Give Me the Head of John the Baptist: a reworking of a sermon in a new context.

This sermon is built on the first half of a sermon that I preached three years ago on the readings assigned in the Revised Common Lectionary for Proper 10 in Year B.

Three years ago the sermon cried out for a different ending and as I approached these texts this year, in the context of a Baptism at our principal service that ending came into focus.

You can find the readings here

You can find the original sermon here.

The story of Herod, Salome, and John the Baptist is full of graphic and sensual images.  I would imagine that, thanks to multiple artists, playwrights and composers, none of us in this room has any difficulty conjuring up this scene.  A dimly lit space, stone pillars supporting an ornately carved ceiling, powerful people reclining on richly embroidered cushions while women in “exotic” dress move in and out serving platters of spicy food and drink.  There are open braziers in the corners and the smell of smoke and incense fill the room.

Then the music changes, a young girl enters the room, and she begins to dance.  The dance starts out slowly and then gains momentum and power.  The room is transfixed.  All eyes are upon her.  No one even tries to disguise his or her stares.  She has them all in the palm of her hand. And then she turns her gaze upon the king.

We jump now to a cell where John the Baptist has been imprisoned.  The guards storm in and before he can begin to defend himself they pin him to the floor and swing a sword.

The banquet hall falls silent as a platter is carried in and presented to the girl; a platter bearing the head of John the Baptist.

A visual, sensual and graphic story that comes easily to mind, complete with special effects and a soundtrack.  Mark, our Gospel writer, is a master of his craft and in this passage he has constructed a true work of art.  And yet all of the details, the sights, sounds, smells, that rush to mind when we hear this story can be problematic.  They can distract us from the real point of this story; a point that would be easy to miss unless we know a little history.

The Herod of our story is Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great.  It was Herod the Great who ordered the slaughter of the innocents when the Magi told him that a King had been born to the People of Israel.  This same Herod the Great had two of his sons executed in order to secure his throne as King of Judea.  Another of sons was convicted of trying to poison him.  At this point, with three older brothers removed from the line of succession, Herod Antipas, who appears in our gospel reading this morning, became heir to the throne.  But on his deathbed, in the last days of his illness, Herod the Great revised his will and divided the kingdom between Herod Antipas and two of his remaining brothers.  The three of them take to their case to Rome, each claiming sole rights to the throne.   Despite an early disposition towards Herod’s argument of sole succession, the tides turn and, in the end, he inherited only a small portion of what he thought would be his.

In a family like his, in a time where accession to power happens through the blade of a knife, a poisoned cup, the clash of armed men, Herod’s hold on his rule must have felt tenuous and insecure.  Everyone in that room with him was a potential threat, a would be assassin, coveting his throne, status, and power.

Into this highly charged setting comes a girl, his wife’s daughter, who beguiles everyone in the room and seduces Herod into an extravagant promise.  “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom” (Mark 6:22b, 23).  She runs to consult her mother and when she returns she says, “Oh father, I am but a child.  I would never presume to ask you for half of your kingdom.  Please, I would ask for something much less significant.  Give me the head of John the Baptizer, that evil gadfly who has been making my mother’s life miserable.  Give me his head on a platter!”

We already know this part of the story…  Herod has divorced his own wife and married the wife of his brother, while his brother is still alive.  John has been condemning Herod in public, saying that it is not lawful for him to have his brother’s wife.  The wife, Herodias, has been asking Herod to have John killed.  But Herod, until now, has refused and has protected John.  John’s words perplex and challenge him but the Gospel tells us, he thought John a Holy and Righteous man and he liked to listen to his words.  He must have recognized the truth in what John was saying, even if it did make him uncomfortable and make his wife angry.  But now Herod was in real trouble.

