Mark 6:14-29 (The Message)
14 King Herod heard of all this, for by this time the name of Jesus was on everyone’s lips. He said, “This has to be John the Baptizer come back from the dead—that’s why he’s able to work miracles!”
15 Others said, “No, it’s Elijah.”
Others said, “He’s a prophet, just like one of the old-time prophets.”
16 But Herod wouldn’t budge: “It’s John, sure enough. I cut off his head, and now he’s back, alive.”
17-20 Herod was the one who had ordered the arrest of John, put him in chains, and sent him to prison at the nagging of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife. For John had provoked Herod by naming his relationship with Herodias “adultery.” Herodias, smoldering with hate, wanted to kill him, but didn’t dare because Herod was in awe of John. Convinced that he was a holy man, he gave him special treatment. Whenever he listened to him he was miserable with guilt—and yet he couldn’t stay away. Something in John kept pulling him back.
21-22 But a portentous day arrived when Herod threw a birthday party, inviting all the brass and bluebloods in Galilee. Herodias’s daughter entered the banquet hall and danced for the guests. She dazzled Herod and the guests.
22-23 The king said to the girl, “Ask me anything. I’ll give you anything you want.” Carried away, he kept on, “I swear, I’ll split my kingdom with you if you say so!”
24 She went back to her mother and said, “What should I ask for?”
“Ask for the head of John the Baptizer.”
25 Excited, she ran back to the king and said, “I want the head of John the Baptizer served up on a platter. And I want it now!”
26-29 That sobered the king up fast. But unwilling to lose face with his guests, he caved in and let her have her wish. The king sent the executioner off to the prison with orders to bring back John’s head. He went, cut off John’s head, brought it back on a platter, and presented it to the girl, who gave it to her mother. When John’s disciples heard about this, they came and got the body and gave it a decent burial.
Right now I’m learning a new parenting skill - one that I know I will be using with Michael for many years to come...and it’s one that will change and evolve as he grows older.
That skill is: enforcing consequences...both positive ones and negative ones. It’s the skill of doing what you say you will do - even if those consequences are quick judgments made in frustration, even if they involve actions you’d rather not do (for example, we’re going to leave the party if you can’t stop throwing toys), even if it seems trivial -- like saying he can have a cookie if he eats 5 more bites of his dinner. (I never thought I’d be that parent, but you can’t resist the tide of this time-honored parental negotiating tactic).
Standing by your word is one of those important lessons that is foundational for trust - in personal relationships, in society, in our government...and going back on your word is frowned upon. As a parent, if I throw out a statement like, “we’re going to leave the party if you can’t stop throwing toys” and don’t follow through with it or change my mind, how can I set credible consequences for Michael in the future? What if the reason, however, he was throwing toys was because there was more to the story that I was unaware of - maybe a friend had pushed him, or he was overstimulated, or a full diaper was making him uncomfortable, or a whole host of reasons that - if known - wouldn’t be grounds for going home? When is follow through the right thing to do - and when is it right to change your mind?
Obviously, this parenting struggle is minor in comparison to the quandary that Herod faces in this morning’s text, where after a night of feasting and drinking and dancing, he is pleased with Herodias’s daughter and the entertainment she provided for the guests at the party thrown in his honor. So he asked the girl what she wanted - anything she desired, it could be hers.
It seems as though Herod thought her answer would be in the realm of property or riches or jewels - given that he stated that he would grant her request “even half of his kingdom.” Perhaps she even had this in mind as she went off to her mother to figure out what she should ask for. After all, such a request could mean social advancement, something that would have an impact on her whole family. But her mother Herodias has something different in mind -- Herodias, who carried a grudge against John the Baptist, instructs the girl to ask for his head on a platter. Perhaps this wasn’t on Herod’s radar, though he was well aware of her hatred of the man -- John the Baptist was in prison, after all, because he was trying to appease Herodias - and perhaps trying to keep her from killing John himself.
Her ire had been kindled when John had spoken against the relationship Herod had with Herodias (his brother Philip’s wife), even though Herod continued to regard him as a holy man, listening to him in awe, and returning to him again and again to hear his words.
So when the opportunity arose, she took it - and when the girl returns to Herod, wanting John the Baptist executed, head served up on a platter, Herod is dismayed, and, unwilling to go against his word in front of his guests, does as she asks. Clearly this was not what he anticipated would happen...and his regret is very much on his mind as this whole story is told as a bit of a flashback upon hearing the news about Jesus and what he’s been up to in the countryside - healing, teaching, and casting out demons. Herod immediately thinks that it is John the Baptist come back to life.
Herod - when faced with what is right or with going back on his oath, caves. He chose the easy way out as opposed to listening to that sense that kept drawing him back to listen to John the Baptist. He didn’t want to lose credibility with his peers by backing out - to be seen perhaps as weak or powerless or soft or lacking authority - decides to be faithful to his promise.
So is this an admirable trait - Herod sticking to his oath, regardless of the cost? Or is it a spineless move?
Normally, keeping your promise is a good thing. We applaud people who uphold their oaths. We like it when politicians do what they say they are going to do, uphold their end of the deal when we elect them into office. We value leaders who stick firmly to their convictions, no matter the resistance they may receive or the collateral damage such a commitment may require. But there are situations where there’s more to consider, especially when lives are at stake, or when you find yourself on the wrong side of justice, or when you are tempted to not to rock the boat and to go with the flow rather than changing your mind.
I think it’s easy to blame Herod, to point fingers and say “you spineless moron!” and criticize him for choosing incorrectly, and then to take that same finger and point it out in the world toward other people and leaders who have made similar compromises for the sake of amassing power, saving face, or not wanting to be seen as flip-flopping on an issue. But rarely do we take that finger and point to ourselves, looking inward to see the places where our practices are out of sync with the values we publicly profess - maybe we don’t go back on our word in as spectacularly a fashion as Herod did, but as human beings who are trying to follow Jesus, we daily face choices - some that are important and some that may seem inconsequential - that all either serve to enhance or weaken our credibility as Christians….and those decisions are a part of our public witness as a church as well.
Consistency and follow through on statements that have consequence and real-life impact are important and something that we hope for from our leaders and from each other. But when the statements we make don’t line up with what is right and true -- or when we say the right things but our actions don’t live up to what we profess - there is opportunity for conversation and growth - especially when it pertains to our own lives - and the chance to move forward more in tune with God’s kingdom than before.
And there are all times when the lines between what we say we believe as those who proclaim to follow Jesus and how we live that out aren’t that straight….the times when perhaps we fail to help out someone because they don’t fit the guidelines of what we deem as socially acceptable. The times around the dinner table with family or friends when we go along with a joke that makes us uncomfortable and we know we should correct but don’t. The times when we fail to give to charity because we really want that new cell phone or furniture for the house or whatever it may be. The times we say we are welcoming to others and then fail to listen to those with whom we disagree. The times when we judge or dismiss others. The times we don’t want to rock the boat or put ourselves at risk for the sake of compassion, justice, mercy, kindness, and love for all of God’s people, not just those who think and act and look like us.
Even though John the Baptist finds his unfortunate end in our story - I want to focus on what he was known for - the way he preached and proclaimed and prepared the people for Jesus and the arrival of God’s kingdom….and part of that process was baptism by water - a purifying, cleansing ritual - a sacrament that the church practices to this day. And the baptismal vows that parents make on behalf of their children and that we hope claim for themselves in confirmation or when we join the church...or that we make when we answer for ourselves in baptism...gives a picture of what we aim to do as Christians - both as individuals and as a faith community. We did this back at the beginning of the year, but it’s always good to revisit, so I invite you to look at page 34 in the red hymnal and see what kinds of things the Christian life includes -- and you’ll find not only this reliance and trust in Jesus Christ, not only this service to God through the church, but also resisting evil, injustice and oppression...repentance of sin...renouncing the spiritual forces of wickedness that pervade the systems of this world.
These are the promises that we have made - that we have claimed - as those who have been baptized, as those who strive to follow Jesus. To be sure, each one of us isn’t perfect, and we thank God for that grace that surrounds us when we don’t live up to these vows, that allows us to grow and to take ownership of our sin when we fall short, and that enables us to let Christ take root ever more firmly in our hearts. But we need to take that look within ourselves - within our own hearts - in order that God’s love may be the force that draws us into action and be the motivation for what we chose to say and do.
We live in a time and a place that needs us as faithful Christians to stand for what is right - not only in our nation, but also in our communities and in our relationships. To help those around us imagine a world where the Herods - instead of abusing their power, instead of trying to save face, chose justice and compassion. To help others see the humanity of those our society tries to demonize. To help those around us envision a different way of being in this world. And so may we step out of those safe and comfortable places to take a stand for what is right...to step out of going with the flow of our culture and into the flow of the baptismal waters...the flow of love and grace that streams from Jesus...and to follow through our profession of faith in Christ with a life lived in hope and compassion, forgiveness and peace. May our words and our actions - especially when we acknowledge the places we aren’t there yet - point to the wideness of God’s mercy, faithfulness, and love...so that God’s kingdom may yet come on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and five year old son and 2 year old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.