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Herod & John the Baptist

"St John the Baptist" by Leonardo da Vinci

What sells magazines? One only has to take a glance at the publications on offer at the checkout counter in the grocery store to answer that question. At least three things seem to sell magazines….

  1. Royalty. One can most always see photos of the British royals on display.
  2. Sex. “Who was in bed with who?” is a perennially favorite topic.
  3. Religion. Though this topic is not as popular as the other two, the tabloids do take an interest in the fall of a popular preacher, which seems to happen often enough.
Now, if you mix these three topics together, then you have a bestseller on your hands. That is precisely what we have in our Gospel lectionary reading for today from Mark 6:14-29….
King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” 
For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
The first thing we see in this passage is Three Verdicts on Jesus. The first verdict is that of a guilty conscience. King Herod heard of the missionary exploits of Jesus’ disciples, and he could not help but have heard of Jesus himself, for Jesus’ words and deeds of power had become widely known. The New Revised Standard Version says that “Some people were saying, ‘John the Baptizer has been raised from the dead.’” However, other ancient manuscripts make this Herod’s statement. In fact, Herod says the same thing again in verse sixteen: “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

Herod obviously felt guilty about having John the Baptist executed. We will look into this further in a moment. For now, it is enough to say that Herod was afraid that his sins were coming back to haunt him. He tried to get rid of John, and his convicting sermons, but he was unsuccessful. Here was someone just like John saying the same sorts of things.

This just goes to show that a person can never run away from themselves. If we do wrong, we can be sure, as the Scripture says, that our sin will find us out. Even if we execute the people who convict us of sin, the conviction will remain. And that is not because God wants us to feel guilty all the time. It is because God wants us to confess our sin and come to him for forgiveness. He will not leave us alone until we do that.

The second verdict on Jesus we see in this passage is that of the nationalist. Others thought Jesus was Elijah come back from the dead. Many first century Jews were expectantly awaiting the coming of the Messiah. Many thought he would be a conquering hero who would free them from Roman domination. Along with this expectation there was the thought that Elijah would come back before the Messiah. The Jews believed this because the prophet Malachi had taught this….

Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse. (Malachi 4:5-6)
Matthew identified John the Baptist as the fulfillment of this prophecy. In Matthew 17:11-13 we read…
Jesus replied, “Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.
However, many of the Jews did not recognize John the Baptist as the second Elijah. Even to this day, when they celebrate the Passover they leave an empty chair at the table for Elijah. They put a glass of wine at his place and at a certain point in the service, they fling the door wide open for Elijah to come in and announce the coming of the Messiah. My grandmother who was a Messianic Jew used to say… “There is nothing more sad to me than a Jew who does not realize that the Messiah has come.”

The third verdict on Jesus that we see in this passage is of the one waiting for the voice of God. Some of the Jews thought that Jesus was like one of the prophets of old. For three hundred years, there had been no “word from the Lord”. The voice of the prophets had been stilled. The Jews could listen to the disputations of the rabbis. They could listen to teaching about the Hebrew Scriptures in the synagogue. However, this was not the same as a prophet saying, “Thus says the Lord….” Some people in Jesus’ day were obviously waiting, and longing, for such a prophet to come. In Jesus, some believed they were hearing such a prophet.

Now it is true that Jesus was and is more than a prophet. However, those who recognized Jesus as at least being a prophet were close to the truth. If they would really listen to what Jesus was saying, and watch closely what he was doing, perhaps they would see in him the Son of God, the Messiah.

Thus, we have the first, and most important point in this passage, the three verdicts on Jesus. This raises the question: what is our verdict on Jesus? The Gospels are constantly raising this question for us. We cannot evade it.

Julie Ferwerda tells the story of Shawn Hagwood, a nineteen-year-old man who was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to eight years in prison for his involvement in a racial gang crime in Rochester, Minnesota some years ago.

Shortly after entering prison, Shawn received his first visitor—one of the men from the jury. He thought maybe the man was there to help him get a new trial, but soon discovered he was simply there to be a friend. Though he initially put up a tough exterior, Shawn was happy to have company.

The man who visited Shawn was Dave Stensland, a clinical psychologist. He had driven four hours just to see Shawn and to find out how he was doing. However, that was only the first visit. Dave returned every month to see Shawn. They talked about everything from Shawn’s life goals after prison, to Dave’s evident faith in God, to how Shawn could cope with the paralyzing stresses of prison life and his bitterness over the injustice of his sentence.

Shawn later said of Dave, “He showed me the peace of someone who is close to God, but in everything he did and said, he was gentle. Because he shared Christ’s love with me consistently through the years, I began to open up more to the Lord.”

