This is a story we don't want to hear. But we heard it because the lectionary handed it to us. Don't worry if you've never heard of the lectionary. It's enough to know that in many churches, the Sunday readings follow a three-year cycle. So the last time we heard this story was in 2012. We didn't want to hear the story then either, but this year it sounds even more ominous. When we last heard this story, beheading someone seemed a thing of the past. But now the past is present. We've seen pictures of men in orange jumpsuits, kneeling before they were beheaded. We have felt the anguish of families whose sons were beheaded--aid workers, journalists, 21 Coptic Christians. And there are other people whose names we'll never know, including Iraqi Muslims. Their stories are not in our news.
John's brutal death did make the news--at least, the biblical news. Mark gives a lot of space to this gruesome story. That's quite remarkable because Mark usually doesn't elaborate. Jesus' temptation in the wilderness gets only two verses in chapter one. Immediately after that story Mark tells us this, "Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.'" Jesus' ministry began after John's arrest. Mark wants us to see that John and Jesus are deeply connected.
Then Mark leaves us on edge. Why was John arrested? Did he stay in prison? Was he tortured? We don't find out until chapter 6. Why did Mark wait so long to let us know what happened to John? Mark is a gifted story-teller. This doesn't mean he made things up, but he put the pieces together in a particular way. In the first part of chapter 6 Jesus was rejected in his hometown. Then Jesus sent out his disciples and commissioned them to carry on the work he had been doing. This is where today's story comes in. When Herod heard about this healer, this miracle worker, he said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised." After waiting for six chapters, we finally know what happened to John.
We also find out why John was arrested: because he was a truth-teller. John dared to tell Herod the truth: he had sinned by marrying Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip. That would have been accepted--even expected--IF Philip had died. But Philip was very much alive and Herodias was his wife! For telling the truth John was sent to prison. Herodias was furious! She wanted John dead. But for some strange reason, Herod protected John. Mark gives us this clue: "When Herod heard John, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he liked to listen to him." It's not clear when Herod had ever heard John preach. Did he go out to the Jordan with the crowds who were baptized by John? Did he visit John in prison and talk with him? Though Herod was a Jew, his loyalty was to the Roman Empire rather than Torah. Was there some spark of God that drew him to John's message? He tried to get John's words out of his head--especially at his own birthday party. Oh, he loved these lavish state dinners: tables weighed down with food; wine flowing from a fountain; toast after toast. This is what he loved about the Empire. And one very special gift: he asked a young women to dance for his guests. Some texts say she was Herod's daughter, but more likely she was the daughter of the wife he stole from his brother. She danced beautifully. Herod was so captivated that he promised her anything--"even half of my kingdom," he said. He should have known better for she ran to her mother. And her mother said, "Ask for the head of John the baptizer on a platter." Herod was deeply grieved. Grieved because he considered John to be a holy man. Grieved because he was still drawn to what John said. But his guests had heard the oath he had made. He didn't want to lose face in front of them. Who knows what they might tell somebody higher up? So Herod gave the command. Soon the head of John the Baptist was brought on a platter, the last course of Herod's birthday dinner. When John's disciples heard about his death, they came to get his body and laid it in a tomb. Mark leaves us on the edge of our seats. Jesus' ministry began after John was arrested. What will Jesus do now after John has been killed?
Jesus will keep telling the truth:"The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news." Truth-telling has consequences. We've seen this in our own time. This year we marked the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday." Perhaps we didn't want to hear that story again either. It was on that day that African American men and women and teen-agers were viciously attacked as they walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. They were telling the truth with their bodies: we are children of God, we are citizens of this country, and we deserve the right to vote. Because millions of people watched these attacks on television, the mood of this country began to change. We saw the truth that we had denied before. The truth has consequences. And our country did begin to change.
Three years after that bloody march, Dr. Martin Luther King went to Memphis to stand with garbage collectors. They told him the truth about their working conditions, their wages, their humiliation. Dr. King knew that telling the truth had consequences. Airport security had guarded his plane all night before he flew from Atlanta to Memphis. Death threats had become more common.
He was honest about this the night he spoke in Memphis. "We've got some difficult days ahead," he said, "but it doesn't matter to me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man! Mine eyes have been the glory of the coming of the Lord!"
What he was saying is the kingdom of God has come near. John the Baptist said the same thing at the Jordan and from his prison cell, for he had seen what Herod could not see. Neither John the Baptist nor Dr. King sought death. Neither did Jesus. They told the truth because they believed God's promise of life was stronger than the threat of death. Mark wants us to see that, too. Immediately after John's death, Mark tells the story of Jesus feeding 5000 people in a deserted place. It was a meal that began with only five loaves of bread and two fish, but it became a bountiful feast. Herod's banquet yielded one deadly left-over: John the Baptist's head on a platter. But Jesus' feast offered enough for everyone to eat with twelve baskets left over. Mark wrote his gospel so that we would hear these two stories side by side, so that we would remember that choices must be made in every generation. God calls you and me to tell the truth about whatever diminishes life and wholeness for any person. We don't speak up because we want to be martyrs. We speak and act because we believe God's kingdom has come near and that makes all the difference.
Let us pray. Holy and merciful God, give us courage to choose your way in the midst of so many choices. Empower us to live the prayer Jesus has taught us: "Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth--this earth--as it is in heaven." Amen.