July 13, 2015 by jmar198013
Our Gospel reading for today—Mark 6.14-29—was a little strange, wasn’t it? And not just because it has a little girl carrying a prophet’s head on a plate to her mother. That’s not so much strange as it is gross. And brutal. And twisted. No, the reason our Gospel reading today was strange is because it wasn’t about Jesus. It was about John the Baptist. Mark’s back up to his old tricks. He’s wrapping one story inside another like a pig-in-a-blanket again. If you remember last week’s lesson, you’ll know that Jesus sent his Apostles out on a mission to heal and cast out demons and preach the kingdom of God. That’s Mark 6.7-13. And their story picks back up in Mark 6.30, when they come back to celebrate the success of their mission with Jesus. Smack dab in the middle of that is this story about King Herod executing John. Why would Mark interrupt telling us about the one time in his Gospel the Apostles actually got it right with such a gruesome tale? It’s kind of a buzzkill. Couldn’t Mark have chosen another time to talk about what happened to John? Actually, yes—he could have. The last we’ve heard about John was back in Mark 1.14: After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news. Why didn’t Mark just tell us what happened to John then? Or has John just been rotting in Herod’s prison for five chapters while Jesus’ mission takes off? No, because it’s clear in our reading for today that John has been dead for a while. After Herod hears about everything Jesus is up to, he is convinced that, John, whom I beheaded, has been raised to life. So he killed John sometime in the past. Mark’s story of John’s death is a flashback. But you know what else it is? Foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is a literary device where an author plants clues early in a story about what will happen later. John is executed by a weak ruler who can’t stand up to a crowd. And soon after John’s death, these rumors start going around that he has come back to life. Who does that sound like to you? This flashback about John is really a foreshadowing of what will happen to Jesus. So even this story about John is really a story about Jesus. What’s more, since Mark inserted it in the middle of the Apostles’ first mission, maybe it’s also a story for and about the church.
Mark’s flashback to John’s execution also contains flashbacks from Israel’s backstory. But the way they play in this story is jarring. They’re warped. For instance, in one of our readings this morning, we heard about how David . . . danced with all his strength before the Lord (2 Sam. 6.14). Now, in this passage in Mark, we meet another dancer: Herod’s daughter came in and danced, thrilling Herod and his dinner guests. David’s dance scandalized his wife, Michal. Herod’s wife used the girl’s dance to create a scandal. Thrilled by the girl’s dance, Herod vows to her: Whatever you ask I will give to you, even as much as half of my kingdom. That’s another flashback, but it’s also bent the wrong way. If you read Esther 5.3, and again in Esther 7.2, those are the exact words King Ahasuerus spoke to Queen Esther. When Ahasuerus said those words to Esther, what she asked for removed a death sentence from her people. By contrast, what Herodias’ daughter asks for in our story sentences John to death. By highlighting these echoes from biblical history in the story of John’s death, Mark is saying something: This is all wrong. This is not how it’s supposed to go down. And yet, we also know from biblical history that all too often, this is exactly how it goes down. Rulers almost always sought to silence God’s prophets by intimidation, imprisonment, and assassination. In fact, the image of a weak and foolish king goaded by his hateful wife into persecuting a prophet of the Lord seems to be a flashback to another story from the Scriptures. Anyone know what story I’m talking about? That’s right: Jezebel and Ahab’s war on Elijah. Oh wait: Did I just mention Elijah? Remember the beginning of our reading today? The buzz on the street about Jesus? Some of the people were saying, He is Elijah. Mark began his Gospel with a quote from Mal. 3.1: Look, I am sending my messenger who will clear the path before me. Later, the prophet Malachi made clear who that messenger would be: Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah . . . He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents (Mal. 4.5-6 NRSV). Because of these verses from Malachi, many Jews of Jesus’ day believed that the prophet Elijah would reappear before God sent his Messiah, to turn the hearts of God’s people. That’s interesting, isn’t it? Because when we first met John in Mark’s Gospel, he was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts (Mark 1.4) Mark wants us to understand that John was this Elijah who cleared the path for Jesus’ ministry by turning the hearts of the people. Jesus confirms this in Mark 9.13 when he tells his disciples: Elijah has come, but they did to him whatever they wanted. Likewise, Jesus explains, the powerful will reject and murder him, too. In other words, Jesus is saying that John was the Elijah Malachi had foretold, and Herod had stupidly killed him. It’s like some tragic comedy of errors. God had upheld his end, but humans were going off-script. And now Jesus is saying that the same thing will happen to him. This is all wrong. This is not how it’s supposed to go down. Maybe not, but given the history of prophets versus kings, it was inevitable. What kind of gospel is this? Everything is going wrong! Elijah has come, the Messiah is here; but instead of leading God’s people to victory and freedom, they’re being rejected and executed. Where’s the good news in that? Well, a lesson we can learn is, sometimes you have to wait on the good news.
