Summer Reading: Trinity 7 – Beheading of John the Baptist

A rather heavy topic for a hot July morning! However I think it is unavoidable to talk about John and his death, his relationship with Jesus and the senselessness of death. This also helped me to reflect on my recent trip to Poland and visit to Auschwitz.

Trinity 7

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19
Psalm 24
Ephesians 1:3-14
Mark 6:14-29

This morning we will be looking at the story of John the Baptist as told by Mark. I like John – the more I read about him – the more I understand his role as one of the key people in the New Testament.

John arrives in Mark’s Gospel even before Jesus does – he is first on the scene as the front runner to Jesus’ ministry. It is good to remember that John and Jesus are cousins, they are family. Their mothers, Mary and Elizabeth are cousins. John and Jesus were born very close together – so would have likely known each other as children, played together, got into trouble together.

Think about your cousins for a moment – in my family cousins have always been important. I love my cousins! I pray for them regularly and try to see visit as many of them as I can when I go home. I am really close to the cousins on my Mom’s side of the family – they are more like extra brothers and sisters.

Other than your siblings – no one will know you longer in your life than your cousins! They will know you longer than your spouse or your children.
Anyway – On the banks of the River Jordan, after a brief discussion, Cousin John baptizes his cousin Jesus which signals the start of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus is on the up and John’s ministry begins to decline. Jesus goes off into the wilderness almost immediately after his baptism to face temptation by Satan; John gets arrested by Herod.

If you read the first few chapters of Mark – you see that Jesus is very busy – lots of travelling around Galilee, gathering his disciples, encountering the Pharisees; Jesus begins his preaching, teaching and healing ministry. All the while – John is sitting in prison. Jesus heard about John’s arrest and Matthew tells us that he withdrew to Galilee. His cousin was in jail. I think Jesus’ heart was a bit broken over this. We don’t know how long he withdrew from his activities – so overwhelming was this news that Jesus needed to stop for a moment.

Matthew tells us a bit more about John that Mark does – there are a few occasions when John’s disciples pop up to see Jesus with questions. John is being kept up to date with the goings on of his cousin Jesus as he sits in prison awaiting his fate.

In Matthew 11 we are told that John sent a message to Jesus asking: ‘if he (Jesus) is the one to come, or are we to wait for another?’ You can almost hear the ‘come on cousin! Get me out of here!’ Jesus sends John’s disciples back to him with the message to tell John what they hear and see – the blind are receiving sight, the lame are walking, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are being raised, the poor are receiving the good news. Everything that John had prophesied about is happening. So – yes – John – Jesus is the One.

This makes it okay to question Jesus – John who knew him from childhood, who dedicated his life and ministry to proclaiming the coming of the Messiah – had a moment of doubt as the four wall of the prison closed in.

The next we hear of John is that he has been killed. Why?

John had been sent to prison by King Herod. John had been attacking Herod over marrying his brother (Philip’s) wife (Herodias) illegally. They were in breach of the Torah (Jewish law) and John apparently kept pointing this out to them. John had also been announcing that the Kingdom of God – the true kingdom was coming. Herod wasn’t the real king; God would replace him.

Herodias wanted John dead – no question. She held a grudge against him – as only a woman can! Herod is confused – on the one hand Herodias wants Johns dead; on the other Herod knows John to be a righteous and holy man. Mark tells us that Herod feared John. Herod liked to listen to John; but it left him perplexed.

John was publicly criticizing Herod over his bad behaviour yet Herod liked to listen to him. The word used is to be at a loss about something; this was Herod after listening to John.

Have you experienced something like that – you hear something that you don’t like – even though it’s true – you don’t want to hear more but you can’t help yourself? This is the position that Herod is in. John remains alive and in jail as Herod is confused about what to do! Then an opportunity presents itself – Herod’s birthday party – a right royal knees up. All of Herod’s friends and other important people there.

His teenage niece/step-daughter Salome dances for the crowd and this is pleasing. Pleasing here means pleasing of a sexual nature. A teenager is dancing in an erotic fashion for a group of drunken men. Does that still happen today? Dancing teenager then goes to her basically evil mother to be told what to ask for – the head of JtB.

The death of JtB is one of the most shocking accounts in the Gospels I think. His death – is a senseless one! Lost his head for a dance from a over-sexualized teenager and her rotten mother. So meaningless! Herod proves himself to be a weak leader, total lack of conviction to do the right thing. He won’t lose face in front of the crowd.

Herodias his wife is pulling the strings. John is the innocent in all of this.

