7 Pentecost proper B10
Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
Mark 6:14-29 Sermon
July 12, 2015

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Hymns (from The Lutheran Hymnal): 
451 "Stand Up, Stand Up For Jesus"
413 "I Walk In Danger All The Way"
452 "The Son Of God Goes Forth To War"
447 "Fight The Good Fight"  


TEXT (vs. 17-20):  “For it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because he had married her.  For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife.”  And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.

            This morning, I'd like you to think about some of those old idioms or expressions we tend to use.  "He's running around like a chicken with its head cut off" refers to someone who is running around in an agitated or frenzied state.  And if you've ever butchered chickens or have been around when it's being done, the idiom makes sense.

            Or maybe you've heard, "You really stuck your neck out for me this time," which means that somebody has done something to benefit you, and has done so at a great personal risk.  People will also say, "You put your neck on the line for me," which means the same thing.       In effect, this recognizes the fact that if something had gone wrong with whatever this person did for you, it's serious enough to compare it to having your head chopped off.  This is stretching it a bit of course, but you get the idea.

            I'm not going to further elaborate on these idioms; but as you can see, the decapitation of somebody is a very serious matter.  And if it is used to illustrate a different situation, it punctuates the seriousness of the matter.

            I'm sure you have heard about a lot of the senseless and gruesome beheadings that have happened at the hands of ISIS or ISIL Muslim extremists. ISIS, which is an acronym for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria; or ISIL, which is an acronym for Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, (which includes Syria and similar factions in other countries) seems to be conducting these executions without compunction.

            So what is their justification for all this?  Here is a quote from the Koran:  "Therefore, when ye meet the Unbelievers [in fight], smite at their necks; At length, when ye have thoroughly subdued them, bind a bond firmly [on them]: thereafter [is the time for] either generosity or ransom: Until the war lays down its burdens. Thus [are ye commanded]: but if it had been Allah's Will, He could certainly have exacted retribution from them [Himself]; but [He lets you fight] in order to test you, some with others. But those who are slain in the Way of Allah, - He will never let their deeds be lost."  (47:4) 

            I went through the list of all the beheadings that have happened at the hands of ISIS extremists; and as near as I can count, there have been 302 beheadings since July 25, 2014.  As of the present day, that's just slightly less than one such killing per day.  The last people to have become victims were a group of 28 Ethiopian Christians who were killed on April 19, 2015 in Libya.  A little more than two months before that, on February 15, 2015, a group of 21 kidnapped Egyptian Coptics were decapitated inTripoli.  I think you get the picture.   

            I don't think there's a day that goes by where we don't wind up shaking our heads and asking ourselves, "what's the world coming to?"  I have a real hard time trying to comprehend all of the senseless actions happening in the Middle East.  Every one of these people was killed for no reason at all other than a group of insurgents trying to prove a point.  And that's not a legitimate point.  These are killings based upon crazy and stupid ideas and emotions.  When this happens, then tragedy occurs.  People get hurt, people suffer, and people die. 

            This morning as we look at our Gospel lesson, we find people who were every bit as rational as ISIS or ISIL. A tragedy occurred.  There was a senseless death.  And the story behind it all lacks all common sense.

            The story about the death of John the Baptist reads almost like the plot of a soap opera.  This incredible human being was sent to be the forerunner of Christ.  His message was one of repentance, in order to prepare the world for the coming of the Saviour who would reconcile sinful mankind with God in heaven.  John's message was what got him into trouble, and that's what our Gospel lesson is about today.

            Jesus was gaining in popularity.  People all over were talking about him and the miraculous things he was doing.  Word also reached the ears of the king, Herod Antipas.  And all of this has Herod shaking in his boots.  Our Gospel lesson is a flashback for Herod, as he remembers John the Baptist and how he was killed.  Herod was afraid because he felt that somehow, some way, John the Baptist had come back to life again, and would be out to get him for having him decapitated.  Either that, or John's ghost had come to haunt him and torment him.

