Read Mark 6:14-29 & Esther 5:1-8 here.
So, I have to tell you right up front, I kind of lost my head over this scripture this week.
But then, so did John the Baptist.
What images stick with you from this story? For me, and maybe for you, too, it’s hard to look away from the image of John the Baptist’s head on a platter. That gruesome detail draws our eyes and minds and holds them, and distracts us from everything else about the story. Maybe that’s why for centuries, artists have been recreating that very scene. Some are pretty and sanitized, like this one from Bernardo Luini. This is Salome, the daughter of Herodias. Notice that she is looking away from the head. We can imagine from her expression that she may be regretting her request.
This one from Artemisia Gentileschi has Salome looking right at the head, which is unusual in paintings of this scene. It’s hard to guess from her lack of expression what she was thinking at this moment.
The artist Caravaggio painted several, including this one that includes a man who might be the executioner, and an older woman in the back who is likely Herodias. Despite getting what they asked for, nobody looks very happy about it in this picture.
There are scads more I could show you. On the Wikipedia page there are 111 of them. Really, no matter how much artists try to make this scene beautiful, it’s gruesome. Maybe that’s why these artists chose this subject – because it was a challenge. Or maybe they saw it as a way to get ahead in the art world.
We are drawn to the macabre. Maybe it’s our tendency toward morbid curiosity. The news stations count on this to boost their ratings. The freeways demonstrate the truth of this. Whenever there is an accident, the traffic backs up, not just because a lane is blocked, but because everyone driving past slows down to get a better look at what has happened. Scientists have studied this and found that this is a coping mechanism we all have. We slow down and look closer to make sure we aren’t in danger.
Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell this story in their Gospels, but Mark, who is usually the one who tells the shorter version, includes more detail than the others. Mark seems to slow down to get a closer look. Why would that be?
Tradition says that Mark is writing this gospel in Rome, telling the good news of the Gospel to Christians who are facing persecution. The eyewitnesses that had been telling the stories are being killed so it’s important to gospel writers to preserve the stories. They don’t want to lose the information about Jesus, or lose sight of the mission Jesus gave them, to go and make disciples (Matt 28:19-20). Mark is writing during the reign of the Emperor Nero who was persecuting and killing Christians. Those reading Mark’s gospel were wondering, in these challenging times when it seems nearly impossible for Christianity to survive, is there any hope? Or will those in power succeed in killing off all the followers of Jesus and end the spread of the movement? We know what happened, that Christianity did survive, but Mark’s readers didn’t. They needed encouragement.
By including this story about John the Baptist, Mark is sending a strong message to first century Christians and to us. There is hope. Though there will be difficulties, and it may seem like evil and chaos reign, the kingdom of God is here to stay, and death is not the end. Though we may lose heart, God is greater than our hearts.
Mark tells us this story about Herod beheading John as a flashback. It’s framed by the story of Jesus sending out the twelve on their first preaching mission. The framing sets the story off and helps us see it differently. Frames can change the way we see the art inside the frame. For example, a frame that’s a particular color can highlight the parts of the picture that have that same color. Mark’s frame for this story about Herod Antipas and John the Baptist puts good news around bad news, healing and salvation around revenge and death.
Just before where we read today, Mark tells us that Jesus has sent out the disciples to preach, heal the sick and cast out demons. Right after this story about Herod, Mark tells about the disciples coming back from their mission. Here in the middle, we read that the news of their impact on people has spread to Herod’s court. People are wondering if this means Elijah has come back. Herod wonders if John the Baptist, whom he arrested and killed because of his wife Herodias, has come back from the dead.
Why would Herodias want to get rid of John the Baptist? Because John had been telling Herod that it was adultery for him to be married to Herodias because she had been his brother Phillip’s wife. Herodias saw an opportunity for revenge when her daughter Salome danced for Herod and was offered whatever she wished. There are so many things Salome could have asked for, but she chose to get a head instead.
In framing this story with the sending out of the twelve disciples, Mark is reminding those in Rome that the call to faith and discipleship and evangelism would also be a call to self-sacrifice and maybe even death. This is what happens to Jesus and all the disciples except John.
- Jesus is crucified.
- Peter is also crucified, although upside down.
- James the brother of John is beheaded. (Acts 12:2)
The stories of their deaths are as gruesome as what happened to John the Baptist. The classic book Foxes Book of the Martyrs records the deaths of many more down through the ages who were put to death because of their faith in Jesus.
Jesus had told the disciples to have courage despite this danger. He said,
Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matthew 10:28)
Don’t be afraid. Mark is encouraging Christians to trust that even though earthly kings seem to be in charge, the greater reality is that…
Jesus Christ is king.
Matthew and Luke both tell this story about the beheading of John the Baptist, but Mark is the only one who calls Herod “king.” There is some debate over whether he really was a king. This Herod is the son of the Herod that was king when Jesus was born. After that Herod died, the kingdom was divided between his three sons Herod Antipas, Phillip and Herod Archilaus.
It’s ironic that Herod Antipas would offer half his kingdom because when his father’s kingdom was divided, Herod Antipas only got one fourth of it. His brother Archilaus got a full half, and Phillip got the other quarter. And since Herod served under the rule of Rome, it really wasn’t his kingdom to give away. If he mishandled it, Rome could take it away from him, which is exactly what happened to his brother Archilaus.
