A Power You Can’t Cut Off
I’ve never preached from this passage before – I’ve always been conveniently out of town. It is in much more detail than Mark tends to use; perhaps he wants what’s happening to be put in the context of a prophet like Elijah, threatened with death by King Ahab and Queen Jezebel; perhaps he wants us to make connections with Jesus. But Jesus himself is not a character here…
14King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” 15But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
17For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. 18For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. 21But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” 23And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” 24She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” 25Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
Beheading in the ancient world was an act of war – an act of terrorism really, yet the winner was assumed the victor. Lest there be any doubt about the victor, the severed head was often displayed for all to see. The head is a sign of the celebration of victory and a warning to those who might challenge the authority and power of the king.
Herod, asked by his illegitimate wife to behead John the Baptist, shows his power over whatever truth John speaks. And Herod knows John speaks the truth; the gospel of Mark is clear that Herod liked to listen to John. But in the thick of a party, a party he gives for himself, where he makes a foolish oath he cannot retract, Herod shows where his allegiance lies. He may have been an admirer, but he was not a disciple of John’s. And so he’s forced to play his hand: a violent, gruesome power play.
Jewish history of the time would say that Herod killed John the Baptist because he was afraid of John’s power: whatever people saw in John that drew them to him, whatever truth he spoke about the way people had forgotten their true calling from God. Whatever the reason, Herod didn’t count on that whatever he did to cut off John’s life and therefore John’s voice, he couldn’t cut off the power at work in John. John spoke with a power you can’t cut off. You could cut off his head, but you couldn’t cut off that power, that Spirit, that truth that he spoke.
When Herod hears about Jesus and his disciples, about the powerful healing they are able to accomplish, he recognizes the power is back. Herod has seen it before and most likely it has haunted him since, the image of the head on the platter. Whatever beheading was supposed to show, it wasn’t working. Herod was facing a power stronger than death.
Some would tell you that Mark takes great pains with this story to foreshadow Jesus’s own death: John’s speaking truth led to his captivity, just as Jesus’s did. John went before Herod; Jesus went before Pilate. John was executed by decapitation, Jesus by crucifixion. John was taken to his tomb by his disciples, Jesus by a stranger.
But I think it’s also Mark’s way of telling about this power that was already at work, before Jesus’s crucifixion, that has always been working. The power that Dr. King described when he said the arc of the universe is long, and it bends towards justice. It’s the power you just can’t cut off, no matter how long the sword, no matter how many bullets are fired, no matter how many bombs are dropped.
It’s a power we’ve seen in all kinds of truly exciting places and people over the last few weeks. We’ve seen this power of liberation and justice and truth-telling as the steady work of people like Mary Bonauto and Evan Wolfson has finally paid off in the Obergefell case. In the outpouring of national sentiment over the massacre in Charleston, personified in the energy of people like Bree Newsome, the woman who climbed to the top of the SC state house to take down the Confederate flag that officially came down on Friday. Heard it in the words of the Pope apologizing for the role of the Catholic church in oppressing native peoples in Latin America and his condemnation for the unbridled capitalism that results in inequities – but I’ve also heard it in the companies who are severing ties to Donald Trump after his racist remarks about Mexican immigrants: not just companies like Univision and Telemundo that market to Spanish speakers, but Macy’s and NBC, which says Trump will no longer host the Apprentice.
What was it the prophet said long ago? Let justice roll down like waters! Like a fountain that cannot be cut off. The image of a stream of water is one way, but there’s also one that keeps coming back to me these days… of a fountain, a deep spring bubbling up.
It’s not just social justice, though, but the kind of liberation, the kind of new life that happens, whenever a deeper truth is spoken. Whenever a spouse who has had enough abuse speaks up, says I’ve had enough, I’m not going to take this anymore. When someone who has battled depression realizes that a life of feeling stuck and useless is no life at all, is not God’s will, and reaches out for help. When a person who has been told that for whatever reason they are not worthy, refuses to be defined by whatever garbage they have been fed. When anyone has their eyes opened to something new, some truth they had never realized because they had been stuck in their own way of thinking, and decides to change their lives – it’s because this power that you can’t cut off, this truth about ourselves, our world – that was in danger of being killed, has sprung to life again. It’s because someone said, “I believe in this enough to give my life to it.” Or someone else says, “I’m not afraid anymore. I’m not going to endure whatever is keeping me silent.” Not only has the Spirit at work in John been raised, not only has Christ himself been raised, but the Spirit at work all along, God’s power that cannot be cut off – not by Herod, not by armies or gangs or terrorists, not even by preachers – that Spirit cannot be killed; it springs to life once again. Amen.