            Throughout history, there have been a number of King Herods in power.  This Herod, known as Herod Antipas, was the son of the King Herod who ordered the slaughter of all the baby boys two years and under at the time of Jesus' birth.  Paranoia and general mental instability were rampant in the household, so it's no wonder that Herod Antipas reacted the way he did when Jesus followed John.  So with all that in mind, let's see what was going on with John the Baptist, and why things developed the way they did.

            Herod's wife, Herodias was initially the wife of Herod's brother Philip.  Herodias and Philip had a daughter, Salome.  Salome's name isn't actually in the Bible, but secular history has recorded her name; so it's really incidental to the main story, other than to make her a little easier to identify.  Salome would therefore have been Herod's niece.

            We don't really know how Herodias actually wound up being Herod's wife; but judging by what we do know, it was probably Herodias that initiated the relationship with Herod.  And considering the lack of morals in their society, Herod probably had no compunction about taking up company with his brother's wife, most likely without any form of divorce taking place first.

            Herodias had it made.  She was the wife of the king, the most prestigious position in the world.  She had every luxury right at her fingertips, and would have wanted for nothing.  Salome would have been in much the same position, being the spoiled child of her mother.  Herodias was certainly living the life others could only dream about.  Everything was going just as she had it planned.

            Then along comes John the Baptist.  And he is preaching repentance!  He openly and vehemently condemns the Herod/Herodias relationship.  This is adultery!  This is sinful!  This is not a God-pleasing relationship!  So John tells Herod to repent by doing the right thing.  He needed to part company with Herodias, and send her back to his brother so she could be Philip's wife, and not his.

            Now a person doesn't openly attack the king without some consequence.  First of all, kings saw themselves as the highest authority, so they had only themselves to answer to.  They wanted people to worship them, and not the one true God.  So for this itinerant back woods preacher named John to go and accuse the king of any wrongdoing, he was actually committing a capital offense.  So Herod has him arrested and hauled off to jail. 

            And as far as Herodias is concerned, this is where he needed to be.  He was off the streets, and sequestered away in a deep dark dungeon.  Nobody could hear him or pay him any mind at all.  He was out of the way, left to rot in his cell, and life could go on as she had planned.

            There was one thing however that Herodias hadn't anticipated.  That was how her de-facto husband Herod reacted to John.  Herod actually liked him!  Herod was absolutely fascinated by him and what he had to say.  Even though he didn't fully understand what John was saying, he still recognized that John was righteous and holy, a true man of God.  As such, he had a lot of respect for John.  So even though he was in jail, Herod made sure that John was protected from harm.

            Herodias was spitting chips.  She was absolutely furious!  Instead of being out of the way, John was closer to Herod than ever before, and Herod was listening and contemplating what he had to say.  She saw John as a big threat to her and her lavish lifestyle.  She perceived the threat of being ousted from the palace becoming more of a reality as each day passed.  Something had to be done!

            The opportunity came at Herod's birthday celebration.  He threw this lavish party with all the food and drink anybody could have wanted.  And after Herod was all liquored up, and probably under the influence of absinthe and other hallucinogenic drugs, Herodias unleashes her secret weapon:  Salome, Herod's own niece.  Salome performs this very seductive dance, something that would probably get an X rating according to today's standards. 

            And after it is all over, Herod in his highly inebriated, mentally impaired, and aroused state does the stupidest thing of all.  He offers Salome anything she wants, even up to half of his kingdom.  But she already has everything she could ever want, so she goes and consults with her mother Herodias.  And this is her chance to silence John once and for all.  "Ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter!" she instructs.  And so that's exactly what Salome does.  And Herod, despite his better judgment, feels obliged to fulfill her request.

            When I think of the absolutely ludicrous situations in which someone loses their life, I think this has to be one of those at the top of the list.  This is the classic example of people doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons. 

