With its account of John the Baptist’s execution, our gospel lesson from Mark for today is so laced with evil that it’s disturbing. I’d rather just close the Bible on this passage today and move on to Holy Communion.
But that’s no way to treat the Bible, God’s revealed Word. Second Timothy 3:16, in the New Testament, says that, “all scripture is given by the inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” That’s true even of the disturbing parts.
And when I think of it, what I see in today’s Gospel lesson is a lot like what I see in life on Monday through Saturday. As wonderful as this life can be, there are things I would rather not face. These are the evils—like the inhumane things that human beings sometimes do to one another—that, when you learn of them, make you wonder, “How could this have happened? How can people be so cruel or sadistic?”
And I’m not talking just about murders or holocausts. I’m thinking also of the everyday evils, the cutting, harsh ways in which we all can diverge from the clear will of God to love God and love neighbor:
The husband or wife who ignores the spouse.
The parent who discourages a child.
The child who is disrespectful to the parent.
The customer who berates the clerk at the store.
None of us wants to be mistreated. Yet, often we can find ourselves subjecting others to the very disrespect or callous disregard that we hate to receive!
We all are sinners, of course. That’s the burden that the sinless Jesus came to take from us, the weight He took on His own shoulders on the cross so that all who repent for sin and trust in Him will have life with God forever.
As Christians, we’re called to do daily battle with our sin, which, if ignored, acts as a wall between God and us, between life and death.
We’re called to keep grabbing the strong, outstretched hand of Jesus Christ so that the power of sin and death over our lives can be destroyed by God’s powerful grace and deathless love.
That isn’t always as easy to do as it seems it should be.
You’ve heard me speak before about the frog in the kettle. A frog haplessly plopped himself into a kettle full of water that set on a stove top. Shortly after he got there, someone turned on the burner underneath the kettle. The frog, being a cold-blooded animal, adaptable to the world around him, didn’t realize he was being boiled to death.
Only insane people set out to be evil. Yet, like the frog in the kettle, sometimes people who should know better, are capable of evil, of cruelty to others. We allow our kettles--our environments, the world and the people around us--to dictate how we will act and react in everyday life. We adapt ourselves so well to the world around us that we boil ourselves in our own sin.
Herod Antipas was a man who should have known better than to fall into evil. He had been schooled in God’s will through a thorough knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures, what we know as the Old Testament. On top of that, Herod had good political reasons for avoiding evil: Though his family had no legitimate claim on the honor, they had for generations held themselves to be Israel’s royal family. It was so important to Herod Antipas to be seen as the “king of the Jews” that he had undertaken to build a new temple on Mount Zion, the same spot in Jerusalem where, a thousand years before, King Solomon had built the first temple. Both spiritual training and political common sense should have kept Herod from evil.
But our Gospel lesson for today tells us that Herod perpetrated a horrible evil: Ordering the execution of John the Baptizer, whose crime was speaking the Word of God.
How that happened, a story you know well, comprises most of the lesson. Please turn to it, Mark 6:14 to 29. The stotry comes in what the moviemakers would call a flashback. Herod gets reports about the miracle-working ministry of Jesus and is convinced that John, whose beheading he had ordered, has come back from the dead. The memory of his evil clearly haunted Herod.
We’re then told about the night Herod threw a birthday party for himself, how the daughter of his wife—the wife he had stolen from his brother--had danced for him, pleasing Herod a lot, how—probably a little more than drunk—Herod had promised the girl anything in exchange for the dance, how she had asked her mother what to ask for and was given the chilling reply (in verse 24), “The head of John the Baptist,” and how, in spite of what Herod knew to be right, he complied with the girl’s wish.
It was an act of evil equal to anything you might hear about tonight on the Eleven O’Clock News. But I believe that our gospel lesson can help us to avoid falling into evil ourselves.
It does this by helping us to see that evil happens, first of all, when we want what we want more than we want what God wants. Herod wanted his wife’s daughter. He let himself be led by his lust and not by God.
That sort of thing can happen to us, too.
It may not be lust that leads us.
It might be materialism or acceptance or even a competitive spirit grown out of right proportions.
A woman, upset with herself, once told me, “I don’t know what happens to me at work. It’s like I’m a different person. I say and do things to get by or get what I want that, a few years ago, I could never have imagined myself doing.”
This woman was a frog in a kettle and she didn’t know how to get out! She was being led by things other than God.
Evil also happens when we’re more concerned with how we appear than we are with who we are. Herod kept his vow to his wife's daughter because he didn’t want to seem like a welcher to his guests. He didn't want to seem incapable of or unwilling to keep his word. He let the opinions of others lead him into evil.
Years ago, a pastor I know taught me a valuable lesson. One week, he made a mistake, one that the congregation needn’t have known about, not a sin, but a failure to make a deadline which cost the church some money. The first thing that pastor did the following Sunday morning during the announcements was stand up and apologize. If he had worried about appearances, he wouldn’t have said a word. But he was willing to admit his imperfections and gained credibility for it.
Evil also happens when we ignore the Word of God. Herod, in spite of the judgment against his actions he could hear in John’s preaching, liked to listen to John. He knew that John’s words were from God. Yet, at his birthday party, Herod turned a deaf ear to God’s Word and he ordered the execution of a man whose crime had been clearly speaking God’s Word.
It’s clear that to avoid evil, we need to:
- keep God’s will foremost in our priorities,
- be focused on our character than our status, and
- remain attentive to God’s Word.
But that still leaves us with a question: What’s in it for us? At the end of our Gospel lesson, after all, Herod was still alive, still on his throne, and John’s body was taken away by his disciples for burial. Herod had caved into evil. John had remained faithful to God. So, does it really pay off for us to resist evil?
Of course, there’s the obvious answer to that question: Those who faithfully seek to follow the God we know in Jesus Christ will, in spite of our sins and failings, spend eternity with God. Jesus promises: “the one who endures to the end will be saved” from sin, death, and separation from God.
But there are more immediate rewards for those who commit themselves to keeping hold of Christ’s hand and resisting the temptation to sin. They’re mentioned in our lesson from Ephesians for today. We’re given, we’re told “every spiritual blessing.” Herod went to bed on the night he killed John the Baptizer knowing that he had done evil and that barring a renewal of his relationship with God, on a collision course with hell.
Unlike Herod Antipas, John the Baptist lived and died with the certainty that, even in the midst of things he couldn’t and didn’t fully understand, in resisting evil, in seeking to follow God faithfully, he had a Lord, a Friend, and an Advocate Who would never desert him, not even at the gates of death. Who, do you suppose, died a happier man: Herod Antipas or John the Baptist?
Sometimes, people ask me, “Where is God?” The simple truth is that God is present for all who want God around. God is present for all who call on the Name of Jesus Christ. If you want Jesus in your life, you can find Him in the Word of God, in prayers in Jesus’ Name, in the fellowship of the Church, in the Sacraments, in the neighbor you’re called to serve and share the gospel with each day.
And having Jesus Christ at the center of our lives makes all the difference in this life and in the one to come. And, finally, gloriously, eternally, joyfully, having Jesus Christ at the center of your life makes resisting evil worth all the trouble it can bring to our lives. Amen