March 18, 2012
William G. Carter
But when Herod heard of (the work of Jesus), he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
My third grade Bible had a picture of this scene. I don’t think the Christian Education committee in my church looked at it very closely before they gave it to me. In those days, we had to memorize three psalms, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Beatitudes because they would give us a Bible. Imagine my surprise, at nine years of age, to take it home and discover an old painted picture of John the Baptist’s head on a platter.
Those were the days before cable TV and instantaneous violence, but we were never shielded from the gross and the grotesque. The evening news regularly reported deaths in Viet Nam, murders in the Bronx, and the occasional random atrocity. It was very clear as a nine year old that I lived in a dangerous world. Bad things happened. People hurt one another. My parents were very careful to guard me from hearing a lot of the specifics, but danger always lurked out in the shadows. And my Bible had a picture of John the Baptist’s head.
All the characters in the scene were there. Herod Antipas, the regional king, looked shaken. The lady with the scary eyebrows was Herodias, his scheming wife. She sneered triumphantly. Her daughter, dressed in some kind of gauzy negligee, had a strange look on her face as if to ask, “Oh no, what did I do?” All around them were party guests, some of them men grabbing women, others looking shocked, with a few looking like they were ill from all the merry-making. It’s a really awful story – and there it was, in a collection of full-color Bible scenes, right between the sending of the disciples and the feeding of the five thousand.
You have to wonder why Mark includes the story. He tells it as a bit of flashback. Back in chapter one, he says Jesus started preaching after John got arrested by Herod Antipas (1:14). Now, some five chapters later, he talks about the reason behind that arrest and its eventual outcome. He didn’t need to include this gruesome tale. Or maybe he did. We will have to decide.
What’s curious is that Jesus doesn’t appear in the story at all. Mark’s Gospel is all about Jesus, the things he did, the words he spoke, the evil he confronted. Suddenly there is this lurid tale from the fortress high above the east shore of the Dead Sea. Like a lot of the outrageous tales that came out of castles, everybody heard it. The famed historian Josephus wrote his own account. Mark wants his own church to hear it, some thirty five years after the fact.
By all accounts, Herod Antipas was a nasty man. The family name was Herod. His father was Herod the Great, the same monarch who got unhinged when the wise men came looking for the new king Jesus. Clearly the family had its issues. Let me see if I can quickly explain some of the family history.
· Herod the Great was a practicing Jew. He married a woman named Doris. They had a son named Antipater. When the boy was three years old, Herod sent away Doris and the boy, and married another woman. Later on, Herod murdered that son. .
· Herod the Great and his second wife had a son named Aristobulus. Before Herod the Great killed him, he had a daughter named Herodias. She’s the villainess of our story.
· Then Herod the Great got rid of his second wife and married a third. She gave them a son called Philip, Herod Philip. Herod Philip married Herodias, the daughter of his half-brother, which would make her his niece. Together Philip and Herodias had a daughter named Salome, who was the dancer in our story.
· After this, Herod the Great took a fourth wife, and she produced two sons: Archelaus and Antipas. Antipas is the Herod in our story.
· Meanwhile Philip had moved to Rome, where he lived in luxury. Antipas went to visit him. He seduced his half-brother’s wife Herodias, and persuaded her to leave her husband and come back with him, where they could be happy forever ruling over part of Galilee from his desert fortresses.
Are you following all of that? Herod Antipas married Herodias. She was the daughter of his half-brother Aristobulus, and therefore his niece. She was the wife of his half-brother Philip, and therefore his sister-in-law. I think it’s safe to say the family had some issues.
While all of this was going on, there was this preacher in the desert, John the Baptist. He was a fierce Jew. We know him, of course, because of his big sermon that based on the 40th chapter of Isaiah. that sermon said, "The Messiah is coming. Get ready. Straighten the path of God!"
But apparently John had another sermon too. That sermon was based on Leviticus 18, verse 6. How do I know that? Because of what it says: “None of you shall approach anyone near of kin to uncover nakedness: thus says the Lord.”
John the Baptist started aiming that sermon at the castle of Herod Antipas. And he was so loud and so direct, that Herod’s wife Herodias heard it too.
Now, I don’t know a lot about ancient politics, especially with despotic kings and queens, but I wonder why they would care about some crazy, wild-eyed preacher out among the sand dunes and the scorpions. Why bother with John the Baptist and his critique of your moral behavior? Who cares what the preachers say? These days you can run for president after you’ve dumped a couple of wives and nobody is going to say much about it. The kings and queens of the world usually live by their own rules, often improvising as they go along.
You know, that is the way of the world . . .