Although his father was known as Herod the Great because of his strength and great skill as a leader, Herod Antipas gets little notice in history. In fact, he may be most known primarily for this one event – the beheading of John the Baptist.
By the time Mark writes this gospel, probably around the year 60 CE, none of Herod the Great’s sons were still in power, and this story may have helped those early Christians to remember that earthly kingdoms will rise and fall, but Jesus will reign forever.
Isaiah had prophesied about a king who would rule forever:
Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this. (Isaiah 9:7)
That’s what all the people in heaven are singing in the book of Revelation, words that are probably familiar to us because of Handel’s Messiah:
“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever.” (Revelation 11:15)
When it seems like earthly powers are gaining the upper hand, don’t be afraid, and hold on to hope, because a greater power is at work in the world – the power of love and forgiveness that we know through Jesus Christ. Remember that Jesus Christ is king and keep on doing what you know is right.
So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. (Galatians 6:9)
Jesus Christ is King and his reign will never end, but that doesn’t mean that following him will be easy. In fact, Mark is giving us a head’s up that it will be difficult. Spreading the good news of the kingdom and calling for people to repent and turn to God is what got John the Baptist’s head on a platter.
We can also learn from Herod. Herod respected John. John had been arrested because of Herodias, but Herod had protected John. When Herodias and her daughter ask for John’s head on a platter, Herod is deeply grieved (6:26). The problem is that Herod gets caught up in his emotions, and emotional decisions are very often bad decisions.
We can’t say for sure what emotion is ruling Herod in this scene when he offers half his kingdom to Herodias’s daughter – maybe it’s lust, or maybe it’s pride.
In the story of Esther, another king, King Xerxes is so pleased with Queen Esther that he offers her half of his kingdom. It’s a silly thing to do, and in Herod’s case not even his to offer, but he got carried away and it came back to bite him.
Herod may have considered listening to John and repenting, but then he would have had to change his life. Herod may have considered standing up for John and not giving in to Herodias’ request to have him beheaded, but instead he played it safe. Herod’s hubris got in the way. He got a bit too headstrong. If he hadn’t, he might have been able to listen to the Holy Spirit. If Herod had allowed the Holy Spirit to help him, he might have had the courage to say no to killing John the Baptist, even though it might have been embarrassing to go back on his rash promise in front of his guests.
The Holy Spirit is available to give us courage and wisdom and patience and self-control. All we have to do is ask – pray and ask for help, pause before we answer and ask God to guide us. The more we do this, the more we allow the Holy Spirit to be a part of our lives.
Mark tells us that Herod respected John and liked to listen to him, but it doesn’t seem like Herod was letting John’s message of repentance sink in or have any lasting effect on him. Don’t we do that, too? We hear God’s word and we nod and say, “yeah, that sounds right” but then we walk away without letting it change us.
Holy Spirit could have helped Herod have humility instead of hubris.
As we read on in Mark 6, we see that the kingdom of God did not go away because of Herod. Though John the Baptist would no longer be the head of a movement, Jesus and the disciples continued to have an impact on people’s lives. Though we may lose heart and get discouraged, we can trust that God is greater than our hearts. (1 John 3:20)
On the last night of an evangelist campaign at the University of Sydney in Australia, Anglican priest and author John Stott lost his voice. The students had booked the big university hall. A group of students gathered around him, and he asked them to pray as Paul did, that this thorn in the flesh might be taken away. (2 Cor 12:7-10) They also prayed that if God did not remove Stott’s weakness, that the power of Christ might rest upon him.
Stott’s voice did not come back, and he had to get within one inch of the microphone to croak out the gospel. He was unable to use any inflection of voice to express his personality. It was just a croak in a monotone, so Stott and the other leaders kept praying that God’s power would be demonstrated in human weakness.
Despite the weakness, there was a far greater response that night than any other night. Whenever Stott went back to Australia in the years that followed, somebody would come up to him and say, “Do you remember that night when you lost your voice? I became a Christian that night.” 
Stotts prayers were answered, God’s power came through despite his weakness. A similar realization inspired this poem that you may have heard before, said to have been written by a confederate soldier. It reminds us not to be discouraged when life doesn’t got the way we’d hoped.
I asked God for strength, that I might achieve:
I was made weak that I might obey.
I asked for health that I might do greater things:
I was given infirmity that I might do better things.
I asked for riches that I might be happy:
I was given poverty that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men:
I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things that I might enjoy life:
I was given life that I might enjoy all things.
I received nothing that I asked for, but all I had hoped for.
My prayer was answered, I am most richly blessed.
We get discouraged because we look at the problems of the world, and they seem insurmountable.
We look at ourselves and see all the ways that we fall short, all the ways that things don’t work out the way we want, and we lose heart.
We need to remember that no matter who seems to rule the moment, the reality is that Jesus Christ is king, and he shall reign forever.
Though we may feel inadequate and alone, we are never alone because the Holy Spirit is available to help us 24/7. All we have to do is ask.
Though we may lose heart and get discouraged, we can trust that God is greater than our hearts. (1 John 3:20)
 Calvin Roetzel, The World That Shaped the New Testament (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 27.