John the Baptist

So way back in April, Pastor Laura asked me to give the sermon today. When we agreed that I would TELL A STORY (not preach), I felt a lot more comfortable. I put it on my calendar and agreed to meet a couple of weeks ago for a little coaching.She came over and we sat in our porch as we usually do and went over the details. That’s when she told me what the scripture reading was for today, and we read it through.  So, that’s a gruesome tale.  I mean, at first glance it’s like one horrifying weird thing after another.  And what in the world kind of story could I relate to THAT?

So I found this re-telling of Mark 6:14-29 by Nadia Bolz-Weber. Many of you know she is the founding pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints, an ELCA mission church in Denver– I have read two of her books, and like her edgy, contemporary style – and her bravery!

Nadia Bolz-Weber – “In case you missed the details…here’s what happened: So Herod is the ruler of the region, and while vacationing in Rome he gets the hots for his brother’s wife who he then marries.

John the Baptist, then suggests that maybe that’s not ok.  Now, Herod likes John, as much as anyone could like a crazy bug-eating prophet who lives outdoors and speaks consistently inconvenient truths.  Truths like it’s not ok to marry your brother’s wife – which, incidentally, is the truth that when spoken, got him arrested to begin with.  It also got him on the bad side of Herod’s new illegal wife Herodias. She did not like John.

Then when Herod throws himself a big birthday party his daughter in law Salome dances for him and all the other half-drunk generals and CEOS and celebrities who were there.  We don’t know the exact nature of her dance but we do know that it “pleased” Herod enough that he offered to give her anything she wanted up to half his kingdom.  So, you know, I don’t think it was the Chicken dance. So Salome runs to her mom and asks her “what should I ask for?” and her mom says “the head of John the Baptist”.  And Herod found this disturbing.  He clearly didn’t want to do it, but the text says that he went through with it – why? Because of his oath and because he didn’t want to disappoint his dinner guests. So, by the final course of Herod’s birthday dinner John the Baptist’s head was also on a platter.”

So like I told the kids, it’s a story about sin. Lots of sins. And the tendency of committing a sin to cover up a sin. And it’s played out every day in our lives, our politics, and throughout humanity from the beginning of time.We live in an age where people will still quickly divorce someone because they just fall in love with someone else’s wife or husband. Where the truth hurts, so we stretch it just a bit to make ourselves look better. Where young women are still sometimes recognized as sexual objects for powerful men.Have you ever made promises you thought you never would have to follow up with? – and then lied about them?  Sadly, most of us have. Especially ones that started out as little, harmless lies. The tendency to tell tales is “a very natural human trait,” according to David L. Smith, Ph.D. “It lets you manipulate the way you want to be seen by others.” To show how people stretch the truth from time to time and what happens because of it, he lists the six most common ways that people lie.

  1. Lying to Save Face – What it sounds like: “Gosh, I never got the shower invitation!” “Sorry I’m late, but there was a huge pileup on the freeway.”

–  For self-preservation. It’s a way to cover up innocent errors but allows us to justify being irresponsible – and then it’s hard to keep track of those deceptions.

  1. Lying to Shift Blame – What it sounds like: “It’s my boss’s decision, not mine.” “My husband never told me you called.” I was also the mom that told my kids that it was all right for them to blame me to get out of a sticky situation – I didn’t mind being “bad cop” if it helped them with peer pressure. Right or wrong?

Probably wrong –Eventually the issue has to be dealt with.

  1. Lying to Avoid Confrontation – What it sounds like: “That’s a wonderful idea, Mom. I’ll make sure to get to the airport three hours before my flight.” “You’re doing a great job, but we can’t afford a housekeeper anymore.”

–  A believable excuse may help someone avoid an uncomfortable talk or keep that person from feeling guilty. But we have to remember that “being close is not always pleasant, and that dealing with tough situations have highs and lows,” and again, you have to keep track of what you said!

  1. Lying to Get Your Way – What it sounds like: “I won’t be at work today. I caught that bug that’s going around.” “Officer, my speedometer must be broken.”

– this is done for personal gain. But if and when you are found out, you are less likely to be forgiven. “When getting what a person wants, drives his every word and action, he will not earn people’s trust or love,”


  1. Lying to Be Nice – What it sounds like: “That dress looks fantastic on you.” “This is the best meat loaf I’ve ever tasted.”

– We try to be nice, but we really come across as less authentic. At its worst, others may sense that you aren’t being genuine or trustworthy.

  1. Lying to Make yourself Feel Better – What it sounds like: “Eating my kids’ French fries doesn’t count.” “I’ll charge this stuff now because I’m going to pay off the credit-card bill as soon as I get my bonus.” “I never watch television.”

This is done to reassure ourselves and justify our actions – but it can snowball, which is especially dangerous. We start believing it and end up suffering from the consequences.

And just like the bag of potato chips, we end up eating more than one!

Herod knew better! He wasn’t just some bloodthirsty devil without a soul, he knew it was wrong and afterwards he had a guilty conscience.

You may remember that our Gospel reading didn’t actually start off as being a story about John the Baptist or Herod, let alone about Herodias or Salome  – It starts rather with people asking questions about Jesus – ‘who is this guy?’  Some said Jesus was Elijah or one of the other prophets, but it’s Herod who mistakes Jesus as John the Baptist having come back to haunt him, saying, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised!” (Mark 6:16)

That’s a guilty person’s assumption, straight up.  He had a guilty conscience, which means he knew better and he did it anyway.

He had it wrong of course, but in another sense he had it right. Jesus is Jesus and not John – we need have no doubt about that – but what Herod does realize is that killing off John did not put an end to John’s work, as John’s work was just part of a bigger project that Jesus was continuing!

And it’s not really that the ministry of John goes on, but rather the work of the Kingdom of God that goes on!

John the Baptist is dead, but the battle for the Kingdom continues. Others before John and others after him have fallen in the battle, but still the work of God continues! Jesus Himself will fall in this battle, but the work of God continues. And not just despite His death, but through His death, the work of God continues.

So in the end, the work of God isn’t like a boxing match where, when one fighter goes down, the show is over, the good guys have lost, and everybody goes home. No. It’s more like a relay race – when one runner falls, he passes the baton on to the next guy in line and the race continues!

And this is what baptism is about too – the welcoming of new soldiers into the fight – new runners into the relay.

We recognize that when we welcome new competitors on to the field, others are falling from the track, and some of us are very weary and are failing. So we give thanks for these new athletes on the field, as we watch them take up the baton and join the good fight.