must have been hard to make sense of it all. And in truth, it really is a difficult story to make sense of, even at this distance.
You know how in our conventional Christian wisdom we say, “well, this tragedy might not make a lot of sense right now, but once we see the bigger picture, we’ll see how everything fits together.” Well … it’s 2000 years on from the death of John the Baptist and I still can‘t see the point!
I find it hard to believe that, if John had died of old age something else wonderful that did happen somehow could not have happened (if that’s how it works). It is not obvious that the death of John actually accomplished anything – not then and not since – and maybe sometimes we just have to accept that tragedies happen and that they are not always miracles in disguise but just plain tragedies.
Even so, I think the Gospel writer does intend for us to see this story as part of a greater, grander, story of hope, and the key to that, I think, is actually the way in which the story is introduced.
For you may remember that our Gospel reading didn’t actually start off as being a story about John the Baptist or Herod, let alone about Herodian or Salome It starts rather with people asking questions about Jesus – ‘who is this guy?’. Some said Jesus was Elijah or one of the other prophets, but it’s Herod who identifies Jesus as John the Baptist having come back to haunt him, saying, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised!” (Mark 6:16)
And Herod is completely wrong of course, but in another sense he’s entirely right. Jesus is Jesus and not John – we need have no doubt about that – but what Herod does realise is that killing off John did not put an end to John’s work, as John’s work was just part of a larger project that Jesus was continuing!
And of course it’s not really so much the ministry of John goes on, but rather the work of the Kingdom of God that goes on!
John is dead, but the battle for the Kingdom continues. Others before John and others after him have fallen in the battle, but still the work of God continues! Jesus Himself will fall in this battle, but the work of God continues. Indeed, not just despite His death, but through His death, the work of God continues.
For in the end, the work of God isn’t so much a boxing match where, when the fighter goes down the show is over, the good guys have lost, and everybody goes home. No. It’s more like a tag-team wrestling match (for those who remember such things) where, as one fighter finds she is unable to continue, she tags her friend, and she jumps in and continues the fight where her partner left off! This is the battle for the Kingdom of God – a battle that is still raging and in which we are all involved!
In this past week I’ve seen two great competitors tag-out (so to speak). It was very much like that with Morna, I felt. She actually died, leaving behind her instructions on unfinished work that she expected others to complete. Specifically, she told her daughter that it was her responsibility to sew up the hole in my pants that she’d noticed while I was standing with her at her bedside!
Of course the example is entirely trivial, and yet it was symbolic of the way she was passing on her role in the battle to the next available soldier! For Morna did indeed perform some great acts of love with her needle and thread and with her knitting needles, just as she used to do a remarkable job cooking soup each week for the kids in our Youth Centre. She fought the Good Fight in a variety of ways, and now she is gone, but the work of God continues as others spring up and take her place in the battle-line!
It’s what my father taught me – that the work of God is like a flowing stream, and that when someone puts a rock in the stream, the water flows around the rock. This is what the disciples of John had to discover – that despite the death of their master, his work would continue! This is what the first century disciples of Jesus had to discover, and this is the discovery that we continue to make today – that despite the setbacks, the hardships, and despite the deaths of those dear souls we lose along the way, the work of God continues, or, in the words of Martin Luther, “The City of God remaineth”.
Many have gone before us in this fight and others will follow, and none of us is invulnerable. All of us, sooner or later, will fall, but the work of God continues. I will fall, but the work of God will continue. You will fall at some point, but the work of God will continue!
And all we can do is pick up the remains of those who have fallen and give them a decent burial. But we do so in the confidence that whatever happens, God will be God, God’s work will continue, His love ultimately will triumph, His Kingdom will come. Amen
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on July 15, 2012. To hear the audio version of this sermon click here.