But here’s the thing: even though he arrested John the Baptist, Herod Antipas found himself strangely drawn to John’s preaching. There was something about it, something that signaled John got his message from somewhere outside of the whirlwind of Herod’s family. For this, of course, Herodias hated John. She wanted him done. But Mark says Herod protected him. Herod was afraid of him. Herod had sent men to arrest John, to put him down in the lowest dungeon, but then, in the most curious of details, the king liked to listen to John’s blistering preaching.
Just picture him, standing in the shadows of the stairwell, as his captive preacher thundered on. John would crank it up, and quote the book of Leviticus. “The Lord says you shall not do as they do in the pagan lands. You shall not defile yourself as other nations defile themselves. You shall be holy, as the Lord your God is holy. You shall keep my laws and ordinances.”
According to the story, Herod heard all this. He was a little confused, but he heard all of this. It was a different message than what all the suck-ups in his court kept telling him. It was a very different script than that of his father or his brothers. He had a beautiful wife that he stole fair and square from one of those brothers . . . but now, he hears another voice, a Holy Voice. It entices him, it confronts him. He can’t quite get that Voice out of his head.
In fact, next Saturday night, he has some of the regional leaders coming in for a party. He will impress them with his authority, with his opulence, with his impressive castle high above the sea. They will have a fine meal, hurl back some intoxicating drink. And then maybe, when everybody is feeling pretty loose, he can introduce them to the preacher locked up in his basement.
First, of course, there will be a bit of entertainment. Salome will come and dance. She’s so very good, so supple, so sensuous. She looks like her mother, only years younger. With that, he catches himself daydreaming. “I wonder what she would be like. I wonder if she would be as willing as her mother once was…”
OK, snap out of it. Especially you lecherous old courtiers.
The question that I asked before is the question that we have to ask: why does the Gospel of Mark tell this story? It’s not just because it’s a flashback. It’s not because Mark wants to kill a little time. No, it’s because he wants to remind us of what the world is like.
Jesus never appears in this story. I think that is significant. This is a story of a world without Jesus. As a result, this is what the world is like when it insulates itself from God, when it acts as if the powerful and the conniving can do whatever they want. This is what happens when people lunge after their own appetites and will do anything to satisfy the ravenous beast within them. This is what happens when people live by revenge, when those who are guilty would eliminate the nagging voice of truth. This is what happens when people swear by their own authority, when they are incapable of self-criticism. This is what happens when people refuse to live by forgiveness, when they insist their way is the only way.
Adultery. Incest. Lust. Fear. Revenge. Peer pressure. Destruction. This is a story of a world without Jesus. This is a story of a world that would kill Jesus. This is the story of a world that doesn’t know what to do with a Voice greater than its own.
Listen, I don’t want to be too moralistic about this, even in Lent, but I think we know what kind of world this is. It is a world that says, “You can go it alone. You can do whatever you want. You can reach for whatever you want to reach for. You can forget about God, Jesus, and John the Baptist, and make it up as you go along.” And if too much of that world gets into our souls, we can find ourselves as empty and ravenous as Herod and Herodias.
Am I telling you anything you do not know? No. Over the years, in this congregation, I’ve seen it all.
· One man lost his marriage because he started chatting to a pretty young thing online. Next thing you know, he had to meet her.
· Somebody else got married to the man of her dreams, only to discover he was blowing thousands of dollars on the slot machines of a glittering casino. He refused to change and told her to leave.
· A working mother cleaned the closet of her husband’s home office, and I won’t tell you what kind of videos she found.
· There are people who will rearrange their entire lives to hide an addiction.
· There are others who create a crisis because they are so conditioned by life that they cannot live without a crisis; it’s the only way they feel alive.
· There are people who can be so unforgiving that they must demand somebody’s head on a platter.
· There are others who simply refuse to let anything ever be settled in peace.
What every one of these stories has in common is that somebody has allowed the world to blur all vision. People can become a world unto themselves, insulated, afraid of the honesty, fearful of any Voice beyond themselves. This is a world without the searing truth of Jesus Christ.
Yet it is also the world where Christ is risen, when Christ is on the move. Sad King Herod hears about the power of Jesus, and the work he is doing. And do you remember what he says? He says, “John must be raised from the dead.” The same Voice that John spoke is still speaking in Jesus Christ. He is saying you don’t have to live unto yourself, you don’t have get yourself stuck as a world unto yourself. You can live for God.
Not long ago, one of you said something very kind to me. I will never forget it. “Sometimes when you preach,” you said, “you lose your politeness.” I said “What? Oh, I’m terribly sorry…”
“No,” you said, “that’s a good thing. Church is not a social club. Church is the community of faith where we tell the truth about ourselves – and the greater truth about God.”
I think that’s really the heart of it. Christian faith invites us to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. So help us God. And when we do ‘fess up to the truth, we can decide to move outside our insulated little fortresses and do something holy in the world. Just like Jesus. Just like God.
© William G. Carter. All rights reserved.