Sunday, May 27, 2012

Your Head on a Platter

Truth and Consequences

Gospel Reading: Mark 6: 14-29

Truth and consequences often go together. It was a lowly lieutenant who first exposed the humiliation that a few Iraqis suffered at the hands of a few American soldiers. Had it turned out that the actions of these soldiers were conducted under lawful orders, the consequences of his truth-telling could have been the loss of his superiors’ confidence in him and even the loss of his career.

Truth is dangerous, especially when truth is spoken to power. Elijah dared to speak truth to weak King Ahab and wicked Queen Jezebel, and a bounty was put on his head. But worse happened to John the Baptist, whose personality and preaching were a lot like Elijah’s. He spoke the truth to King Herod and his wife Herodias, and it cost him his life.

We find the account of the high price John paid for speaking the truth, in Mark 6: 14-29.

I. Speculation

The story begins with speculation about Jesus. The word of His ministry had spread widely throughout Galilee. Word of the things Jesus was teaching and doing reached even the King Herod.

People were asking, “Who is this that teaches such things with such authority? Who is this that claims authority to forgive sins? Who is this that does such mighty works? Who is this that even raises the dead?” So, as people heard the stories they speculated about the identity of Jesus.

Some said that he must be John the Baptist who had risen from the dead. They knew that John the Baptist had been a mighty preacher, in the mold of Elijah, who without fear or favor preached about sin and called people to repentance. There was something new and special about John’s ministry. Jesus’ ministry was not exactly like John’s, but Jesus, was an even more mighty preacher. He also did not hesitate to speak directly about sin. And while, unlike John the Baptist, Jesus announced the good news that in Him the kingdom of God was coming into the world, like John He, too, called for repentance. So, some, thought that, perhaps, God had raised John from the dead, and that Jesus was the resurrected John.

Others thought that Jesus might be Elijah, the Old Testament prophet who dared to tell Ahab that he, Elijah, was not the “troubler of Israel,” but that the king himself was. Something that the last Old Testament prophet, Malachi, wrote made some expect that Elijah would be raised from the dead to prepare the people for the Last Days. The last verses of the prophecy said, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (Elijah 4:5,6). As it turns out, Jesus said that John the Baptist fulfilled this prophecy. But you can see how some, who expected the literal return of Elijah, would have thought Jesus were Elijah.

Still others were not prepared to say who He was except that He must be prophet. Prophecy in Israel had gone silent for 400 years after Malachi till John the Baptist came on the scene with a fresh message from God. So perhaps these people thought that God was restoring the gift and office of prophecy to Israel and that Jesus, who clearly spoke with God’s authority, must be one of them.

But Herod agreed with those who thought Jesus must be John raised from the dead. It turns out that this was based on superstition, a guilty conscience, and fear. Herod saw Jesus as a person like John, a man who spoke the truth and was a threat to him.

It is interesting that in all this speculation no one seems to have entertained the possibility that Jesus could be the Messiah. So it is today. Many who know of Jesus admire Him, and call him the greatest man who ever lived, or the most influential person in history, or the most wonderful teacher and example who has ever lived among us. It turns out that most of these speculations are based on partial information and on what people would like Jesus to be. The real Jesus, the Jesus of the Gospels, they find not to their liking. He is not the nicest man anyone could ever meet, but the only Son of God, the only Savior of mankind, and the only Judge of the world. It is dangerous to hold a false or incomplete view of Jesus. It can be harder to give up a view that admires Jesus but is false than to give up unbelief. Our role as a church, and the role we have as Christians, is to testify to the full truth about Jesus. 

II. Confrontation

The speculations of the people and Herod, leads us to ask, “What led to these speculations?” So Mark tells us the story of what happened to John the Baptist.

Before we learn about John we need to know a little more about Herod. There are four Herods mentioned in the New Testament. The Herod we are talking about now was Herod Antipas. His father was Herod the Great, the cruel and ruthless Herod who was ruling when Jesus was born. Herod Antipas ruled over Galilee and Perea from 4 B.C. till A.D. 39. Though he wanted the title King, he was never given that title by the Romans. He was a tetrarch.

The thing that most interests us about Herod is his marriage. Herod had a half-brother named Philip. They had the same father, Herod the Great, but different mothers. Philip had married a woman name Herodias. However, over time Antipas became attracted to her. He persuaded her to leave her husband. When she did the two of them got married. Moreover, these two had a blood relationship. Herodias was the niece of Herod Antipas.

Now there were several problems with all this. One was the treachery of Antipas when he stole his half-brother’s wife. Another was that there was an Old Testament Law that forbad the marriage of an aunt to her nephew (Leviticus 18:13) and some interpreters of the Law believed that that law also forbad a parallel relationship. Hence the marriage of an uncle and niece would be forbidden also. It is likely that many people who knew of this marriage considered it incestuous.

But John focused on the clear violation of the Law of Moses. The Law unambiguously forbad a man’s marrying his brother’s wife. “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife” (Leviticus 18:23, cf. 20:21). John’s message was, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”

Whether John ever got into the court to preach this to Herod face to face we do not know. It may be that John had never been invited to court, but that this message about the marriage of Herod had been part of his message to those who came to hear him, and so the word of John’s preaching eventually made its way to Herod. However Herod heard the message, he did not like it. He had fallen in lust and in love with this woman, and he did not want to give her up. But he also knew that John was a righteous and holey man. He also had a strange fascination with John’s preaching. When he finally got a chance to hear John, he found that he was perplexed by it – it disturbed him – but he also heard it gladly – there was something about John’s preaching that made him want to hear more. Yet Herod never acted on the preaching of John. James tells us we must be doers rather than hearers only of the word. We can listen to preaching and even appreciate it, but, if we do not respond to its commands, it does us no good and may serve only to harden our hearts and to increase our condemnation. As we hear God’s word, we must remember that it always comes to us with the urgency that says, “Act today.” The time to respond to God’s Word is not later, when it is more convenient, but now when God is speaking to us.

