on Mark 6:14-29
There are no easy answers
Let’s have story-time today. Once upon a time there was a man named Jephtha, who had a complicated relationship with his family. He was asked by the leaders of the Israelites to command their forces in battle against a neighboring kingdom, and so off he went to battle. He began to have some success, and this inspired him so much that he made a promise to God: “If you, God, will deliver my enemies into my hands, I will sacrifice to you whatever comes out of my door first as a burnt offering.”
You can just tell this is going to end badly, can’t you?
So Jephtha and the Israelite army defeated their enemies and returned home victorious. As Jephtha was headed for home, he watched the front door to see what might come out first: the family dog? A fatted calf? Something he didn’t care for too much? What he saw grieved him deeply: his beloved daughter ran out to greet him, and his spirit sank as he remembered what he had promised. But he kept his promise.
Herod must have felt the same way. This was not the Herod who ordered the Jewish children to be killed after the visit from the Magi, but his descendant, Herod Antipas. Herod Antipas had a certain fondness for the Jew he lived among and governed, and he had a special place in his heart for John the Baptist. He knew John to be righteous, and recognized him as a prophet. He liked to listen to him, even though Herod rarely understood John, and he even respected him, and made an effort to protect John. Until…again, it’s easy for us to anticipate the bad ending, isn’t it? Until Herod Antipas made a foolish promise to Herodias, offering to give her anything she wanted—even half his kingdom—if her dancing pleased him. While I question the values of everyone concerned, imagine Herod’s shock and grief when she asked for John’s head on a platter…but he kept his promise.
These stories from the Bible hardly sound to us like good news, and neither do the lives of the innocents in them: Jephtha’s daughter, who did not fight her father but accepted her fate, and John the Baptist. They were the wronged parties, the ones who are truly in the right in these stories, and yet the news for them was all wrong, and there were no easy answers to their questions of why they had to die.
As much as we might wish there were, there are no easy answers to many of our questions about God, either, questions like, “why can’t I sense God?” and “how can I be sure?” and “How could God let this happen?” and “Where is God when things get tough?” There aren’t even easy answers to questions we think should be easy, like, “does God exist?” and “was Jesus really the Son of God?” As much as we’d like all the answers to be easy, all our solutions to be perfect, and to completely understand who God is and how God works, it’s just not really that way.
And who knew that better than John? Remember all of John’s story? I sometimes call him the last of the old-time, Old Testament prophets, because of the way he lived. John was consecrated to God in the womb, the son of faithful parents who were past child-bearing age, who had never known the joys and challenges of a child—until one day God intervened, and brought new life to these old parents. His father, Zechariah, found the notion so foolish that he didn’t believe it would happen, and so God took away his voice until after the child was born and it was time to name him. When John’s mother, Elizabeth, was pregnant, her baby leapt up inside her when Elizabeth’s cousin Mary came to visit…pregnant herself with a child also conceived by divine intervention. We’ll talk more about him later, but I think you get the sense of how special a person John was.
John’s whole life was touched and guided by God. He became the prophet foretold in Isaiah, preparing the way for Jesus’ ministry, preaching repentance and baptizing people, including his cousin Jesus. And that, of course, is how he became known as John the Baptist or John the Baptizer. He lived in the wilderness like the prophets of old, wearing clothing made of scratchy camel’s hair and eating locusts and honey. He preached the coming of the Messiah, and acquired many faithful disciples of his own, some of whom went on to follow Jesus. And like his cousin Jesus, he attracted some less welcome attention from those who were challenged by what he had to say.
One of those was Herod Antipas, who started out our story-telling today. When he heard John speak, he was both intrigued by what he was hearing about God and threatened by the potential for political unrest if John stirred up the Jewish people or—even worse—if the Savior John preached about actually showed up. Something about John’s words must have grabbed Herod’s attention; maybe John’s preaching about the need for repentance and baptism resonated with something going on in Herod’s heart. We don’t know. We can’t know. All we have to go on are the words of Mark that Herod Antipas protected John, and that ultimately, he didn’t.
And there’s one of those hard questions for which there are no easy answers. We’ve come to accept that Jesus Christ had to die and be resurrected so that we might know eternal life after our own deaths, but John? He was righteous and honorable, a holy man. He did nothing wrong—at least not according to his faith; he was basically a political prisoner at the time of his death because the Roman authorities in the person of Herod Antipas feared his growing influence over the Jewish people. He certainly had not yet committed any crime worthy of death, and yet that’s exactly what he got as a reward for his faithfulness. Death.
