Sermon text: Mark 6: 14-29
I’ll be honest, this is one of those gospel lessons where you hesitate to say, “Praise to you, O Christ” as we finish the reading. It’s a dark story. This week, one of my colleagues was remarking/lamenting that the beheading of John the Baptist was terrible timing because he has a double baptism this weekend. Nothing welcomes visitors quite like the gruesome story of a senseless execution.
Before we dig in, a few notes about this scene that make it unique:
- This story is the longest sustained narrative in the Gospel of Mark.
- Jesus doesn’t appear at all. He is entirely absent.
- The story is told as a flashback, interrupting the flow of the rest of the gospel story.
- There is little to no good news to find when this story is told by itself. There’s lots of awful details, but little gospel.
The obvious question is why. Why would Mark include this story at all? And why would the developers of the Revised Common Lectionary include this for us as worshippers on the 7th Sunday after Pentecost?
Maybe Mark wants to let us know the rest of John the Baptist’s story, wrap up a loose end. The last time we heard of him was in Chapter 1. He was arrested as Jesus starts his ministry in Galilee. Maybe that’s it.
Perhaps this is foreshadowing what will happen to Jesus. Anyone who threatens and works against the powers that be that sustain the empire eventually meet a grisly end. Perhaps that’s the reason.
Those are two interpretations scholars give, but there has to be something more, a different purpose, something that connects to our shared experience. Because this story is something we probably have trouble relating to. Why does Mark stick this story here when he could have placed it anywhere in his gospel?
Over two weeks ago the condo collapse in Surfside, Florida brought the 24 hour news cycle to a grinding halt as we all gawked at this unimaginable tragedy. Images from the scene saturated our TVs and computer screens. As I wrote this sermon 60 people were confirmed dead, 11 injured, and 80 people are still missing, presumed dead.
If you saw the video footage of the building’s collapse you know that it was a stunning spectacle. It’s unnerving to see a structure, that looks so sturdy and stable, crumble into a massive pile of rubble. All we can do is watch and pray as the senseless tragedy unfolds.
That is our tendency when tragedy strikes. We stand and watch when the unthinkable happens in front of us. How many times have you rubbernecked on the road as you slowly drove passed the twisted steel and broken glass of a motor vehicle accident? I’m as guilty as anyone else as I take in the scene of an accident. There’s the wreckage, the first responders, the flashing lights, and the palpable heaviness that people have been injured.
We slow down and watch, not because we’re nosy (although we are), and not because safety dictates it (although it does), but because these accidents give us pause, we think what it would be like if the roles were reversed, and sometimes we also think about the other senseless tragedies that unfold around us. The things we’ve been apart of. The things we’ve witnessed. The things we’ve seen on the news. The things we remember.
John’s death is a senseless tragedy. King Herod is throwing a birthday party for himself. The upper crust of society is present, celebrating the king with lavish amounts of food, wine, and entertainment.
During the evening Herod’s own daughter performs a dance in front of the crowd. The same word is used to describe her as the twelve-year-old girl that Jesus healed in chapter five. In other words, this is a young girl’s dance recital. She is probably showcasing her newest ballet skills and King Herod, the proud papa, gushes over his little princess and publicly declares he’ll give her anything she asks for as a gift.
At the urging of her mother, Herod’s daughter answers, “I want, right away, that you give me, on a platter, the head of John the Baptist.”
The backstory here is that John criticized Herod’s marriage because Herod married his sister-in-law, which defied certain parts of Torah law. While Herod liked John and was perplexed by his teachings, his wife Herodias hated the prophet and wanted him dead.
If Herod had been perplexed by John’s teachings just imagine how perplexed he would have been at his daughter’s request! Also, I feel bad for the little girl because that experience would have landed her in therapy for the rest of her life.
In the end Herod is backed into a corner by his pride and careless oath. Not wanting to lose face in front of his guests, he executes John the Baptist. The whole event is just one big senseless tragedy.
That’s the story…and I go back to my original question. Why tell that story here?
Last week we heard how Jesus sends his disciples out into the region of Galilee as they heal, exorcise, and meet the needs of those they encounter. They are sent to do ministry. The Kingdom of God unfolds before their very footsteps.
On the other side of John’s execution we hear about the disciples’ return, the ministry they performed, what they did and what they taught. The disciples are empowered by their experience and the crowd around them swells as people flock to Jesus. This quickly turns into another banquet, far lowlier than Herod’s royal party, but full of wonder, not violence. Jesus feeds the 5000. What we have here is the senseless tragedy of John’s death sandwiched between the ministry of Jesus and his disciples.
In life we all have moments when we rubberneck and when others will rubberneck at us. So often, just like in John’s case, there’s no good explanation for why the unspeakable happens. There are accidents. There is disease. There is injustice. There is violence. Tragedy is creative in how it visits us.
And yet, when we are stunned, shocked, and hurting we can be confident that the disciples of Jesus Christ are surrounding us, bolstering us, and journeying with us. The ministry of Christ holds us in the same way the disciple’s ministry bookends this ghastly story.
Sometimes we will be the bookends, sometimes we will be the books. We will endure tragedy and we will surround those who are living through their worst nightmare—for that is how we live together as followers of Christ, that is how we live together as community, as church. AMEN