But Herodias was different. She had nothing but hatred and malice toward John the Baptist. She had a grudge and she nursed a grudge. Grudges can be so much fun, but they are also so destructive. When you have a grudge you can think about it in quiet moments during the day, and it is the last thing you think about as you fall asleep at night. Grudges held can destroy the grudge holder, but they can also sometimes destroy the object of the grudge. That is what happened in this case, for Herodias’ desire from the beginning was to silence John by killing him. She so hated John because of his message that nothing could satisfy her short of doing away with him.

Had John in his preaching simply said, “It is wrong to have another man’s wife,” he might have gotten away from it. If he had said only once, “Herod has no right to be married to his brother’s wife,” he also might have got away with it. The problems were that John included direct application in his preaching and that John continued to preach that. For John it was not enough to say simply, “A man may not marry his brother’s wife.” He had to say, “Herod should not have his brother’s wife.” And, he was not content to say it once. He said it many times because Herod continued in the forbidden relationship.

John Calvin tell us what we can learn from John: “We behold in John an illustrious example of that moral courage, which all pious teachers ought to possess, not to hesitate to incur the wrath of the great and powerful, as often as it may be found necessary: for he, with whom there is an acceptance of persons, does not honestly serve God” (cited in Cranfield, p. 209). 

III. Celebration

Herodias finally got her opportunity to get her way when Herod Antipas threw himself a big birthday celebration. Antipas was a lover of luxury. We can be sure it was quite a banquet he gave at his party. He had his usual court officials, the nobles. He also had invited his military commanders. And there were leading men from Galilee, at least those who gave him their loyalty. Along with the fine food that was served, we can be sure there was plenty of wine to drink. In all likelihood, by the time the banquet was coming to an end, they were feeling the effects of all the wine they had consumed.

What’s a birthday party for a ruler without some entertainment? This was where Herodias saw her opportunity. Herod and his guests were at least slightly inebriated. And, she had a teenage daughter, named Salome, who could provide the entertainment. She had prepared her daughter to dance for the men. It is likely that the teenage girl appeared in immodest dress, and it is certain that the dance was immodest. In most rulers’ courts of the time, while there might be professional adult dancers, it would have been considered shameful for a daughter of the ruler’s family to dance. But such were the morals in this court, that, not only did the girl dance, but the whole thing was planned by her mother.  I hope that parents will consider two things in connection with this incident. The first is that, while the old fundamentalist prohibitions of all dancing have ended, nevertheless, there are some forms of dance that are popular that are unambiguously immodest and lascivious. Christian parents need to be aware and they need to set clear standards. The other thing I hope you will consider is that, while father is responsible for all that goes on in the family, it is the special duty of Christian mothers to teach their daughters modesty of dress and conduct.

The dance of Salome had the desired and expected effect upon Herod Antipas. He was so stirred by the dance, and his judgment was so clouded by the wine, that he made a thoughtless promise to the girl: “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.” He rashly vowed: “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.” The part about the kingdom was hyperbole. He did not have the authority to convey territory to anyone, but you get the idea – he was saying, “Ask what you want, even something extravagant, and you will have it.”

Salome was not ready to answer without consulting with her mother, so she went to her mother and asked, “For what should I ask?” Now Herodias seized her opportunity and sprung her trap for Herod. “Ask for the head of John the Baptist.” It seems not to have shocked the girl at all. She did not hesitate. She “came in immediately and with haste.” The sexual lust of the men is matched by the bloodlust of the two women. Salome even added her own gruesome detail to the request: “I want you to give me the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

All of us should learn from Herod the danger of making promises or decisions when our feelings are running high. And, those of us who are men should remember what a powerful thing lust is and how it can lead to many wicked actions. We should also recognize the danger of the immoderate use of alcohol. We, as Christians, must always be able to exercise good judgment and self-control.

IV. Lamentation

The account concludes with a lamentation – Herod’s. As soon as he heard the girl’s request he was sorry for what he had promised and vowed. He did not want to kill John. He was interested in John’s preaching. He had refused to put John to death, when his wife repeatedly requested John’s execution. But what could he do? He had made a vow. And he had made it in public before very important people. If he broke his word, he would appear indecisive and weak in the presence of men whose respect he needed.

And so he immediately ordered an executioner to go and bring back John’s head. The executioner went to the prison, beheaded John, and came back with John’s head on a platter, as the girl requested. What a sorry spectacle as the executioner handed the platter to the girl, who handed it to her mother, who at last had her greatest wish fulfilled. The man who had spoken God’s truth, which she did not like, had been silenced.

John was a martyr for the truth. But this is not recorded only so that we will know what happened to John. It is there as a solemn reminder to the church of all ages that there are consequences for speaking the truth, especially for speaking the truth to power. Don’t think that everybody is waiting eagerly to here the truth we proclaim. There will always be rejection of the truth and of the messengers who proclaim it.

The greatest martyr to the truth was our Lord Jesus Christ. When He was on trial for His life before Pilate, He said, “For this purpose I was born and came into the world – to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate skeptically asked, “What is the truth?” when he had standing before him the One who spoke only the truth and who was Himself the personification of truth.

The test for us is the same it was for Pilate and for every person who has an opportunity to hear Jesus. Will we hear Him as He speaks to us today the truth of His Word, read, taught and preached? “Everyone who is of the truth listens to His voice.”


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