Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
[Note: the last paragraph didn’t make it into the audio. Sorry!]
The drama! The excitement! The intrigue! The decadence and depravity! The gratuitous violence! The story of Herod, Herodias, Salome (the daughter of Herod), John the Baptist and the tangled webs they weave! This is drama at its finest! Even today there aren’t many TV shows or movies that carry so much compelling conflict.
Herod holds an uneasy kingdom together, or at least he is trying. He’s not even technically a king, just sort of a placeholder until Rome decides on someone better. No doubt, Herod had a monumental task of keeping the people’s respect and compliance to his will. His personal life complicates his political life even more. Herodias left her husband (or was coerced into leaving him) who was king of another country to marrying his brother, Herod. They have a daughter together, Salome. An eccentric and homeless preacher, John the Baptist, has begun to preach against this very act. He proclaimed that Herod taking Herodias as his own wife while his brother was still alive was a bad move, it was against God’s will, and it was going to get a lot of people hurt. Fast-forward some years and we see that John was right and the two brothers go to war where no doubt, many lives were lost because of the family drama instigated by these conflicting romances.
For all of the political and romantic drama in this story, John the Baptist seems pretty insignificant. It looks like he hasn’t changed anything. It looks like he failed. John has said his piece and nothing really changed. Herod remained married to Herodias, her first husband/Herod’s brother is still angry, Salome is a teenager caught in the middle of the feud, and they all continue to celebrate and party without a care in the world. John preaches what is right, continuing on the prophetic tradition as Jesus does as well. He calls the people to repentance- to try to see the world as God sees it- not as a playground where the bullies continue to trample the weak- but as God’s kingdom where justice is present, all are fed, all are forgiven, and all are worthy of grace. John the Baptist personalized this message for Herod to show him that God has peace and justice in mind for this kingdom, and not selfishness and needless bloodshed. And for that, John the Baptist was thrown in prison.
John’s the Baptist’s career as a preacher seems to be a sad one. He starts off being perceived as a lunatic in the desert. He is known for eating bugs and honey and wearing camel hair clothing. Despite his apparent eccentricities, he has some success in preparing the way for Jesus. He tells the people about the one who is to come after him to change the world for good. He invites them and us to repent and believe in the Good News. He invites them and us to stop living our lives as though sin and death will prevail. When we live our lives believing in the power of sin and death, we can either despair that evil will triumph over God’s will or we can adopt a “if you can’t beat them, join them” mantra. This message of hope and salvation resonates with many and get baptized in droves.
Then John preaches repentance to the most powerful guy in the neighborhood and he gets thrown in prison for it. It doesn’t look like John is allowed to go to the river to baptize anymore. It looks like John’s potential audience went from massive crowds from miles around to maybe his fellow cellmates, a couple of guards, and Herod himself who liked to listen to this strange man’s words from God.
Then, John’s potential audience goes from few to no one. He is beheaded so as to ensure that no one ever hears his powerful words again.
John’s ministry does not look like a success story. Even his death is shameful. You might hope for a more glorious death than his.
I have seen dogs get a more glorious death scene. In Where the Red Fern Grows, Billy is a young boy who raises two dogs to become raccoon hunting dogs. Billy raised Old Dan and Little Ann from pups and the boy and his dogs form a powerful bond of trust and determination. They have become such a formidable raccoon-hunting team that they enter a raccoon-hunting contest and win it- including the impressive $300 prize.
One day, Billy and the dogs are out hunting when they unwittingly corner a mountain lion. The ferocious cat attacks the dogs without hesitation. Fearing for the lives of his beloved dogs, Billy rushes into the chaos of the battle with his handaxe in hand. Billy is knocked to the ground by the beast and looks up in horror as the mountain lion prepares to pounce on the helpless boy. Old Dan and Little Ann courageously leap at the animal saving Billy’s life and Billy kills the great cat. To his horror, Old Dan had been badly wounded in the fight. Old Dan died just hours later. Little Ann died of a broken heart days after that.
The heartbroken Billy buried his companions on a hill overlooking a beautiful valley. He is grateful to be alive, but is distraught over his dog’s deaths. One day, Billy visited the grave of Old Dan and Little Ann and was surprised to find a beautiful red fern growing there. He had never before seen this strange and stunning plant. Billy told his father about it. Billy’s father told him about the Native American legend in which only an angel can plant a red fern.
Wow. What a beautiful and inspiring death. The dogs together give up their lives to save their beloved companion and are honored by the angels themselves with the planting of a red fern.
John the Baptist gets no such glorious death. In his death scene, he does not valiantly save the life of a virtuous friend. In his death scene, the ruler who threw him in jail is having a raucous party. He gets very drunk, his daughter does a dance that pleases him, and he slurs out a promise to give her anything she wants. The girl’s mother calls for the head of John who made her pretty upset with his difficult words and forces the girl to make this gruesome request. John is promptly beheaded and his head is placed on a platter for all the party-goers to gawk at. Then, the party goes on- people go back to drinking, eating, and dancing.
John’s death is humiliating. He is utterly helpless from start to finish. The bad guys win and the party-goers are given a pretty memorable story to tell once their hangovers subside.
The moral of the story is, “That’s what you get for sharing God’s kingdom of love with a cruel world.” But John’s message- or rather God’s message which he carried- was not defeated. When all signs seem to point to the victory of humiliation, sin, and death; God’s love, justice, and mercy continue to go strong.
In the preface to this story we hear of the debate that is going on about Jesus. People aren’t sure who he is. Some think he is John the Baptizer raised from the dead, some think he is Elijah returned from heaven, and others think he is a new prophet on the scene. From these options, Herod, the “winner” of the previous story believes that the person who is performing miraculous healings, boldly teaching about the nearness of God’s love and mercy, and casting out every evil thing he comes upon- Herod believes that this person embodying God’s radical and transforming work is none other than the one whom he beheaded. Herod is so impressed and so haunted by the work of God done through John the Baptist, that he believes that the gruesome and humiliating death he delivered to him was not enough to keep him quiet.
And Herod’s right. It wasn’t enough. The Gospel John carried was the same Good News that Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed and it is the same Good News that we are called to proclaim. Nothing can stop that message of transforming love from getting out into the world. When confronted with the power of Jesus’ words and actions Herod was convinced that the shame, sin, and death that he helped create lost.
Jesus, like John, did not appear to have a glorious and awe-inspiring death. He was condemned for treason, stripped naked, and tortured to death on a cross. But it is in his giving of himself that are given the Good News of God. Christ was willing to confront the immense powers of injustice and sin with the transforming grace of God and it led him to the cross, and the cross led him and the world to the resurrection of life. John the Baptist too confronted the powers of injustice and sin with the transforming grace of God and it led to his imprisonment and beheading, but even then God’s word continues to challenge the world to repent and see the transforming grace of God. As we live out the Gospel in our lives God is at work, not us alone. God’s word forgives, renews, and saves and it will continue to do so, triumphing over imprisonment, death, and whatever else sin throws God’s way.