The following is a sermon I preached for my class – Principalities, Powers, and Preaching – at Duke Divinity School.
A reading from Mark 6:14-29
14 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’[c] name had become known. Some were[d] saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” 15 But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
17 For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod[e] had married her. 18 For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20 for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed;[f] and yet he liked to listen to him. 21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22 When his daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” 23 And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” 24 She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” 25 Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26 The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27 Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s[h] head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28 brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
Let us pray:
Lord, be thou our wisdom and thou our true word;
We ever with thee and thou with us, Lord.
Heart of our own heart, whatever befall,
Still be our vision, O Ruler of all.
Where is the good news?
Day after day I’ve wrestled with this passage like Jacob wrestling with God in the dark of night; refusing to let go until I receive it’s blessing. And I keep asking myself this question: Where is the good news?
However, I’m not alone. Matthew and Luke — the first preachers to work with Mark’s material — also struggle to make sense of it. Matthew decides to shorten the story considerably while Luke omits it all together. Perhaps I should have followed their lead! Nevertheless, here we are.
Lord, be thou my vision.
My hesitancy in preaching this passage is not because the story is so strange. In fact, the story is all too common with its political elites and their disregard for human life in order to maintain power. I’m hesitant to preach this passage precisely because its so difficult to find any glimmer of good news. Maybe there isn’t any good news in this story? In which case, I brought chocolate for everyone. So just bear with me.
Wrestling to make sense of this story, I found myself driven to prayers of lament yet again — grieving the violence and the loss of life that mark the headlines as I sat reading this violent story from Mark’s Gospel where a righteous and holy man of God suffers a senseless death at the hands of fearful, paranoid rulers. I wonder: What is this story doing? Here!? In the middle of Mark’s Gospel!? And where is the good news to proclaim in all of this?
There is a line from the band Penny & Sparrow that’s sung over haunting strings: “The hallelujahs are all around but the roof’s caving in.” That pretty well sums it up for me. Hallelujah means “praise the Lord” but where is the Lord in this story? It just seems to me like the roof is caving in.
But perhaps Mark — the minimalist storyteller — wants us to take a closer look at this story to see if we can, in fact, find the embrace of Christ or discern the hand of God. We might pray as we do so: Be thou my vision O Lord of my heart. Help us to see You, O God.
The Gospel passage begins, “Herod had heard of it.” “It” being what immediately preceded this passage. The disciples were out spreading the message of Jesus, casting out demons, healing the sick and Herod had heard of it. Now, Herod was not a King. He was a tetrarch — a regional leader in the Roman Empire. Mark jokingly calls him a king, perhaps to get a laugh from his original audience who would have been painfully aware that Herod was no king. He was a joke — the incompetent weak shadow of Herod the Great.
Herod hears of Jesus and his followers and he fears. Some wonder if this is perhaps a ghost — the ghost of the local religious zealot, John the Baptist, whom Herod had rather regretfully beheaded, now back with some special ghoulish powers. You can imagine Mark’s crowd laughing at this silly notion yet the story that unfolds is anything but funny. Reacting in fear and paranoia, this tetrarch and his wife commit the heinous murder of an innocent and holy man of God.
The only bit of humor is the suggestion that Herod is trapped by his little girl’s request in front of their company. Following her delightful dance recital she asked not for ice cream but for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Herod must have spit out his wine as she curtseyed in her tutu and ran off to her mother behind the curtain. With her request the roof begins to cave in and its not very clear where the hallelujahs are. The hallelujahs we wait to declare on Easter Sunday seem like an eternity away both in our text and in our world.
Where is the good news?
Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart!
Herodias is threatened and afraid of John because John had the ear of her husband who didn’t understand what John was talking about but nevertheless like to listen to him. Perhaps Herodias felt like John might sway Herod, that he might leave their unlawful estate. While she convinced her husband to arrest John, Herod protected John from her true desire to have John executed and silenced once and for all.
You see, like Jesus after him and us after Jesus, John’s call was to be a truth-teller — even if he must speak that truth to fearful and perplexing power. But truth-telling becomes a perilous venture in a world of Herods and Pontius Pilates (even if one has friends in high places). There is no shortage of anecdotes from modern history to illustrate. Dietrich Bonhoeffer — the German pastor and theologian who stood up to Hitler…he was executed. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out against racist laws, the war in Vietnam, and economic disparity…he was assassinated. The Salvadorian Bishop Oscar Romero called for Salvadorian soldiers to obey God’s higher order over and against the executive orders that repressed and violated basic human rights…he was shot dead at the church altar. Truth-telling is a perilous venture indeed.
Now some might say, “we should not bring worldly politics into the pulpit because the pulpit is no place for such things.” But the problem that I keep having is that when I open this Bible…well…its the Bible that keeps bringing politics into the pulpit! After all, John the Baptist got himself locked up because he kept trying to talk to politicians about the law of God.
The worship of God — which includes the reading of scripture — is not always peaceful and personally recharging. The worship of God is not an escape from this world. It is a demonstration of the kingdom of God breaking into this world. And for that to happen, false and unjust kings and queens will and must be dethroned and as we have seen and continue to see “they do not go gentle into that good night. They rage, rage, against the dying of their light.” This is what we see when we read the headlines or check the president’s twitter feed. Rage, rage, as the kingdom of God breaks forth and confronts with its truth and love and justice for all. Sometimes…oftentimes, this confrontation begins in worship.
Herodias is afraid of the truth. She is afraid of the truth that John won’t stop speaking and the threat that is poses to her status. Herod is afraid of John because he doesn’t understand him. And I think if we were to cut through all of the bravado and posturing of our current political rulers what you would find are a lot of human beings who are just so afraid. The roof is caving in. Rage. Rage.
Our president’s claim that immigrants are bringing crime into this nation is racist to be sure, but translate that into a more human language and he’s simply proclaiming, “I’m just…so…afraid.” If you listen to some politicians you might imagine that the real solution to national security is to turn our nation into a giant panic room. As Springsteen sings, “Fear’s a powerful thing.” Fear, it seems, is our nation’s most popular pastime. Indignation runs a close second.
As Christians we may struggle to find the light of God breaking into the chaos of our time but I believe the promise still remains. Christ has come to bring redemption and reconciliation and lavish us with the riches of his grace. It may appear that there is no good news in this politically charged text just as it appears that there is no good news in this politically charged time. But Mark is an evangelist — a messenger of good news. So even in a story where the roof is caving in and there seems to be no reason to shout Hallelujah. I believe there is reason to shout — a reason as small and unassuming as the word, “it.”
Our text of rage, fear, and violence begins like this: “King Herod heard of it.” Like a mustard seed tossed upon the ground, it is the good news breaking into an old greek tragedy. It is the kingdom of God’s redemption knocking on the door of the kingdom of this world to offer healing and cast out some demons. It is the message — the good news — that Jesus had sent out disciples who are now preaching repentance and forgiveness and who are curing the sick. It is what starts this whole story off. And if you look at what follows this story, scripture says that the apostles gathered around Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught.
The violence of this text…it does not stop the work of Christ through his disciples. The story may seem lacking in good news, but it is there. The good news of Jesus and his disciples at work in this world literally surrounds and embraces this passage of fear and death. And I know it is there because disciples, like you, are out in the world of sorrow bringing word of reconciliation, care for the sick, food for the hungry, compassion for the hurting, solidarity for those who grieve. The roof may be caving in but there are hallelujahs all around…if we look for it…and as we look for it pray:
Be thou my vision O Lord of my heart.
Friends, good news is breaking in. As Isaiah writes, “Now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it?”
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
(Patrick Craig is a graduate student at Duke University Divinity School)