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.
But, when you think of it, the evil you see in today’s Gospel lesson is a lot like the evil we see in daily lives on Monday through Saturday every week. There 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 pursue career at the expense of spouse and family. 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 own sin, which, if ignored, acts as a wall between God and us, between life and death.
We’re called to keep taking 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’re all familiar with 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 want to be evil.
Yet, like the frog in the kettle, sometimes people who know better, who want to do the right thing, engage in evil, in cruelty to others.
We allow our kettles--our environments, the world, the workplace, the school we attend, the Internet, current political "dialog," or 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 risk boiling ourselves in our own sin. We let go of Christ's hand.
Herod Antipas was a man who should have known better than to fall into evil. He did come from an evil family. But he had also been schooled in God’s will through a knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures, 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 recounts a horrible evil perpetrated by Herod: He ordered 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, Mark 6:14-29. The story unfolds 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. It’s at this point in his narrative that Mark decides to tell us what happened.
In that night of Herod’s memory, Herod threw a birthday party for himself. Mark tells us that the daughter of his wife—the wife he had stolen from his brother--had danced for him, pleasing Herod. Then, probably a little more than drunk, Herod promised the girl anything she wished in exchange for the dance. She asked her mother what to ask for and was given the chilling reply (in verse 24), “The head of John the Baptist.”
In spite of what Herod knew to be right, he granted the girl’s wish. It was an act of evil equal to anything you might hear about today. But I also believe that our gospel lesson has lessons to teach us on how to avoid falling into evil ourselves.
It does this by helping us, first of all, to see that evil happens, first of all, when we want something--anything--more than we want what God wants. When our will becomes more important to us than God’s will.
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. When we want what we want more than we want God’s will to be done, evil happens.
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.”
And a man told me, “If you knew what I did not to get ahead, but just to keep my job, you wouldn’t like me very much, Mark.” (And if he’d lost his job, he also would have lost his beautiful house, his beautiful car, and his nice vacations.)
These two people were like frogs in the kettle. They were being led by things other than God. What’s worse, they knew they were boiling, but refused to climb out through repentance and trust in Christ.
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 keeping his word or unwilling to do so. 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, tell them what had happened, 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.
I hasten to add that had his administrative heedlessness been chronic, his apology would have been seen as insincere, invoked only to avoid accountability...and such avoidance is a sin. But because he took his accountability to others seriously, his apology was deemed honest, not just a deflection mechanism.
Evil also happens when we ignore the Word of God. Herod, in spite of the judgment against his actions that 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 instead of our status; and remain attentive to God’s Word and to communication with Him through prayer.
It’s by these means that the God we know in Jesus Christ can free us from the push to selfishness and evil that exists within us and around us.
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.
In Matthew 24:13, Jesus promises that “the one who stands firm to the end will be saved,” saved from sin, death, and separation from God.
And that’s an incredible promise, secured by the God Who raised His only Son Jesus from the dead.
But there are more immediate rewards for those who commit themselves to keeping hold of Christ’s hand and resisting the temptation to sin. In our second lesson for today, from the book of Ephesians, we're told that Christians have “every spiritual blessing.”
Whether he knew it or not, whether he had become so accustomed to evil that no longer knew when he was mired in it, Herod went to bed on the night he killed John the Baptizer separated from God.
Unlike Herod Antipas, John the Baptist lived and died with the certainty that, even in the midst of things he 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.
Consider this: One second after John the Baptist's life ended, who would you rather be, John or Herod? For the follower of Christ, the answer to that question is obvious.
Sometimes, people ask, “Where is God?” The simple truth is that God is present for all who want God around. As someone has said, God is a gentleman and He won't go where He's uninvited. But God sticks with anyone who does invite Him into their lives.
God is present for all who call on the Name of Jesus Christ, even when the world is a tough place.
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. Finally, gloriously, eternally, joyfully, having Jesus Christ at the center of your life makes resisting evil worth all the trouble it can bring to us over the course of this short, fleeting life on earth. Amen