I wonder what was your first reaction when you heard our lesson today. Weren’t you surprised to hear about John the Baptist in July? (Because), we are used to contending with John the Baptist in Advent season. Every December while we try to do our Christmas shopping, John holds forth, telling us to repent. So it feels a little strange to encounter news of John the Baptist in July. More than that, I felt uncomfortable to preach on this text, because it is a terrible story. It’s hard to say “Thanks be to God!” after a story like this, isn’t it? Frankly speaking, I have avoided this text every time the lectionary assigns this story to us. I don’t know exactly why, but this time, I felt I should deal with it.
It is a story about murder of John the Baptist whose only crime was speaking out about immorality in high places. As we all know, his message was a call to repentance and righteous living before God. His message was the voice in the wilderness that the prophet Isaiah said. In our lesson, his thundering voice condemning sinful king fell on the ears of Herod. So, he had John the Baptist arrested.
I think we need a little background information here to fully understand the story. This king Herod was not Herod the Great who was a king when Jesus was born, the one responsible for the massacre of the baby boys in Bethlehem. This Herod in ourlesson was Herod Antipas, one of Herod the Great’s sons, one of the lucky ones as it turns out, because Herod the Daddy was totally paranoid, insanely suspicious and, near the end of his life became well-known for murdering, not only the innocents in Bethlehem, but his own offspring as well. Another who survived was Herod Philip, Antipas’ half-brother. Another half-brother was Aristobulus. Aristobulus had a daughter named Herodias. She married Herod Philip. They, in turn, had a daughter whose name was Salome. Clear so far?
Now things get sticky and we find a near-eastern version of some steamy soap opera. On a visit to Rome, Herod Antipas met brother Philip’s wife, Herodias – Aristobulus’ daughter, remember, which meant that Philip had married his own niece. Herodias was a deceitful and ambitious woman who saw in Antipas a ticket to power and influence. So the two of them deserted Philip and headed back to Galilee. This was OK as far as Roman law was concerned, but not Jewish law, and Galilee was a Jewish land.
We know the rest of the story. We know how tragically this banquet ended. The end of the lesson grimly reports, “When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.”
Now, the question before us is: What on earth is this awful story doing here? I mean, what kind of message or lesson can we receive from this terrible story.
This story starts with questions about who Jesus really is. One answer is that he is one whose way is prepared by John in life and death. Again and again in the Gospel their stories meet. John has a message and dedicated disciples; Jesus’ ministry follows a similar pattern. The innocent John is killed by powerful people who are threatened by his truth telling. Jesus, too, dies at the hands of anxious political authority. Herod knows that John is not deserving of death; Pilate tries to derail Jesus’ execution. John’s followers come to take his body to a tomb; there is a tomb waiting for Jesus in Jerusalem as well. The point is not so much that John and Jesus are the same in some ways, but that speaking truth to power leads to the same kind of danger no matter who you are, even John the Baptist and Jesus, the Messiah. No wonder that’s why all the prophets in the Old Testament tried to run away from God, avoiding God’s call to serve.
I am thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer today, for they were modern day prophets. You know MLK better than I. So, let me just briefly introduce who Bonhoeffer was. He is one of my heroes. First of all, he was one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century. His books are still used in the seminaries. His life as a pastor and theologian of great intellect and spirituality who lived as he preached – and his being killed because of his fight against the greatest evil power of his time, Nazism – exerted great influence and inspiration for Christians across broad denominations.
He was executed at the Flossenbürg concentration camp on April 9th, 1945, just two weeks before soldiers from the United States liberated the camp, a month before the surrender of Nazi Germany. “This is the end—for me the beginning of life.” He was only 39 years old.
He is commemorated in the liturgical calendars of several Christian denominations on the anniversary of his death. In 2008, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, which does not enumerate saints, officially recognized Bonhoeffer as a “modern-day martyr.”
Bonhoeffer was just one more example of prophets who were killed by evil power. Another victory for evil. There seem to be lots of those, don’t there? Not only back in Jesus’ time; not only in Bonhoeffer’s time, but throughout history down to the present moment. Countless millions have suffered horribly, violently and senselessly. In the name of religion, in the name of racial purity, in the name of greed or lust or anger and often for no reason at all. Evil wins again and everywhere.
But the message of our faith says that evil does not have the last word. Sound theology says Herod does not win. Herodias does not win. Hitler does not win. EVIL DOES NOT WIN! I believe this is the first message we need to hear from this text.
Another lesson is: it is true that doing good and right things cannot protect you from being badly hurt or even death. There is real danger in naming what is wrong in the world and trying to change it. Even the way the story is placed in the Gospel makes the point. It’s sandwiched right in the middle of the sending of the twelve. Just before John’s beheading, Jesus sends the twelve out to teach, preach, and heal with nothing to sustain them but their faith. After the gruesome platter is brought into the banquet, the disciples return to Jesus and report their success. Good and successful ministry, it seems, happens right alongside violent oppression and persecution. It’s enough to make one choose a safer course in life than being a disciple of Christ.
I am wondering if some of us who decided to follow Christ have been following too safe a course, sitting in mighty comfortable seats at the banquet, so that we need this awful story to help us ask if we are following the One whose way was full of danger and whose final destination was a cross.
When I made my mind to be in ministry many years ago, I was very glad, because I knew I chose to take a meaningful first step with my life, even though I also knew it would not be an easy way to follow Jesus all the way. But, my brothers and sisters in Christ, I confess that along the way, sometimes, I lost the sense of my call to be a Christian; to be a preacher; and to be a prophet. Especially when I want to spend some of my time living in a banquet hall where there is so much power and so much entertainment and so much to eat and drink, then I begin to lose my sight to see what is wrong, what is injustice, and the faithful choices can become hard to make – until distant lives have been harmed or even lost and we are somehow involved, if not directly responsible.
The story of John’s beheading is shocking, and it’s meant to be – to shock us out of complacency in a faith that comes at little or no cost. Relatively few Christians, thanks be to God, are called to be martyrs. But all of us who would follow Christ are called to confront, as well as we can, the wrong we see around us, even though it is never comfortable. To pay that price is to stand with many who followed the path that John prepared for the One who came after him, our Lord, the Messiah, the son of the living God. Amen.
Let us pray.
You call us, O Lord, to live what we know, to challenge injustice, and speak the truth, even when speaking out brings us suffering. By your Spirit give us grace to remain faithful to you in all things. We pray for those who suffer persecution because of their faith, for all who are oppressed, and for those whose voices have been silenced. Give us the courage to tell their stories and witness to your love, for we pray in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Image – Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, by Carravaggio, Palacio Real Madrid