Sermon notes 07-11-21 The Weight of our Words Mark 6:14-29
14 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some said, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” 15 But others said, “He is Elijah.” And others said, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” 17 For it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. 18 For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, 20 for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.
21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. 22 For when Herodias’s daughter 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 to you.” 23 And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.” 24 And she went out and said to her mother, “For what should I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist.” 25 And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26 And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. 27 And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison 28 and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb. (ESV).
I think most of us come to church hoping to be spiritually uplifted and encouraged, but there aren’t many passages in the Bible that are less uplifting or less encouraging than this story Judd just read for us from the Gospel of Mark. In my Bible, the heading for the passage is The Death of John the Baptist, and we should not be surprised that we would not find the description of the death of a biblical hero to be especially uplifting. But the details of John’s death are particularly shocking and disturbing, not only for the violent and gruesome manner in which John loses his life, but the reason for it. Essentially John was executed for his words. He criticized the immoral behavior of persons in power. You may have noticed that John is not the only person in this story whose words get him in trouble. Mark tells us that King Herod becomes exceedingly sorry for the words he speaks. As we look more closely at this story this morning, I want us to think together about the importance of what we say, or stated otherwise, the weight of the words we speak.
I am sure every one of us has spoken words that we came to regret, words that came back to haunt us, words that have gotten us into trouble. Sometimes our words can get us into trouble for the wrong reasons, and sometimes they can get us into trouble for the right reasons. When our words get us into trouble for the wrong reasons, such as when they are spoken out of pride, they can end up making us exceedingly sorry. But even when they are spoken for the right reasons, such as when speaking against the immorality of persons in power, our words can place us in real danger. Our story from Mark’s Gospel provides examples of both situations, one in which speaking words of pride results in making the speaker exceedingly sorry, and one in which speaking against immorality places the speaker in deadly danger.
Mark actually tells two stories in this passage—a “present-time” story and a “flashback.” The “present-time” story is Herod hearing about Jesus and the miraculous things he is doing—that’s why the passage begins with the words, “King Herod heard of it.” Upon hearing of the things Jesus is doing, Herod concludes that Jesus must be John the Baptist raised from the dead. That’s the present-time story. The “flashback” is the story of Herod’s order to have John the Baptist beheaded. And in the flashback story, we have examples of both the danger of speaking the truth to persons in power, and the exceeding sorrow that follows speaking words of pride.
We know from elsewhere in the Gospels that John the Baptist was not one to diplomatically mince words, and he was certainly not hesitant to speak truth to those in power. For example, you may remember that John had called the Pharisees and Sadducees who were coming to receive his baptism a “brood of vipers.” So it should be no surprise that John did not hesitate to tell Herod that Herod had violated the moral law of God.
As a bit of an aside, I think it’s informative to notice how close John’s message was to the message of Jesus. Jesus and John both came preaching a message of repentance from sin.
In fact, the Bible tells us that in their first sermons, Jesus and John preached the exact same words, and John actually preached them before Jesus did. Matthew 3:1 says, “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” A little later, in Matthew 4:17 it says, “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” Jesus and John preached exactly the same words and message.
The witness of the Gospels is that God holds all people in the world accountable to his moral laws as revealed in Scripture. So even though Herod was not himself a Jew, John the Baptist did not hesitate to tell Herod that he had violated the moral law of God. John publicly pointed out to Herod that Herod had violated God’s moral law by marrying Herodias while Herodias was still married to Herod’s half-brother Philip. John basically called a spade a spade, or a sin a sin, and for that, Herodias held a grudge against John and wanted him dead. People don’t tend to like it when their lifestyle choices are identified as sins; I think we have all witnessed that in our time. The only thing that saves John even temporarily from the wrath of Herodias is that Herod feared John, “knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe.” This is a key statement: Herod knew that John was a holy and righteous man – we’ll come back to that.
But Herod’s wife Herodias continues to hope for an opportunity to have John put to death. That opportunity comes when Herod throws a birthday party for himself and he invites the high-ranking governmental officials and military officers and wealthy and prominent men of Galilee, all people whom Herod is seeking to impress. Herod invites Herodias’s daughter to entertain his guests with a dance. Mark tells us that the girl’s dance pleased Herod and his guests. And this is where Herod’s words get him into real trouble. Herod says to the girl in front of his guests, “Ask for whatever you wish and I will give it to you.”
Now, if he had only stopped there, Herod’s words might have been disregarded or overlooked as a harmless bit of exaggeration, but this is where Herod goes really wrong with his words. Herod foolishly reinforces his statement to the girl by following it up with a public oath. He vows to the girl in the presence of his guests, “Whatever you ask me, I will give to you, up to half my kingdom.”
