Today’s reading makes you wonder. Not in a “Isn’t the Kingdom of God beautiful?” kind of way, but in a “Did he really just say that?” kind of way. I would understand if you were a bit offended. It sounds like an advertisement for one of the latest shows on Netflix or HBO Max: Game of Thrones 2.
Herod beheads a prophet, not because of what the prophet says to him but because of what his 12 to 14-year-old niece does for him when she dances. She pleases him. Sex within the family system has not been a problem for Herod. He is married to his half-brother’s wife... and his half-brother is still living. The drinks, the dancing, the desire, all swirl together until suddenly they bring John the Baptist’s head on a platter and give it to the girl. Like I said, I would understand if you were a bit offended. This looks more like Game of Thrones than the Kingdom of God.
There are stories you do not bring up in polite conversation. Things like your dad’s DUI, your mom’s fifth marriage, the images, late at night, which play across your computer screen. This story is one of those things. It is not fit for polite conversation. But maybe that is the problem: Polite conversation. The Kingdom of God is not built on polite conversation. It is built on the reality of God’s work in a fallen world. Stories like this remind us of just how messy redemption can be.
The Kingdom of God is not built on polite conversation. It is built on the reality of God’s work in a fallen world.
God has come to save people from sin, real sin. And real sin is often not the stuff of polite conversation. Which is why it is so good to have a story like this read in a church like this on Sunday morning. It awakens us to God’s work.
Unfortunately, the lectionary left out the beginning and the end of this story in the gospel of Mark. When Mark tells the story, he does not want you to encounter it alone. In fact, Mark wants you to encounter it while other things are occupying your attention.
Before this narrative begins, Mark reports Jesus sends His disciples out in mission. “So, they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them” (6:12-13). After this section ends, Mark reports how the disciples come back to Jesus from their mission and share with Him God’s wonderful work. “The disciples returned to Jesus and told Him all that they had done and taught” (6:30). In between, however, we have this account of Herod and John the Baptist and a girl who dances into palace intrigue only to come out with a prophet’s head on a platter. Why does Mark arrange things this way? While the disciples are out in mission, why does Mark force us, the readers, to sit and remember this sordid tale?
Obviously, there are many reasons but here are a few I find instructive for faith.
First, Mark wants us to know that the preaching of the Kingdom will awaken real guilt for real sin in the lives of real people. Sometimes, we can distance belief from life. Christianity can become a teaching we agree to, a confirmation class we pass, rather than a release from horrible sin to a holy life we never knew existed. As the story begins, notice how Mark tells us that the preaching of the apostles awakened a memory in Herod. “When Herod heard of it” – that is the preaching and the works of the disciples – “he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded has been raised’” (6:16). God is a living God, and He works by His Word to awaken our conscience to sin, real sin, committed by real people, in a world which is really fallen.
Herod’s tale is sordid, certainly, but so is mine and so is yours. Apart from Christ there is no end to the evil we would do. Even in Christ, we have had times when we have struggled and fallen. True Christianity, a faith that is more than a matter of knowledge, experiences the sorrow for sin and the blessed grace of forgiveness at the hand of Jesus who comes to save sinful people like us.
True Christianity, a faith that is more than a matter of knowledge, experiences the sorrow for sin and the blessed grace of forgiveness at the hand of Jesus who comes to save sinful people like us.
While our polite conversation does not permit us to talk about our sins, the holy conversation we have with God sounds much more like the fear of Herod. We name our sins before God, with full transparency and no defense, because we know redemption is messy. And “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15).
Second, Mark wants us to know that mission is messy. In fact, sometimes it is deadly. What happened to John, his death for proclaiming God’s Word, is just a foreshadowing of what will happen to Jesus. And what happened to Jesus is a picture of what will happen to the disciples too, as they take up their cross and follow Him (8:34). But God works in the midst of this mess.
There is a reason seeds grow in the soil. There are things about the beginning of life that are hidden to human eyes. God’s work is mysterious. Saving mysteries happen underneath the surface that no one can see. Salvation comes in suffering. In death, Jesus bears God’s real wrath for our real sin and, in His resurrection, Jesus reveals God’s real life which rules over His Kingdom and can never be shaken.
So, perhaps it is not so strange to have this story told in our midst today. We are people who have been saved from sin and who are not afraid to talk about it. Why? Because our Savior is here. He is inviting us to His feast in His Kingdom that has no end.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Mark 6:14-29.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Mark 6:14-29.
Lectionary Podcast- Dr. Peter Scaer of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Mark 6:14-29.