Download or listen to the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost: “The Story in the Story” (Mark 6:14-29; Ephesians 1:3-14)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Mark could just as well have skipped this story of John’s imprisonment and martyrdom by beheading in his Gospel, just like pretty much every children’s Bible ever. He could have skipped right from Jesus sending out His twelve Apostles to the next verse where they come back and tell Jesus what happened. So why does Mark tell us this story? Just to inform us what happened to John the Baptizer, with whom he began the Gospel? It seems to have very little connection with what comes before and what comes after, with the wider story of Jesus. But maybe the fact that it seems so disconnected is part of the point. Because Mark begins this story with Herod hearing about what Jesus has said and done. How Jesus is healing the sick, raising the dead, casting out demons, teaching and preaching. But instead of listening to what Jesus is saying and doing, Herod can only hear John. Herod knows what he has done; he knows his past; he knows his guilt. And now, even though he thought it was over, here comes Jesus preaching the same sermon as John, the past rising up in front of Herod and pointing its accusing finger again: You did this. It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife. And no matter what anyone says, Herod is convinced that this preacher must be John: No, this is John, whom I beheaded, come back from the dead.
Now you haven’t made a foolish vow on your birthday to give to a dancing girl the head of a prophet. But perhaps you also have a past. Perhaps you have sin and guilt that seem to rise from the dead in the least likely places. Just when you think you’ve finally dealt with it, finally put it to rest, finally gotten over it, it rises up and points its accusing finger in your face and says: You did this. Maybe, no matter what anyone says about Jesus and forgiveness, all you can hear is that accusation against you. No, this is my sin, and it is too much to speak about, let alone forgive.
And then there’s Herodias, Herod’s wife—actually, the wife of his brother, Philip. She doesn’t seem to have any guilt, or any qualms about conspiring to take John’s head. She has heard one too many sermons from him about adultery and sin and repentance. She doesn’t fear John’s ghost, she just wants him to shut up and die. Herodias just wants to go back to her life, to embrace her sin, rejoice in it, revel in it. Until now, she didn’t have a way to silence the voice of the prophet of God, but now the opportunity presents itself, and she tells her daughter to ask Herod for John’s head. Her daughter, for her part, adds that she wants the head immediately, and on on a platter. Some birthday feast.
Now you have not asked your daughter to ask the king for the head of a prophet. But perhaps you have heard one too many sermons about sin and salvation. Maybe you just want the Word of God silenced so you can go about your business. You have heard the clear Word about your sin, but you just ignore it; because you want to, or because it’s inconvenient, or because you simply cannot believe you’re as bad as all that. But you do not sin and then become a sinner. It’s the other way around: you are a sinner, and therefore you sin. You don’t cough and sneeze and then get a cold; you have a cold, so you cough and sneeze. If your sinful actions made you into a sinner, then there would be better and worse sinners. You could compare your outward actions with someone else’s, and decide whether you are better or worse (usually better). But because sinners sin, there are not better and worse sinners, there are only sinners. Sinners like Herod and Herodias and her daughter. Sinners like you and me. Herod and Herodias could not hear Jesus say that God had chosen them in Christ to be holy and blameless in His sight. They could not hear forgiveness. They could only hear accusation. Today Jesus comes to you. And, as St. Paul says, God has chosen you in His Son Jesus Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight. Before you were even born, God said, “I want that one.” God’s choosing, His election, is not about other people. It’s not about people who may or may not have heard about Jesus. It’s not about the person sitting next to you, or the person across the street, or the person with whom you’re comparing yourself, trying to decide who’s better or worse. Election is only about you. And God has chosen you in Christ to be holy and blameless before Him.
This is the whole story that Mark tells and that Paul tells: the story of God’s gracious will and plan in His Son to save sinners, and only sinners. It may seem like John’s story—the feasting, the dancing, the swearing, the asking, the murdering—has nothing to do with what goes before or what comes after, but the fact is, this story is all wrapped up in Jesus’ story. He takes up the whole sordid mess into His own Gospel, and there is nothing Herod or Herodias can do about it. And so it is, that you may think your story has nothing to do with all of these stories in the Bible. You may think your life has nothing to do with what comes before or what comes after. You know your past, your guilt, your sin too well.
But the fact is, this is not your story anymore; your story is all wrapped up in Jesus’ story. It’s not your past any more. It’s not your guilt or your sin, no matter how well you remember it. Jesus took it all as His own when He was conceived and born into this world as God and Man at once. He took your whole story up into His story, and He took it to its logical conclusion in death. It doesn’t matter if you are fleeing from your sin and guilt, fearing the accusation, or if you are embracing your sin, rejoicing in it, reveling in it: either way it leads to a dead end, literally. It happened to John when his friends took his body and laid it in a grave. The same thing happened to Jesus, when Joseph of Arimathea took His body and put it in a grave. Dead end. But none of that sin, none of that guilt, none of that death could stick to Jesus, so He rose from the dead on the third day and left it all in the grave. And that is the only way past the dead end of this life, of your life. Which is exactly what Jesus and Paul promise you: you were chosen by God in Christ before the foundation of the world, and He made good on that will when you were joined to Christ’s death and resurrection in holy Baptism. There God said, “This one is Mine.” He claimed you, chose you, put you in Christ so none of your sin or guilt could stick to you either. As Paul rejoices to repeat again and again and again: those who are baptized into Christ are in Christ. You were chosen in Christ. God made known His will for you in Christ. You were sealed by the Holy Spirit in Christ. It’s all in Christ, and that’s why this is not your story, but His. He refuses to leave you out of His story, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
So on the day when your friends or your children or grandchildren put your body in the grave, your story will end—or, rather, begin—where Jesus’ story begins and ends: an empty grave and a deathless, eternal life. There is no other story, and that’s good news.
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, 7/14/12