Summary: 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 kingdo
We had a baptism this morning, and I think if you’d searched through the Bible for the most inappropriate Gospel story to feature today, you couldn’t have done better (or rather worse) that the one we had this morning - the story of the death of John the Baptist!
When you’re working with the lectionary, of course, it’s all the luck of he draw. We might have got Jesus saying, "let the little children come to me", but we didn’t. We got this story of lust and murder, humiliation and death.
And perhaps it’s only right, if we are going to urge our newly baptised to "Fight bravely under His banner against sin, the world and the devil" that we warn them first where the fight might take them! Or perhaps I should have just over-ridden the lectionary today and chosen a more family-friendly reading?
For it’s not just the fact that this Gospel reading focuses on the tragic death of John. It’s all the grizzly detail that you get in the story. It’s as if we got the Hollywood, X-rated version of the story, for, I think you’ll agree that with most tragic stories you read about in the Bible, you get the ABC version.
Compare, for example, the Biblical account of Herod’s later murder of James (the brother of John) that we’re given in the book of Acts: "About that time, Herod arrested some people who belonged to the church and mistreated them. He even had James the brother of John killed with a sword." (Acts 12:1-2) The end! That’s it - short, succinct, tragic, but we get over it and we move on!
But not in this account of the death of the Baptist! We get first the surly details of Herod’s personal life that give rise to the criticism he gets from John. We get the imprisonment, the party, the dance of the young girl, and ultimately the grizzly details of how John’s head was served to the girl’s mother on a dinner-plate!
It would have been quite a scene, and it must have been quite a dance, and I did consider trying to recreate the atmosphere this morning by attempting a dance myself , but I decided that, even though I obviously do look good in a dress, my rendition of the dance of the seven army surplice blankets would never do it justice.
At any rate, the real question is ’What is this story doing here?’ And I don’t just mean ’what is it doing here, being read at a baptism?’, but ’what is this passage doing in the Bible at all?’
It’s almost as if at some very early meeting of the Bible Society someone said, "we’re just not moving enough copies of this book! We need more sex and violence in here", and so Mark piped up and said, "how about I include the death of John the Baptist?"
OK. I’m sure that wasn’t really it. Indeed, I assume that the reason this story is so drawn out is most probably for the sake of the followers of the Baptist, as John was a very popular guy, and his disciples no doubt wanted to know the details.
Even so, there’s not much that’s encouraging in this story for the followers of the Baptist. It’s not as if any of his last remaining words were recorded in this story. Indeed, we hear nothing from John in this story, as by the time he makes his personal appearance he is no longer able to speak! And that is disappointing, as I think it would have been very helpful to know what were the last words and last thoughts of the Baptist.
We like to assume, of course, that when it comes to the death of a great man of the faith like the Baptist, that they go out full of courage and grace like Maximillian Kolbe.
Kolbe, you might remember, was the Catholic priest murdered by the Nazis who departed this earthly stage singing hymns from his starvation bunker until the guards got so sick of it that they finally finished him off with a lethal injection.
But not all martyrs die quite so gloriously. If you read the last recorded words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for instance, who was also murdered by the Nazis, you’ll find someone with far more self-doubt and questioning, and I suspect that John the Baptist was something more like this.
For the only words we hear from the Baptist while he was in prison are words of doubt. He messages Jesus from prison, you may remember, asking Him, "Are you the one we were waiting for or should we wait for another?" (Matthew 11:3)
John had been so confident early on - both about Jesus and about his own work, proclaiming Jesus as the ’lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world’ (John 1:29) while railing as openly about Herod’s personal indiscretions as he did about everything else that ticked him off.