+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
One of the things I do each week to help prepare for Sunday (and to introduce the theme of the next reading in our Narrative Lectionary cycle to people who visit our website and Facebook page) is to create images that capture the main idea of the upcoming text. Most weeks, that isn’t a problem at all; this week, however, I found myself at a loss. You see, the story before us this morning isn’t exactly ready-made for appealing visual summary. Go to Google (or your favorite online search engine) and type in “Death of John the Baptist”, and you can probably guess what types of images you’ll see. The variety and sheer number of depictions of John the Baptist’s death that seek to highlight the brutality of this narrative were pretty astonishing to me, and I spent quite some time pondering ways to present this story honestly while avoiding gratuitous gore. After a while, I found myself wishing that those who put this Narrative Lectionary together had skipped this particular story.
In the end, I found an icon that achieved my goal. Later in the week, however, I started second-guessing my initial inclination. Why was it so important to me to “clean up” this story, to make it seem less shocking than it actually was and is? What possible reason is there to mask the reality that this entire episode in Mark’s Gospel is intended to convey besides denial? And how would we be served as disciples of Jesus by hiding from this brutal tale?
Upon reflection, it became clear to me that ignoring John’s death and the circumstances surrounding it would be a terrible mistake, because this narrative – and everything that makes it difficult to read – is really a crucial part of the story that Mark tells about the life of Jesus and the road of discipleship. You see, Mark could have revealed how John died pretty much any time. If you’ll recall, John is arrested way back at the end of chapter 1 of the Gospel. With typical Markan brevity, John is removed from the scene to make way for Jesus, and his name isn’t spoken again until this point in the Gospel. Why? Because something about what Jesus and his disciples were up to struck a chord with Herod, the local puppet ruler who had seized John and imprisoned him for speaking the truth about the questionable decision to marry his late brother’s wife. The power and profound impact that the ministry of Jesus’ disciples had on Galilee had stirred up Herod’s anxiety and fear, and led him to believe that John had returned in the person of Jesus to continue his mission of calling people to turn their lives around. That might seem like a laughable conclusion to reach in our own day, and yet the belief that those who were righteous would enjoy resurrection was a relatively common one in Jesus’ day, and Herod’s own opinion of John revealed that for all of his annoyance with John in the matter of his recent marriage, he still regarded John as a righteous and holy man who deserved his protection – until it was no longer politically expedient to keep him safe, that is.
It’s this point, this realization about the powers-that-be, that is the most important for us as we reflect on John’s horrific death. Jesus and his disciples were noticed by Herod because they were doing something that reminded him of the man he had killed for no other reason than to save face before his peers and rivals: they were proclaiming the truth, preaching repentance, and demonstrating God’s power and presence through their ministry of casting out the demonic and bringing wholeness to the afflicted. The same sort of mission that led to John’s arrest and death was now being carried out anew by a charismatic rabbi and his group of uncultured followers, and it shook Herod to his core.
Why is that so significant? Because in linking Jesus and John in Herod’s imagination, Mark is revealing that those who wield authority in this world will always be unsettled when confronted with the truth about how their priorities so often clash with God’s. For Herod, it was a personal matter, a dispute about the impropriety of marrying his sister-in-law. For other rulers, the proclamation of the truth has often represented a fundamental challenge to their authority, their security, and their peace of mind. History is full of stories about those who stood up to declare that God’s ways are higher than our ways and God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts, and whose lives were cut short because they dared to oppose the systems that fueled oppression, violence, injustice, and blatant disregard for human dignity and life. That’s true in our nation – think of martyrs for the causes of justice and equality like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. – and across time and space – think also of martyrs for the causes of peace and truth like Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany, Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador, Mohandas Gandhi in India, or Brother Roger of the Taize Community in France.
That the story of John’s death is told in the midst of the disciples’ ministry is no accident. Mark’s story makes clear that opposition is part of the territory for those who seek to follow Jesus. Wherever God calls people to speak truth to power, and to declare God’s will for justice and peace and righteousness, there is sure to be opposition and struggle. Even as the disciples experience some measure of success in carrying out the mission that Jesus gives them, Mark shows us that the forces that oppose that mission won’t give up without a fight.
I’ll admit, that’s a difficult word for us to hear. Even if we never face the prospect of literal death for speaking the truth about God’s will for our world, we can experience opposition in all kinds of other ways: ridicule or dismissal, charges of hypocrisy and self-righteousness, strained or broken relationships, a loss of status or esteem in our community. Despite what we often say, the truth isn’t always popular. It is tough to stand up and defend those who are vulnerable and marginalized. It is hard to speak out against hatred and prejudice. It is painful to come to terms with the evils of sexism and racism and xenophobia. It is difficult to own our complicity in the culture of distrust and division that permeates our society. Yet, as disciples of Jesus Christ, this is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. This work of reconciliation, of healing, of repenting and calling others to repentance, is our calling. It may not cost us our lives – as it did for John and Jesus and the countless martyrs who followed them – but it will surely be costly in other ways.
That, of course, is why it is also important to remember that the story of John doesn’t end with his burial in verse 29. It finds a new beginning ten chapters later in the resurrection of Jesus. In Christ, we know that what seems to be defeat will ultimately give way to victory, and that what appears to be failure will ultimately lead to redemption and renewal. Because of that truth, we can find the strength to stand firm, and to trust that God is working to bring the truth to light even when the powers of sin and death threaten to overshadow us. And so, brothers and sisters, as we read the terrible story of John the Baptist, don’t be afraid, for as we seek to be faithful to God’s will for us, for our lives, and for our world, God’s Holy Spirit will be with us, guiding us along the dusty roads of this world and giving us peace to share wherever we go. Thanks be to God. Amen.