The Death of John the Baptist (Mark 6:14-29)

And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.

But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. For when Herodias’s daughter 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 to you.” And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.”

And she went out and said to her mother, “For what should I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist.” And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her.

And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

No doubt all of you are deeply concerned, as I am, about what could prove to be the beginnings of World War III breaking out this week in the Middle East.

The Israeli army moved into Lebanon this week, ostensibly to take on Hezbollah militants operating from within Lebanon who apparently captured two Israeli soldiers. Even so, it appears to be civilian areas that are being targeted and there have been a number of civilian casualties, including an Islamic Imam, his wife and eight of their children. Their family home was bombed – an incident that is not likely to be easily forgotten by those who already have a grievance against the Israeli government.

It appears indeed that Israel is now at war on two fronts – the other front being with neighbouring Gaza, where again the civilian infrastructure is being targeted.

More concerning still are the indications that hostilities are about to escalate. Israeli government officials this week have suggested that both Syria and Iran are involved in the latest Hezbollah attacks, thus posturing to open hostilities on two more fronts!

I remember about a year ago reading an article by the great Jewish human rights activist, Uri Avnery, where he depicted Israel as America’s Rottweiler – the attack dog that would be used by the US to further its strategic interests in the Middle East. Avnery said then that the question really was which target the Rottweiler would be unleashed on first – Lebanon, Syria or Iran. Could it be that it will let rip on all three simultaneously?

Most disturbing of all, from my point of view, is that this week large numbers of Evangelical Christians are gathering in Washington to urge the US government to increase military funding to Israel, so that they might extend their military operations!

These people have never hidden the fact that they believe that Israel must conquer all of its enemies before the Lord Jesus can return – a twisted belief that may end up costing far more human lives than the crazy fanaticism that led to the crusades many years ago.

It is hard not to despair of the human situation in the Middle East. For all of us who have been praying and campaigning for a peaceful solution to the Israel/Palestine crisis, it is hard not to just want to throw our hands up in the air, and it must be much harder too for those who have been pouring themselves out for the cause of peace for many years from within Israel and Palestine – people like Uri Avnery and our brother Morde Vanunu.

The problem we all face in this is our apparent powerlessness in the face of global events over which we seem to have absolutely no control. Even so, we can pray, and we must pray, and we must do whatever we can to support the cause of justice and peace – hoping that one day soon these events will all just be part of an entertaining Hollywood movie with a happy ending.

Of course there’s no love interest (that I know of)! And that may disqualify it as a proper subject for a Hollywood blockbuster. It’s also what distinguishes it from our Gospel reading today, which is also a story of violence and political intrigue in the Middle East, but which has a love interest (or at least a lust interest).

I’m referring to the story of King Herod and the execution of John the Baptist that we read this morning in Mark chapter 6.

Most of you will remember this story I think, which I’m sure must have been the subject of at least one Hollywood blockbuster. It’s about lust and adultery and murder, about the abuse of power and corruption in high places, and about a blow that was struck to the cause of justice back in first century Palestine.

What you may not have remembered quite so easily about this passage is that it actually began as a story not about John the Baptist nor even about Herod so much as it was about Jesus and what people thought of him.

Jesus’ popularity in the Ancient Middle East was growing by the time we reach Mark chapter 6, and everybody was asking, ‘who is this guy?’

A couple of chapters later, in Mark chapter 8, we read of Jesus raising the question himself, “who do men say that I am?” (Mark 8:27) , and the disciples respond, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, some say one of the prophets.” On that occasion, Jesus then turned the question upon them, asking “but who do you say that I am?”, to which the Apostle Peter replied, “You are the Christ”.

But long before the disciples got it right, Herod got it wrong – “It’s John the Baptist”, he said,“come back to haunt me!”

Perhaps the nicest thing that can be said about King Herod was that he never got over the death of John the Baptist, but one suspects that it was because he was a superstitious coward and not because he had a conscience. Certainly there is little in the rest of this man’s history to suggest that he had anything resembling moral fibre.

Herod arrested John because the Baptist was telling anybody who cared to listen that the King was a greedy, lying, abuser of women. Herod, you may remember, had married Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife. To accomplish this he had divorced his original wife according to Mosaic Law, but John the Baptist said quite openly that this didn’t make him any less of an adulterer.

Nowadays you would take out a defamation suit against a person slandering you like John was. For King Herod there was a far simpler solution. He had John arrested, and yet he didn’t seem to want to kill him, and we’re told that this was because deep down he recognised that John was a prophet of God, and so he probably thought that it would give him bad karma (or something like that) if he harmed John.

Indeed, we’re told that Herod actually used to go and listen to John – that he appreciated having John tell him off! To me this only suggests that as well as being a greedy, lying, murderous, man of lust, he also had masochistic tendencies!

Perhaps it is improper of me to malign a man who has been dead so long, but this king Herod had a lot of blood on his hands, as did almost every member of the Herod family! I remember one historian describing the Herod family as a great mound of maggots! And I remember reading that the Romans had a joke about one of the Herods – ‘that it was better to be his pig than to be his friend’, I think it was – a play upon words in Latin, but a reflection of the low esteem in which he was held universally.

