Death of John the Baptist

2 Samuel 6.1-5, 12b-19

Ps 24

Ephesians 1.1-14

Mark 6.14-29

Sermon by Lauren Martin

Is it just me, or have any of you ever wondered why in the Gospel Mark the author decided to place the remembering of John the Baptist’s death between the sending out and the coming in of the Twelve disciples? Jesus had just sent out the Twelve to proclaim repentance, cast out demons and to anoint and heal, and then suddenly we are thrown into the story of the demise of John the Baptist, replete with drama, intrigue and murder – as many good stories since do!

What could this story possibly have to do with mission? What could it mean for us as we live out our faith? Could Mark have just become a bit distracted as he was writing, or was there no better place to include this story?

There are many theologians who, over the course of history, have pointed out the many similarities between the account of John’s death and that of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Some see the story of John as a prefiguring of these events to come. In both cases the good righteous person is put to death at the insistence of those who are not in the position to carry out this desire, whether these are the Pharisees and the crowd, or Herodias and the birthday banquet guests. Ultimately the person in the position of power (who seems to be lacking power to go against the majority) over life or death for the victim, appears reluctant to do so until backed into a corner. Pilate and Herod eventually sub-come to the will of the majority.

In the case of John the Baptist, Herodias (Herod’s sister-in law and now wife) desires John’s death, but John is protected by Herod. Herodias’ daughter Salome (or also called Herodias), perhaps was unwittingly caught up in this plot. The little girl (as the use of the word korasion, little girl suggests) dances at Herod’s birthday feast. Herod is impressed, and backs himself into a corner, swearing an oath to give the little girl anything, up to half of his kingdom. Herod, although king, is now placed in a position with the least power. In swoops Herodias, as the girl goes to her mother for advice. Herodias takes full advantage of this opportunity to fulfil her desire to have John the Baptist put to death.

Here we see scapegoating in action, as John the Baptist is put to death for speaking out about Herod marrying his sister-in law. Later in Mark, we again meet scapegoating in the death of Jesus Christ.

The head of John the Baptist on a silver platter is the final scene in this drama of intrigue and murder. A drama that stands in stark contrast with the sending out of the twelve who were to proclaim the need for repentance, to cast out demons and to anoint and heal the sick.

Just as the Twelve were sent out to proclaim and heal, we are also called to act. The death of John the Baptist could lend itself to inspiring rebellion, anger and pride, as can be seen in many Irish and Scottish folk songs. Could that be what Mark is suggesting? How would rebellion, anger and pride fit in with the the Gospel message of Jesus Christ? Would it be against what the Twelve are called to do, which is proclaiming and healing. After all Jesus tells them shake the dust off their feet and move on if they aren’t welcome.

Could the story of John the Baptist have a more subtle purpose? Perhaps the similarities with the death of Jesus Christ may help us not to put the crucifixion of Christ high up there on a pedestal for the wrong reasons. Crucifixion was not only used only on Jesus, St Peter was also crucified. Jesus Christ was not the only scapegoat in history, we have the story of John the Baptist and scapegoating is still something found today, for example in the culture of victim blaming, as is peer pressure and the desire to just fit in.

Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and uniquely was able to expose the powers of sin and evil and death, and bring us into a new and everlasting relationship with God. A God who is not unattainable, but who is with us. A God who knows what it is like to suffer, who stands in solidarity with the suffering and the marginalised past, present and future.

The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, (John 1:14) God was not isolated from us, but  through Jesus Christ, suffered as one of us. The story of John the Baptist can help remind us of this and of what we are called to. Even in the midst of our most fallible human moments, God is with us, knows us and continue to stand with us, but that is not all. We are also called to go to those who are suffering, not with anger, pride, rebellion or scapegoating but by responding in love.

This is not something that is unobtainable, but has been made possible through Jesus Christ. We are able to enter into a relationship with God, who is not removed and isolated from us. We are adopted as children of God through the sacrament of baptism, and it is through this adoption that we are called to participate in the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This call that we all share is a call to participate in exposing scapegoating, in standing in solidarity with the marginalised, whether that is around indigenous issues, environmental issues and conservation or the reaching out to the marginalised and forgotten people in the community around us.

The death of John the Baptist helps to remind us that the death of Jesus Christ was not some ‘out there’ event, that we can’t quite reach and is inaccessible, but that it is indeed a very real accessible event filled with human failings such as scapegoating, peer-pressure, and suffering. Through adoption as children of God, by the grace of God, we have access to God, we are filled with God’s Spirit and are called to participate in the unique, yet accessible call to live our lives in the light of Christ. In being freed from the powers of sin and death, and in having the freedom to enter into a relationship with God, we are not suddenly whisked away in to a utopia, but are called to face the sufferings and divisions in the world today and most importantly to respond to those with love. In the world where there is be no magic wand to fix the injustices and sufferings present today, we can and are in fact challenged to speak out in love.

The story of John the Baptist is extreme and not one we are likely to encounter in our everyday lives here in Australia. This call is not to rebellion, but to respond to issues with love. One example of this can be seen in the media in the recent ad campaign against domestic violence. These short TV advertisements show about 3 or 4 different scenarios where a listener, bystander or witness is challenged to ‘un-mute’ themselves when faced with behaviour that may be either a red flag towards abuse and control or ingraining an attitude of disrespect towards women. This un-muting can also be seen in our own lives as we speak out against injustices or other acts of wrong doing. This could be calling out the detrimental effects that single use plastics have on our environment, or challenging ourselves with plastic-free July. For example, in this past week speaking out may have been in the form of standing in solidarity with and celebrating beside our indigenous brothers and sisters the achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples during NAIDOC week. Speaking out at times may mean that we are going against the majority in order to speak truth against acts of scapegoating in the face peer pressure, just as we heard of in the beheading of John the Baptist, and in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. To act in love towards one another, to speak out in truth and un-mute ourselves is our choice. A choice to stand in the truth of God, to participate in and continue the mission of God. A mission made possible in Jesus Christ, in the sending out of the Twelve. A mission that will continue far into the future – to stand in the light of Christ.