*DISCLAIMER* Today’s text is not a pleasant one. It is the death of John the Baptist and it deals with some gruesome topics and while I have tried to be sensitive to them I am allowing everyone this opportunity to decide for themselves or their children whether they want to hear these words today.
Today’s scripture seems prepackaged for a Hollywood movie. In fact it has been turned into movies, into operas, into gruesome works of religious art, into a cultural reference. There is something about it that sparks the imagination, for better or worse. It’s almost like watching a particularly twisted reality show that no matter how hard you try you can’t bear to turn the station.
First it is important to note that this king Herod is not the same king Herod that was ruling when Jesus was born. This is the son of that man, who no longer really holds the official title of king but is called that none the less.
The scripture begins when Herod hears news of Jesus’ disciples traveling around casting out demons and healing the sick. He is reminded of another man who had caused quite a stir in his world, John the Baptizer. Herod is convinced that the person holding these powers must be none other than the reincarnated John the Baptist.
For most of us here that would be quite a leap to take. But none of us have on our conscience what Herod holds on his.
Mark enters into a flashback wherein Herod recalls the time he spent with John and the events that led to John’s death. The drama enters the story here: the birthday banquet, the dancing of his daughter, the promise of up to half his non-existent kingdom, and the request for John’s death.
Mark has this unbelievable ability to tell a story in a compelling and yet stark way. There are very few actual details, but the story is rich and captures the imagination. Throughout this Gospel “extreme and even grotesque characters will suddenly appear out of nowhere, revealing a reality that is mysteriously cloaked yet very real. Hidden in plain sight is a world that is demon infested, and evil coexists with normal day-to-day existence, inflicting pain and chaos. No one is immune from this power.”
In this story we are given two extreme characters, Herod and John, evil and good, powerful and outcast. We are forced to deal with the realities of the power of the world and its challenge to the righteous. We are forced to see the very real struggle between the word of God and the way of the world.
That power struggle is something we are well aware of in our current society. There are so many stories of the weak being trodden on by those with power. There are accounts of abuse, harm and hatred so often now that it seems to take extreme cases to even catch our attention. Or worse, sensationalized stories that keep us from looking at the real injustices and issues facing our world.
When we focus exclusively on these things we for get to look for the moments where God is at work in this world, where grace is offered, where hope is shown. We can get caught up to the point where we miss the good news.
So what is the good news in this passage? Where is it that grace is shown, where is it that God is glorified?
The quote on the front of your bulletin is from Flannery O’Connor’s book Mystery and Manners. “There is a moment in every story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected even though the reader may not recognize this moment.”
I’ll tell you friends that I have read this account of the beheading of John the Baptist many many times and not recognized any moment of grace. I have seen it as nothing more than a sign that those in power have the opportunity to crush those under their control; that absolute power corrupts absolutely; that saving face means more than saving lives.
But there is a moment of grace offered here, buried in the sensationalism. It lies in the relationship between John and Herod.
Yes, Herod had John arrested for daring to speak publicly about the ill-advised marriage to his brother’s wife Herodias. That preaching had driven a wedge in Herod’s personal life, Herodias wanted John dead, but Herod couldn’t bring himself to kill him.
Verses 20 and 21 tell us that Herod feared John, knowing him to be righteous and holy and so he protected him. When he heard John, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.
The king and the prophet had developed a strange relationship, similar to the one between Joseph and those who kept him enslaved in Egypt. There was something there that kept Herod interested in keeping him alive. Herod, even though he was a total Hellenist, was intrigued by John’s words, perhaps even to a point of believing them himself.
The truth of God was worming its way into his heart one word at a time. And there is nothing that threatens evil more than the truth of God.
Here Herod stood, building a relationship with a prisoner that might have the power to change the course of history and those around him could not wait to put that potential fire out before it spread to the rest of the world. The birthday party was an opportunity Mark says, a chance to make sure that the prophet John was no longer whispering in Herod’s ear.
Herod was on display as a man of great wealth and power, even if it was only “borrowed” from Rome. He was trying to navigate his way through the relationships he held with his family, with those in his court. In this attempt to pacify everyone, he fails to uphold his own personal standards.
He is grieved verse 26 tells us yet, out of respect for the guests, read in order to save face, he follows his wife’s request voiced by her daughter.
It’s easy to pass judgement on this man who rejected the opportunity to share and experience grace. But isn’t it normal for us to want to please those around us, even if doing so keeps us from following the grace we know and have accepted as real?
“For a harried mother of a toddler, there is the question of how best to love and parent a child in the face of a defiant “No!” and a full-fledged temper tantrum in isle 6 of the grocery store at the end of a long day.
For the father of three there is the struggle to explain the importance of rearranging travel plans for a work trip so he can attend a Little League playoff game.
A corporate executive wonders how her announcement of a long-awaited pregnancy will affect her employees’ perceptions of her as an effective boss.
A stay-at-home Dad wrestles with the whispers of former colleges that he just couldn’t handle the pressures of work.
Teenagers experience the angst of competing for acceptance in desirable social cliques, of serial broken hearts in the complex world of adolescent dating, of family tensions over privileges and responsibilities.”
 Adults struggling with end of life issues wonder how to live authentic lives while keeping a legacy for those that come behind them.
It’s easier for us to see Herod’s choice as a bad one. After all, we know the rest of the story. We know about Jesus who has come into the world to overcome the powers and oppression Herod seeks to maintain. We know the freedom that comes only from Christ’s own arrest, persecution, death and resurrection.
Our challenge is to look at our own decisions in light of that same reality, and ask ourselves whether the choices we make are self-protective or a part of God’s redemption of the world.
Our challenge is to accept the grace offered to us in these moments, and to share that grace with others in need.
Our challenge is to live lives that reflect the reality of the resurrection, of all things being made new by Christ Jesus our Lord.
Our challenge is to say no to saving face and say yes to saving lives.