Today's text is probably one of the best known birthday party stories ever!
Maybe we should call it a b-day, however, so we can also recognize the beheading that occurs. Alas, I don't think that preaching a beheading is your calling today.
So why would the committee that establishes the lectionary include such a text? Actually, a better question we want to consider is why Mark would include this account in his narrative. Here are some ways it functions:
1. This gruesome little interlude fills in the time between the sending of the disciples in Mark 6:7-13 and their return in 6:30.
2. It finally answers a question that has been holding the reader in suspense since 1:14 when, without any explanation, Mark had reported, "Now after John was arrested..."
3. It not only looks back to 1:14, it creates a new forward looking anticipation. If John was arrested and ended up killed, we can expect the same for Jesus.
4. It gives an opportunity to hear from Herod and others regarding whom they think Jesus is. Note the answers given: Elijah, a prophet, John the baptizer. These are going to be the same answers given in Mark 8:27-29. By hearing them now, we will understand their background, and we will appreciate the new insight when Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah.
5. Framed as it is by the sending and returning of Jesus' disciples, this text provides a way to compare John's and Jesus' disciples. At the end of today's lesson, we hear that John's disciples take the presumably risky step of claiming John's body and providing a proper burial for it. What will Jesus' disciples do after their master's death?
Now those are all interesting enough observations. They explain how the story fits in Mark's gospel, and maybe you'll find some grist for a sermon among them. But, I'm not sure that you will find the Gospel to preach. After all, in this text, other than a passing reference at the beginning, Jesus never appears or speaks.
I think, therefore, that some degree of abstraction from the text will be needed to make it preach. Here are two possible suggestions.
Truth and Consequences
John the Baptist tells the truth, and this account tells the consequences. So, even while we affirm with Jesus that the truth will make you free (John 8:32), we also must recognize that it may get you arrested and killed. That's a paradox, of course, along the lines of "No good deed goes unpunished." Yet this kind of paradox is at the heart of the Gospel.
Worldly wisdom always suggests that you be cautious, reasonable, and look out for yourself. Keep your options open. Avoid commitments that may later get you stuck. Stay calm. Don't lose your head. (Sorry, I couldn't resist...)
John the baptizer, however, was uncompromising in speaking the word given to him. He had to have known that criticizing political authority was no way to get ahead (sorry again...) and could only turn out badly.
The same deal goes for us. Our affirmation of and allegiance to the truth of the Gospel cannot be a hedge position. It's all or nothing, regardless of the consequences.
So what is the good news? It's that the same goes for God in sending Jesus. It's that the same goes for Jesus as he also spoke truth to power. God's good deed for us in Christ does not go without punishment displayed in the crucifixion. Yet it is also in this moment that our bad deeds do not go unforgiven. Thanks be to God for the Truth and his consequences!
Synonyms: baffled, bedeviled, befuddled, bewildered, confounded, confused, discombobulated, dumbfounded, nonplussed, puzzled, stupefied, stumped.
You have to love the rich and evocative vocabulary we have to express being perplexed. Maybe it's because we are so frequently familiar with this state of being.
I also love the observation in Mark 6:20 that Herod was "perplexed" by John. He liked to listen to John, but he didn't know what to make of him. Then he gets perplexed again at his birthday party.
Whether it was customary or not, having his daughter dancing for him and his dinner guests just doesn't sound right. Nor does it seem right that she so "pleased" Herod that he makes the exaggerated oaths to give her whatever she wants. She makes her request for John's head, and Herod is conflicted between protecting John and keeping his word. The text says he was grieved, but I'm not having much sympathy for him.
Now, however, the reader may be a bit perplexed. Are we to commend Herod for keeping his word? Or are we to condemn him for taking the easy way out? Note that this account thus explores a dynamic that will be revisited later.
We were told that Herod regarded John to be a righteous and holy man and intended to protect him. After his brash promise and for the sake of his reputation, he concedes and orders John's execution. In Mark 15:1-15, Pilate will be faced with a similar situation. He is recorded as acknowledging Jesus' innocence. But, "wishing to satisfy the crowd," he concedes and order's Jesus' execution.
Were these decisions by Herod and Pilate good or bad? Are you a bit baffled, befuddled, and bewildered? Thanks be to God for working through such perplexing situations to bring about such great good!