I am not sure if you expected to come to church this morning to be confronted with the dramatic and gory story of John the Baptist! As with most gospel stories, there are many threads to pull at and some interesting characters to explore.
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. As adults they meet on the banks of the River Jordan and after a brief discussion, Cousin John baptizes his cousin Jesus which signals the start of Jesus’ public ministry. Jesus is on the up and John’s ministry begins to decline. Jesus goes off into the wilderness immediately after his baptism to face temptation by Satan; John gets arrested by Herod.
If you read the first few chapters of Mark you will see that Jesus is very busy. He travels around Galilee, gathering his disciples, encountering the Pharisees; begins his preaching, teaching and healing ministry. All the while John is sitting in prison. Jesus heard about John’s arrest and Matthew’s Gospel tells us that he withdrew to Galilee. We don’t know how long he withdrew from his activities but so overwhelming was this news that Jesus needed to stop for a moment.
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.
The next we hear of John is that he has been killed. Why?
Herod is not a good man, nor is he a good leader. He is no Gareth Southgate! 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 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.
Herod is confused, on the one hand Herodias wants John 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 even though he was publicly criticizing him and calling him an adulterer. Little wonder Herod was perplexed!
Herod’s confusion only grows when 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?
The death of John the Baptist 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 an 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. Even though he knew, had seen something of the truth in what John had been saying. Herod was deeply grieved, and still did the wrong thing.
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. This is one of those situations that begs the question, where is God in all of this?
There is always the temptation to rush an explanation: nothing happens in this world unless God wills it, everything happens for a reason, or my personal non-favourite ‘God doesn’t give us more than we can handle’. I really can’t believe that God wills teenagers to dance for the sexual gratification of old men. I can’t believe that God wills the senseless death of any of his precious children from beheading, starvation, genocide or Covid.
Giving us more than we can handle? You will not find that line anywhere in the Bible. It also suggests that if a person was less than who they are, less personality, less strength, less them; then whatever has happened (sudden death, illness, crisis) would not have happened to them. Again – not true!
The essayist, Debie Thomas, wrote this about the death of John the Baptist:
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 a 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.’
Maybe the story of Herod is here as a negative example for us; to show us what is at stake when the good news of Jesus and gospel is rejected. Maybe there is something about how we approach God, maybe a little too casually, too neutrally.
We may come with our questions and doubts but then get stuck and never move on. We live in a world of fake news, doctored images, relativism, live your truth and blatant lies. Why is it that when we hear the truth it is precious, it gets our attention.
What do we do with this? Ephesians 1 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 John the Baptist died or to explain away the senselessness of some deaths. This is about knowing who we are in Christ; 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 with 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 and come to understand who we are in Jesus, where we fit, what he has done for us then we have hope and truth. 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 this in the life and death of John.
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 think about things in a new way – take some time to contemplate your relationship with Jesus.