Psalm 85:8-end, Amos 7:1–15, Ephesians 1: 3-14, Mark 6: 14-29
The account of John the Baptist’s death which we’ve heard in our gospel today is a grim story, involving some high drama. Within it is the recipe for a classic prime time tv drama, lust, seduction, political ambition, and murder, in which even John the Baptist is overshadowed by the flamboyant figures surrounding his death. Mark vividly recounts the tragic convergence of a proud, unfaithful king, a vengeful wife, a subservient daughter, and a forthright prophet of the Lord. This story has provided endless inspiration for artists and writers ancient and modern. Titian, Caravaggio, and Gustave Moreau, among others, painted it. Oscar Wilde wrote a famous play – Salome – about it, which Richard Strauss then used for the basis of his opera. Ken Russell and Billy Wilder incorporated it in films. Probably no aspect of the New Testament apart from the passion of Christ has provided greater stimulation for the artistic imagination!
How very far away it seems from our own lives, more like an episode of Game of Thrones than everyday life in Kew (unless there’s something you haven’t told me about Kew yet). But if you take away the drama and flamboyant figures that so easily captivate our imagination, this is a story of the abuse of power over the powerless. A story of how God’s grace can permeate even the darkest moments of human existence, and one which encourages us to re-think the meaning of success compared to significance. And in that sense, it is a story which is perhaps not so very far from our own lives today…
Again, like last Sunday, in today’s Gospel passage Mark is offering us a story within a story. The story of the death of John the Baptists appears somewhat abruptly between the sending out of the twelve disciples by Jesus on their mission, and the feeding of the five thousand. The question is, why does Mark do this? Wouldn’t it make more sense to do as Luke does and add the news of the death of John the Baptist as a brief note after the account of the Baptiser’s preaching - before the ministry of Jesus begins? The reason Mark does this is because he wishes to unveil something more of Jesus’ identity and underscore the cost of faithfulness.
Mark’s account of John’s death at the command of Herod Antipas and Jesus’ death by order of Pontius Pilate have much in common. Both rulers look favourably upon their captives, who are prominent religious figures. Each ruler desires to spare the life of his prisoner. Both care more about pleasing their constituencies than exercising justice. Both act against their better judgement and condemn to death innocent men. Finally, both of the victims’ bodies are recovered by disciples and laid in tombs. The story of John’s death is a brief “passion narrative” of John the Baptizer that foreshadows the suffering and death of Jesus. The parallels between them ultimately help us redeem this story from horror to hope.
Mark’s Gospel, fast-paced, stark and spartan, is unique in its ability to hide what is plain and reveal what is hidden and this story of John’s death is no different. Hidden in plain sight is a world that is demon infested, and evil coexists with normal day-to-day existence, inflicting pain and chaos. No one is immune from this power, especially the innocent and the weak.
Mark’s is also a Gospel of extremes: on the one hand the preaching of the kingdom is welcomed and received with great joy; on the other hand, there is resistance and outright rejection. There is very little neutral territory. Within this fast-paced gospel we are compelled into the action and forced to see what we do not always want to see and hear what we might wish was left unspoken. A world that is in opposition to the innocent, a world where injustice and brutal power prevail.
The execution of John forces the reader to gaze into a world which seems on the face of it so distant from ours. Yet perhaps it’s horizons are not so far from our own. Almost daily the media bring into our comfortable homes images of needless deaths and the slaughter of the innocent. The rise of knife crime on our streets, modern slavery, the exploitation of the powerless and vulnerable. Life is not always comfortable and manageable. Whether we know it or not, there are people around us who are struggling through times of despair, loss of loved ones, broken relationships, abuse.
This passage reminds us that even in the darkest moments of human existence, God’s grace can still enter into that darkness and redeem it. Mark’s parallels made between the death of John and the death of Christ not only foreshadow the events of the coming passion, but because we know how the story ends, they encourage us to look ahead from this dark place of murder to the resurrection hope of Easter. God’s grace can permeate even the darkest moments of human existence. It is a grace that doesn’t gloss over pain or downplay the horror of evil. The passage ends with John’s disciples coming to retrieve his body and laying it in a tomb. Grace steps in and retrieves the broken body of the faithful prophet, just as it retrieves the story. This act reminds us of the disciples who took Jesus’s body to the tomb. In taking us to the tomb we are taken to a place of resurrection hope where death is overcome and all things are made new.
Another way to read the passage is in terms of success versus significance. Success, as the world measures it, is seen in the court of Herod. There we find the chief of state and his advisers, the military commanders, the leading people of the country; they are the ones who can afford leisure and pleasure, they can get what they want when they want it. John the Baptist, however is alone in his cell, doomed and helpless to save his life. He appears in shocking contrast to the glitter of the successful people of Herod’s court. For centuries our imaginations have been captured by the flamboyant characters surrounding John’s execution; yet the significance of the text lies in the death of that starkly simple prophet in Herod’s prison. John the Baptist, God’s herald to the coming Son, fulfilled that important role in his life’s work. Again Mark shows his ability to hide what is plain and reveal what is hidden. The Gospel invites us to look closely at success…. And then to choose significance as we follow Jesus on his way.
Amen Rev Melanie Harrington