The Death of John the Baptist
St Mark’s Day today but transferred to tomorrow.
A great story, to sell newspapers, needs to have intrigue, religion, sex and royalty.
‘O my God, said the Queen, I’m pregnant, who did it?’
That would do.
As would our Bible story from the tabloid gospel today:
‘King’s fancy dancer demands death of mysterious preacher.’
In the early chapters of Mark we get an insight into Jesus’ teaching, calling of disciples, stirring of opposition, healing and exorcism and nature miracles.
‘Who is this man?’ the astonished people asked. We know what Mark is going to show them because we read the end over Easter.
In this section of Chapter five we have a back story. It begins ‘King Herod heard about this…’ How? Well he was the king (popular usage) or tetrarch as Luke and Matthew call him. He ruled for 43 years from 4 BCE to 39 CE. He knew what was going down.
About what did he hear? Well, as Mark tells his story, heard about Jesus sending people out where they drive out demons and heal people. That is what has happened immediately before, but I suspect it includes having heard about the amazing and astonishing things reported of Jesus.
Herod’s entourage include some who think that John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. A strange conclusion indeed.
And so Mark tells us the story of John’s death.
And this is, I believe, the only example in Mark’s Gospel of a story that does not focus on Jesus. It will tell us that the journey of the gospel may not, necessarily be a smooth ride.
What do we learn?
If there is one aspect of Christian heresy, if I may use so strong a word, that really annoys me, it is a gospel of health, wealth and happiness.
I have never found a better way of putting it than the way Bishop David Jenkins, the slightly controversial Bishop of Durham did. He said: ‘Some people say that all you need to do is have Jesus in your heart and everything will be all right. Well Jesus had Jesus in his heart and look what happened to him. They crucified him.’
The Hebrew Scripture (our OT) Book of Job suggests that human suffering may not be a matter of God having a bet with the Devil but, for all we know, it may as well be.
And so John is put to death because he has spoken out against a dodgy relationship. Herod has married his brother’s wife. We are not told the precise circumstances but John has spoken against it. The woman, Herodias, has it in for John and so his imprisonment may have been for his own safety.
John has entertained and bewitched Herod. Torn, perhaps, between his anxiety about these challenging words and a compulsive desire to hear more. John ends up being put to death because a proud man won’t go back on a rash promise made in front of the good and great.
1. Discipleship is discipleship. It is not just for good days. You’re not meant to know where it will lead you but to react on the journey. It can be tough.
2. John delivers no martyr’s speech. His death is sudden and unexpected. His legacy is his lifestyle not his deathbed. The news would have been round the neighbourhood rapidly. ‘John, who we went out to hear in the wilderness, has been executed.’ People would not have heard about the dancing, the promise or the circumstances. Just the outcome.
This is where discipleship can lead. This is why Jesus will speak of taking up a cross.
The speculation that John has been raised from the dead demonstrates that there was at least some expectation around at the time that that might be a possibility, unusual albeit. Jesus’ ministry was so unusual that Herod leaps to an unusual conclusion.
John called people to faith and it cost his life.
It is, in that respect, a prototype of what we know will happen to Jesus. Only in his case the resurrection was the real deal.
St Mark deserves his day.