I know that I mentioned my trip to Poland last week – but I didn’t talk about going to Auschwitz. I had not been to a concentration camp before. I tried to park everything I knew about Auschwitz – forget what I had read or watched about it so not to be influenced or dramatize my experience any more than necessary.

What I hadn’t fully appreciated was that only about 25% of the people who arrived at Auschwitz – stayed there. As people got off the trains they were ‘selected’ based on the outward appearance of someone who could work. The others – mothers with children, the elderly and the disabled were taken almost immediately to the gas chambers & crematoria for a shower.

This is senseless of death on an unimaginable scale. What is left behind is displays of shoes, suitcases, hair brushes, combs, human hair. It was a really overwhelming experience! But the senselessness of it all has really made me think more deeply about it.

What do we do with this story? With the senselessness of death sometimes?

Sometimes we try to make sense of what has happened and provide an explanation – ‘Nothing happens in the world unless God wills it’, or ‘God has a plan’ or my favourite – ‘God doesn’t give us more than we can handle’.

I really don’t think that God wills teenager girls to dance for old men, I don’t think mass murder of millions of people was part of his plan. Giving us more than we can handle – is just untrue. You won’t find that line anywhere in the Bible and it suggests that if a person was less than who they are – less personality, less strength, less them – then whatever has happened wouldn’t have happened. Again – not true!

John is one of those people – and I’m sure we know them – who does the right thing and suffers anyway. His death accomplishes nothing – no one is saved or converted. It’s an injustice that hasn’t been solved.

One of the Christian writers, Debie Thomas, that I like to read said this:
Maybe in John’s story we are meant to learn something about how God works. Maybe “the point” of this Gospel story is to show us that all forms of transactional Christianity that promise us comfort, prosperity, and blessing in exchange for our good behaviour. Maybe the point is that God doesn’t exist to shield us from pain, sorrow, or premature death — however much it offends our sensibilities to admit this. Maybe the point is that we don’t need to slap purpose or meaning on all human experience. Maybe some things are just plain horrible. Period.

It’s tempting to read a story like John the Baptist’s and tell ourselves that it’s old fashioned — that it comes from a rougher, cruder, and more barbaric time. But of course the opposite is true. We still, right now, today, live in a world where faithlessness is an accepted norm. We still live in world where the innocent are detained, imprisoned, tormented, and killed. We still live in a world of sudden and random violence. We still live in a world where young girls are made to be sexual objects for powerful men. And we still live in a world where speaking truth to power is a rare and revolutionary act.

Closer to home, I still live in a world where I distance myself from people who tell me truths I’d rather not hear. I still live in a world where I worry more about sounding stupid or losing face than I do about practicing discretion, admitting my mistakes, and humbling myself in front of people I’m desperate to impress. I still live in a world where people within my reach live lonely lives and die meaningless deaths — and I barely notice.

What do we do with this? We could look to Ephesians 1 – this is a remarkably powerful statement about the glory of the risen Jesus. I want to be careful – I am not saying that this is the answer to the question of why JtB died or to explain away the senselessness of some deaths.
This is about knowing who we are in Jesus – we were chosen before the foundation of the world, destined for adoption as God’s children, we are redeemed by the blood of Jesus, forgiven of our trespasses. In Jesus we have been given the greatest inheritance and have been marked wit the seal of the Holy Spirit. All things will be gathered up in Jesus in the fullness of time.

If we can hold onto this – understand who we are in Jesus, where we fit, what he has done for us – then we have hope. We have something to hang on to when the senseless things happen. We have someone to take our grief to, somewhere to hang our uncertainty and confusion. We also have to work out that God may not operate the way we want him to either – that his sole purpose is not to make our lives easy and pain-free – again this is not mentioned in the Bible!

We might not know why things happen the way they do and we might never know on this side of heaven. But we do need to know who we are in Jesus and be reminded of what He has done for us. We see in the life and death of JtB. If you are not sure who you are in Jesus – or that sounds weird or strange – I will gently suggest that you might want to look into that! It might be time to read some new books or do a course – take some time to contemplate your relationship with Jesus.

The world might not make sense – but Jesus does!

Author: Sue Lepp

Newly appointed Priest-in-Charge of the Hambleden Valley Group of Churches and will start later in January 2021. Time for a new start at the beginning of a new year. I served my curacy in the Parish of Langley Marish and trained at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. Former Nurse in both Canada and the UK. Specialised in Palliative Care, Gynaecology-Oncology and a bit of Orthopaedics (just to keep me travelling). Worked as a MacMillan Nurse Specialist in a few specialities in London.

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