Updated: Jul 13, 2021
We are thrust into a story of royal incest this morning through Mark’s account of John the Baptist’s death. We might imagine that today’s story is an ancient precursor to today’s erotic literature like 50 Shades of Grey. It is one story of many that reminds us that the Bible is far from prude.
King Herod, known as Herod the Great, had four wives and many children. Among them were two sons from different mothers, both of whom were named Herod like their father. One son is referred to as Herod II. The other son is referred to as Herod Antipas. Herod II married his own niece, named Herodias, and they had a daughter named Salome. Herodias proceeded to divorce her first uncle, Herod II, and marry her second uncle, Herod Antipas.
If you could follow that convoluted and rather distressing circle of Herods – good. If not, for the purposes of today, all you need to know is that Herod Antipas and his niece Herodias were being rather naughty. John the Baptist spoke the truth that their marriage violated Jewish law, Roman customs, and most any code of ethical behavior. As a result of speaking truth to the powers of the world, John the Baptist is killed. I’ll return to this point later. First, I would like us to consider the role of “the court” in the events that led to John the Baptist’s death.
We hear that Herod Antipas believes John the Baptist to be a holy and innocent man. In spite of his opposition to Antipas’s marriage to Herodias, there was something about John’s truth-telling that attracted Antipas. Mark tells us that “Antipas enjoyed listening to John the Baptist.”
It is only when Antipas makes a foolish boast in front of his court that he is compelled to kill a man who he believes to be innocent. You will remember that Antipas promises his daughter-in-law Salome anything that she wants (up to half his kingdom) after she pleases the court with her dancing. We might imagine that Antipas’s promise was intended to impress the court with his wealth and generosity. After all, what king could give away half his kingdom and still be worthy of the title king? It is clear that his promise is vain and silly. When Salome consults her mother, Herodias, and returns with a request for John the Baptist’s head, Mark writes, “The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for…the court, he did not want to refuse her.”
Out of regard for the court, Antipas cuts of John’s head.
This is a powerful image. If we think of John the Baptist as a representation of the truth, and the court as a representation of the forces of popularity and power, we might consider how easy it is to become a victim of the same forces that trap Antipas. How often do we distort the truth to benefit from the court of public opinion? How easy is it for us to sacrifice the truth on the altar of popularity and power? Allow me to illustrate this point with two rather silly examples.
I remember some years ago, I was delighted to host a friend of my brothers in New Haven who spontaneously traveled up from New York City to visit the Peabody Museum of Natural History. When I asked him what had inspired him to visit the Peabody, he shared with me candidly that had lied to one of his clients in an attempt to impress them by faking familiarity with the museum. Realizing that he was in over his head when the client followed up with him to discuss the museum, he decided that he needed to visit it as soon as possible to cover his tracks.
In a similar vein, I recently finished a short book by Alan Jacobs titled, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. One of the observations that Jacobs makes is that many of us too often read books to say that we have read them, which, Jacobs argues, is not reading them at all, but passing our eyes over words on a page to check them off a list. True reading, Jacobs insists, occurs when we encounter a text without pretense or deceit. Many of us sacrifice this authentic encounter with the truth of a book simply to tell the court of public opinion that we have read them. Speaking for myself, I found this to be convicting.
These are small illustrations, but I invite all of us today to reflect on the power of “the court” in our lives. I suspect that many of us, if we are courageous enough to be truthful, would have to admit that we often find ourselves manipulated into lies by the court of public opinion. In today’s world, the echo chambers of social media and the forces of political polarization make “the court” particularly influential. Michiko Kakutani articulates the current potency of the court in modern society in her book that bears the illustrative title, The Death of Truth. Kakutani argues that mainstream culture in the United States has moved further and further away from the pursuit of truth since the 1980’s when deconstructionists and skeptics conquered the educational establishment. Irrespective of her thesis’s ultimate merit (which is surely debatable), I find Kakutani’s title compelling. Perhaps The Death of Truth is a fitting title for our story today. We might say that our omnipresent desire to please the court, just like Antipas, results in the death of the truth, witnessed in the life of John the Baptist.
Preaching John the Baptist is never good news. He is a cantankerous man who calls us to repentance. His life bears witness to the death of truth. And yet, John the Baptist makes clear in John’s Gospel, “I must decrease, so that he [Jesus] will increase” (Jn. 3:30). John the Baptist is always pointing beyond his own life towards the life to come. The entire story of his death foreshadows the death and resurrection of Jesus. Mark shares the story of John’s death because Antipas believes that Jesus is John raised from the dead. Just like Jesus, John is murdered unfairly by a king who believes that he is innocent. Pontius Pilates’s famous query during the trial of Jesus, “What is truth?” could just as easily have been uttered by Antipas, which draws an explicit connection from Jesus’s trial back to the death of truth caused by the court surrounding Antipas.
Good News does not arrive with John the Baptist, but he does point us towards the resurrected life that is waiting for us on the other side of Jesus’ death. What might happen, as Alan Jacobs suggests, if we stop reading to say that we have read and instead read to discover something new? What might happen if we stop posturing to impress the world and instead spend our lives discovering truth? Surely, we will be less impressive to the world. Surely, our political and cultural tribes will be disappointed, disillusioned, or even enraged. Surely, we will encounter a death of sorts. It would do us well to remember that John the Baptist is killed as a result of speaking truth to the powers of the world. And yet, the promise of the Gospel is that there is life waiting for us on the other side of every death. That is the promise towards which John the Baptists points us.
It is here that I would like to touch briefly on an image from Amos that Terry Birdsong read for us. Amos famously witnesses God’s plumb line, a kind of measuring tool by which the high places may be made low and the low places may be filled in. This “leveling” operation by God is intended to bring his people back into alignment with his will. We might take this image and use it as a lens to understand John’s death. Every time we turn towards truth, we are measured by God’s plumb line, and those parts of us that cling to deceit and vanity and popularity are killed off, just like John the Baptist was killed by Antipas’s vanity. One by one, our haughtiness is lowered and our insecurities are shored up. Each occasion is painful. Each occasion is full of grief and precipitates a death of sorts. And yet, with each death, we move deeper into that mysterious rhythm that brings forth the resurrection and gives us life.
Death and life. John the Baptist and Jesus. Repentance and Grace. Grief and Joy. This is the rhythm of our lives, and with each episode, we move deeper into our embrace with God. This is where we might come full circle back to our lesson from creation at the beginning of the service. In the same way that we suggested that God might be likened to a flower whose pollen is revealed when it detects the right frequency of vibrations, we might think of each episode of death and life, grief and joy, repentance and grace, as a form of attunement, a way of refining our frequency so that we might experience that life-giving pollen of God’s grace. In that event, John the Baptists' death leads us to good news indeed.