What should I ask for…?
John the Baptist or Baptizer, as his title is nowadays often rendered, has sometimes been called the last of the ancient Old Testament, or Hebrew, Prophets and the first great Apostle or herald of the Gospel of Christ. I am not sure how our Jewish friends would feel about the first part of that appellation, since John is nowhere to be found in the Hebrew Scriptures; but there is no question that he plays a prominent role in the Gospel narratives as forerunner or pioneer of our Lord’s appearance and ministry.
Our account this morning from the Gospel of Mark tells the gruesome tale of his death at the hands of Herod, one of several minor officials of the time and all of the same name -- and hardly a king as Mark calls him here. Curiously, even though John does not actually appear in this account in person, he is at the centre of the action. The text is virtually all about him. The tragic account of his death related by Mark and the other Synoptic Evangelists is by the way one of only a few Gospel stories which can be corroborated from sources outside the New Testament. It must have made quite an impression. Easy to see why.
The story appears in the Gospel of Mark just as this particular Herod muses on the meaning of Jesus’ message and “the powers at work in him,” as the text puts it, referring no doubt to our Lord’s reputation for healing. But the story quickly becomes, as more than one commentator has noted, a tawdry and sordid account of drunken depravity, debauchery, and murder; the sort of thing one might expect to find even today in the worst of the tabloid papers and made-for-television crime series.
A wealthy and prominent politician, much despised by his people and marooned at a far corner of the Empire, throws a presumably boozy birthday party, of all things, for himself. To spare you some of the gorier details, Herod, aroused by the erotic dance of a fetching young woman and at her specific request, orders the beheading of John whom he had to this point feared -- perhaps even respected -- and imprisoned as a precaution. For John, it is an inglorious death, to be sure. The last of the Prophets and the first great messenger or herald of the Gospel dies, for all intents and purposes, as a result of a drunken indiscretion or promise.
The tale has its parallel in the biblical story of Esther, by the way, although the circumstances are quite different and are best kept for another day and another sermon. In the case of John, it seems he was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. Oddly enough, the Evangelist Mark tells this tale of horror and mayhem out of sequence as a flashback account; an analepsis as the scholars call it. It is almost as if Mark at this point in his Gospel narrative is saying to us his readers: O by the way I forgot to mention something. I forgot to tell you about the death of the first and great herald of Jesus Christ. Still, it is safe to say that nothing is ever written in the Gospels without purpose and forethought. And this story is surely no different.
This flashback narrative technique, clumsy or not, allows Mark to remind us that much in life happens, or is remembered, somehow out of sequence. Meaning is imputed to life events, often enough, in retrospect, as we look back at what has happened. So, perhaps there is method to Mark’s method after all. The smooth flow of our Lord’s activities and mission to this point takes a sudden detour with the story of John’s death. In some sense, the death of John the Herald heralds the death of our Lord himself -- the telling of which is the very point of the Gospel in the first place.
If John’s death is unjust and seemingly gratuitous and bereft of meaning, so too in a sense will be our Lord’s death, at least as seen with the eyes of this world; as seen even by his disciples at the time of his Crucifixion. And if John’s death, as depicted here, is the result of the depravity of sin and evil in the world and in human affairs, our Lord’s death, as horrific as it was in its own right, results in salvation and redemption. And life. John’s death is arguably our first reminder of this Gospel reality.
Mark’s flashback telling of the death of John the Baptizer unites his grisly tale -- and us his hearers today -- to what has been. It takes us back in memory to the waters of the Jordan and “the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” as Mark titles his entire Gospel. But John’s death also reminds us of the death of our Lord to come. It is a turning point. In this sense, the commentators may be right: John’s death brings to a close the great narratives of Hebrew Scripture and marks the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ -- the profoundly paradoxical Good News of the Cross.
Following John’s death, the Gospel narrative of Mark continues. Jesus resumes his journeys and his miracles and teachings. But nothing can now ever be the same. If we did not sense it before, we now know where things are headed. And, everything that Jesus does and says must be seen in this light: In the light of John’s senseless death; In the light of our Lord’s impending Crucifixion. That is the power of the story of John’s death in the Gospel narrative. Flashback becomes prophecy of things to come. The all-too-human mortal becomes sign and witness of the divine and eternal. Utter evil and death lead to unreserved love and Resurrection.
Jesus’ death to come, prefigured here, ushers in the very Kingdom of God, as fragile as that Kingdom may sometimes seem to be -- whether in ancient Palestine or in today’s world of power politics. But then the Kingdom, as pervasive and near-at-hand as it may be, has also always been as elusive as it is ineluctable.
The moral of the story of John’s death may be that ultimately there is no moral to the story in the usual sense. Yet its very meaninglessness leads us, if we choose to follow, to the meaning of the Cross; leads us to redemption and life. What should I ask for…? Surely not death.
Ask instead for the life promised each of us in the Cross.
The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs