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.” (Mark 6:23-24)
We had a baptism this morning, and I think if you’d searched through the Bible for the most inappropriate Gospel story to feature today, you couldn’t have done better (or rather worse) that the one we had this morning – the story of the death of John the Baptist!
When you’re working with the lectionary, of course, it’s all the luck of he draw. We might have got Jesus saying, “let the little children come to me”, but we didn’t. We got this story of lust and murder, humiliation and death.
And perhaps it’s only right, if we are going to urge our newly baptised to “Fight bravely under His banner against sin, the world and the devil” that we warn them first where the fight might take them! Or perhaps I should have just over-ridden the lectionary today and chosen a more family-friendly reading?
For it’s not just the fact that this Gospel reading focuses on the tragic death of John. It’s all the grizzly detail that you get in the story. It’s as if we got the Hollywood, X-rated version of the story, for, I think you’ll agree that 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 obviously do look good in a dress, my rendition of the dance of the seven army surplice blankets would never do it justice.
At any rate, the real question is ‘What is this story doing here?’ And I don’t just mean ‘what is it doing here, being read at a baptism?’, 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 the death of John the Baptist?”
OK. I’m sure that wasn’t really it. Indeed, I assume that the reason this story is so drawn out is most probably for the sake of the followers of the Baptist, as 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 of the faith like the Baptist, that they go out full of courage and grace 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, and I suspect that John the Baptist was something more like this.
For the only words we hear from the Baptist while he was in prison are words of doubt. He 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 expecting.
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 dinner plate 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 you know what I mean). 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 one fighter goes down, the show is over, the good guys have lost, and everybody goes home. No. It’s a relay race where, as one runner falls, he passes the baton on to the next guy in line and the race continues!
This is the battle for the Kingdom of God – a battle that is still raging and in which we are all involved! And this is what baptism is about too – the welcoming of new soldiers into the fight – new runners into the relay.
For we recognise that as we welcome new competitors on to the field, others of us are falling from the track, and some of us are very weary and are failing. And so we give thanks for these new athletes on to the field, as we watch them begin to take up the baton and join the good fight.
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. 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 those we lose along the way, the work of God continues, joy comes in the morning, or, in the words of Martin Luther, “The City of God remaineth”.
Many have gone before us in this battle 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 sometimes 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, love ultimately will triumph, His Kingdom will come. Amen
First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill.