This sermon was first preached for Faith Church in Joliet on July 11, 2021.
Relevant lectionary readings can be found here.
King Herod came from a line of tyrants.
The Gospel of Matthew tells us that his father before him is the man who orchestrated the genocidal plot to drown all of the baby boys under the age of two when he heard a king had been born that might threaten his crown, forcing the Holy Family, including Jesus, to flee to Egypt as refugees.
The Herods position of power had been established by the Roman Empire. They were Jewish leaders acting as traitors to the Jewish people by aligning with the Empire that held them under brutal occupation. There were frequent insurrections against this occupation. The role of these puppet kings was to keep the Jewish people in line, to keep them from rising up against their oppressors and demanding their freedom.
This unholy union should not surprise us. All throughout history, people of faith have had to decide:
Will we resist Empire and systems of oppression? Or will we cozy up to Empire for the sake of our own power, privilege, and relevance?
And on top of selling out his own people, King Herod also used his power to exploit people. Like girls and women. He was an adulterer and an abuser. I am sure it sounds shocking now to think of a corrupt politician who does not have the interests of his people at heart, and whose proclivities include misogynistically taking advantage of women. We definitely don’t deal with that in our own time [sarcasm].
John the Baptist was a radical. At a time where it seemed like the options for the Jewish people were either to sell out to the Empire, like most of the religious and political leaders did, or to rise up against the Empire and inevitably face violence and repression, John chose a different path. He lived out in the wild, off the grid, opting out of the Empire as much as possible, and calling people to repentance.
John, like many of the prophets God calls, did not fit into the respectable models of leadership for the day. He wore strange clothes. He ate strange food. He cursed out the religious aristocracy.
You might remember that John was Jesus’ cousin. Jesus came from a family of prophets. The Gospel of Luke tells us that while Jesus was still in the womb his mother Mary wrote the epic protest song known as the Magnificat, where God casts down the mighty and lifts up the lowly, feeds the hungry and sends the rich away starving. This song was written just after John and Jesus met for the first time, in utero, when Mary visited Elizabeth and John lept in her womb. With a cousin like John and a mother like Mary, it’s not actually that surprising to me that Jesus ended up being who he is.
It was John who initiated Jesus into the movement for social and spiritual renewal. And after John baptized Jesus, Jesus went out into the wilderness. Scripture says the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness. The Spirit seems to do that. She dwells in the wild places. Maybe that’s why John spent so much time out there too.
Matthew tells us that right after Jesus returned from his time in the wilderness he heard the news.
John, his beloved cousin, mentor, comrade, and friend had fallen victim to the fate of so many other prophets before him. He had been surveilled by the state. Targeted. Arrested. Imprisoned. All because John had spoken publicly against Herod and his abuse of power. It was this news of John’s arrest that radicalized Jesus. He proclaimed the same message John had and began to build power, to build a movement, by calling disciples. Together they began spreading the message of God’s liberating love throughout the land, healing and feeding people, and casting out demons.
That brings us to the gruesome scene in our Gospel reading today. Not long after John was arrested and incarcerated was King Herod’s birthday. And for his birthday he threw a lavish party, a feast for all of the military commanders and officers and court officials…anyone you would expect to be on a Who’s Who list of Galilee. At this feast, the young daughter of Herod’s wife danced for him and the guests and in a moment of hubris and merriment Herod promised to give her whatever she wanted. Under her mother’s direction she asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter.
Herod felt conflicted because, on the one hand, even though he knew John was a thorn in his side, it was clear he was a truth teller and a man of justice. Herod knew, too, that John had a following and feared an uprising that would threaten his power. But on the other hand, Herod didn’t want to be embarrassed in front of all of his very fancy guests, especially not in the middle of his own birthday party!
And so Herod didn’t debate for long. He immediately sent an executioner to the prison who went to John’s cell and decapitated him. So there it was. Herod served up John the Baptist’s head on a platter.
A banquet of death fit for such a power-hungry man.
But just like young community organizer and Black Panther Fred Hampton said:
You can kill the revolutionary.
But you can never kill the revolution.
Jesus’ movement in response to John’s arrest continued to grow. It grew and grew, because the truth cannot be hidden. It grew because, instead of following the Empire’s pattern of keeping people hungry and sick and desperate, too weak to fight back, Jesus continued to feed and heal people and tell the truth.
Jesus’ movement of Love and Liberation had grown so powerful that people were talking about it. And King Herod heard about it. And he was terrified, thinking that Jesus was John the Baptist, back from the dead.
Jesus wasn’t John the Baptist. Not really. Except for in the ways that we are mosaics of the people who influence us. Our mentors, the people who form us, are carried with us in our hearts.
Jesus wasn’t John the Baptist.
But Jesus did follow in John the Baptist’s footsteps
John’s story foreshadowed what awaited Jesus, and he knew it.
Jesus would be surveilled. Targeted. Arrested. Beaten by the police. Put through a sham of a trial. And he would be killed by the state, too
When hearing the news of John’s death, Jesus did not stop spreading a message of Truth that frightened people in power. He did not run away in fear. He continued to march right to the local seat of power, knowing that a cross would await him in the end.
But the difference between John and Jesus, is that Jesus did not stay dead. Unlike Herod, who hosted a banquet of death, Jesus conquers death and its agents and hosts instead a banquet of life and abundance. Just after this story in Mark of the execution of John the Baptist we see the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000.
This is a pattern of Jesus. While Empire and its collaborators serve up death, Jesus offers us life. And feeds us with the best that he has to offer – his own body and blood.
John’s arrest and execution made Jesus’ own call more clear. Our call, in response, is to live into our baptismal promises. To work for justice and peace in all the earth. To resist Empires who wage death. To persevere in pursuit of our collective liberation. To be faithful, even when the cost is high.
But we do not go at it alone.
When we are courageous and stand up against oppression, we can know that our spiritual ancestors are there with us. They have gone before us, and just as John’s story made Jesus’ call clearer, their faithfulness has beaten down the path to make our way more clear.
We are joined through the mystical waters of baptism to Jesus and to John and to all the other saints in every time and place. We are fed at the banquet of life for the journey ahead, and fortified for the struggle to come.
Thanks be to God.