In order to find the gospel—the good news—in the story of John’s execution, first you have to embrace the raw news. The gritty, ugly truth about life in a fallen world. About what’s wrong with me. With you. With society. With the system. Pretty much everything that’s warped about the human condition is on display in the story of John’s arrest and beheading. But it’s easy to rush through it and not notice the details if you think John’s primary role in salvation history is the set-up man for Jesus. You might notice that Herod is weak, Herodias is spiteful, and the days are evil. You might also suspect that while what happened to John was unjust, he was also sort of asking for it. He did, after all, put Herod on blast in public. Besides, he’s done what he came for. He prepared the way for Jesus, now Jesus is doing his thing. The problem with coming away from this story only recognizing that Herod was weak, Herodias was spiteful, or the days were evil is that we can too easily come away thinking it’s a story about someone else’s problems. We can think the story is saying Jews are rebellious, or that women tempt men to do bad things, or even—I don’t know—that dancing is sinful because it makes people lose their heads. We might even come away saying, Isn’t it great that we’re more civilized than those first-century Palestinians? After all, we don’t behead people over religious differences. But let me share a little secret I’m learning: Any time I read the Bible and assume it’s addressing someone else’s problems, I’m probably not reading it right. Mark will give us good news, and even this grisly story will help get us there. But we will only hear Mark’s good news as good if we’re willing to be honest about our own condition. Our own problems. Our own human problems. So Mark tells this story as a flashback—a thing that has happened. But he also tells it as foreshadowing—something that will happen. So this story about John’s arrest and execution says something about the way things have been, the way things will be. The way things continue to be. For me, for you, for our fallen world. It’s the raw news. My prayer for you, for me, for us right now is that we’ll accept this news without getting defensive. That we won’t try to dismiss it as someone else’s problems. That we’ll be convicted enough by the truth of it to want something else.
The story of John’s arrest and execution is one powerful example of what I’m calling the raw news. It’s how we perceive ourselves, our neighbors, and our enemies; it’s how we understand our place; it’s a way of being. Jesus called it the world. The Greek word behind it in Scripture is kosmos. Now, here’s what you need to know about this kosmos we inhabit. First, the kosmos is the creative work of a good God. So John 1.10 declares: The light was in the world, and the world came into being through the light. But John 1.10 also says, but the world didn’t recognize the light. That’s the second thing we need to know about the kosmos. It has become alienated from the God who created it. We have been estranged from the God who made us. Indeed, the kosmos may not even recognize its alienation from God. We might not even know that we are estranged. I might not even know how far I am from the ground of my being. Christians have a name for this break in the relationship between the world and God. We call it fallen. It’s essential that we understand all this, because unfortunately what has often happened in Christianity is that we think the world, the kosmos, has to do with the physical. The material world. The tangible, flesh-and-blood stuff. And we think we’re supposed to be about spiritual stuff. But what do we mean by spiritual? Usually, we mean the stuff out there or up there. The things you can’t see or feel or hear or touch or taste. God and Christ and the Holy Spirit and heaven and angels. We might even think that the tangible stuff—the stuff of earth—is bad, and the spiritual stuff is good. The problem with that is we might then minimize the evil that harms God’s creation and God’s creatures. Like we might not see that poverty or hunger harm people spiritually. We might not place a priority on taking care of creation, because we’re focused on a spiritual goal of leaving this earth and going to heaven. I’ve said all that to say this: When Jesus talks about the world, the kosmos, he’s not talking about the physical creation. He’s talking about fallenness. He’s talking about everything in creation that is estranged from God, and hostile to its Maker. He’s talking about how this fallenness alienates us, and makes us hostile to God and to one another. The biblical scholar Walter Wink liked to call this the “Domination System.” He defined this “Domination System”—this fallenness that makes us hostile to God and other people—like this: the “spirit-killing atmosphere [that] permeates everything, teaching us not only what to believe, but what we can value and even what we can see.” Wink even suggested substituting the word “System” for “world” when we read certain verses in the Bible. Like John 7.7: The System hates me because I testify that its works are evil. It’s not the physical creation that’s evil and hates Jesus; it’s the fallen kosmos. The raw news is this: we’re all dominated by it in one way or another. We’re all caught up in it. We’re all implicated. Even when we’re not complicit, we are often compliant.
