7th Sunday after Pentecost – B (Proper 10) LSB #’s 644, 743:1-3, 5-6, 716:1-3, 6
Text – Mark 6:27-28
And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. He went & beheaded him in the prison & brought his head on a platter & gave it to the girl, & the girl gave it to her mother.
WHEN ALL SEEMS LOST
It’s a common theme in movies whether it’s a horror film or an action packed thriller or a Hallmark special. The director sees to it that the tension builds to the point where all hope seems lost & you can’t see anyway for the characters you sympathize with to escape their dire or forlorn circumstances.
In the movies, the sympathetic characters almost always make a miraculous escape from their circumstances, or they surrender their lives for a noble cause. People love that kind of plot & they flock to those movies in order to be encouraged about their own lives. People also attend those movies in order to escape the dull or disheartening reality of their own lives.
In the Bible reading you heard from the Gospel of Mark, on an earthly level, there is no miraculous escape from John the Baptist’s circumstances in prison. There is no escape from the dull or disheartening reality of life. There is nothing on the surface of this event that encourages us about our own lives. In fact, it very accurately reflects life in a sinful world.
In the time & place that I grew up this gruesome event, recorded in Holy Scripture, always had a disturbing feel to it. The harsh realities of prison, overt sexual immorality & the beheading, were the furthest thing from any of my experiences in life.
Some people would say that’s an example of my white privilege because there was a time when lynching of black Americans was not uncommon & that is at least as horrifying as the head of John the Baptist being delivered on a platter. Many people in the United States, for many years, have been sheltered from some of the harsh realities of life in a sinful world. That has allowed our citizens to become soft & weak along with being ignorant of what Satan desires for us. Many Americans today no longer believe that the devil is real. They believe that human beings alone are the cause of all the problems in our world.
The news media in the US, is especially guilty of this. Both sides are constantly trying to demonize all human beings on the other side. Yet, God Almighty warns us with these words from the book of Ephesians:
“For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers & authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, & against evil spirits in the heavenly places.” (6:12 NLT) Satan is real, & he is waging war against us. Anyone who thinks otherwise is working for the very evil they think does not exist. What do you believe?
There was the condo collapse down by Miami – a horrific tragedy. There are wildfires burning, heat waves & drought spreading, across our western states. Crime is surging in cities across our nation. If you claim to be child of God, & claim to believe the Bible, do you really use what God’s Word says in order to understand what is happening to our nation?
The condo collapse comes because sinful human beings take short cuts & do things the easy way, rather than the safe & intelligent way. If human beings are causing climate change, it’s because our sinful nature is greedy & lazy & selfish. Crime is surging in cities across our nation because our citizens increasingly have no use for obeying God.
The Devil is behind each of those problems, & the multitudes more that I do not have time to list. In the world Jesus lived in, 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... & 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 & give it to the girl.
There are stories you do not bring up in polite conversation – like your dad’s DUI, your mom’s 5th marriage, the images, late at night, which play across your computer screen. This event is one of those things. It is not fit for polite conversation, but maybe that’s 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, twisted & corrupt world. Events like the beheading of John the Baptist remind us of just how ugly the work of redemption can be. When John confronted Herod, he pointed Herod in the direction of eternal life, repent & turn back from the road to destruction.
God has come to save people from sin – real sin. And no sin is the stuff of polite conversation. Which is why it’s good to have an event like this read in a church like this on Sunday morning. It awakens us to the true nature of God’s work. To save time, the people who choose how much of the Bible to read each Sunday, have left out the setting as Jesus talks.
When Mark wrote this Gospel, he did not want you to encounter the beheading of John by itself. In fact, Mark wanted you to encounter that while other things were occupying your attention. In the verses right before this, Mark reported Jesus sending out His disciples:
“So, they went out & proclaimed that people should repent. And they cast out many demons & anointed with oil many who were sick & healed them.” (6:12-13) After John’s beheading, Mark reports, “The disciples returned to Jesus & told Him all that they had done & taught.” (6:30)
In between was this account of Herod & John the Baptist & a girl who dances into palace intrigue only to come out with a prophet’s head on a platter. Why does Mark arrange it this way? While the disciples are out in mission, why does Mark force us, the readers, to sit & consider this sordid tale? Here are a few reasons that are 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 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.
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 & the works of the disciples – “he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded has been raised.’” (6:16) God is a living God, Who works by His Word to awaken our conscience to sin, real sin, committed by real people, in a world that is truly fallen.
Herod’s life is sordid, certainly, but so is mine & 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 struggled & fell. True Christianity, a faith that is more than a matter of knowledge, experiences the sorrow for sin & the blessed grace of forgiveness at the hand of Jesus who comes to save sinners like us.
While 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 with full transparency & no defense, because we know redemption is ugly work.
Paul wrote to Timothy, “The saying is trustworthy & 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 a foreshadowing of what happens to Jesus. And what happened to Jesus is a picture of what will happen to the disciples, as they take up their cross & follow Him. (Mark 8:34) Yet, God works in the midst of this ugly mess. Yahweh’s work is mysterious. Even when all seems lost, saving mysteries can be happening underneath the surface where you & I cannot see. Hidden behind suffering is where salvation often comes, because the Creator of the universe is powerful enough & wise enough to overcome Satan’s work & even turn it against the Devil’s purposes.
On Golgotha, all seemed lost. Yet, in death, Jesus bears God’s real wrath for our real sin, & in His resurrection, Jesus reveals God’s real life which rules over His real Kingdom that can never be shaken – not by anyone & not by anything.
If someday you & I must endure suffering & persecution because we follow Jesus, even if all seems lost, even then we can know from the events of John the Baptist’s beheading, that Satan has already lost the war. Yahweh has chosen us in Christ before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy & blameless before Him. And that we are – today!
For this life, there was no miraculous movie script escape for John the Baptist. He died by having his head removed in an act of vengeance. Depending on our circumstances, there may be no miraculous rescue for us either, in this world.
However, there certainly is a miraculous end awaiting everyone who trusts in Jesus for the life to come. It will be a perfect, glorious life that will never encounter sorrow or trouble or danger. That is the ending, that God has written, to the script of our lives. Believe that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, & you will live even though you die. Amen.
Jesus, In Thine arms I rest me; foes who would molest me cannot reach me here. Though the earth be shaking, every heart be quaking, Jesus calms my fear. Lightnings flash & thunders crash; yet, though sin & hell assail me, Jesus will not fail me. Hence, all fear & sadness! For the Lord of gladness, Jesus, enters in. Those who love the Father, though the storms may gather, still have peace within. Yea, whate’er I here must bear, Thou art still my purest pleasure, Jesus, priceless treasure! Amen. LSB 743:2, 6.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet