The Beheading of St. John the Baptist

29 Aug

The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, 1608....


This blog about today’s lesser festival that focuses upon the beheading of St. John the Baptist is taking a slightly different focus that normal. So instead I am posting this  short sermon I preached on today’s lectionary a year ago at All Saints Church, Clifton (Bristol).

The  beheading of John the Baptist is contained within a Markan sandwich. It is flashback into the past from the present time. This sandwiching technique (known technically as ’intercalation’) is where one story is wrapped around another. The best-known example is a combination of Jesus‘ cursing of the fig tree and his demonstration in the temple.

Mark is flashing back from them present story of the mission of the 12 to the death of John the Baptist. During their mission the disciples move forward, reproducing and extending the ministry of Jesus, which leads to Herod’s curiosity and the account of John’s death.

John’s death at the birthday feast at Herod’s palace, as all the marks of good story. You have an adulterous king, scheming woman, violent death and the young attractive dancing women. It could almost be an episode of Eastenders. Herod and his family would easily put the most dysfunctional modern family to shame, with Herod recently been defeated by the father of his rejected first wife. His first wife also committed adultery against Herod. There was also murder of family members and a little bit of incest spice things up. Happy families it was not.

But why did Mark include this story wherein Luke it is covered by a short verse or two? It is because the story is intentionally linked with the mission of the 12. Is partly to do with the reason that people thought, at this time, the Jesus was only a prophet in the same level as John. However this point could easily be made without the elaborate retelling of the story of the birthday party in the death. He could be carried out in a brief note as in Luke. So why is in hearing such expansive vivid dramatic detail?

I think this is because of two reasons. The first is the link to the message of the 12 to the death of John the Baptist, just as the initial preaching Jesus was linked to John’s arrest in chapter 1 verse 14. The second more is the parallel of John’s death sentence by Herod (a fact confirmed by Josephus – a contemporary historian) to that of Jesus is condemnation to death by Pontius Pilate in Mark 15. For John’s death foreshadows Jesus’s own death, for Jesus to his righteous and will be put to death because of political manoeuvring. Both rulers are favourably impressed by the Jewish religious figures whose lives they therefore would prefer to spare; both wish to please the crowd by gesture of magnanimity; both are manipulated to carry out the deadly hostility of the third-party; both this seemingly in charge, become unwilling actors in a drama beyond their control.

By the means of this parallel marks accounts the picks the death of John as a foreshadowing of death of Jesus, in the same way the birth of John foreshadows the birth of Christ. John is the messenger, the herald the advance guard as it were of Christ’s ministry. But the time has come, and this is what Mark showing, and Christ’s ministry must overtake that of his ambassadors in John. This is when Christ first takes a step beyond the claim of being a prophet of either equal measure to John or reincarnation of John.

The gospel pattern in which this text is a key element describes the relationship between the bearer of God’s message and the powers that be – the political powers. The relationship is a permanent relevance to us as the disciples of Jesus.

As witnesses of Christ, we should not be surprised when, despite some signs of a positive response, they are oppressed by the political or religious power structures. The gospel never promised us an easy ride and least of all the Gospel of Mark. In Mark the court of Herod, like the Sanhedrin and Pilate’s court, is viewed with a cold eye of realism. The rule is good intentions are engulfed by ambition, envy, fear and compromise. God’s faithful witness becomes the victim.

One way to read the passage then, is in terms of success versus significance. Success, as  the world measure it, is seen in the court of Herod. There we find the chief of state and his advisers, the military commanders, the leading people of the country; they are the ones who can afford leisure and pleasure – they can get what they want when they want. John the Baptist is alone his cell doomed and helps to save his life in shocking contrast the glitter of successful people’s time. Our minds are constantly focused and fascinated by wealth and power in the intrigue of Herod’s court, yet the significance of the text lies in the depth that starkly simple prophet inhabits the prison. The gospel here invites us to look closely at success and then to choose significance as we follow Jesus on his way.

The second reading from Ephesians shows us the significance and the success we can hold onto. Every spiritual blessing, but being adopted as God’s children to Jesus. We have been mid-beamed by Christ’s blood and forgiven our sins. We have the success we could need so what about our significance?

In our significance does come in following Christ in his way. As Amos says, I am no prophet… And I am no clergyman nor clergyman son. The Lord has taken me and the Lord is leading me into his significance, reliance completely upon the success of Christ on the cross.



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