There are no two ways about it. The story before us now is one that always turns my stomach.
Not that I’ve ever been a huge fan of John the Baptist although it is likely I might have felt differently about him had I actually encountered him in his prime. Then perhaps his choice of attire and diet would not have seemed so strange for I would have been more familiar with his association with the prophet Elijah. And while I can’t imagine I would ever have been comfortable with John’s very direct and occasionally accusatory preaching style, apparently his message of the need for repentance hit home, for the people were flocking to hear him.
It was apparently no different for Herod, who also found himself admiring John, almost in spite of himself. While we are not told where and how Herod first encountered John, in today’s lesson we are told he doesn’t quite know what to make of John. On the one hand he seems to be almost afraid of him. On the other hand, we hear that he liked to listen to John. As mixed as he was on the matter, I suppose it comes as no surprise that in the end, Herod had his reputation, his pride, his power to protect. So when John stepped out of line and his criticism became personal, Herod had him put into prison.
And as we hear again today, it all goes down hill from there. Some of the details are denied us in Mark’s account, but even so it doesn’t take much to let our imaginations picture the scene of an extravagant birthday party where as the wine flowed freely, both inhibitions and tongues were loosened. Pretty soon Herod is promising the young dancing Herodias anything she wants and not long after that Herod finds himself backed into a corner. He doesn’t appear to have the courage or the moral fiber to weigh the difference between a promise made in a drunken show of extravagance and one that is more carefully thought out. At this point Herod seems to care only about his reputation and so he keeps his hastily made promise to Herodias and before we know it John’s life is ended in a most gruesome way.
It always makes my stomach turn, the sordid, pointless waste described before us here. And while it’s true, of course, that the story of John’s execution in many ways parallels and foretells that of Jesus’ own death, I find myself wanting to go deeper into this story itself for its own sake. Not the execution exactly, but rather Herod’s experience of continuing to be haunted by John. For at the beginning of this week’s Gospel we hear that Herod has taken note of the amazing ministry of Jesus’ disciples. And Herod is certain that even though he received the certain evidence of John’s death, somehow he ties to the witness of John and he’s convinced John is back.
And so it seems to me it must have been some powerful witness lived and spoken by John. And all he did was speak the truth. The truth about Herod and his brother, Philip’s wife, to be sure. But also the larger truth about the importance of repentance in our lives and the even larger truth that was shared through his entire life as he pointed always to Jesus “the thongs of whose sandals he wasn’t worthy to untie.” (Mark 1:7)
In fact, the sort of fascination Herod had with the fore-runner John is something that has never ceased so far as I can tell. A few years back I was fortunate enough to be able to travel to Istanbuhl. As we were touring Topkapi Palace I was treated to the sight of “part of John the Baptist’s arm” in a corner display case. I cringed at the sight and confess no small measure of disbelief. Still, I’m reminded that it doesn’t go away, this desire to know for certain that John once was. A few weeks ago, in fact, a story popped up on my news feed asserting that once again it was believed that perhaps the bones of John the Baptist had been found. (Don’t ask me if the aforementioned part of his arm was at some point somehow separated from this most recent collection!)
One wonders why we want such physical proof of John for we really know little about his life. Indeed, all we really know of John are the names of his parents and the fact that his birth was unexpected. All we really know of John is that his diet and wardrobe were odd, at least by our standards. All we really know of John are snippets of his preaching, recorded and passed along for us to hear again each Advent. Still, we wonder at him, this fore-runner of Jesus. It make me think, to be sure, that one witness is a powerful thing. For all John tried to do was clear the way in the hearts of his hearers for Jesus to be known. All John tried to do was get himself out of the way so that all God’s people could know the gift that Jesus was and is.
So it seems to me it doesn’t take his bones to prove that John once lived. The certainty that John once was lies in the truth of this witness which still rings true for us and sometimes through us as we seek to do the same…helping clear the way and getting ourselves out of the way so that others might encounter Jesus. With or without his bones, we have plenty of the evidence that John was. Wherever we encounter another who, like John, points the way to Jesus. Whenever we who follow Jesus find ourselves seeking to do the same.
It was, indeed, one powerful witness John shared for it was one that pointed to Jesus. Herod’s reaction reminds us today that the witness does not die even when the person does. For the object of that witness lives. In Christ Jesus and in all who follow him still.
- What do you make of the gruesome story before us now? What is the ‘good news’ of this story for today’s listeners?
- Why is it that we yearn for ‘tangible proof’ of the faith that is ours? Would it make any difference to you if it could be proven that the bones of John the Baptist had been found? Why or why not?
- What’s the power of a witness? Who do you know who has functioned like John the Baptist? When have you been called to do so?