Today I have invited a special guest, well – sort of. Mark, Gospel Writer, is here through the power and magic of “Creative Non-Fiction,” to be questioned about what we’ve just heard in his gospel. I know what you’re probably thinking right now and no, I haven’t lost it, nor have I been hearing voices. Just fire up your imagination and just come along with me.
So Mark, you have this story about John the Baptist’s beheading – which is neither edifying nor uplifting that I can see. We Episcopalians don’t take to this sort of pleasantness. Would you comment? “Steve, your lectionary gives you other choices. Preach on one of them next time. Unpleasant, you think – well, the whole world doesn’t jump and up down to welcome the coming of God’s Kingdom in Jesus. Ones who benefit most from Caesar’s order can get nasty protecting their vested interests. Evil exists. We constantly run into it – sometimes head on, so to speak.”
In your opening chapter you let us know John’s in prison. Why wait until now to tell us how he dies? “Each of us writing a gospel has a different story to tell. For me, it fits better here. John is fading. Jesus is on the rise. Did you get the irony of two banquets, by the way? Herod throws himself a drunken feast where John turns into the main event. The story you’ll hear next week is Jesus miraculously feeding the hungry. God versus worldly powers incarnated in Herod and Caesar, get it?
Mark, Herod Antipas comes off pretty pathetic. How do you assess him? “Well, he was as bad as his father, Herod the Great – whom, by the way, I think he should be called the ‘Not-So-Great.’ Junior was indecisive. In trying to please everyone, he fails to please anyone. The Jews never really accept him, nor he them. When he makes his solemn oath that fateful night, he steps into a mess. Herod didn’t intend to kill John. All would have been well, had daughter not sought mother for her advice. He was weak, insecure, feared he’d look bad to his friends, and didn’t have the guts to tell Mrs. Herod to butt out. You see, earlier John called Herod out for dumping his wife to marry his brother’s wife. Herodias, bless her heart, so sweet and forgiving, only wants John’s head. His disciples can have the rest. What sad, insecure and lonely lives to have to live.”
Okay, Mark, you report John’s death, the claiming of his body and burial – that’s the end? So where’s the good news? We’d like to hear it. What am I missing? Speak from your heart, Mark.
“Steve, as I said earlier, being called of God has its down side. Trouble hunts you down when you follow Jesus. No one, not even Jesus, will bail you out. John, sitting in prison, begins to doubt if what he’d been preaching even matters. Whatever kingdom is coming will be too late for him. Jesus acclaimed John the greatest prophet ever. John never gets the word. That’s a shame. John’s faith and hope hit bottom. Yet isn’t that the way it is for us? A lot of people in your day wonder, ‘yeah, where is this kingdom? Why isn’t Jesus helping me? Does my life matter – will it count for anything?’ You may never see it or think so – but your life matters to God. The story isn’t finished until God writes the Epilogue.
Good news you want – through even these flawed characters good news can reach us, if we pay attention. They help us be more honest about ourselves. Like Herod many of us want to please others and get along. We get blinded in the headlights of our egos. We think we are in control and reach for power not ours. And like John, we want to do the right things. We scratch and claw just to exist some days, let alone dream of some abundant life just ahead that never arrives. We lose hope and grow discouraged. And like Herodias, we do whatever it takes to get whatever we want. We can sometimes be nasty and vindictive. And the Herod family – well, our family relationships can be pretty messy, imprisoning us in hurt and anger for years. Here’s some good news – God can take messy lives and use them for good. When we pay attention, we find moments that shimmer with God’s presence, as well as moments darkened with God’s absence. None of us knows what may hit us next – see what’s coming around the bend. In our flawed, messy ways most of us are trying our best, hoping for a save in this life and if not “in” then, from this life. Just beyond our capacity to see awaits God – and if we dare place ourselves into God – our fears, our future we meet grace – and if we miss it or can’t see it, one day it turns out to be true. That I trust is true.
Good news you want? – It’s grace – pure gift – nothing we could ever earn or win. Herod is grace to remind us we are all flawed in some way. John is grace to help us ask, ‘What do I really believe?’ Even Herodias helps us see how anger and hatred can kill you and others – if not literally, than figuratively. What on the surface looks like a mess, doesn’t end that way. No, there’s more.
At that moment when the sword came down hard on his neck, the Kingdom John preached comes for him. And this is the good news – when this life ends, God is there – to clean up our messes, and take us home. Death, which we so fear, is the portal through which we descend to get there finally.
And that’s all I will say. I’ve said enough. Now take your life story, and imagine how it will end, with God figured in. Unlike John – dying not knowing how it would end, you’re given hope you would never have imagined. And that future you now know can shape you and bring you hope. And I do hope you brought your imagination with you today!”