Sermon on Mark 6:14-29 (by Martin Damašek)

Brothers and sisters,  

if you happen to live on this continent of Europe, our ancestors were bold enough or did not take offence to depict this repulsive picture of the death of John the Baptist. Take a trip and see a painting or a fresco of a cut off bloody head of John the Baptist on a platter in a castle or in a chateau or in a church here in Bohemia or Moravia. Our ancestors were not snowflakes, they used and looked at art that shows such historical things and were not offended by art that holds human sinfulness and brutality in front of their eyes. Moreover, and this is more important, our ancestors endured the pain and discomfort of the story that their artists painted for them, namely, to have the law in front of their eyes in their churches, in their castle halls or in their chateau chambers. What about us? Would we be as brave as they were, and would we stand having a piece of art reminding us of the law in our rooms and chambers? Or would we demand such offensive art to be removed?  

When we see a painting of the death of John the Baptist in a hall of a castle in Bohemia or in a chamber of a chateau in Moravia, we see the law immediately in two ways. And even the non-believers can see certain reflections of the law when they see the pieces of art.  

The first easy and obvious piece of the law is present in the 18th verse: “For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother´s wife.”  Even unbelievers understand such a law and every society has a legal system governing human sexuality.  

The second easy piece of the law that even unbelievers see looking at John the Baptist´s head on a platter concerns the sin against the 5th Commandment: “You shall not murder!” This law is broken by both the women. First by Herodias who instructs her daughter what she should ask for from Herod after her seductive dance: “The head of John the Baptist.” (Mark 6:24) And then by the beautiful girl who danced to please the male company when she asks without hesitation, with impatience and being in dominance over the king, proudly demanding: “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” (Mark 6:25).  

And what? Are these paintings of the beheading of John the Baptist just old and outdated pieces of the “dark ages” art in the obsolete European castles and chateaus of the European prodigal aristocracy? After all, we are modern people, much better, we are further ahead, and we can get rid of this “dark ages” knowledge and remove this outdated and offensive art… Well, of course, we can turn into vandals; after all, it would have not been for the first time in history. But removing the pieces of art does not remove the law; less, does it remove the sinful nature dwelling within us against which the art warns, no matter how advanced we can dream we are.  

Not a single letter is removed from the law, as Christ says. The same today.  

John the Baptist spoke out against Herod´s sin when the king was breaking the 6th Commandment. What did John meet because of facing Herod with the mirror of the law? For speaking out against sin and for proclaiming the law, John was met with hate and threats against his life, and, finally, through a sophisticated plot, John faced death for preaching the law. Or remember 3rd century Italian priest Valentine, who legendary defied the order of the Roman Emperor Claudius and kept the divine law by secretly performing Christian weddings. For two millennia, the Church has been proclaiming the law concerning marriage and for two thousand years she has been struggling because of God´s law. We, too, brothers and sisters, are not spared of this struggle. The Church today is to press on and proclaim and preach the law concerning marriage and be ready to meet rejection and suffering. Brothers and sisters, you and I, we too, we will be met will rejection and hate when we proclaim the truth of the law that marriage is a union of a man and a woman and our brothers and sisters in the US or in Finland are being prosecuted for preaching this truth.  

In the Gospel, the 5th Commandment of the law is blatantly broken by both women. It seems that even today, most of the world agrees that a murder is wrong, and we have criminal law that forbids murder. Even a child looking at the painting of the cut off head of John the Baptist sees there is something wrong with what has happened. The natural law is in concord with the divine law. Even Herod was “exceedingly sorry” when he heard the girl´s demand. (Mark 6:26) The Church has and is to proclaim and preach the law and declare decisively that any murder is wrong and against the natural and divine law. It all seems so clear and easy. But let us read the text carefully. Like in the garden of Eden, a much more sophisticated way to break the clear and good law is at work here. Clearly, Herod was fearing John “…knowing that he was a righteous and holy man…” (Mark 6:20) This is again the state of man when coming to the realization of the holiness and goodness of God´s law. But an opportunity came, like in the Paradise, to trick and seduce man into breaking the law. And see how out of control Herod, a strongman, and a king, is. He is tricked into a situation that slips out of his hands and the beautiful and perverted girl seduces him into breaking the law by ordering a murder. The law is broken, and the corrupted character of the girl is demonstrated by the very twisted act of bringing John´s head on a platter: Man is no more the image of God but turned to a thing brought on a platter. And here, brothers and sisters, the text goes deeper and speaks to us even though we think that we are, and our society is a decent one. Are we not seduced to thinking that some killing is ok or justified or even frees us from social or economic “burdens”? Are we not seduced to thinking that we can do whatever we want with our bodies and relationships no matter how much it hurts others?  