Mark’s flashback to John’s execution describes how people get caught up in the Domination System all too well. Herod didn’t want to kill John. Mark tells us that Herod respected John. He regarded him as a righteous and holy person. And although John’s words greatly confused Herod, he enjoyed listening to him. Herod knew John was right to call him out for taking his brother’s wife. But he also knew that his position, his authority, and his security were fragile. A popular guy like John threatened to knock him off his perch. So he threw John in prison to silence him. Herod didn’t want to kill John. But his wife Herodias did. Why do you think she had it in for John? Because her marriage to the king was her security. And she knew Herod listened to John, even if he didn’t always like what he heard. If Herod listened to John about their marriage, she could lose everything. We also learn that Herod is something of a boaster. He needs to pad his ego, make himself feel big. So in front of all the big shots in his kingdom, he tells Herodias’ daughter: Whatever you ask I will give to you, even as much as half of my kingdom. You know what that is? That’s a man bragging, I’m so rich, I can afford to give half of it away. Herod was also a people-pleaser. When the girl came back and asked for John’s head, he had to know Herodias put her up to it. But he couldn’t say no to his wife. And he didn’t dare back out of his boasting in front of his powerful and popular friends. And what about all those guests at Herod’s party? Why did none of them have the backbone to stand up and tell him, This isn’t cool. Stop it!? You know what I see? I see a lot of dominated, insecure people. And I see a victim here other than John: Herodias’ daughter. Because her mom damaged her by involving her in this vendetta. Herodias taught her daughter that it’s acceptable to take out anyone you view as a threat. Everyone involved in the execution of John was caught up in something bigger than them. Every one of them was damaged by their involvement. That’s the raw news. That’s the kosmos. That’s the Domination System. And you know what? I can see myself, things I’ve done, things I’ve left undone, in that story. I hear some of my own story in it. Do you? The raw news we have to accept and own is that what we see in the story of John’s death is how it is, how it has been, and how it will continue to be if no one does anything about it. The good news Jesus offers is that it isn’t supposed to be this way; it doesn’t have to be this way; and it won’t always be this way.
Alright, church—by now it should be getting clear why Mark stuck the flashback to John’s execution in the middle of the Apostles’ first mission. It’s not a buzzkill. It’s a reality check. He wants the church to understand what we’re up against. What we’re being rescued from. What we’re rescuing people from. What we’re standing up to. What happens to people who stand up to it. The kosmos. The Domination System. What Mark is trying to tell us is being the church isn’t all about success. There’s more going on than going out and teaching and healing and triumphing over evil spirits and then coming back to get a high-five from Jesus. What happened to John can happen to us. It can happen to people we love. When we kick at the Domination System, it kicks back. That’s what happened to John. And that’s what happened to Jesus. Nobody killed Jesus because he told us to be nice and get along. They killed Jesus because he undermined the authority of the Pharisees and the priests. They killed Jesus because he barged into the temple, chased out the sacrificial animals, turned over the money tables, and called people out for profiteering in God’s house. Mark makes that plain. After the temple incident, Mark notes that, The chief priests and legal experts heard this and tried to find a way to destroy him. They regarded him as dangerous because the whole crowd was enthralled at his teaching (Mark 11.18). Jesus died for the same reason John did: because he refused to play by the rules of the Domination System. And he was determined to free others from its grip. What makes Jesus different isn’t why or how he died. He died for the same reasons John and many prophets before him did. He was crucified, but so were thousands of other Jewish men of his time. What makes his death different, what makes it special, what makes it capable of becoming good news, is that he is God’s Son. He is God in human flesh and he lives and dies on behalf of everyone who is damaged and broken and crushed by the Domination System. And that’s all of us. Now, God can say to all of us, They did it to me, too. But that’s not all that makes Jesus’ death different. What makes Jesus’ death good news is the event we call the resurrection. The resurrection is God’s resounding, NO!, to the Domination System. The System’s greatest weapon to keep us captive to its demands is death. But what happens when death no longer has any power over us? What if we know that death is not the final word? That’s what Jesus has done for us. That’s why Hebrews 2.15 says: by dying, He set free those who were held in slavery their entire lives by their fear of death. That’s why Jesus can say, I have conquered the world (John 16.33). He broke the Domination System, and he has made it possible for us to escape it with him. That’s why in Mark 10.45, Jesus says: the Son of Man didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people. Do you have any idea what people freed from the System and its threats of death can accomplish? One of the biggest growth events for the early church came in the second century when a plague broke out through the Roman Empire. Thousands of sick people were abandoned by their families. The doctors left first. Those people were enslaved by their fear of death. The System told them that self-preservation was a virtue. But Christians stayed behind and nursed their pagan neighbors back to health. Their service paid off in goodwill for Christians throughout the Empire. And what was the difference between the Christians and their neighbors? They knew death didn’t get the final word. They had escaped the System with Jesus, and like him, were free to serve and give their lives on behalf of others. They were free to live that way because they believed what Paul wrote in Romans 6: All who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death . . . If we died with Christ, we have faith that we will also live with him. Going back to our reading this morning, I think Mark wanted the church to act like we see it acting during that second century plague. But he also wanted us to be realistic about what can happen if we live that way: our obedience can kill us. I suspect that’s why he shoved that flashback of John’s death into the middle of the Apostles’ mission. It foreshadows the death of Jesus. And Jesus’ death gives us the resurrection that frees us. We are free to carry on Jesus’ work in the world in confidence and hope because his death and resurrection is God’s promise to us all: Things don’t have to be as they are now. Things won’t always be as they are now. Jesus has conquered the system.
 Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 53.