At any rate, whatever we might think of King Herod, it’s quite possible that his wife, Herodias, was worse. She indeed seemed to have no compunction at all about terminating John‘s life, and she looked for her first opportunity to get the job done.

The opportunity came when King Herod held a party with his mates, and Herodias was able to exploit not one but two of the king’s weaknesses – namely, his lust for pretty women and his love of strong drink!

That’s how I envisage the scene at any rate. The party was raging, full of arrogant boasts and bawdy stories, and the drink had been flowing freely, when the queen’s daughter came in and danced for the king.

The dance is generally assumed to have been some ‘dance of the seven veils’ type of dance, designed to arouse the king with lust for his own daughter-in-law. It seemed to work perfectly, as it results in the drooling king offering the young girl anything she wants, up to half of his Kingdom!

It’s a vile scene of a fat, seedy old man trying to buy sexual favours from his daughter-in-law. Did he care about how this would look in front of his mates? Perhaps he was too drunk to care. Did he care about what his wife would think? Well … she was there and she’d set the whole thing up!

The girl confers with her mother and makes the grizzly request for the head of John the Baptist, and not simply for his head, but for his head to be served on a platter for the dinner guests!

And so the scene concludes with a soldier being sent off to butcher John in his cell, and then returning to the banquet, bearing the man of God’s head on a plate, no doubt much to the amusement of the assembled guests.

If we can now leave that sickening party scene, let’s reflect momentarily on how this same incident must have affected the faithful Jews of first century Palestine, and the disciples of John the Baptist in particular. This would have been an enormous blow!

It’s hard to know where exactly the disciples of John the Baptist expected their road of discipleship to take them. Unlike the followers of a more militant messianic figure, I don’t think the disciples of John ever expected him move to overthrow the Romans. I think they saw him more as a religious reformer within Israel, who could be both antagonist and advisor to the Jewish political leaders of his time.

John was often compared to Elijah, and if you think of the role Elijah played in his day, he was the mouthpiece of God to the political leaders of his day. He challenged king Ahab and queen Jezebel, took matters of reform into his own hands, and often incurred the wrath of the monarchy and even had death threats made against him. Nonetheless, Elijah managed to bring reform to the whole land!

God always 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 get the news that John’s head had been served on a dinner plate to the queen! It must have come as quite a shock.

No doubt all of those who had thrown in their lot with John figured that their reform movement had just come to a grinding and bloody halt! What hope was their now for Israel? Where could they go from here?

And so we see the disciples of John taking ownership of what was left of their master’s corpse and trying to give it a decent burial. For what else was there left to do? John was dead. The journey was over. The battle had been lost.

‘Despair’, again, is the word that comes to mind on occasions like this, and I think we’ve all been there. Our loved one is dead. The battle is over. There is nothing more to be done except to tidy up the deceased’s affairs and shovel dirt on the coffin. It’s similar to the despair we can slip into when we think about what’s happening in today‘s world. The situation just seems hopeless.

But of course, for the people in our Bible story today, all had not been lost. For those disciples of John, their journey was far from over! For the work of God is not a race where, if the runner dies, the race is over. It’s a relay race where, as one runner retires, somebody else picks up the baton and continues on!

And indeed the conclusion to this story of the Baptist isn’t found at the end of Mark 6, with the disciples mournfully burying their master’s remains, but at the beginning, when Herod realises that Jesus has taken the place of John, and is about to give him more of the same!

For while Jesus is not John the Baptist’s ghost, Herod is not really far from the mark. For in Jesus, the ministry of the Baptist continues. The Baptist had been openly critical of Herod. Jesus was openly critical of Herod. Herod had felt threatened by John. Now he will feel threatened by Jesus.

Of course it’s not really the ministry of John that is being carried on here, but rather the ministry of the Kingdom of God! John is dead, but God’s work 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 work, but the work of God will continue. Indeed, in Jesus’ case, not just despite His death, but throughHis death, the work of God continues.

This is the historic battle for the Kingdom of God – the battle that is still raging, and in which we are all involved! Many have gone before us into this battle and others will follow, and none of us is invulnerable.

I will fall, sooner or later in this battle. I will fall, but the work of God will continue. You will fall, at some point in this battle, but the work of God will continue!

I remember 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 the Baptist discovered, this is what the first century disciples of Jesus discovered, and this is the discovery that we continue to make today – that despite the setbacks, despite the hardships, and despite those we lose along the way – as Martin Luther said, “The City of God remaineth”, and the work of God continues.

This doesn’t mean that there was anything good about what happened to John. It was brutal and humiliating. And there is not much that is good in what is happening in the Middle East at the moment. It is brutal and destructive. And yet we know that in both cases God’s work of bringing justice, healing and new life is not finished yet. It will continue.

We do what we can. Sometimes we recognise that all we can do is simply pick up the remains of those who have fallen and give them a decent burial. Hopefully we can do more than that for those who are suffering today, and we must do what we can. But we will do so in the confidence that whatever happens, God will be God, His work will continue, love ultimately will triumph, His Kingdom will come.

First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, 16th July, 2006.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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