Listen to it:
“Faith versus Death”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
What a grim, disturbing story for us to hear six weeks into the Pentecost season, the story of the beheading of John the Baptizer. People have drawn many lessons from this story: for example, do not, like Herod Antipas, make rash vows, which you would not want to keep. Drunk on alcohol and lust, he could not restrain his tongue from saying something he would later regret. Or: Do not let your embarrassment keep you from doing what is right. Herod knew, and was sorry, that his oath would be the death of the Baptizer, but he was not willing to disappoint either the girl or his guests for the sake of what was right. So Herodias got by emotional blackmail what she could not get by a mere request. Or: Something we learned also from King David and every crime drama ever made: how often adultery leads to murder. Or: As the Church father Ambrose said: “Note how varied sins are interwoven in this one vicious action! A banquet of death is set out with royal luxury, and…the daughter of the queen…is brought forth to dance in the sight of all. What could she have learned from an adulteress but the loss of modesty? Is anything so conducive to lust as with unseemly movements to expose in nakedness those parts of the body which either nature has hidden or custom has veiled…?” (Ambrose, Mark, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, vol. II, 80). Rash vows, doing evil to avoid embarrassment, adultery, murder, and the immodest use of the body to arouse lust: all of these sins are condemned in Mark’s account of John’s death. But this is not simply a morality play, an occasion to editorialize against the debauchery of Herod’s court. This was bad, but it was probably under par for the Herods.
The reason Mark puts John’s death here is found in verse 14, which connects to last week’s Gospel lesson. “King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known” (6:14, ESV). Jesus’ name had become known because the Twelve had been doing things like preaching that people should repent, casting out demons, and healing—all in the stead and by the command of Jesus of Nazareth. This is what Herod heard. The work of Jesus always seems to inspire paranoia and fear in the hearts of men named Herod: in Herod the Great, who murdered baby boys in Bethlehem in order to dispose of any new kings; then in his son, Herod Antipas, who feared Jesus as a resurrected John, whom he had previously murdered. But this is the problem: Jesus does not only inspire fear and paranoia in His enemies, but His Word brings death to His friends. Mark puts this episode of John’s death in the middle of the disciples’ success in their mission. The Twelve “cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them” (Mark 6:13, ESV). The hearer or reader of Mark’s Gospel is forced to consider John’s death alongside the disciples’ success. In light of these two conflicting impulses in Mark 6, the question for us and for everyone who trusts Jesus is this: what is the defining term in our lives? By what star do you orient your course? What is magnetic North on your compass? That is, what is your god? If it is your experience, what happens to you in life and death; if you define your life by whether you have a good or a bad day (and John certainly had a bad day); then you cannot help but be pitched violently from one emotional extreme to another. This is what happens to Mark’s hearers. In the course of a chapter or two, we reach the top of every emotional height, and we reach the bottom of every emotional depth. Joy, despair, success, failure, acceptance, rejection, life, death. It’s all there—and it is all beside the point. Don’t get me wrong: experience and emotion are the substance of our lives; they are the details, the texture, the stuff of pictures and memories; they guarantee that we can guarantee nothing, so they make life exciting. But if we rely on experience and emotion, we rely on uncertainties and vagaries, the unpredictable and, as far as we’re concerned, the random. If we ride our experience and emotion, we ride a boat that rises and falls with the waves and winds of everything around us. Then nothing is solid; nothing is firm. If Jesus’ hand-picked disciples can have such great success, and 11 of 12 still go to their death as martyrs; if John brings a message identical to Jesus and is still beheaded by a coward’s command, then none of us can hide safely behind what happens to us or how we feel.
Of course, it’s worse than that: If the one who is Love, if the Lord of all things takes flesh for the salvation of the world, and if He is hanged on a cross because of it, then His redeemed creatures cannot hope for anything better. The hope of sinful humans for glory and recognition, for the world’s respect and admiration, for large numbers and visible success—that hope died when John’s head was brought in on a serving platter. That hope died when the followers of Jesus faced the same rejection as their Lord. That hope died forever when the Creator was crucified by the creatures. Your hope and mine is not and never will be found in an easy life, a road free of obstacles. If we hoped in prosperity, health, and wealth, we could never say “Praise be to Thee, O Christ” at the end of this Gospel, when John’s disciples take his corpse to its tomb. John, not Jesus, was the prophesied Elijah who would come before the great and awesome day of the Lord (Malachi 4:5 [MT: 3:23]), but He was not greater than His Lord. Jesus interpreted John’s coming: “I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him” (Mark 9:13, ESV). What they did was cut off his head. They killed him as they would later kill his Lord. And in the face of death, in the face of John’s death, or your death, only faith stands. “The great art and power of faith consist in seeing that which is not seen and in not seeing that which is nonetheless felt, aye, which oppresses and depresses a person; just as unbelief sees only what it feels and does not at all like to cling to that which it does not feel. Therefore God does not confront faith with trivial things but with such things as all the world cannot bear, like death, sin, the world, and the devil. For all the world is not able to stand up against death but flees from it, is frightened by it. But faith stands fast and battles with death, which devours all the world, and gains the victory over it and devours the insatiable devourer of human life” (Luther, What Luther Says [Plass], 499:1492; Treasury of Daily Prayer, Writing for July 9). Who can look at the death of John, the forerunner of the Messiah, and see not God defeated, but God at work? Only the one who can look at the death of Jesus, the Messiah, and see not God defeated, but God at work. John went ahead of Jesus to prepare His way, but John also goes ahead of us as a faithful example. He did not fear to speak the truth of God, even to the one who could command his death. He did not hesitate to proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins, though it cost him his life. He went ahead of Jesus and it led to death; we follow Jesus into death.
If you find the struggle with the world and with your flesh too much to handle, then this Gospel is for you. If your failures outnumber your successes, this Gospel is for you. If your sin—if your anger and lust and frustration and fear and jealousy continually overtake the godly desires of your spirit, this Gospel is for you. This Gospel is for the one with the executioner’s sword at his throat, for whom there will be no last-second, heroic rescue. This is not a movie; or if it is, it’s the one where the hero dies. “Therefore St. John well says [in] 1 John 5:4: ‘This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.’ Not that this is done in peace and undisturbed quietness, for it is a battle that is waged not without wounds and blood. Aye, in this battle the heart feels sin, death, the flesh, the devil, and the world so severely that it thinks it is surely lost, that sin and death have won, and that the devil has gained the upper hand” (Luther, op. cit.). But faith sees what is not felt: the victory of Jesus Christ over all sin, over death and the devil. Beloved, have every intention to be failures in this life for the sake of Christ, because this Gospel is for failures, losers, and sinners. But this Gospel is also for Herod the coward, and for Herodias the vengeful, and for Salome the unchaste. So hear the word of John from beyond the grave, because it is identical to the word of the living Jesus: “The time is fulfilled, and the [reign] of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15, ESV). Jesus died, but He rose again. So also it will be for John and for the Twelve, and all the saints and martyrs. If we are overcome as they were, we will overcome as they did.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 7/09/09