Date: July 11, 2021
Festival: 7th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10)
Text: Mark 6:14-29
Occasion: Zion Lutheran Church and Christ the King Lutheran Chapel, Mt. Pleasant, Michigan
Let us pray: Come, Holy Spirit, and give us ears to hear, that we may inwardly digest the Living Word of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, to the strengthening of our wills and hearts, who reigns with You and the Father both now and forevermore. Amen.
One of the challenging tasks of preaching is—not only keeping you awake—but also helping put the given pericope into its proper context. Take today’s Gospel reading, for example. Placed by itself, the text will make little sense. As with any text in Scripture, we cannot read this by itself. To properly understand what’s happening, we need to see what came before and what comes after. So, let’s do that, shall we? Let’s look at the context surrounding the beheading of John the Baptiser. As we do so, I invite you to open your Bibles.
By itself, the text might seem odd. At the conclusion of each Gospel reading, the lector says, “This is the Gospel of the Lord.” But here we have a story about heads on platters. How can this be the Gospel of the Lord?
Well, what’s the context? Our text today is sandwiched between two stories about Jesus. Last week, if you recall, I preached about the Word of Christ that often offends us. When His Word tells us we’ve sinned, we get mad and even tell other Christians that they’re being “judgemental” when they tell us we’re being sinful to try to bring us to repentance, just like the Apostles were sent out to do in last week’s Gospel reading.
In our Gospel text for today, we get a similar story with different results. In last week’s text—verses 1-13—Jesus’ hometown was offended by His Word and Luke’s Gospel tells us they tried to kill Him because His Word was offensive. Here today, John the Baptiser preaches God’s Word that offends Herodias, and she conspires against him to get him killed, and this time it works. In next week’s Gospel reading, we’ll return to Jesus with the familiar story of Him feeding the five thousand. So, what’s going on here?
One of the themes in Mark’s Gospel is that no one really seems to understand who Jesus is. He’s not a normal man (as we know, it’s because He’s also God). In last week’s text, Jesus’ hometown people thought they knew who He was, but because of His teachings and His ability to heal people of their illnesses, they didn’t know what to do with Him (well, aside from trying to kill Him, of course). As Jesus heals diseases, hangs out with vagrants like lepers and prostitutes, casts out demons, forgives sins, claims to be God, and then sends out His Apostles to also heal diseases and preach repentance, His family literally thought He was insane [Mark 3:21]. The Jewish scribes thought He was possessed by Beelzebub, that is, the devil [Mark 3:20-27]. So, it didn’t take long for Jesus to go viral—everybody knew who Jesus was, but not everybody understood who Jesus was.
Now, as he’s telling this story, suddenly Mark stops talking about what’s going on during Jesus’ ministry in Galilee and goes into a story about Herod, kind of like when you’re watching a movie as things are taking place in the present and then it suddenly takes you into the past to give you some context about what’s going on. That’s what’s happening here. Jesus has gone so viral that even Herod knows about Jesus. But he doesn’t hear about Jesus until after the events of John’s beheading. When he hears about Jesus, he thinks it’s John raised from the dead. Others think He’s Elijah or some other Old Testament prophet. Yet Herod seemed convinced He was John raised from the dead somehow.
So, Mark goes back in time even more to tell us how this came to be. It was Herod who first ordered John to be imprisoned because, like Jesus, he also preached a Word of God that was offensive. Herod violated the 10th Commandment that forbids a man from coveting his neighbour’s wife. So, John told him as much—that it was unlawful for Herod to have married his brother’s wife, Herodias. So, he also violated the 6th Commandment, which forbids adultery. This infuriated Herodias. She wanted him dead. But Herod was afraid of John and even respected him as a righteous and holy man, so he refused to put him to death and even protected him.
But an opportunity came for Herodias to conspire against John. She knew how much Herod loved her daughter—his niece but now his stepdaughter. During the banquet celebration of his birthday, she danced for him, and being so pleased he said, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom!” [v. 23]. After consulting her mother, Herodias tells her to ask for the head of John the Baptiser. Regretting for vowing to give his stepdaughter literally whatever she asks for, he begrudgingly orders John to be beheaded, and she brings his head to her mother Herodias, who is all too happy to finally see him dead. As the story is being told, we are left wondering what kind of king Herod will be. Will he spare this prophet whom he fears and respects, or will he spare his own power and position? As it turns out, he cannot give up his power or his so-called “wife.”
Yet this is not the end of the story, even though this is where our Gospel reading ends for today. Again, this is why context is necessary. The story continues in verse 30 when the Apostles whom Jesus had sent out return to Him and give an account of all they had done and taught. This includes the beheading of John the Baptiser. For reasons unknown, Mark leaves out a small detail that Matthew gives us in his retelling of the story [Matthew 14:13]. In Matthew’s Gospel, after the disciples told Jesus that John was beheaded, Jesus goes to a place to be by Himself so He could grieve.