John’s story does remind us of Jesus’ trial before Pilate, doesn’t it? A man innocent of the charges against him, guilty only of obedience to the call of God on his life. Jesus had not committed any crime worthy of death, and yet he too received that same sentence of death—not for his crime, but for politics: to keep the people happy, or at least quiet.
Both Pilate and Herod Antipas had the opportunity to do the right things—legally and morally—and yet they both gave in to fear. They feared what others might say or do; Herod that he would be considered an oathbreaker and one who could not be counted on, Pilate that the Jews would be stirred up against Rome (and him) if he did not do the politically expedient thing. In both cases, for John and Jesus, the consequence of obedience turns out to be death.
This is the question that worries me as I try to tell people about Jesus Christ and the church. How is this good news? We are called to obedience, and yet we have these examples that tell us that our obedience will lead to death. How can I tell people this is good news: God loves you—to death? How can we encourage people to come to a church where we preach this? Anyone who preaches or struggles to share the good news of Jesus Christ with someone else knows that there are surely no easy answers to these questions.
Yet the Bible and the story of the Church are full of answers. We have the examples of the disciples, who one after another followed Jesus to death. We have Paul who proclaimed that to live is Christ, to die is gain. We have Peter, who followed Jesus to death on a cross. We have stories of martyrs and the Church forced underground…and lest you think I’m talking about dim and dark history, I’m talking too about places like Russia, where only recently the church has been allowed to worship openly, and China, where strict controls are placed on gatherings of people…especially anything that might be a religious gathering. And somehow, despite there being no easy answers to the questions we have about God and faith, somehow people still seem to find good news in the story of Jesus Christ, in his life and in his death.
You know, when I use that phrase, I generally don’t end there: with Jesus’ life and death. I almost always say, “Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection,” because the resurrection is where I find good news…even if I don’t find easy answers. John the Baptist and the disciples and countless Christians since their time have died for their faith…which would not seem like good news, except that we believe in the power of the resurrection. We believe that while obedience in this life may be unpleasant, uncomfortable, or even fatal for some, the power of the resurrection is also a part of our lives—one might even call it the good part!
What we are asked to do, like John, like Jesus, like the countless brothers and sisters in the faith who have gone before us and who will come after us, is to be obedient to God. Because one of those questions without easy answers is “what does God want me to do?,” our obedience includes learning about God through studying both the Bible and the stories of how God’s Holy Spirit has continued to work in the world and in the hearts of God’s people. It includes worshiping together and praying for one another, and learning from the examples of those we admire, those whom we believe help show us both what obedience to God looks like, and some of its rewards. And in obedience to God, we find strength and comfort and even passion: passion to help others, passion to share the good news we’ve found in our own lives, passion to do God’s work, even when it’s hard, even when it’s painful, even when it’s unpopular or goes against the common wisdom…and here’s where we come back to Herod.
Today’s story is essentially a flashback. Herod Antipas heard about some of the things Jesus is saying and doing, and like others, was trying to figure out who Jesus might be. Was he a prophet, like the prophets of old? Was he Elijah, come back to bring God’s people back to the fullness of the faith? But Herod knew what he had done to John the Baptist, whom he had admired, even as he ordered him to be killed, and Herod thought that Jesus might be John, come again. Perhaps he feared divine vengeance for John’s murder. Perhaps he felt a sense of shame for having allowed the girl to extract such a promise from him, and for following through when her request was so bold and so wrong. Perhaps he understood that John’s devotion to God, which Herod admired, had led to John’s undignified and unjust death. And perhaps he wondered what John’s God thought of him…and where obedience to God might lead him.
There weren’t any easy answers for Herod Antipas that day, as he listened to the words and deeds of Jesus, and wondered if there wasn’t some judgment in them for him. And what a shame, that he did not hear instead of judgment, grace and forgiveness, and an invitation to new life, because that is truly good news, even if these are not easy answers. The good news we have to offer is that while there are no easy answers to the hard questions of life, there is a safe place to ask them, a God in whom we can find wholeness and holiness, a church family to give us strength and to go with us on life’s journey. The good news we have to offer is that in Christ, we are new creations. In Christ, we have new life. In Christ, we are equal in God’s sight, and those things that we think make us less or make us more do not mean as much as we think. If there are no easy answers, there are good answers to the difficult questions we face in life. Where is God when we struggle? With us in the Holy Spirit, and in the company of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Can we sense God? Sometimes, and we can share that experience with one another. Does God exist? How can such love not exist, that God chose to share our existence in the form of Jesus Christ, chose to live and die with us, so that we might be resurrected with him? It might not be an easy answer, but it is very good news.
cross-posted at my new sermon blog, Pastor Anne's Sermons