I am sure that when Herod made his promise to his daughter the crowd sucked in their breath.  This was an impetuous, even foolish promise.  What if she did ask for half the kingdom?  Would Herod make good on his vow?  When she came back into the room and told them that all she wanted was the head of John the Baptist the crowd probably laughed.  “Silly little girl.  She let him off too easily.  Well at least he can finally be rid of that tiresome preacher and make his wife happy.”

But in this moment the trap is sprung, the set up is complete, and Herod is in a bind.  The Gospel tells us that “out of regard for his oaths and for his guests” he could not refuse the girl’s request.  If he had refused, the easy way out of his predicament, his guests would have seen it as a crack in his armor, a sign of weakness, “Give the silly girl what she wants. You’re not really so attached to that rabble rouser are you?” It’s a difficult choice that confronts Herod in this moment and with a little historical perspective we have come to see the true nature of that choice.  Does he continue to protect John?  Does he continue to wrestle with John’s words?  Does he stand up and defend the Truth?  Or does he do the politically expedient thing, grant the girl’s request, and protect his own power, status, and rank, and prestige?

Our Gospel passage this morning asks us the same question.  When we are offered an opportunity to stand up for the truth; that all of creation is beloved of God, that we are all one, that the people on the fringes of our culture and society, the poor and the disabled are our brothers and sisters…  will we stand up for that truth or will we choose to protect the power we believe we have and our vain need to be in control?  Look again at our Epistle reading for the day,

“With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth”  (Ephesians 1:8b-10).

All things!  It is God’s good pleasure that all things, all people, and all of creation, live in Him.  Do we open our hearts, our minds and our doors to the “other” and embrace them as co inheritors of God’s love and grace?  Do we proclaim the good news and insist that everyone receive the benefits of the garden?  Or do we cast our eyes aside, take the politically expedient path, defend the status quo and thereby protect our own position in the smoke filled, dimly lit room as we recline on the cushions in Herod’s palace?

This is the same Herod who later in the Gospel will send Jesus back to Pilate to be condemned.  Today Herod is confronted with the truth in John the Baptist.  In a few chapters he will be confronted by the Truth in the person of Jesus.  When we recognize the parallel in this story, when the weight of what is happening as this girl makes her request of Herod is clear, everything else in the room should melt away leaving the spotlight to just two people…  Herod and… Jesus.

What would have happened if Herod had encountered Jesus before he encountered John?  Of course we can’t know that but I can’t help but wonder.  Having made the decision to protect our own status, position, power and rank, once we have denied and betrayed the truth, do we become locked into a pattern of behavior that is almost impossible to escape?  When we have chosen ourselves over the truth we become complicit in the crucifixion.  “Repenting,” turning back to the truth would require us to confront and to acknowledge our past behavior.  It is a slippery slope.  If we can’t be faithful to the truth in the small things, how will we be faithful to the truth in the big things?

We will make a good start today. We will proclaim to Aidan James Brown that he is a beloved child of God, adopted through Jesus Christ, sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.

We will renew our own baptismal vows and promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves.

We will renew our promise to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.

And we will promise to proclaim by word and example the Good news of God in Christ.

In all of this we will claim, through our baptism, our own beloved-ness, welcoming “the new life of grace” and “the courage and will to persevere” that will allow us to acknowledge our past behaviors. It is through our baptism that we can break the old patterns of denial and betrayal that have protected our own power, privilege and illusions of control and become the voice in the wilderness crying, “Prepare the way of the Lord!”

I said a few moments ago that when Pilate is asked for the head of John the Baptist everything else in the room should melt away.  We suddenly understand that the lavish imagery that we have constructed is a distraction, and maybe a dodge.  There is a lot more at stake here than a vengeful unfaithful wife, a conniving despot and the girl who has become their tool.  Through the artistry of his writing Mark has dragged us into the spotlight as well.  Jesus stands before us asking Herod to choose and he is asking us to choose as well.  Will we acquiesce, make the politically expedient and safe decision, or will we risk it all by opening the door to John’s prison cell and setting the truth free to transform the world?