October 30, 2011
This wasn’t the way it was supposed to end. He was the product of a good family, he had been raised worshipping God, he had followed God’s calling, had done God’s work and had preached God’s message and this wasn’t the way it was supposed to end.
In a million years he would never have predicted this, after all wasn’t God supposed to protect him? People had flocked from all over the country to hear him and to respond to his message, surely they would rise up and demand his release, or not. At first it seemed that he had been imprisoned to serve as an example to others. There was a lesson there: Don’t mess with Herod. And he thought that after the crowds spoke he would be released with a slap on the wrist and be told to behave.
But his time in prison stretched on and on. And then one day his nemesis came to visit, the king himself. And in the small prison cell they talked, and talked and talked. They spoke about the past and they spoke about the future. They swapped ideas and ideals and even if they didn’t always agree it seemed as if they had formed a bond. The king told him that there were those who wished him harm but that he was under the King’s protection so it would be all right.
And then one night when things were quiet they came for him in his cell, they told him they were there on the orders of the king. Perhaps he was to be released at last; he could almost taste the sweet air of freedom. And as they led him out of the dark prison he knew his day had come and then, they killed him and desecrated his body. It wasn’t enough that they had murdered him; they cut off his head and placed it on a silver platter to display to the King and his drunken cronies.
And that should have been the end, but the king couldn’t stop thinking about the man he executed and when he heard about this new preacher he was sure that it was the ghost of John coming back to finish what he had started.
It is a very appropriate story for the day before Halloween. It starts with the fear of a ghost it has an evil person and includes a flashback to a beheading. It is the conclusion of John the Baptist’s ministry on earth. The story is out of sync with the time line of the gospel story, it actually belongs at the beginning of Jesus ministry, shortly after he had been baptised. Because it was there we read in Mark 1:14 Later on, after John was arrested, Jesus went into Galilee, where he preached God’s Good News.
So this story is a flashback for Herod. The name of Jesus is starting to spread and the question is being asked “who is this man?” It is interesting that Jesus had returned to his hometown of Nazareth and had met limited success there, people who had seen Jesus as a little boy in the local carpenter shop were having problems grasping that he wasn’t actually the son of Joseph but was the son of God. And Jesus seemed to understand that, saying in Mark 6:4 Then Jesus told them, “A prophet is honoured everywhere except in his own hometown and among his relatives and his own family.”
But outside of Nazareth people were abuzz with the stories of Jesus. His preaching and his miracles. The stories he told and the people he healed. And finally the news reached all the way to the palace of Herod and we don’t know if it was guilt or superstition or a combination of both but Herod’s response is found in Mark 6:16 When Herod heard about Jesus, he said, “John, the man I beheaded, has come back from the dead.” And then we read the account of what happened.
Two weeks ago I spoke about the ministry of John the Baptist and how his message was one of repentance, he was calling people to change their behaviour and he didn’t limit himself to the common folks. You might say “he called them as he saw them.” And in this particular case what he saw was problems with King Herod. Now understand that Herod wasn’t really a king, he was a figure head for the Roman government in Palestine. And this wasn’t the Herod that we are familiar with from the Christmas story; this is that Herod’s son. And apparently while on a business trip to Rome Herod had seduced his Sister in law and she had left her husband, Herod’s brother Philip and had moved back to Palestine with Herod. And John the Baptist saw this as problematic. For a couple of reasons, the main one was that it was wrong under Mosiac law for a man to marry his sister in law. And so John publically denounced Herod and his new bride Herodias, if you are wondering about her name she was also the daughter of Herod’s half-brother, not only making her his sister in law but also his niece. That’s not a family tree it’s a wreath.
Now it didn’t seem to bother Herod, he was used to people saying nasty things about him, he was a politician. It was Pierre Trudeau who when he heard about comments that then President Richard Nixon had made about him said “I have been called worse things by better people.”
But while it didn’t seem to bother Herod at all it bothered Herodias a lot. Mark 6:19 So Herodias bore a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But without Herod’s approval she was powerless,
So to appease he wife Herod has John imprisoned, but he refuses to execute him, as a matter of fact he actually begins to develop a relationship with John listen to how the story continues, Mark 6:20 for Herod respected John; and knowing that he was a good and holy man, he protected him. Herod was greatly disturbed whenever he talked with John, but even so, he liked to listen to him.
