There was once a pastor who began a sermon by saying, “Each member of this church is going to die and face judgment.” Glancing down at the front pew, he noticed a man with a big smile on his face. So, thinking he just needed to add a little more fire and brimstone, the pastor loudly repeated his point and added a couple of woe are you verses for good measure… However, the man in the front pew nodded and smiled even more.
This really made the pastor mad… He started pounding the pulpit with his fist and he raised his voice nearly to a shout, preaching with as much fire and brimstone as he could muster… At the end of the sermon, he was more or less just repeating over and over that every member of the church would die and face judgment…” But, the man in the front pew continued to smile… After the service was over, the priest made a beeline for the man from the front pew. “I don’t get it,” the he said in frustration. “Whenever I said, ‘Each member of this church is going to die, and face judgement’ your smile got bigger. Why?” “Well,” the man replied, “I’m not a member of this church.”
As many of you have probably gathered by now, I’m not much of a fire and brimstone preacher. I tend to preach on things like the love of Jesus, or the grace, mercy, and forgiveness of God. Well, earlier in the week, I took a look at the readings for today… And there he was, our good friend John the Baptist. A fire and brimstone preacher if ever there was one. It is here in his sixth chapter that the author of Mark catches us up on what has become of John and unfortunately, it’s almost something out of an episode of The Days of Our Lives… You might remember some of the wild story plots that show had… As a kid growing up in the late 70s and early 80s, I was exposed to this genre as I pretended to nap while my mother took an hour or two to breathe and remove herself from the chaos that was hurricane Kenn… I now have an incredible amount of sympathy for her as I deal with cleaning up after hurricane Leo multiple times a day…
If we look at what’s going on in Mark’s sixth chapter, we see that King Herod is throwing a pagan- style birthday party. Herod you see was the Jewish puppet king, and he was supposed to observe Jewish law… But with all of the wealth and influence coming from Rome, Herod had compromised a lot of his values… John the Baptist was actually imprisoned because he had called Herod out on marrying his brother’s divorced wife which was not allowed under Jewish law… And if that wasn’t soap opera spicy enough, She was actually one of his 10 wives and it was here at his birthday party, where he asks his niece/daughter to dance for everyone, which by the way, was a role usually reserved for young woman in the servant-class who were only called on to dance at parties like this, but were also called on to be sexually available for the party guests… (The plot thickens
I think however that while much can be drawn from the story of John’s beheading and the drama surrounding Herod, this part of our reading can sometimes distract us from the overall narrative arc that our gospel writer has been working on. If we concentrate on the opening verses in our reading today, we can see that Mark is again setting the stage of his gospel with the idea of Jesus’ spreading fame, questions about Jesus’ identity, and the struggles between the power of death, vs. the power of resurrection and life in the coming kingdom of God.
So, Mark keeps telling us how Jesus’ fame was growing. We’ve heard about the crowds following him, the boats that followed him all the way across the sea of Galilee and back again. We hear of the people who were pressing in on him when the woman with the hemorrhaging problem reached out to touch the hem of his garment.
Mark has been building the question of Jesus’ identity since the beginning of his gospel. Remember, there is no virgin birth narrative in this telling of the Jesus story… We begin Mark’s gospel with none other than John the Baptist preparing the way for Jesus… and as the plot builds… as his fame increases, we are continually left wondering throughout the gospel just who this amazing Jesus guy really is.
Which leads us to yet another arc in the storyline. Mark keeps building the tension and mystery of Jesus the miracle worker, bringing up the question of Jesus’ identity again and again throughout the gospel… And here we are in chapter six and the question remains, who is this Jesus of Nazareth.
Over the past week and through a whole lot of reading about this passage, I have become convinced that, our gospel writer has a goal in mind… Mark is building this tension concerning Jesus’ identity right up to the crucifixion and at the moment after Jesus dies come the big reveal… This death becomes a kind of crescendo that clicks as truth to those who were hearing it for the first time.
Imagine you’re living somewhere in the Roman empire in the late first century. You stop by a synagogue and someone starts reading the gospel of Mark. You begin to hear about the incredible deeds that Jesus performed, you also hear about the amazing loving way that Jesus lived. And, finally once you’re really invested, you hear about Jesus’ betrayal, how his friends all turned their backs on him, and about his terrible demise on the cross. and it is there, in Chapter 15 that Mark let’s you know for the first time, that Jesus is the Son of God.
The idea of a messiah and savior is one that had been prophesied about for thousands of years at this point. Everyone could tell that there must be a better way to live than this, that humanity seemed to be trapped in a cycle of life and death. Self-preservation was the end goal, and those who had power and means, fared better than those without. We see it time and time again in the scriptures, humanity turns from God in our selfishness, in our greed, in our quest for power, and in our desire to please others.
We see just this in our gospel lesson with the beheading of John the Baptist. Herod, desperate to save face, has an innocent man, a man who Herod felt had something to say about truth and life, executed. It seems we are powerless against the cycle of death that we ourselves have put into motion. But, in the midst of this cycle of death, there is good news. At the end of his gospel, Mark will reveal that Jesus the miracle worker, the messiah, the Son of God, has defeated death by his death, and by his rising again, he has given us life. Yes, because of Jesus, there is a new cycle that we can choose, and this new cycle doesn’t hinge on selfishness and end in death, but instead, it is built upon Selflessness and while death is still part of the story, it, is not, the end… There is a new chapter and new life that begins with the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
And, because of his resurrection, Jesus has shown us that there is a different way to live, that life, real life comes through acts of love. That life comes when we find ways to serve others, that life comes when we learn how to give rather than receive, that life comes when we reach out to lift people up, and that life comes when we work together to build the community of the bride of Christ. We are called to join with Jesus in building the kingdom of God, all the while tearing down the empires and idols of selfishness that we have built unto ourselves. Because life, new and unending life is born within us when we look beyond ourselves, and love our neighbors.