As Shawn studied the Bible with Dave, his life began to change. Through Dave’s example and guidance, Shawn finally found peace and purpose. He prayed to receive Jesus Christ into his life.

In the summer of 2003, after seven years of monthly visits, Dave’s wife Sandy called Shawn with the sudden and shocking news—Dave was dying of cancer. At least Shawn got to thank Dave one more time before he died. A year later, Shawn was released from prison three years early for good behavior, and Sandy Stensland was there to give him a big sendoff. With tears of happiness, she hugged him tightly.

What is Shawn Hagwood doing today? Besides being a happily employed software developer, he also uses his story to encourage others who are struggling with life, especially young people.[1] I think Shawn’s story shows us that people may have many different verdicts about us in this life, some of them inaccurate. However, that is not important. What counts most in life is our verdict on Jesus.

The second major thing we see in this passage, in addition to the verdicts on Jesus, is The Drama of Herod’s Family.

The story of Herod and John the Baptist has all the characteristics of a great piece of theatre. First, there is the scene—the castle of Machaerus. According to the historian Josephus, this is where the execution of John the Baptist took place. William Barclay writes…

Machaerus stood on a lonely ridge, surrounded by terrible ravines, overlooking the east side of the Dead Sea. It was one of the loneliest and grimmest and most unassailable fortresses in the world. To this day the dungeons are there, and the traveler can still see the staples and the iron hooks in the wall to which John must have been bound. It was in that bleak and desolate fortress that the last act of John’s life was played out.
Next, we have a great cast of characters in this play. First, there is Herod. This is Herod Antipas; he was one of the many sons of Herod the Great who we read about in Matthew 2 and Luke 1.

Herod’s family had quite a complicated family tree. First, Herod the Great married a woman named Doris by whom he had a son, Antipater, whom he later murdered. Then Herod the Great married Mariamne, the Hasmonean, by whom he had two sons, Alexander and Aristobulus, whom he also murdered. Herodias, our second main character and the villainess of Mark’s text that we are studying today, was the daughter of Aristobulus. Herod the Great then married another Mariamne, called the Boethusian, by whom he had a son called Herod Philip. Are you lost yet?

To make matters worse, Herod Philip married his niece, Herodias. By Herodias, Herod Philip had a daughter, another character in our story for today, Salome.

Herod the Great then married Malthake, by whom he had two sons—Archelaus and Herod Antipas who is the Herod referred to by Mark in this passage. Herod Antipas seduced Herodias and persuaded her to leave his half-brother Herod Philip and marry him instead. This means that Herodias was the daughter of Herod Antipas’ half-brother, Aristobulus, and thus his niece. At the same time, she was the wife of his other half-brother, Herod Philip, and thus Herodias was Herod Antipas’ sister-in-law, but she also became his wife. Now, before you ask, I must tell you, no, Herod Antipas was not his own grandpa!

However, before we leave the family tree I must tell you that Herod the Great also married Cleopatra of Jerusalem by whom he had a son called Philip the Tetrarch. This Philip married Salome who was the daughter of Herod Philip, his half-brother, and the daughter of Herodias, who was the daughter of Aristobulus, another of Philip’s half-brothers. Thus, Philip married a woman who was at the same time, his niece and his grandniece.

Herod’s family was one messed up bunch, don’t you think? All you have to remember to understand our story for today is that Herod Antipas married his niece, Herodias, and stole her away from his half-brother Herod Philip. This latter was the reason why John the Baptist denounced Herod Antipas; Herod had broken Jewish law by marrying his half-brother’s wife. It certainly took courage for John to speak out in this way against the very powerful Herod Antipas. It should be no wonder that the Book of Common Prayer has this collect for St. John the Baptist’s Day:

Almighty God, by whose providence thy servant, John the Baptist, was wonderfully born, and sent to prepare the way of thy Son our Saviour, by preaching of repentance, make us so to follow his doctrine and holy life, that we may truly repent according to his preaching, and after his example constantly speak the truth, boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth’s sake.
Herod Antipas, for his part, was an odd character. He could be persuaded by his wife Herodias to have John arrested because she did not like his preaching. Of course, the reason she did not like John was because his preaching veered off into meddling with her love life. At the same time, Herod Antipas was intrigued enough by John the Baptist’s preaching that he often brought him out of prison to listen to him. Herod sensed that John was a righteous and holy man, so he had him protected. However, Herod was not convicted enough to have John released. Herod Antipas was a fence-sitter if there ever was one.

Herod Antipas was also a man who acted on impulse. He made a reckless promise to Salome without thinking. He promised to give her anything she asked. Herod’s example ought to teach us to think before we act and before we speak, but often we do not, do we?