And this is where the story takes a strange and warped turn. In the scripture reading earlier it we are told that when Herod’s birthday came that Herodias seized her chance to get rid of the pesky prophet. A big party was thrown and the guests included the who’s who of that area of Palestine, the high ranking government officials, the military commanders and many of the leading citizens. And part of the entertainment was a dance performed by Herod’s stepdaughter, Herodias’s daughter.
We don’t know what the dance entailed but we are told that it greatly pleased Herod and his guests, so much so that he tells her “Ask me for anything you like,” the king said to the girl, “and I will give it to you.” He even vowed, “I will give you whatever you ask, up to half my kingdom!” Incredible, I would personally wonder how the Romans would feel about that. You gotta think that the bubbly had been flowing for a while before that offer was made.
And the girl was taken aback she wasn’t sure what her response should be and so she left the room and went to ask her mother what she should ask for. Do you see the significance in that statement? The bible says: she went out and asked her mother.
Herodias had allowed her daughter to dance in front of a group of partying men without her supervision. What does that say about her mothering skills? And when her daughter asks what her request should be Herodias replies “Ask for the head of John the Baptist.” The girl goes back and makes the request and her stepfather grants it. He has John executed and presents the decapitated head to the girl on a platter. Bizarre.
And I’m sure some of you have the same question that John’s disciples must have had, and perhaps even the same question that John might have had when he realized his fate. “How could God allow this to happen?”
Perhaps that is a question that you have asked in your own life at some time or another, “How could God allow this to happen?”
But understand this, John’s death was the result of choices that had been made. We can believe that God has given us the gift of free will or we can believe that God plays us like pieces in a game, but we can’t have it both ways.
And that’s so often what we want in life, we want to do whatever we want to do when we want to do it, but we want God to step in and save us from the consequences of our own actions. And it is a double edged sword, we can’t insist on free will for ourselves while insisting that God remove it from others.
Reminds me of the story of the Inuit who was out hunting in his Kayak and suddenly the temperature dropped so he built a fire in the middle of his small craft. Well you know what happened, the fire burnt through the bottom of the boat and it sunk. Which goes to prove that “You can’t have your kayak and heat it too.”
Mark 6:24 She went out and asked her mother, “What should I ask for?” Her mother told her, “Ask for the head of John the Baptist!”
John’s Death Was the Result of an Evil Person. Regardless of your philosophy you eventually have to admit that evil exists in the world. And it doesn’t matter if you think it’s nature or nurture, evil is evil. Joseph Conrad wrote “The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness.”
John died because Herodias was evil. She wasn’t misguided, it wasn’t the result of her upbringing. It was because she was evil. Proverbs 4:16 could have been written about her For evil people can’t sleep until they’ve done their evil deed for the day. They can’t rest until they’ve caused someone to stumble.
And evil snowballs, it doesn’t end with one act of evil. We don’t know what Herodias was like before she left her husband in favour of her brother in law, but when she was confronted with her behaviour she demanded that John be locked up. We alluded to the fact earlier that she permitted her daughter to perform at a party for a male audience, don’t know for sure how old her daughter was but most scholars agree that she was in her teens.
When she is presented with the opportunity she calls for John’s death. And she doesn’t simply tell her husband to kill John she demands his head. The request is relayed to Herod by Herodias’ daughter who demands Mark 6:25 So the girl hurried back to the king and told him, “I want the head of John the Baptist, right now, on a tray!” Boy, you can tell the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
And the bizarre thing about it is that even at that point Herodias probably wouldn’t have acknowledged that what she was doing was wrong, for her it was simply necessary.
She was the poster child for William Congreve’s words “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.”
John preached repentance but that wasn’t what Herodias wanted and her assumption was that if the one who denounced her was gone that would remove her guilt. It’s like plugging your ears when you don’t want to hear something. Or when people stop coming to church because it makes them feel guilty about their behaviour, or not reading their bible because what they read cuts too close to home.
And so John died because Herodias was evil.
Mark 6:26 Then the king deeply regretted what he had said; but because of the vows he had made in front of his guests, he couldn’t refuse her.
