First Lutheran Church
July 12, 2015
ENDINGS AND BEGINNINGS
One of the horrors of the ISIS movement in the Middle East is the kidnapping, torturing and murdering people who oppose them. Christians are a primary target of ISIS, and it has been documented that many beheadings have taken place in the last several months. Our brothers and sisters of the faith are part of a long line of innocent folk who have been slaughtered in dark dungeons of political intrigue while searching for justice and truth. John the Baptist was one such person, although his mission was unique. As the forerunner of the coming Messiah he was a prophet, naming the truth, calling the people to repentance, urging them to watch and be ready. All of this got him on the wrong side of the powers and principalities that ruled Galilee where he preached.
Herod was actually Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. Herod Antipas was not, in fact, king, but a tetrarch, or governor over one-third of his father’s empire. His portion was Galilee and Perea, and he ruled at the pleasure of Rome. As Mark described him, he was easily seduced, by power, by wealth and by dancing princesses. He painted himself into a corner with his illegal and powerless oath, for the kingdom was not his to give away. He knew he had made a fool of himself, but he did not have the moral integrety to extract himself from public humiliation. The princess and her mother used that humiliation to make Antipas do what he would not do on his own—execute John the Baptist.
The execution is told as a flashback. Herod is receiving reports about Jesus’ growing influence in the region. As he mulls over the information, Herod began making connections. The text says, King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known..But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised’. The central question of Mark’s gospel is Who is this Jesus? The mission of the Twelve had stirred up the whole countryside, but the crowd continued to be confused about who Jesus is. For some he was Elijah, the one who prepares the way for the coming messiah. For others he is like a wonder-working prophet. As far as Herod is concerned, Jesus must be John come back from the dead. Clearly, he was haunted by the memory of John.
The first verse of Mark begins this way; The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. From there, Mark unfolds the story of Jesus of Nazareth, leaving it to the readers to discover who this Jesus is. If they read with the ears to hear and the eyes to see, Mark trusts that they will also understand the Good News, even in a dangerous and frightening world. Mark’s church needed to hear this. The gospel was written about 60 years after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Rome was beginning its systematic persecution of the church, and believers needed to hear the reassurance embedded in the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
We need to hear the Good News too, because we, like God’s people through the ages, are prone to interpret our troubles as a sign that evil is winning. Regional conflicts are found all over the world, far beyond ISIS in the Middle East. Greece is the most visible place where people are being crushed by heavy debt and poor economic opportunity. Nuclear talks with Iran remain rocky and uncertain. It is the season for unchecked raging fires on both coasts and the oceans keep churning out hurricanes and killer storms. The perpetual presidential campaign continues to spend obscene amounts of money. Add the chronic problems of hunger, unemployment, racial tension and economic inequities, and the world feels very out of control, as though evil is indeed winning. The only voice which rises above all that is the voice of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is at hand. Our very souls depend upon having the ears to hear Jesus above all that clangs and clamors to drown him out.
The deaths of John and Jesus warn us that faithful discipleship is a difficult one. Believers in every time and place have been beheaded, crucified, thrown to the lions, caught in the crossfire of religious and ethnic warfare, burned out of house and home or suffer ridicule and scorn for seeking to follow the teachings of Jesus. The truth-teller’s road is narrow and filled with potholes. We should not expect applause for preaching prophetically, yet we are still called to share the Good News.
Sharing the Good News cannot be done unless we can answer the question, Who is this Jesus? with certainty. Who is this Jesus? is the elemental question of faith. Everything else depends upon it. Mark calls him Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Jesus is not only the bearer of the Good News, he is the Good News. Is that worth losing one’s head over? It was for John, and what happened to him was barbaric and tragic. But the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God endures. Even as the opposing forces of evil line up to obliterate all that is beautiful and true in this world, they cannot finally prevail.
John was beheaded but Jesus and the 12 continued to preach the Good News. Jesus fed 5000 hungry and weary people with bread and with Truth. He cast out demons and he challenged the power of the Temple and of Rom, and he paid for it with his life, as John had before him. But the power of God will prevail, and the light of Christ continues to shine in the darkness. Look for it in the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
To God be the glory. Amen.