“The Death of a Prophet”
We've heard what the people of Nazareth thought of Jesus. They weren't too impressed. They rejected him, to Jesus' own amazement. Now Mark tells us what Herod thinks about Jesus. This is the Herod Antipas, who is the son of Herod the Great – and it was Herod the Great who tried to kill Jesus when he slaughtered the children of Bethlehem. It was also the same Herod here, Antipas, who was in Jerusalem and before whom Jesus stood on trial. So the mention of the Herod name gets us thinking both backward and forward in the New Testament witness.
Herod has heard of Jesus. Word of Jesus must have been all the talk. The miracles that Jesus performed – well, Herod reasoned in his superstition that Jesus was John the Baptist come back from the dead to haunt him. And the message of Jesus was similar to the message of John the Baptist – repent, and believe! And so Mark gives us a flashback scene – and tells us what led up to this when it comes to John and Herod.
The story is kind of disturbing, isn't it? Especially when you have to teach it to children. It's kind of grizzly. But if you can get past that part of it, you might still wonder why Mark, inspired by the Holy Spirit, would tell us such a story.
It would make a pretty depressing movie, I think. There's no happy ending in which the little guy is vindicated. John, this nobody from nowhere, who had given up the creature comforts of life to live in the wilderness – John, a voice crying in that wilderness – whose message was growing and commanding attention. People were responding in droves, as the Pharisees commented, “all of Judea is going to him!” And John, the voice of accusation toward Herod – learns that calling out the king's sin is dangerous business. I guess oday some would call it, “speaking truth to power”.
“Herod you married your brother's sister! Repent!” And if it bothered Herod, it REALLY burned his adulterous wife, Herodias. She wanted this voice silenced. She wanted John out of the picture. And so she has Herod arrest him. Oh, she wanted him dead, too... but Herod feared to go that far. For he knew, somehow, that John was a righteous man.
The conscience is a funny thing, isn't it? You see it in action here with both Herod and Herodias. Both of them were sinners, just like the rest of us. Their sin just happened to be more public. But that didn't stop John from speaking the law to them, from calling a sin a sin. But who likes their dirty laundry aired out for all to see?
Imagine a modern day parallel scenario in which a pastor has to call out someone's sin. Perhaps a couple wants to get married, but has been living in sin together, and everyone knows it. And the faithful pastor tells them this is wrong, this breaks the sixth commandment, this dishonors God's gift of marriage. Ah, but this couple - they're ok with the pastor addressing sin in general but not getting too specific. They're ok when it's someone else's sin. When the pastor rails on the sins of the secular, godless world. But don't point to my sin. Don't shine the light on me! If you've been around churches long enough you know this sort of thing happens, and it doesn't always end with repentance and restoration as we hope.
Or the older person who needs a word of correction about their habit of gossip. Or the person who's attendance or giving hasn't been what it should. Or the person who's ok with most of what the Bible teaches, but still wants to hold this or that teaching at arm's length.
But don't kill the messenger! When a prophet, or now a pastor, speaks and warns you of sin, calls you to repentance, it's not to be a self-righteous so-and-so or an old-fashioned meanie-pants. This is for your own good. It's the fate of your soul that hangs in the balance. We want you to turn from sin, be forgiven, and live! We want your conscience to be clear and clean, and your spirit renewed. And we pastors need to continually hear these same words of law and gospel that we preach!
Herodias had probably already silenced her own conscience, but she couldn't quite silence John's mouth. Herod seemed to be going back and forth, caught between Herodias and his own conscience. So he compromised and locked John in the dungeon. But this wasn't good enough for Herodias. She wanted full and complete victory over the voice of the law. So she waited for her chance, and she used her own daughter in part of her scheme. And she tricked the king, and got what she wanted. John's head on a platter.
And look how this story also shows us, that sin often ensares other people into its nasty web. And here, adulterous Herodias even puts her daughter on shameless display to get her way. She uses her to commit murder, and drags her down with her. Sin is contagious and infectious, and it always has been, ever since Eve said, “I gave some also to my husband, and he ate”. You may think your sin is your own business, but you may not see how it affects others. And Jesus warns us harshly about those who cause little ones to sin – it would be better to have a millstone around your neck and be thrown into the sea.
You can kill the messenger, Herodias, but the message remains. The word of the Lord endures forever. You can quiet and muffle your conscience, you can surround yourself with people who will either mind their own business or even celebrate your sinful ways. But it doesn't change the verdict. Just has Herod was afraid Jesus was John come back to haunt him – our sins can still haunt us, even from years and years ago.
I remember one older gentleman who was dying, and made a special point to confess to his pastor what he called, “the sins of his youth”, things he had done some 60 years ago. It was ancient history. But not to him. They say time heals all wounds, but the wounded and stricken conscience is another story. David spoke similarly, “I know my iniquity, and my sin is always before me.” Paul wrestled with the evil he hated, but found himself doing anyway. “What a wretched man!” he called himself.
No, there's only one way to a truly clean and clear conscience, and it's not by killing the messenger. It's not by twisting or re-writing the law. It's not by ignoring it. The only way is forgiveness, and that forgiveness is only through Christ.
John was the fore-runner of Christ. The last of the prophets who got what prophets so often did for their work – death. Jesus called it “a prophet's reward”. From an earthly view, John's story wasn't a happy ending at all. But the spiritual reality is greater. John was the fore-runner of Christ, both in preaching repentance and faith, both in bringing a baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and also in suffering and even dying at the hands of the wicked and powerful. But while John was the greatest man ever born among men, he wasn't worthy to untie Jesus' sandal. While John died in faith, for faithfully preaching the word of God, Jesus died for much more.
You see, in the cross, Jesus accomplishes the forgiveness of all sins. And yes, that includes your deep, dark sins. It includes the sins of your youth and the sins of this minute. It includes the sins that would shame you before men, and the sins that only your conscience knows. It even includes those sins that God only knows. While John's head was brought as a trophy on a platter for Herod, Jesus' cross stands as a symbol of God's love and mercy for the world.
And while Herod superstitiously feared that John had risen from the dead and appeared again as Jesus – we know that Jesus really DID rise from the dead, and appeared to his disciples. But Jesus doesn't come back to haunt us, or to throw sin back in our face. He conquers death for us. To show us his word is true. To vindicate his sacrifice as acceptable to God. And to give us a preview of the resurrection that awaits us – life beyond death for all his people. When he appears to his disciples the first words out of his mouth are not, “Why did you leave me when I needed you the most?” or, “Peter, how could you betray me?”. The first words are, “Peace be with you.”
Jesus brings peace to the troubled, sore and weary conscience. He brings rest to those who would labor to earn their own way to God. He brings hope to those in the despair of a life that is a trail of sin's destruction.
And so, yes, John the Baptist lives, even though he died. And one day John will rise bodily with all the other believers, and with you, dear Christian, in the real ending of the story. For though you die, yet shall you live. Though your sins were as black as death, Jesus makes them white as snow. Though you face death all day long, Jesus wins you the crown of life. For Jesus is a live, and because he lives, we live. Because he declared “it is finished!”, sin really is finished, and death has no future.
Go in his peace. Amen.