Back when I was first learning about how to be a preacher, someone gave me the advice that when I was struggling to find my sermon in the day’s readings, to look for the Good News and preach that.
I would like to be able to go to that person with this week’s Gospel reading and ask, “Where exactly do you see Good News in the beheading of John the Baptist?!”
It is a brutal story in itself; its placement within the Gospel according to Mark makes it even harsher. Jesus has just sent the twelve off to go into the towns ahead of him, to prepare the people there for the Good News of the Kingdom of God. Sounds a little John-the-Baptist-y, don’t you think? Go prepare the way of the Lord. How bad can that be?
The story that follows will tell you just how bad that can be. Expose the corruption of political leaders and you run the risk of losing your head—literally.
Herod was the son of Herod the Great, a ‘client king’ of Rome, put in the position by the Romans who thought that giving the Jews a king who at least pretended to be one of them would be a panacea. They would stop rising up against the oppression of Rome; they would stop bringing forward potential Messiahs to lead them to freedom, and accept their own subjugation. There were several sons of Herod the Great, two of whom were executed after trying to assassinate their own father, leaving this Herod, Antipas, to take over the role. Herod Antipas ended up marrying his brother’s wife (who, it turns out, was also his father’s granddaughter…it’s a very complicated family tree…) which was contrary to Jewish law. I read this week, though, that this was not just a religious legality problem. It was also the cause of international strife. To marry Herodias, he divorced his first wife. That had been a political marriage to settle a boundary dispute, and in divorcing her he was reigniting a fire that was thought to have been extinguished. So it’s possible that John was also concerned for the welfare of the people, even if he didn’t use that as his reason for condemning the marriage.
We are also supposed to hear echoes of the interactions between the prophet Elijah and King Ahab and his wife Jezebel. Ahab, you may recall, would listen to Elijah and begin to feel the need to repent, and then Jezebel would insult his masculinity or his ability to rule the kingdom, and he’d go back to his bad behavior. It has always been the job of prophets to confront the injustice of the people in power, to call them back to righteousness and concern for the well-being of all people, especially the most marginalized. Amos’ image of a plumb-line in today’s first reading was one way of describing the call of the prophet. John the Baptist was fulfilling that role of the prophet when he named Herod’s sin and called him to turn from it. What is notable in this passage is that John had some success. Herod “liked to listen to him.” He believed John had some authority from God, and tried to protect him. At least for a while.
But Herod’s baser instincts got the better of him. This girl, the daughter of his second wife, this girl who is both stepdaughter and niece and…what, first cousin once removed?…this girl is called upon to dance for him and a bunch of his cronies. This is not good. If Herod were a devout Jewish man, he would not have a female relative out there dancing in front of a bunch of strange men! This doesn’t have to be the dance of the seven veils to be scandalous. The text rather chastely says that she “pleased” them, but we know what’s going on here. It’s bad enough that this girl has been sexually objectified and was probably in real danger of being violated; but to be put in that position by her stepfather/uncle/cousin is horrifying.
And when she goes to her mother for help, to figure out how to respond to Herod’s bizarre offer (and perhaps to try to figure out what further strings might be attached), her mother does not help her. Instead, Herodias sees an opportunity to use it to her own ends. I cannot even begin to imagine what happened when that girl was handed a platter with a man’s severed head on it. You want to talk about Adverse Childhood Experiences? They are racking up by the moment.
So where is the Good News in all this?
There isn’t any. At least not directly. We are not expected to do hermeneutical contortions to find some redeeming quality to this thoroughly horrifying episode. We know from non-Biblical sources that Herod could be a monster. People in power can, and often do, commit atrocities. To brush them aside is to give them power to continue to commit them. We have to name them—even when we know the consequences could be severe. John the Baptist obeyed this call to confront evil, and it does not end well. The last image we have of John the Baptist is of his body being taken away and buried by his disciples.
But I want to back up now, and look at a weird little detail that we might not have noticed before. This whole passage starts with King Herod hearing about Jesus, and deciding that he was John the Baptist, raised from the dead.
Did you get that?
Herod believed in the possibility of resurrection.
I’ll confess—I’ve been studying this story for years, and this was the first time I stopped and thought, “Hmmm.”
This is one more example of the irony that runs through Mark. The people who are closest to Jesus don’t seem to be capable of believing what corrupt kings and demon-possessed men and outsiders do: the power of God to resurrect the dead. In an indirect way, Herod acknowledges the limitations of his own power. He’s probably terrified, and rightly so. If you’ve just mown the head off a prophet from God and then find out that God is more powerful than you, you probably should be a little worried about the consequences!
As part of that same preaching class 21 years ago, I read a book by Frederick Buechner titled Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale. In it he argues that in order to experience the full force of the gospel, we must first experience it as tragedy. As an acknowledgement that things are not the way God wishes them to be. The Gospel has to break our heart before it can change it. As he writes, “The gospel must be bad news before it can be good news.”
(The “fairy tale” part of that is in the assurance that God wins out in the end—that we are promised that we will all “live happily ever after” even if the ever after takes a while to get here.)
My Lutherpalian colleague, Erik Karas, posts his sermons as soon as he writes them every week. Usually, if I see one I want to read, I wait until mine is done before I click the link and dive in. But on Thursday, as I was struggling with what to do with this god-awful gory story of the beheading of John the Baptist, the title of his sermon was too intriguing to put off. Its title is “Turn the Page.” And the gist of it is very similar to what I have ended up doing here, acknowledging that there is no good news in this particular passage from John. Just as there are days when it seems like there is no good news anywhere. There are days when it seems like the whole world is falling apart and nothing good can ever possibly come of it.
Those are the days, says Erik, when you hold on, read what’s written there…and then turn the page. Hold onto the promise that the story isn’t over yet.
If you were reading the story of Jesus for the first time without knowing anything about him, and you skipped from the first page to the last page, you might be tempted to think that Jesus’ life was one long happy story. You would miss all the ways in which he was confronted by the worst kinds of evil imaginable, you would not know why the fact that he is alive at the end is so absolutely, utterly, fantastically amazing. And you probably would think that this story has very little to do with you.
It’s only by going through it, word by word, page by page, that you begin to understand why the Gospel is good news for all people: because it doesn’t shy away from the darkness. It goes up to it, goes into it, and ultimately goes through it.
The gospel has to be bad news before it can be good news. But don’t give up and set the book aside.
Turn the page.