John’s Death Was the Result of a Weak Person Ultimately though Herodias didn’t have the power to kill John, she would whine and complain and makes people’s lives miserable but she didn’t have the ultimate power to say “Off with his head.” That power was held by her husband. At the beginning of the story we read Mark 6:19-20 So Herodias bore a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But without Herod’s approval she was powerless, for Herod respected John; and knowing that he was a good and holy man, he protected him.
In the story it says that Mark 6:26 Then the king deeply regretted what he had said; but because of the vows he had made in front of his guests, he couldn’t refuse her. Come on, he couldn’t refuse her. Sure he could have he was king. He had refused her before when she wanted to kill John.
It might have meant a scene with his step daughter: “She would have pouted and said “you told me anything, you big meanie you.” She might have stomped and cried, but still. He might have had to apologise, maybe some people would have thought less of him. But really at that point he should have realized that in that instance it was a case of mind over matter, those who would have minded wouldn’t have mattered and those who mattered wouldn’t have minded.
At that point he decided that he didn’t want to refuse her any more.
Maybe it was the booze, in the news reports maybe the announcers said “John the Baptist died today, alcohol may have been a factor.” Because certainly booze has been the cause of more deaths and more tragedy than any other single factor in life, outside of war. If guns killed as many people as alcohol did each year there would be a national outcry to ban all firearms.
Seriously if you took a loaded rifle and pointed into a crowd and pulled the trigger they would put you away for a lot longer time then if you got into your car drunk and caused the same damage but don’t get me started.
It may have been an issue of pride, Herod didn’t want to lose face in front of his invited guests and whether that was a valid concern or not life was cheap 2000 years ago and so rather than try to explain or justify why he wouldn’t grant her wish, he did.
Or maybe he was relieved to find a cheap way out, maybe after he made the offer he started thinking about what all it might cost him and so it was almost a relief when he could grant her request and it wouldn’t cost anything.
250 years ago Edmund Burke wrote “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Herod wouldn’t be considered a good man by any definition but all that was required on that day for evil to come out on top was that Herod didn’t take the high road. All he had to do was say no and he didn’t.
And so John died because Herod was weak.
But those were the only two who would have to take responsibility for John’s fate.
Luke 3:19 John also publicly criticized Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, for marrying Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for many other wrongs he had done.
John’s Death Was the Result of a Faithful Person We don’t like this one, it makes us a little uncomfortable but the truth of the matter is that John would have been released long before his execution if he had of agreed to stop criticizing Herod and Herodias .
Sometimes we seem to get this naïve idea that if we are doing the right thing that things will work out. Nope, as long as there are evil people in the world doing the right thing isn’t going to be the popular course of action. Last week we looked at the 12 apostles and how the majority of them were executed for their faith. Throughout history good people have died because of their goodness, and not just people taking a stand for their faith. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ghandi both were assassinated simply because they wanted to make life better for others.
Jesus was killed because of his righteousness. And perhaps you will recall his words in John 15:18 “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.”
But you understand that this wasn’t the end of the story. That ultimately John was the winner. On that day it may have seemed that he lost but he did all he was called to do and he was faithful to the end. It is reported that John Wesley once said “Until my work on this earth is done, I am immortal. But when my work for Christ is done … I go to be with Jesus.”
A couple of things we should note. If we believe what we say about eternal life than although this was certainly a tragedy in the earthly sense it wasn’t a tragedy in the eternal scope of things. John would have been granted eternity with the God whom he served. We were told at the beginning of the story that John had been born in his parent’s old age which means they had probably been spared the grief of seeing their son executed and as far as we know he had no siblings.
I Don’t want to minimize what happened to John but here was this free spirit, whom we are told spent most of his adult life in the wilderness and now he is penned up like an animal in the prison of Herod. He was set free that day. When a loved one dies sometimes we get tired of hearing the cliché “They are in a better place.” But if they were a Christ Follower, and we believe what we say we believe then we have to believe that they are in a better place. We may miss them, but to wish them back would be selfish.
John had fulfilled his mission, to announce and prepare the way for Jesus. With his imprisonment his life was effectively over, as long as Herodias lived he would not be a free man. I don’t know for sure but I would suspect that John walked to the executioner with his head held high.
And when John the Baptist’s work was done, and when evil had done its best to silence him his message still lived on and God would greet John saying “Well done my good and faithful servant.”