Mark 6: 14-29
St. Luke’s, Burlington
12 July 2009
By Stuart Pike
Every once in a while, the Revised Common Lectionary gives us a Gospel reading which might not naturally be my first choice. Sometimes the readings don’t seem to fit the context of the particular Sunday. The preacher might be tempted to preach on one of the other readings for the Sunday, or simply pick another “nicer” Gospel reading. We know that the word, Gospel means “Good News” and we think that this means a nice story.
And so this Sunday in July, just when the weather is getting beautiful, the kids are out of school and people are getting into relaxation mode for the Summer, we are brought up short with this incredibly brutal and sordid story of the execution of John the Baptist. It’s not a “nice” story.
The story reaches inside and yanks us out of our Summer reverie and makes us sit up and listen! And then the reader says “The Gospel of Christ” that is the “Good News” of Christ. And we all respond, “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ!” What could possibly be thought of as good in this story? And why are we praising Jesus in response to this story?
This is the sad ending of John the Baptist, a cousin to Jesus himself and considered to be a great prophet among the Jews. Another interesting fact about this story is that it is the only Gospel story we have which is also recorded in the secular history of the age, written by an important Jewish historian who became the historian and advisor to three Roman Emperors. His name was Josephus.
Josephus appears to have been a man who greatly admired John the Baptist. Perhaps this is because Josephus, as a young man spent three years – between the ages of 16 and 19 living the life of a desert hermit, much like the Essene community did in Qumran.
There are also many scholars who believe that John the Baptist might have been a member of this Desert Essene sect before he began his prophetic ministry and baptized the Jews who came out in droves to the Jordan river in order to ceremonially wash away their sins as they turned their lives around to align them with God’s way.
But John the Baptist didn’t just baptize people – he was also a great prophet. He didn’t mince words and he wasn’t afraid to even take on the powerful. John was a truth-teller. Perhaps you know the type. They are the ones who tell the truth no matter the risk. Many of the martyrs were like this. Most people just want to keep the peace. We don’t want to offend or upset the balance. It’s so much safer to keep silence. Often it seems “nicer.”
The martyrs, like John the Baptist and Jesus himself had the courage to tell the truth – even though they had to give their lives for it. The stories of the martyrs have continued down the ages even to our own time. From Stephen, the first Christian martyr all the way to Martin Luther King, the champion for racial equality in the United States and to Bishop Oscar Romeo, the voice of the voiceless poor of El Salvador.
And just like this story seems so out of place on a beautiful mid-summer day, so does the violence which continues to overtake the lives of people to this day. This violence doesn’t take a vacation. The story of great evil continues in the Sudan, in the Congo, in Afghanistan and in so much more of the world.
And closer to home, violence in our own cities, in our schools, and sometimes, within families continue today. You cannot open and newspaper or turn on the local news without finding out about some story of violence and tragedy.
What could our role be as Christians?
The most obvious thing which connects John the Baptist with our Lord, Jesus and with each one of us is the sacrament of baptism.
Baptism is a choice to follow in God’s way even when it isn’t popular. When Jesus accepted his baptism by John at the Jordan River he was accepting his own ministry which would lead to his death. He went down under the waters of baptism – it was a kind of death. He was dying to simply following his own will, and instead following his Father’s will.
Our baptism is about that too. It is a kind of death. It is realized in our lives as we live out God’s will for us. Our lives most essentially are not just about us. We have a purpose that is bigger than our own egos and selfish desires. When we understand that we come to realize that we are worth so much more. People are worth so much more than meets the eye.
Taking our baptism seriously means that we will find the courage we need to be a truth-teller, and to stand against that which opposes God’s love.
Two of the important promises which we make in our baptismal covenant are: to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbour as ourselves; and to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.
This was the way that John lived his life, and it was the way that Jesus embodied God’s love on earth. These baptismal promises are what transform our lives with purpose. It means dying to self, and living for God and it will fill our lives with meaning.
Yes, we go down with John and with Jesus under the waters of baptism. And we die to our selves. But, of all miracles, we burst back up out of the waters to a new life, raised with our Lord. This new life in Christ – it’s what we’re for.
Today we didn’t get a nice little Gospel story. We got a story about violence and courage and about death. But it’s also about life. Amen.