My husband Mike likes to ask people on their birthdays, what is your favourite childhood birthday memory? It’s amazing to see people’s faces light up as they recount stories about a surprising gift, or a hilarious party or a meaningful tradition. We all seem to have birthday memories that make us smile. Mine, by the way, is that every year, even into adulthood, my mom would make an angel food money cake, wrapping dimes, quarters and eventually loonies and twoonies in cellophane and tucking them into the cake before it was iced. That is my favourite birthday memory. I don’t think today’s scripture passage is anyone’s favourite birthday party story but it is probably one of the most well known birthday stories in the Bible. It has been the subject of incredible art, infamous operas, an Oscar Wilde play and a prime example of how perverse, vile and salacious Herod II’s kingdom really was. Trust me, I thought long and hard about picking a different scripture passage. This is a shared service, after all, surely I could preach on something a little more “lite”, but then, that’s what makes the discipline of preaching the lectionary so important to me. We encounter and tackle uncomfortable stories.
Many scholars point to this passage as the end of innocence for Jesus’ ministry.
Personally I think that the end of innocence happened the minute Jesus called fishermen on the sea of Galilee. Jesus was a disruptor, a boundary crosser, a whistle blower, and an agitator as well as a rebel. There was nothing “innocent” about his ministry. Jesus not only calmed storms and called out demons but pointed to the ways in which religion and society had strayed from their relationship with God. And Jesus garnered quite a reputation. We know this from the opening line of our text. King Herod had heard of Jesus because his name had become known. But that doesn’t make this passage any easier to preach!
Mark does some strange things by including this story. It needs to be treated as an interlude between two stories about Jesus. What perhaps we forget is that this interlude, between Jesus sending out his disciples two by two (which is described just before our passage) and the feeding of the five thousand (which happens immediately after) is actually a story about an event from the past. It harkens back to Mark 1:14 when, without any further words, Mark states, “Now after John was arrested…” For six chapters readers have been left hanging, wondering what happened to John, it just so happens that Jesus’ ministry was deep in development, so many of us forgot that the early prophet has been in limbo. Now, Mark uses this gruesome story to fill in the details. Mark also uses this story to foreshadow the disciples’ and Jesus’ future in ministry.
Before we get the details of this strange and frankly disturbing birthday party Mark tells the readers what others thought about Jesus. Word is spreading fast about his radical teaching and healing. People are baffled by Jesus and thus they try to explain Jesus by explaining who he might be, some say John the baptist, raised from the dead (the first indication that John has died), others say Elijah while others still think he is a new prophet like the prophets of old. We will hear similar words in Mark 8 when Jesus asks the disciples, “who do people say I am”, and then, “who do you say that I am?” Peter then confesses that Jesus is the Messiah and thanks to these short words in Mark 6 we now understand how profound Peter’s statement is. Jesus’ work is so outside the “normal” actions of religious leaders that people had trouble placing who he really was. We have had to adapt to “new normals” a lot in the last year and a half. At times it has been confusing, baffling, or bewildering. I have heard numerous theories that try to explain or rationalize what we have been through. But just like how people had trouble explaining Jesus and so claimed he was John raised from the dead or Elijah or a new prophet, sometimes by seeking explanations we miss the truth.
The truth is that John’s fate foreshadows Jesus’ fate. It stands to reason that if John was arrested for his words against the people in power, then Jesus will be too. If John was beheaded based on fear or a whim, then Jesus’ life is in danger too. Herodias, Herod’s sister-in-law and now wife, feared John because John wasn’t afraid to speak out against their marriage. John wasn’t afraid to speak out against the corruption and hedonism found within Herod’s kingdom. And please remember, this is Herod II, the son of the Herod who had all boys under the age of 2 murdered due to his own fear about Jesus’ birth. Because John wasn’t afraid, that made Herodias afraid of John. Fear can make us do irrational things. Fear can make us hold grudges. Fear resulted in John’s beheading, and fear is what put Jesus on the cross.
To be fair, not that I want to be fair to Herod, but Herod wasn’t really “afraid” of John. Herod’s original intent was to just keep John locked up. Verse 20 has a fabulous line, “Herod was greatly perplexed” by John. Like the others who are perplexed by Jesus’ teachings and abilities, Herod is perplexed by John’s words. But this perplexity is not necessarily fear but more bewilderment because Herod likes listening to John. Again, I suspect that many people, despite being baffled by Jesus’ actions and words, still liked listening to him. I think that the church can be a really baffling place. I have had many conversations with friends and strangers who say that they don’t want to come to church because they don’t know the rules, they don’t want to stand when they should be sitting or kneeling when they should be standing. They are baffled by our rituals. That has been one of the grace-filled gifts of this pandemic that people can just tune in without being worried about whether they are doing the right thing or not.
If I could pick a word for this week’s passage it would be “perplexing” because I find the whole passage perplexing. The people were perplexed by Jesus, Herod is perplexed by John and Herod is perplexed again when his neice/step-daughter asks for the head of John on a platter. Herod’s actions foreshadow Pilates’ reaction to the crowd asking for Jesus’ crucifixion. Herod wishes to “satisfy” his stepdaughter’s request just as Pilate, who washes his hands of the crucifixion, wishes to satisfy the crowd and orders Jesus’ death. This whole story is baffling but it is also setting us up with the knowledge that Jesus will go through a similarly horrendous and baffling event. And yet, out of that confusion, bewilderment, perplexity comes the story of the resurrection. God works through perplexing and baffling situations to expose the truth.
This is a birthday party that no one will forget but it is part of a greater story of grace and renewal and discipleship. John and Jesus spoke truth to power and that put them in precarious situations that perplexed people. But God broken through all the confusion and bewilderment to reveal grace, truth, love, and salvation. I’m still perplexed by a lot of things God does but instead of responding with fear it is important that we open ourselves up to that race, truth, love and salvation! Amen