Herod Antipas also feared what others might say about him. That is why he kept his promise to Salome, even when she asked for the head of John the Baptist. Herod Antipas was afraid of what his guests might say about him if he did not keep his promise. Of course, we need to be more concerned about what God thinks of us, than what others think of us; but God was not on Herod Antipas’ radar at this point.

Naturally, Herod Antipas is not the only character that comes off looking rather evil in this story. We also see Salome and Herodias in all their tawdriness. William Barclay says of Herodias:

The trouble with Herodias was that she wished to eliminate the one man who had the courage to confront her with her sin. She wished to do as she liked with no one to remind her of the moral law. She murdered John that she might sin in peace. She forgot that while she need no longer meet John, she still had to meet God.
And what of Salome? You can say that she is a mere girl in this scene, a pawn. However, we must ask: What kind of girl performs an erotic dance in front of her stepfather and his friends? What kind of young woman listens to and obeys her mother when her mother tells her to ask her stepfather to have a man killed? The evil we see in each of these characters is beyond most of our reckoning. Yet, we know this sort of thing happens. We need only look back to Hitler, and probably not even that far, to remember that great evil has reigned in modern times as well.

Against this backdrop stands John the Baptist. Barclay says of him…

He stands as the man of courage. He was a child of the desert and of the wide open spaces, and to imprison him in the dark dungeons of Machaerus must have been the last refinement of torture. But John preferred death to falsehood. He lived for the truth and he died for it. The man who brings to men the voice of God acts as a conscience. Many a man would silence his conscience if he could, and therefore the man who speaks for God must always take his life and his fortune in his hands.

The story is told of a church that before its most recent building project lacked adequate restroom facilities. One Sunday, the pastor of the church, preaching about the attributes of John the Baptist, emphatically stated: “What this church needs is more Johns.” The congregation busted out in laughter; all they had on their minds was the church restrooms.[2]

However, it is true. The church does need more people like John the Baptist.

What lessons are in this story for us today? I think of two.

First, we too may have to pay the ultimate price for discipleship just as John did.

With this story of the death of John the Baptist, Mark brings us to the lowest point in his portrayal of what it means to be a disciple. That is to say, this is the lowest point in the Gospel until Jesus himself dies on the cross. We see here John, not merely as the forerunner of Jesus, but the prototype of what it means to be a disciple. We must always remember that the Greek word for witness is martyr.

We might be tempted to think: with all the miracles that Jesus has done, that he will somehow miraculously spring his cousin John from jail. However, that is not to be. Here we see why Jesus encourages us to count the cost before choosing to follow him, because the cost may be great indeed. To be a disciple means following Jesus to the cross…and beyond.

A second lesson in this story for all of us is that faith is for dark days just as it is for sunlit times.

In telling this story, Mark may be sending a message to the first century church to which he is attached. He may be saying to them: Look, you may have to suffer martyrdom just like John. Therefore, don’t get the idea in your head that being a follower of Jesus is all about spiritual experiences on the mountaintop. You may have to walk through the valley of the shadow as well.

Certain segments of the Christian Church have always laid stress on the miraculous, the exciting, or what is sometimes called “victorious living”. That is one side of the equation, but only one side. We must remember the other side too. There is a dark side to following Christ.

However, there is good news, even in this. If we are taught to believe that following Christ will always produce victory, triumph, and sunlit skies, then we will be surprised, and maybe even devastated when we encounter darkness. However, if we are told ahead of time to expect these things, then it will be somewhat easier to handle.

Some time ago I read a book by Barbara Brown Taylor entitled, Learning to Walk in the Dark. She says that often Christianity has focused too much on what she calls “solar spirituality”. We forget that Jesus was born in a cave and was raised from one too. Many of the great spiritual leaders of human history have spent a good part of their lives in the dark. There are lessons that can only be learned in the dungeons of life.

One of the favorite verses of victorious solar Christians is: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). This verse can be taken in one of two ways. It can be taken to mean that if I am a Christian I will always be successful, that I will always walk in the light, if I follow Christ. Or it can be taken to mean that if I am a Christ-follower then Jesus will always give me the strength I need to handle any situation, even failure, darkness, and death. I believe the latter interpretation is the correct one, both when viewing the life of Jesus, and of Paul and the early Christians.

Of course, as we approach the end of the Gospel story we will see that there is another light on the other side of the grave, for Jesus, John, and us, a light that will never end. That too is the picture at the end of the book of Revelation. In the New Jerusalem there will be no sun, for there, the Lord will be our light. He will be the only light that we need. (Revelation 21:23)

[1] Julie Ferwerda, “Sentenced to Life,” Today’s Christian (July/August 2007)
[2] Esther L. Vogt, Hillsboro, Kans. Christian Reader, “Lite Fare.”


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