We see the strong presence of the law in the text of the death of John the Baptist. The  law reminds us of our own deeply rooted sinfulness and potentiality for committing sin, and it also mandates the Church to preach and proclaim the law face to face to the rejection and hatred of the world. This ultimately leads to suffering. The voices of those murdered for the word of God and for their witness to the Truth cry with a loud voice: “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” (Revelation 6:10). 

If this is not gloomy enough, if, with the words of Martin Luther, you do not smell the stink of the pit of the rotten world, then, hear the shattering words of the Apostle Paul: “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (Romans 3:22,23)   

But rejoice! The text about the death of John the Baptist starts with these words: “King Herod heard of it, for Jesus´ name had become known.” (Mark 6:14) Of what did Herod hear? Herod heard about the Lord´s disciples going out and proclaiming repentance and healing many. (Mark 6:12,13). Herod heard about Christ´s invitation to repent and about Christ´s peace coming among the people. In other words, Herod heard about Christ´s Church preaching and bringing the Lord´s good news to the world.  

But king Herod is not comforted by the report that “…Jesus´ name had become known;” rather, Herod is confused or even worried. In the text we can read a great clash looming a historical breakthrough of a new reality that makes Herod so confused, nervous, or fearful. Herod is trying to guess who this Jesus is. But it does not seem Herod is trying because he wants to meet the One whose pilgrim Church is preaching repentance and bringing healing. On the contrary, Herod is afraid of Him. No wonder! Herod is supposed to be a king, but he is just one of the four rulers over the territory of Israel, just a tetrarch and never was granted the title of a king. Whereas the One whose “…name had become known.” is the One about whom it has been written: “INRI = Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum.” Herod received no kingly crown in Rome, whereas Jesus received the crown of thorns. How many men are ready to fight and die for Herod now? None! And how many men are following Jesus now and are ready to go to jail for His teaching or even die for His name? Millions. Herod, even though no king, associated with the powerful. Jesus, even though the Lord and King of millions, associates with the lowly, the sinners and the outcasts. Herod, even though claiming to be a king, was a weak man seduced by a corrupted and twisted girl and intimidated by others and the situation. Jesus, even though suffering with the lowly, the desperate and the afflicted, was in control of the situation and confident and strong to deal with the difficulties that He did not deserve. Herod used his calling and power to preside over a death of an innocent man for his own gain. Jesus, Himself innocent, carried the cross and offered Himself for others. There is no less powerlessness than to be manipulated into brutal exercise of power. And there is no more power than to voluntarily set aside one´s power and humble yourself and meekly come to the lowly and become their Servant and Savior.  

So, let us see the picture of Herod who was but a weak and fearful man. And let us see the King with the crown of thorns who humbled Himself to be born of a handmaiden and took upon Himself to deliver you and me. The kings of the earth may rise up against the Truth and against the Church, but the King who became the Lamb for us shall scatter the proud and shall cast down the mighty from their thrones. With John the Baptist preparing the way and starting with the apostles, the Church is sent to proclaim the repentance and to bring the healing, peace, and salvation that our Lord has won for us and is graciously bringing to all through His lowly and suffering Church. And cheer and rejoice! Herod´s power and kingdom has faded away. But since the time when “…Jesus´name had become known.” and His Church has gone out to the world, this world is becoming the kingdom of the Lord and of the Lamb who shed His blood for you and for me.  So, do not tremble in front of any of the present Herods; instead, run to the cross, run to the pierced Lamb, run to the King of kings who humbled Himself for you and for me to bring forgiveness and peace, run to the Redeemer who lives and shall reign for ever and ever.  

Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen. (Revelation 22:20,21).