For her part, the girl does not even know how to respond, so she runs to her mother and asks her what she should ask for. Herodias doesn’t need any time to think about it. This is her opportunity to silence the criticism of John the Baptist once and for all. She immediately tells her daughter to ask for the head of John the Baptist, and apparently, she tells her to do it as quickly as possible. Knowing Herod’s concern for his image and his reputation—in other words, knowing Herod’s sense of pride, Herodias wants to be sure Herod’s guests are still there to hear the girl’s request. She wants to be sure she has Herod on the spot. So the Bible tells us that Herodias’s daughter comes in “immediately with haste,” which is as fast as she can possibly come, and she says to Herod, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The details of her request should tell us something about this girl. Herodias told her only that she should ask for the head of John the Baptist. But the girl is clearly made from the same mold as her mother, and she adds, on her own, the detail about John’s head being delivered to her on a platter.
Herod’s words have come back to haunt him, big time. The Scripture tells us “the king was exceedingly sorry, but…” because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to the girl. So, Herod immediately orders for John to be executed. It might appear that Herod is acting with some degree of integrity by at least being a man of his word, but it is clear that he is acting only out of self-interest.
Mark has already told us that Herod knew John was a righteous and holy man. In other words Herod knew full well that John was innocent; yet he was willing to have him executed to protect his own reputation and his authority.
Herod is exceedingly sorry … but not sorry enough to sacrifice his pride.
I described earlier how similar were the messages of John and Baptist and Jesus, and I want us to notice also how similar were the circumstances of their deaths. John’s death can be seen as a foreshadowing of the death of Jesus, and we can observe that their deaths were very similar in several ways. John and Jesus were both well-known among the people as religious figures. John died at the order of one ruler, Herod, while Jesus died at the order of another, Pontius Pilate. Both Herod and Pilate regarded their prisoners favorably, and would have preferred not to condemn them to death. But when it came down to it, both rulers were more concerned about pleasing the people than about doing what is right. Herod and Pilate each condemned an innocent man to death, and once those innocent men were dead, their bodies were recovered by their disciples and laid in tombs.
Okay, you might be thinking, we see the similarities between Jesus and John the Baptist, but what does this story of John’s death have to do with us? Well, first of all, if you are like me, this story makes you wonder about how much conviction you would be able to muster if you were in a situation that required great courage of you. That’s one of those questions that we all ask ourselves, right? If I had been one of those early Christians for whom confessing Christ would cause me to be persecuted or even killed, would I have spoken the truth about my beliefs? Or would I have gone the way of Peter and denied ever having known him? If it came right down to it, would I have the courage and conviction to say what I believe even if it cost me something really big, such as my vocation, or my family, or my life? We may or not ever be in such a situation, but even if we are not, this story serves to remind us of the importance of the words we speak.
I want to bring this toward a close by talking about what is for Christians the most important words we will ever speak, and those are the words we speak in response to the question, who do you say that Jesus is.
In our passage from Mark’s Gospel, we learned that Herod believed Jesus was a reincarnation of John the Baptist, while others said he was Elijah or one of the prophets. Just two chapters later in Mark 8:27 Jesus asks his followers “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples respond by repeating what we already know, that people were saying Jesus is John the Baptist, or Elijah or one of the prophets. Jesus asks them, but who do you say that I am? Peter answers correctly in saying, you are the Christ.
But friends, who do you say Jesus is? Who is he to you? Sisters and brothers, of all the words we say, none are more important than what we say in response to the question, ‘who do you say that Jesus is?’ We might have a biblical or theological answer to that question in mind, we might say for example that he is the Son of God, but we should also realize that we answer that question in more than just direct ways. We answer it in the way we live our lives and in what we say on other occasions; in the words we use when we talk to our neighbors, our family members, our Facebook friends. Those words may speak more tellingly to the question of who Jesus is to us than any biblical or theological response we might give to the question.
So, what have we learned from this disturbing passage? We have learned that words are important, and that the things we say matter. Sometimes the words we speak can get us into trouble. Sometimes our words get us into trouble for the wrong reasons, and sometimes they get us into trouble for the right reasons. When our words get us into trouble for the wrong reasons, such as when they are spoken out of pride, they can end up making us exceedingly sorry. But even when they are spoken for the right reasons, such as when speaking the truth to persons in power, our words can place us in real danger. They may cost us something really big; we might even lose our life over the things we say. But if we follow the example of Jesus and speak God’s truth, and speak it with love and grace, we need never regret our words, regardless of the cost.
And let us always remember that the most important thing we will ever say may not be with words, but in the way we live our lives because of who Jesus is to us.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.