I was asked this week – What industry do you work in? To which I answered – the good news of forgiveness industry – frankly – a much more accurate statement than saying – religion. At ordination a priest is told: You are to preach, to declare God's forgiveness to penitent sinners, and to pronounce God's blessing. So for me, that’s the underlying message of every homily or sermon – no matter the theme or season.
But my friends – Mark does not make that easy this morning. No he does not! Martin Luther quipped a priest should be able to squeeze a passage until it yields good news…so, I’d like to try that. Maybe not squeezing it so much – as delving into the details – for God, not the devil, is in the details.
This story is unique – first where’s Jesus? This is one of the longest stories Mark tells – a gospel writer known for his brevity – but Jesus is no where to be found. Except at the beginning when King Herod gets wind of him and his disciples. Herod had heard that Jesus and his disciples were going out, spreading a message of forgiveness to penitent sinners – healing the sick – bringing restoration to the outcast – reaching out to the poor – and turning hearts and minds towards God.
And hearing that – Herod has a flashback – a memory of a man he once enjoyed listening to who said and did the same – and whom Herod eventually killed.
Herod wanted his brother’s wife. Herod was a rich and powerful king – and people with absolute power tend to be corrupted absolutely. As an aside – we will see this with King David pretty soon. He is dancing with gratitude and joy before the ark of God this morning – overwhelmed with awareness of God’s blessing and presence in his life – but in just a few Sundays he too will be seduced by his own power, forgetting God – and he will see Bathsheba, someone else’s wife – so he will arrange for her husband to be killed. An age-old story of powerful men taking who they want – when they want. One that almost any daily news cycle tells us – still plays out today.
Herod liked listening to John the Baptist, though. He just didn’t like being told what he had done was wrong. We can relate to that. None of us do. And maybe Herodias bore her grudge against John because she was scared of his influence. What if John the Baptist got Herod to repent and leave her – and then where would she be? She has a daughter to take care of? Yes, ok, maybe she is just as wicked as her husband and revels in her own power of holding a person’s life in her hand. Maybe. But it could also be that she is protecting herself and her daughter by silencing John the Baptist for good.
Gospel stories are not Aesop fables. These are people, like us. Taking time to delve into their humanity to get curious about the variety of motivations behind their words and actions – helps us relate to shared realities – helps us see the kingdoms of the world that God works with and through. Gives us hope that God is always at work – that our failings, our weakness – are actually opportunities for God to break through.
Mark has inserted a “way of the world” story into his gospel to highlight the ways in which kingdoms of the world conflict with God’s dream for all people. Herod and Herodias represent a value system, that would have been known as much to the first hearers of this text as it is to us.
It is a cynical, might makes right vision that views John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ message of repentance and good news as weak, unrealistic and irrelevant.
Herod makes an offhand promise to his step-daughter, his niece technically – in front of all his guests. Had he not, John the Baptist probably would’ve survived this birthday banquet. In Herod’s kingdom – what other people think of you is of primary importance. Its more important than what is right or wrong. Even though Herod knows that John the Baptist is a righteous and holy man – and his heart is moved by John’s words – that is not enough. Its like the seed that falls on that soil but it just doesn’t take root. The weeds of crowd-pleasing take over. And his wife wants him to do it – so two birds, one stone (or head).
In popular imagination, in plays and movies, even an opera – this story has morphed into one where (surprisingly) the child is to blame for what happens. The girl, Salome, seductively dances for Herod – dance of the seven veils. Why have we added to the story in that way? Its not there. Maybe because the actual story is much harder to take in.
A child – probably around 12 years old dances for her dad – because she’s a kid and that’s something kids do. Because she wants to please her dad – as kids do – AND she wants to please her mom. She doesn’t ask for what she wants – she asks for what her mom wants. Clearly the kingdom system of how things work is already very clear to this young girl – and so she acts accordingly.
So – where is the good news in this story? Hmmm – no matter how much I squeeze this text I don’t think there really is good news in it. The good news is that this is not the end of the story. Yes, there will be kingdom systems and people that operate like Herod and Herodias. But there will also be people who speak up like John the Baptist – and people who walk in the way of love – like Jesus. There will be people like the evangelist, Mark – unafraid to name realities of the world they lived in – which means you and I can too.
Because the person of faith knows the whole story. We hear this story and can draw parallels to our common life – our individual life even – the messiness of our motivations when we are not living into who God created us to be. We hear this story and then we pray – We hear this story and we confess to God that we too have not loved with our whole hearts – we too – have not loved our neighbors as ourselves – and then we hear God’s forgiveness – some incredible good news – God always forgives.
“With all wisdom and insight God has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”
In our letter to Ephesians – at least – the fullness of the God’s reality is sandwiched between the powers and principalities of worldly kingdoms and their rulers.
"For in Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, to be a part of God’s purpose – to set our hope on Christ – because we have heard the word of truth, the gospel of salvation, marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance always moving us towards redemption as God's own people."
We are people who are created to live and breathe and share good news. We gather at this altar to be fed – wherever we are in our own story – we place it within God’s. We hear how God’s loving and saving redemption that has been ongoing since creation. We open our hands and receive the truth – the bread of life – that God loved us deeply and so desperately that God became one of us – fully human with all the messiness that entails.
We take in that good news this morning – and we hold onto when things get messy – because God is always moving us towards redemption. And that is the good news all of us can share – in our own way – as people of faith – holding fast to God’s promise. Amen.