Tell the Truth Twice

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

Good night, but I find this a difficult passage to preach on! The easy way to preach it, I suppose, is to render it a morality tale. But, honestly, how incredibly boring! Can you really imagine the climax of your sermon being “So whatever you do, don’t make outrageous promises in front of dinner guests and never, ever behead a prophet”?

But absent turning this into a gruesome Aesop’s Fable, I’m not entirely sure what to do? And apparently I’m not alone. Matthew and Luke, in one respect the first preachers to work with Mark’s material, also struggle to make sense of how this passage fits into Mark’s — and their — larger story of the Gospel. And so Matthew shortens the story considerably, while Luke omits it altogether. Granting that that’s also a possibility for us — there are, after all, four other texts one could preach on this Sunday! — I’ve got a better idea: why not just tell the story like it is.

That’s right, dive head first into a descriptive retelling of this somewhat unseemly, and at times grisly, story of political intrigue and manipulation. Pull out your more evocative language and let your imagination run free as you draw your listeners into this sordid tragedy. Why? Because this story isn’t all that different from many of the stories we read about or watch on television.

And so don’t just retell the story, also draw some parallels. In what way is Herod like a first-century Richard Nixon, so blinded by ambition that he is willing to sacrifice his principles for political gain? Or maybe he seems to you more like a Don Draper of Mad Men, so mired in a life of deception that he can hardly tell the difference between a pitch and a profession of good faith. Can John possibly be like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Oscar Romero, spiritual leaders willing to tell truth to power whatever the costs? Or does he seem more like the moral, and somewhat moralistic, Will McAvoy of The Newsroom? Perhaps Herodias reminds you of Game of Throne’s Cersei Lannister, who in a dramatic scene late in the first season justified the brutal course of action she would soon take on the basis of her love for her children. Might Herodias also want to protect herself and her children from John’s claims, even if they are true, and have we considered the lengths to which we would go to protect our family from harm?

I think it’s worth delving into this story because Mark puts it here for a reason. While I can’t be absolutely sure of Mark’s motives, I have a hunch he wants to impress deep into the imagination of his readers two things. First, Jesus’ ministry, like John’s, has significant political implications. And I don’t mean “political” in the sense of who to vote for. No, I mean that the kingdom Jesus preaches challenges our penchant for the status quo and our all too easy acquiescence with the cultural presumption that might (or wealth or status or fame) makes right. Proclaim God’s kingdom of mercy and grace and, as with Jesus and his forerunner John, there will be costs to pay.

Second, Mark wants us to take seriously that this is, indeed, the way of the world. Those who stand up to City Hall often take a beating, and those who advocate an alternative to the status quo can usually expect those who benefit from the status quo to come down on them hard. We watch programs like Mad Men, The Newsroom, Game of Thrones, West Wing, The Sopranos, and the like because we see ourselves in them. We might not always like what we see, but at least it seems real. And Mark is, if nothing else, a realist. He is writing, after all, in the wake of the devastation caused by the Romans exercising their brutal power by destroying the Jerusalem Temple. So part of why he tells this story is because this is the world as he knows it, the world he lives in and, by extension, the world we live in as well.

Which raises some important questions. Say, for instance, we do preach this story by inviting our hearers into it. What, then, is the gospel we are called to proclaim? After all, is that not our primary calling? And have we not been trained to squeeze a passage, as Luther once said, until it yields good news?

Absolutely. But…but sometimes you have to look beyond the passage in question to find the gospel. And in the case of this story, perhaps the most profound note of gospel is that it’s not the only story Mark tells. In other words, it’s not the whole the story. And it manifestly is not the end of the story.

Is that it? Yeah, actually, it is. This is the way of the world, but it is not the whole story. Because Jesus comes, you see, precisely to show us that there is something more, something beyond the heartache and intrigue and tragedy of Herod, and Don Draper, and Richard Nixon, and ourselves.

Which brings us, I think, to the very heart of the gospel promise. We believe, teach, and confess that Jesus came to make possible for us more than mere survival, more than mere persistence, more even than mere success. Jesus came to help us to imagine that there is more to this life than we can perceive. Jesus came to offer us not just more life, but abundant life. Jesus came so that there could be a better ending to our stories and the story of the world than we can imagine or construct on our own.

And when the Temple has just been destroyed, or your marriage is ending, or you’ve lost your job, or you fear your child will never speak to you again, or you’re pretty sure your friend has betrayed you, or you think you may just have screwed up the one relationship that meant something to you…then the possibility of another ending — a good ending — is, indeed, not just good news, but the best news you can imagine.

This is the one scene in all of Mark’s Gospel in which Jesus makes no appearance. I have a hunch that’s not by accident. Because apart from God’s promises, this is about all we can expect — good intentions gone bad, fearless candor rewarded with imprisonment, the triumph of the powerful over the powerless, and so it goes. But as honest as Mark wants to be about the story of the world, he wants even more to testify to the story of God’s great love for the world.

So tell the truth this week, Working Preacher, tell the truth of the human predicament that we know and watch and revel in and despair over. But then tell us the second truth, the truth of God’s loving response to us and our predicament and God’s tenacious, indefatigable effort to redeem us by writing us — and writing us into — a better story than we deserve or can imagine.

Thanks for telling both truths, Working Preacher, because, good night, but it’s what I need to hear, too.

Yours in Christ,