Imagine Jesus’ grief for a moment. We talk a lot about Jesus, as we should, but I don’t think we often stop to consider His human emotions, especially when death is involved. John is His relative in some way, probably cousins. In Luke’s Gospel, we learn that when they were both just babies in their mothers’ wombs, the pregnant Mary visited her pregnant relative, Elisabeth, and John leapt in his mother’s womb when he sensed Jesus’ presence in Mary’s womb. These two have been close since the womb. Imagine Jesus’ grief… Then, after Jesus grieves, He continues His work and proceeds to feed the five thousand.
Considering all this context, we have a sharp contrast between two different kingdoms: Herod’s kingdom and Jesus’ kingdom. The question set before you is this: what kind of kingdom do you want to live in? Herod’s kingdom of death? Or Jesus’ kingdom of life? One king who kills so he can keep his power, or one King who is killed so He can give life? This might seem like an easy decision, but I don’t think it’s so easy.
Today, virtually everyone desires to be part of the 1%—the one percent of people who are wealthy, perhaps famous, and well connected. If you become wealthy, you’ve made it in life, right? In the society in which Jesus lived, there was one Lord, his name was Caesar, and the only way to get ahead in life was to give him tribute. Herod was a classic example of pleasing the right people at the right time to keep the power and have all the parties with all the money in the world and he was not going to let some dude who wears camel’s hair and eats locusts stop him.
That is the kingdom we seek to live in—the kingdom of more stuff, the kingdom that takes rather than gives, kills rather than gives life. We want more stuff during big holiday sales and the desire for fame, we take more from our neighbour than we give, and we kill—we kill unborn babies in the womb and the elderly rather than ensuring they are given life. That is the kingdom we desire: the kingdom of Herod, the kingdom of the one percent.
Whether pastor, student, teacher, professor, congressman, or what-have-you, we have all convinced ourselves that the goal in life is to be that one percent. We convince ourselves it’s because we want security, but deep down it’s really about the power that comes with being at the top—be it title, office, or salary. We even convince ourselves we deserve it. But in the 1% of that kingdom is death.
Jesus brings an entirely different kingdom. Compare Herod’s banquet with Jesus’ banquet in next Sunday’s Gospel reading. At Herod’s banquet, he chose power and brought death. At Jesus’ banquet, He chooses humility and brings life. This is the kingdom in which you live: Jesus’ kingdom that brings life. Yet as we live in Jesus’ kingdom in the now, there is a paradox to be maintained, one which Christ Himself experienced.
In our Gospel reading today, John the Baptiser is our model for one who bears his cross, which means to die for Christ. We must look even further into the context to understand this. A little later, in chapter 8, Jesus would say, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” [Mark 8:34]. Most definitely a testimony of John the Baptiser. John lived in Christ’s kingdom. Living in Christ’s kingdom, he preached Christ’s Word that brings life; and because he preached the Word of Life, he was brought to death.
This is the cost of discipleship as we live in Christ’s kingdom—to bear one’s cross, to lose one’s life for the sake of Christ. Each day as you and I live in Christ’s kingdom, preaching His Word that offends people, we risk death for His sake. Yet even as we face the jaws of death, Christ’s Word of life rings true, from John’s Gospel, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die” [John 11:25-26].
John the Baptiser is our model for one who bears his cross, who himself was modeling Christ, our ultimate example. For Christ bore His cross to Mt. Calvary, the very Word of God made flesh who offended people, and He died for you. Yet the story does not end there either, for as we know, on the third day He rose again! As Christ is our model for bearing our cross to death, so He is our model for bearing our cross to life everlasting. Therefore, He says, “Though you die, yet shall you live,” for He Himself died and rose again This is why we read in our epistle reading this morning that you have been sealed with the Holy Spirit in your Baptism, who is the guarantee of your inheritance of eternal life [Ephesians 1:3-14]. This is His promise for you; this is His kingdom—His kingdom that brings death back to life.
Let us not seek, therefore, the kingdom of this world that seeks the establishment of wealth and power. Rather, let us seek the kingdom of Christ, whose kingdom brings life to lowly people and riches far richer than any we might acquire on this earth. And whenever we have selfishly desired or acquired more, or taken more than we’ve given, or even killed rather than giving life, you are forgiven. Come to the Table of the One who promises life and forgiveness even for these sins. You might be a great sinner, but Christ is a greater Saviour.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, You do not wish sinners to die but to repent and live. According to Your great compassion, be merciful to all Your children here today who will be approaching the Lord’s Table in repentance. Take away our sins, deliver us from our guilt, and restore us to the joy of Your salvation according to Your promise; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
The closing prayer is reworded from Pastoral Care Companion (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2007), 313.