Jul 15, 2018
“Remembering The Head On A Platter” - Mark 6:14-29
When I read the beginning of today’s lesson about what’s going on in Herod’s crazy head, I couldn’t help but think of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart.” In that short story, a man becomes distressed by the vulture-like eye of another man. It bothers him so much, he plots to murder the man for no other reason than his looks. So, he smothers him, cuts him into pieces, and places them under the floorboards.
When the police come to investigate, he confidently invites them in. He even has them sit in the very room where the body is. But while they are there, he begins to hear a thumping noise coming from the floor. We don’t know if it’s because he feels guilt or he is mentally disturbed. At any rate, he hears the thumping grow louder and louder. He concludes that it’s the sound of the heart of the man he has murdered. As a result, he breaks down and confesses his crime. He tells the police to look underneath the floorboards. He cries out, “I admit the deed! --tear up the planks! here, here! --It is the beating of his hideous heart!"
Believe it or not, our Gospel reading for today starts on a similar note. It opens with a man who is tormented. A man who also either feels guilt or is mentally disturbed. A man who also seems to hear a tell-tale heart. Mark calls him a king, but he’s not really a king. He’s Caesar’s puppet. And he’s plagued over the murder of an innocent man. That’s unusual for him because he has the blood of lots of other innocent people on his hands. And to top it off, he’s been having bad dreams lately. Real nightmares. Nightmares that make him scream when he sees the head of John the Baptist staring at him from a serving platter.
Over time, the dreams become less and less frequent. In fact they’ve almost gone away. Things are actually beginning to get back to normal. But then something happens that changes all that. Troubling news reaches him about a young rabbi. A rabbi who’s attracting crowds and followers like crazy. He’s preaching and teaching with authority. He’s upsetting apple carts. Before too long, this could become a problem for Rome. Become a thorn in his side. Be a pain in the gazoo.
Naturally, the king has his spies and informants. He takes them aside and asks them about this young rabbi. “Tell me about him. What’s he like? What’s he up to? Does he remind you of anyone in particular?”
They respond quickly. They know better than to keep Herod waiting. He’s got quite a temper. So they report what they hear. “Some say that John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him. Others think that he might be Elijah. And still others claim that he is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.”
But Herod has his own theory about what’s going on. “I think that John whom I beheaded, has been raised.” And with that Herod truly starts to panic. His heart begins to race. He breaks out in a cold sweat. Why, this news is even worse for him than those awful nightmares.
Memories of John the baptizer begin to flood his mind. Memories of having him arrested. Memories of putting him to death. Horrible memories of John’s head on that platter. He could picture it as if it happened yesterday. Why oh why is Mark telling us this dark story?
Let us pray. Dear God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Herod fell head over heels for Herodias. He knew at the time he was asking for trouble. But he fell so doggone hard he wanted nothing less than for her to be his wife. However, there were a couple of little problems. He was already married. She was already married. And not just to anyone. No, she was the wife of his very own brother Philip.
But that didn’t stop Herod. He kicked his current wife to the curb and went ahead and married Herodias anyway. Of course, this was against the law. It was a big no-no. And John was quick to point it out. He called Herod on the carpet. He shined light on his darkness. He spoke truth to power. He got right in his face. “What you did was wrong. It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”
Herod was furious. He was not used to people calling him out. He was not used to people putting him in his place. He was not used to people challenging his decisions. How dare John do this. How dare John say such things. Something had to be done. He couldn’t let this pass.
So, Herod sent some men and arrested John. They tied him up and tossed him in a cell. But that did not satisfy everyone involved. You see, Herod was not the only one who was angry with John. His new wife was really, really steamed at him. She held such a nasty grudge that she wanted blood. But now her very own husband stood in the way.
Herod was in a dither. He didn’t know what to make of John. And now he didn’t know what to do with him. On the one hand, Herod feared John. He believed him to be dangerous. But on the other hand it was obvious to him that John was a holy and righteous man. He liked to listen to what John had to say. And he was afraid of what would happen if he gave in to his wife and tried to kill John. So, he was caught between that rock and that hard place. He was at odds with his wife over John, and he was at odds with John over his wife. Trying not to rock the boat, Herod decided to sort of keep John in protective custody for a while.
But Herod’s new wife was cunning, and she was patient. She waited and waited for an opportunity. Eventually that moment arrived. The opportunity came when on his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and other big shots. He even called for his daughter to come dance for this drunken crew. And that dance really pleased Herod and his guests. So in front of God and everyone, he made a boastful promise. “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it. The sky’s the limit. I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” Actually, the kingdom wasn’t his to give. The kingdom belonged to Caesar.
Herod’s daughter shrewdly asked for some time to think it over. Then she ran off to her mother and asked her advice. “What should I ask for?” Herodias couldn’t believe here ears. This was exactly what she’d been waiting for. With a smile on her face she replied, “Ask for the head of John the baptizer.” The girl rushed back to the king. “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist.” And then she added her own little touch. “I’d like his head on a platter, please.”
This was the last thing Herod expected. He was shocked right down to his toenails. Sure, Herod was angry with John, but he didn’t want to kill him. He found himself deeply grieved. But out of regard for what he had sworn in front of his birthday guests, he did not refuse her.
He saw no other way out of this mess. So, he sent a soldier of the guard to perform the hideous task. And that’s what he did. He cut off John’s head, put it on a platter, and hand delivered it to the girl. She, in turn, gave it to her mother. Word of this spread quickly. And we’re told John’s disciples risked their very lives to claim his body and see that he got a proper burial. That was a lot more than what the disciples of Jesus disciples did. Remember, they completely abandoned him. So, Mark is telling us about John, but he wants us to be thinking about Jesus. For the very same thing will soon happen to Jesus. And Mark’s telling us something we already know. Following Jesus can be challenging.
Reminds me of a story about Linda, who taught first grade. She had the interesting task of helping children adjust to their first full day of school. Little Ryan was used to going home at noon like when he was in kindergarten. So, when it was time to go to lunch with the rest of the class, he got all of his things ready to leave for home.
Linda asked him what he was doing. “I'm going home,” he replied. Linda explained that he was in the first grade, and now he would have a longer school day. “You'll go eat lunch now,” she said, “and then you'll come back to the room and do some more work before you go home.”
Ryan looked up at her in disbelief, hoping she was kidding. Then, convinced of her seriousness, he stubbornly put his hands on his hips and demanded, “Who on earth signed me up for this program?”
Sometimes we feel a little like Ryan when we start following Jesus. And I think that’s why Mark is telling us this dark story. Following Jesus as he brings peace, love, healing, and joy to our troubled world can be very demanding. Like Ryan, we wonder, “Who signed me up for this.”
Well, the answer is this. As disciples of Christ, we signed up. We accepted his gracious invitation and followed him into the waters of baptism. And when we came out of those waters, we kept right on following him. And Mark doesn’t give us followers of Jesus this dark story today just to upset us. No, he does it to show us what the opposite of God’s kingdom looks like. He does it to show us that the rule of Herod is the very opposite of the rule of God. He reminds us that the rule of Herod is the way of death, but the rule of God is the way of life.
So, no matter how difficult the journey, following Jesus is the way of life. Following Jesus is the way of hope. Following Jesus is the way of peace. Following Jesus is the way of love. Thanks be to God. Amen.