Summary: Who among us is better than Herod? Who among us has not twisted events, facts, details, to suit our own purposes? Who among us has not placed more value on our image than on human need? Who among us has not intentionally given in to easier of the two choi
I'll admit to you all that I had a difficult time with this passage. I spent weeks staring at it , researching it, praying about it, looking for that point of brilliance that would dazzle and amaze you all, once more showing off my preaching skills, once more being the "golden boy." But I drew a blank. Nothing. Nada. zip. Most of the time I can read a passage of the Bible and a poem, a story, a song, a personal experience springs to mind. In this case, however, nothing has sprung. It's a difficult story, an ugly story.
Theologically, it is a strait forward passage. There is nothing lying behind the surface to be discovered. Mark's intention in placing this story where he did in his Gospel seems to be clear. This passage is sandwiched between two stories about discipleship. On the one side, there is the story of Jesus sending out the twelve disciples to heal and preach and exorcize demons; in short, to share in his ministry. On the other side, the disciples return from their ministry. In between is this story about John's beheading. There is an obvious linking of this story to that of discipleship. It is often used to demonstrate the cost of discipleship.
One of my favorite theologians, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, would have probably went in that direction if he were preaching this morning. Bonhoeffer would remind us that The Christian call is a call to suffer. It is a call to face death. It is a call to stand up to the evil powers of the world and not back down as they scream horrible threats to us, as they whisper promises that we can escape suffering. The evil powers of the world remind us that the name of the game is not stand up for your convictions– the name of the game is "play ball". Like a game show host, the evil powers of this world parade prizes, luxuries, money, they tell us that "all this and much more can be yours if you just play ball." They show us the obituaries of those who stood their ground– of those who did not play ball– they remind us of the very real possibility of what happens to those with convictions. They remind us that a cross or an executioner's block ultimately awaits those who set out upon the path of discipleship.
I suppose that under normal circumstances, that is the sermon that I would feel comfortable preaching. It's an easy sermon to write; a few Bonhoeffer quotes here, a sad story there talk about the Bible, throw in a poem, and voila--a sermon. But for some reason I can't go there. This passage won’t let me take the easy way out. There is another direction to go--the more dangerous of the choices--the road less traveled...
This is also a passage which is often used to assign blame. It begins by placing the blame against Herod and the members of his immediate family. It often expands, assigning blame to power structures; exposing the "powers that be." Another easy sermon to write: establish the wickedness of Herod and the wickedness of his friends and family, present some contemporary examples of this form of wickedness, assign some blame, and voila--a sermon.
But I can't go there either. It's true, everybody in the story seems to be out of line: Herod, Salome, Herodias, there seems to be plenty of blame to go around. So why can't I blame these people? Why can't I hold these ugly acts against them? I can't because I know that blaming limits my ability to hear the story. When I assign blame, it only allows me to hear the story with a sense of superiority. I objectify the figures in the story and they cease to be real. Then the temptation is too great to avoid finding those contemporaries so I can continue the blame game. "It's those liberal who are to blame"; or, "It's the conservatives," or the homosexuals, or it's the heterosexuals, or the rich, or the poor, or the addicts, or it's the kids today. Fill in the blank, there is always someone to blame. It's safer to blame. It's easier to blame. It hurts less to blame. When I blame, I don't have to accept any of the responsibility. When I blame, I don't have to see myself in the story. But when I blame, I give up my power to change.
Well, I've danced around this long enough. Time to venture down that road less traveled. Time to face up to the ugly truth. Time to face why this passage is so hard.
In this story, I find that I want to identify with John the Baptist. Mark's Gospel begins with John the Baptist. It is clear that in Mark's mind, John was vitally linked with the "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God"(1:1).