death of John the Baptist
“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.” Mark 6:27-28a
If you were hoping for a nice uplifting story from the Bible today, you have come to the wrong place. Today the gospel of Mark does not serve up an inspiring story of someone who leaves behind a shady past to follow Jesus. There’s no feeding of the hungry, curing of the sick, or raising of the dead. There are no poetic prayers, no rousing sermons. Just one long and deadly soap opera.
It’s not enough that Herod has John killed. Herod has John killed even though he knows John is a righteous and holy man. Even though Herod likes to listen to what John has to say.
It’s not enough that the events leading up to John’s death rival an episode of Game of Thrones– a pathetic grudge, a scorned wife, a girl manipulated into a seductive game, a violent and bloodthirsty murder. The results of the horror aren’t even hidden. This meaningless cruelty is on full display. John’s head is literally brought out on a platter, served up for all the powerful people to see.
On most Sundays when we dive into the gospel assigned for the day, we look at what the text tells us about ourselves and what it tells us about God. Ultimately we seek to discover what that gospel passage reveals to us about the promises that we have through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But I have squeezed this story again and again throughout the week and have been unable to find much good news in it. I’ve held it up to the light, discussed it with colleagues, read commentaries, and I’m pretty sure had at least one nightmare about it.[i] But I’ve got nothing. No neat and tidy messages of hope in this one, I’m afraid.
I suspect that the placement of this story in Mark’s gospel is intentional. Last week we heard in the passage just before this one how Jesus sent the disciples out two by two, telling them to carry nothing with them and to rely instead on the generosity of the people they would meet. Remember that Jesus also prepares them for the inevitable rejection they would face along the way. It was a daunting mission, but the disciples hit the road as instructed, and they were able to cure many people who were sick or possessed by demons.
And right after today’s John the Baptist interlude, we hear this verse about the disciples’ return from their travels: “The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.” So our tale of beheading, dripping with blood, falls between the time when Jesus sends out the disciples and the time when the disciples return to him. I think the author of Mark’s gospel is leaning into the point that being a follower of Jesus is not an easy path. The message seems to be: “If you’re looking for fame and fortune – or even just security – following Jesus is not the best choice. And truth be told, it’s just as likely to lead to a jail cell and a violent death.” The whole John the Baptist situation brings to mind what 16thcentury Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila is reported to have said: “Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few!”[ii]
While I hope none of you have felt threatened by the possibility of beheading lately, there is something true about a story that doesn’t resolve itself in any kind of happily-ever-after way. Our lives are often messy and painful, without easy resolutions or happy endings. Like John the Baptist in his jail cell, we sometimes feel trapped and forgotten by God and unsure what will happen next. It’s not a good feeling, but it’s more common than we’re willing to admit.
There’s another way in which the placement of this story in Mark is revealing. To get to some good news, we have to keep reading. Right after the awful story of John’s beheading is Mark’s version of the feeding of the five thousand. That’s a story of abundance in the midst of depletion. A story of community coming together to make sure that no one goes hungry. A story of God’s bountiful grace – a grace that keeps catching us by surprise because we’re so accustomed to having to scratch and scramble for so much in this life, and we can’t believe such grace could possibly be free.
So the good news may not be found in the story of an awful dinner party that ends with a head on a platter. The good news is found in another dinner party that ends with thousands of full bellies and twelve platters of leftovers. The first party feels all too familiar, but it’s the second one that embodies the promises of God’s kingdom.
As many of you know, I spent the last week at Confirmation Camp out at Cross Roads. I serve as one of several faculty members who work with the camp staff to plan and lead a week of Bible study, crafts, games, music, worship, service projects in the community, and lots of laughter and fun.
At camp we have something called Foil Feast on Thursday evening. It’s like a giant picnic. Each of us gets to choose a jumble of ingredients – meat, potatoes, carrots, celery, onions, seasonings and sauces of various kinds. We put those ingredients into a foil packet and wrap it up tightly. Then the packets are cooked for a long time over hot coals so that when we open them back up, we are overwhelmed by the smell and taste of a delicious meal ready to gobble up. While the food is cooking, all kinds of things are happening. Some kids are sitting on a blanket making bracelets. Others are playing volleyball. A few girls are teaching each other how to do a Dutch braid. Other kids are sitting at picnic tables talking and playing with some kind of magic cards. There are Frisbees and a giant Jenga set and some kickball and different games being invented right there on the spot.
There’s music playing, of course, and when the “Cha Cha Slide” starts, a dance party breaks out. Kids and counselors rush to the middle of a grassy area and dance together as the song instructs: “One hop this time…Right foot let’s stomp…Left foot let’s stomp…Cha cha real smooth…”
I look around and see all of these people dancing and playing and eating together – different ages, different races and cultures and languages, different family situations. I see kids who are struggling with mental illness. I see kids who are able to talk about their gender identity or sexual orientation for the first time. I see kids who are worried about sick parents or siblings, kids who are grieving, kids who are hoping this year at school will be better than last year. I see adults who love these young people deeply – and do whatever we can to make them feel seen and heard and loved.
One of my colleagues looks around at Foil Feast and reminds us, “This looks a lot like the kingdom of God to me.” And indeed it does.
The theme for our week at camp was the same as the one for the Youth Gathering in Houston: “This Changes Everything.” The “this” in that phrase is God’s grace. In the biblical witness and in our lived experience we see again and again that God’s grace does not mean that life will be perfect. But it does mean that we are not alone in our brokenness or our pain. It means we are not responsible for saving ourselves. We have God’s grace as a gift.
Jesus sends us out into the world, and Jesus calls us home. In between we will experience many things: joy, pain, gnawing hunger, full bellies, hearts full of love, hearts broken. We may not lose our heads like John the Baptist, but we will sometimes lose our hope. Throughout all of it we know that a better feast awaits us – a feast that has no end, a feast of which we catch a glimpse when we receive the bread and wine this morning.
Whatever you are going through, may you come to this table knowing that you are held by God’s grace – a grace that truly changes everything. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]I am deeply indebted to this essay by Debie Thomas for giving me some inspiration: https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=1835