            As we think about this situation, let's take a look at Matthew chapter 5, which is part of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount.  Verses 21-22 read:   “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment..." Verses 27-28 read:    “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’  But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart."  And if we continue on from there, Jesus addresses divorce in verses 31-32, and the needless swearing of oaths in verses 33-37.

            If we apply this to the story of John's death, we see everything happening here:  anger, murder, lust, adultery, divorce, and oaths.  It's almost a smorgasbord of broken commandments in one situation!

            Jesus knows what the sinful heart can do.  For someone to commit murder, the seed of anger has to be planted first.  The only question that remains, is how much anger has to be there before someone's life is actually taken?  It's the same with lust.  Adultery cannot take place without the seed of lust planted first.  How much lust has to be in one's heart before one actually commits adultery with someone else?  It's a real compound effect, taking place in a very negative way.

            Greed and lust and anger caused Herodias to act the way she did.  Drunkenness and lust caused Herod to make his foolish oath to Salome.  Selfishness and pride caused Herod to carry out a senseless murder he did not want to do.  And the result is the bloody head of one of God's prophets being carried into the midst of a birthday party on a platter.  I can't imagine what Salome must have thought when she was handed that head on a platter.

            As I think about this situation with John and Herod, I've wondered how John would be regarded in today's society, and even in some of today's churches.  We actually don't have to think too hard about this, because we are seeing what is happening with this latest Supreme Court ruling that now makes same-sex marriages legal.  Christians all over the country are standing up and saying "This is wrong!"  And they are suffering the consequences.  And even though people haven't gotten their heads lopped off because of this issue, there are probably adversaries who secretly wish they could at least employ some more aggressive means.

            Moral issues have divided church bodies.  People have become comfortable with various lifestyles and values, and they don't want to be challenged about them.  And people don't want God or anybody else to tell them what to do and what not to do.  That happened all the way back at the beginning of time with Eve in the Garden of Eden, and continues today.

            One of the reasons I analyzed the story of John the Baptist's death the way I did, is because all of those sins we see so blatantly committed are the very same sins that plague each of us today.  Maybe the instances in our lives aren't so blatant, and I doubt if we would go to the same lengths as we saw happen with Herod and John.  But we are still guilty of being under the control of the wrong thing.

            The Church has the same responsibility today that John the Baptist did so long ago.  We want people to come to know their sinfulness.  We can't fool ourselves with any form of self-righteousness, because there's nothing righteous within our sinful flesh.  The Apostle Paul reminds us in Romans chapter 3, verse 12:  "All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”  So before we point our fingers at people like Herod, we have to examine ourselves.

            The good news is that Jesus loves us.  Even though the way might not be easy, he still loves us.  He took our sins upon himself, and paid the price for them.  In Romans chapter 5, verse 8 we read: "...but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."

            Isn't that a wonderful thing to know?  It doesn't matter what we've done or haven't done, it doesn't matter how often we've made bad decisions or done wrong thing, we have a Saviour that has cleaned our slate and made us righteous and holy.  Through faith in Jesus, all of our past sins are forgiven and forgotten, and drowned into the furthest depths of the sea.  John came to make the way for our Saviour, to prepare our hearts to receive him through faith.  John came not just as God's messenger of repentance, but most importantly his messenger of grace.

           ISIS has committed over 300 decapitations in less than a year for absolutely no good reason, and we are horrified.  The Supreme Court makes a ruling and throws the entire country into a tailspin, and the fallout is yet to be determined.

            Many things will happen to cause us to shake our head in bewilderment and wonder what the world is coming to.  This is what has been happening throughout history.  People are always doing the wrong things for the wrong reason. 

            Through faith in Jesus, we are now under the influence of the Holy Spirit.  As Christians, we're messengers of the love of Jesus, and not senseless bloodshed.  We rescue sinners; we don't eternally condemn them.  The Gospel is there to save everybody through faith in Jesus, the mighty God, the Saviour, the Prince of Peace.