I find this story of the beheading of John the Baptist irritating, to be honest. I think it’s because it looks too familiar. It sounds as crazy as real life. I feel like the news often tells us about people who die or are killed or are left to die for reasons of honour or saving face. That’s what we have here. Herod likes John, we are told: liked to listen to him – but in the end John’s head is served in order for Herod to save the integrity of his promise to his daughter. A silly promise in which we probably assumed she would ask for a new dress or gold. Maybe you have to be impressed with the fact that he did what he said he would do.
But we aren’t told this story in the gospel of Mark just to hear about how John died. Mark in telling this story is pointing at Jesus.
King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.”
But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.”
But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
What had he heard about? Directly before this is the passage that we heard last week in which Jesus sent his disciples out instructing them to take nothing with them – and they preached and the people were changed by what they heard. Jesus’s ministry was permeating the landscape. He was beginning to shake things up. And not just him, but those who followed him too, his disciples.
So who was this guy? Who is this guy that so many of us have chosen to follow? And seriously why, when we know how this story ends, do we still choose this path?
John’s death under Herod, in this story points us towards Jesus’ death. Preaching repentance and change, preaching that God loves all, feeding the hungry and not caving to the political power of the time – that is and was very risky business. If this is who you are – you are going to ruffle some feathers. If you are trying to dig beneath the comfortable layers that many of us live on – you are going to be found irritating. Because it will mean that some of us will have to move – we will have to see what is underneath – we will very likely have to give some things up – things that make us comfortable.
If you read the story of Jesus as we have it – then I don’t think there is any way to be comfortable with politics that enslave non-dominant cultures or keep the poor, poor.
The people that Jesus is aligned with in this passage: Elijah – who collided with a weak King, prophets – who spoke truth to power regardless of who they had to say it to and made many uncomfortable, or John the Baptist who seemed crazy and lived way outside the margins but preached repentance, took God very seriously, baptised many, told Herod exactly what he thought and died for it. None of these are nice neat figures – all of them were about resisting the political power of the day and proclaiming repentance: reviewing your actions and changing.
So really, why follow such a radical figure? It sounds hard and uncomfortable. And personally, I don’t really like hard or uncomfortable. I like tidy, neat and relatively easy if I’m honest, and generally, I avoid uncomfortable.
But Jesus Christ and the story of his life and his followers, it speaks to my heart. The Gospel stories speak to what I want for this world, for our world and for the world that I am raising my children in.
I know that it’s important to see ‘other’ – to see and pay attention to people who are not like me. I know that when politics pays more attention to power and money than to people and human needs, I should be speaking up. I know that I should be telling the story of Jesus and his embodied love here on this earth, his ministry to heal and the listen and to share and to speak his truth – Gods truth about what it really means to love our neighbours and God above everything else, to everyone. And it’s a little bit scary. Because if I am to take todays Gospel seriously, then we know that the message of Jesus is not always received well. So what is the good news here?
What are we to take away from this? Where do we go? I think the invitation here is to keep following Jesus. I think that the Gospel writer is just being honest with us. Following Jesus is not an easy or comfortable task. It’s not easy to try to live into Gods truth and it doesn’t always look nice.
And we should probably just know that before we get started. But we should also know that the task before us is grounded in the love of God for us and for all. That following Jesus is about seeking and sharing love. It is based in the fact that you are loved and cherished and really important to your maker and that you are not the only one: so is your neighbour, so is this planet.
So why do we follow Jesus? Why not choose something easier? I have no idea what that easier would be, but I follow Jesus because Jesus is seriously all about love and his message encourages me to want to live better: to live as he encouraged his disciples to. The community that we have built (are building) together, is based in that love. Sometimes we follow Jesus just because the of community that we have built around his teachings but we are likely to do better following them together than we are alone.
I think we need each other and we need the teachings of Jesus in order to stand up for what we believe the Gospel is all about and in order to see that our neighbours don’t always look like us or like we expect them to, but that they are loved too. I follow Jesus even though it can be very uncomfortable, even though I know how his life ended, because the world that he worked to bring about is the one I want to live in. And the world that he lived in is this world, where people died for reasons that were not good enough – that is the world, we are the people he is calling to repentance and justice and love.