The Text: Mark 6:14-29
Controversy had never been far away from John the Baptist. From the outset his appearance was striking to say the least: munching on locusts to sustain him for his preaching ministry, dressed in the customary clothing for a prophet—a garment made of camel’s hair with a leather belt. But it was what John proclaimed that was the most confronting: a baptism of repentance. ‘Repentance’ is a hard word for human ears to hear. For many in the world it’s a laughable thought. Even to God’s own people it’s a word that grates in our ears, wounding our pride.
No one likes hearing that word, especially not powerful and influential people, like Herod Antipas and Herodias. Herod was a tetrarch of Galilee and Perea; one of four rulers over the territory of Israel. Herodias was his brother Philip’s wife. And therein is the problem—this relationship violated what God had established for marriage according to Leviticus 20:21. Many would argue that it would be foolishness at best and outrageous at worst to challenge dignitaries on their morality, because there would surely be serious consequences for those who dared to do what John the Baptist did.
But our text tells us that instead of compromising the truth for the sake of preserving his standing, John faithfully made a stand for God’s word, issuing a call for repentance. He said to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”
Faithfulness to God’s word did come with a terrible cost for John, imprisoned in what many believe to be the fortress-palace of Machaerus in Perea, the military headquarters for the region. But a worse fate awaited. Herodias held a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. Her opportunity came on Herod’s birthday, when he threw a banquet. The daughter of Herodias came in and danced, and whatever kind of dancing it was, it pleased Herod and his guests so much that he said to her: “Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you”, promising: “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.” The girl went out to her mother and said to Herodias, “What shall I ask for?” And Herodias answered: “The head of John the Baptist”.
Today’s text immediately follows on from last week’s Gospel reading where Jesus preached in the synagogue and his audience took offense at him. What happens in today’s gospel reading shows us the extreme end of such offense at God’s word—the shocking mistreatment of Christians for the message they bear. Herodias wanted John silenced so badly she decided to have him silenced forever. Where is a loving God in all of this? “This is the gospel of our Lord!” we say. “Thanks be to God!” In fact, But where is the gospel in our Gospel reading today?
Mark tells us today that Jesus’ name had become well known. That was the purpose of John’s own message at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel:
“Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way,
the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight’” (Mark 1:2-3)
And so, John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins because the reign of God’s Kingdom was now present in Christ, the source of divine grace, forgiveness, blessing and favour. That was Jesus’ own message: “The time has come, the kingdom of God is near; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).
In today’s text we hear that there was confusion about the identity of Jesus (just as there is today). In the last chapters of the Old Testament, God had promised he would send his messenger, who would prepare the way for the Lord before he would suddenly come to his Temple. Many believed this would be Elijah, reading literally what Malachi had said: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes” (Malachi 4:5). Mark tells us that many had mistaken Jesus’ identity—some thought Elijah the prophet had returned. Still others thought that Jesus was some other prophet, like the prophets of old. Others thought that Jesus was John the Baptist, who had been raised from the dead, and Herod himself thought this, saying: “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!”
But Jesus is not only a prophet. He not only speaks God’s word, he is God’s Word, the Word made flesh, the One through whom all things had come into existence and who had come to save the world from its sin. That is why John the Baptist had been sent by God—to be the forerunner to Jesus; to prepare the way for him, to proclaim Jesus as the Saviour promised from of old. His message was the same as Jesus’ message, and the people’s offence at John’s message was the same offence at Jesus’ message.
The beheading of John show’s that the treatment John received would be the same treatment Jesus would receive. Given over to be executed at the hands of sinful men, the hands of the sinless one would be nailed to a cross to pay the price to redeem all people, even those who rejected him and those who bear his name and message. John was imprisoned; Jesus was bound and led away and delivered over to Pilate. Herod was greatly distressed at Herodias’ daughter’s request for the head of John the Baptist, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, did not want to refuse her. That sounds like Pontius Pilate addressing the crowd which shouted for Jesus to be crucified: “Why? What evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him.” So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd…delivered Jesus to be crucified” (14 15-16). John is beheaded; Jesus is crucified. After his execution, John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb. After Jesus was crucified, Joseph of Arimathea, wrapped Jesus’ body and laid him in a tomb.
This Jesus is the one greater than John who took the sin of the world upon himself to triumph over it, breaking its power and the clutches of Satan and the fangs of death, dismantling their rule through his own victorious reign, suffering human pain and brokenness with us, and doing what John the Baptist could not do, rising again from death to be everywhere present as the Lord of life and salvation. Not a hair on John the Baptist’s head is lost to Jesus who will come again to make all things new.
That is why we say today “This is the gospel of the Lord—thanks be to God!” For this event cannot be understood apart from God’s gracious action to the world through Jesus who died, who was laid in a tomb, and who rose again from the dead to win forgiveness and freedom for all people by overcoming sin, death and the devil―even for those who reject him and his message.
If an immoral and unscrupulous ruler like Herod Antipas can give a girl whatever she asks for—even when that is evil, and promise up to half his kingdom—how much more will Jesus the true King from Heaven give us every good gift from God we ask in his name. For we already have the greatest gift from God, his own dear Son, in whom we were chosen before the foundation of the world to have every spiritual blessing from the heavenly places. The reign of the Kingdom of Heaven has come to us and ruled in our hearts at baptism, giving us new birth by water and the Spirit when we were claimed by Christ to be his forever, to know and love his Father as our own.
He has brought to us forgiveness, freedom and fullness of life, peace and favour from God, access to all his grace, wisdom for our daily path, his ear for our prayers and his own intercessions to his Father for us, his ever-present help, his provision of all the daily bread we need each day, his comfort for the hurts others inflict on us, his angels to watch guard over us as he keeps us safe in his care, and his relief for the burdens we carry as he leads us here to rest by the quiet waters and rich green pastures of his word.
Thanks be to God that the Father has given us his Son, and through his Son, his Spirit so that we know Jesus not as Elijah, or John the Baptist, but that we know him as the Saviour of the world, and our Saviour. We have been chosen in Christ, redeemed by Christ, claimed by Christ, blessed by Christ, to be served by Christ, and together with Christ, his Father and Holy Spirit also.
Despite the raging powers of human evil and the kingdom of darkness, nothing will ever be able to take that away from us, so that just as even a single hair on the head of John the Baptist is not lost to God, neither will any of ours be, until the day we see God in glory. This is everything that Jesus means and gives to us when he welcomes us to the table greater than Herod’s; he welcomes us to his heavenly banquet table and says: Take and eat, this is my body given for you. Take and drink, this is my blood shed for you for the forgiveness of all your sins. Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord! Amen.