Christ, The Way
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Elizabeth and Zechariah were overjoyed at the birth of their son. Zechariah struck dumb for doubting God in the temple, found that his tongue was loosed at his birth. “His name is John,” he finally said. What joy they had for their son, this man of God, the last of the great prophets. But look what it’s come to. John the Baptist landed in prison for speaking truth to power; he suffers doubt and despair about the Messiah he thought he knew; he received no solace, no rescue from God and gets his head chopped off during a birthday party to appease a clueless girl, a cruel-hearted queen, and a cowardly king. What can we say about this old weary world—but that sometimes some truly stupid, senseless, crap happens.
We’ve all heard good Christians friends reach for some redemptive meaning to be found in tragedy: “God never gives anyone more than they can bear.” Or, “God has a plan,” and “For everything, there is a season. A time to be born and a time to die.” I confess I’ve said things like this, and that I do find some comfort in these familiar sayings. Yet, the true answer to tragedy is the cross. The strong message of the cross is God can always find a way to make something beautiful from the manure we make of our lives.
Faithful words hung in a frame above our bed are not jagged enough; they’re too easy and polite. There’s a hazard in moving to closure, redemption, and triumph too quickly. But here, in today’s gospel, is a Christian story that looks true horror in the face. Here is the Christian story that will sit with us in the darkness and help us trust that God is there, too. Instead of reaching too quickly and compulsively for brightness, here is a gospel story about injustice, a travesty, a desecration. The head of John the Baptist on a silver platter.
We’ve heard examples of this kind of story from everywhere, from hospital rooms, opioid clinics and the streets of Chicago. We hear about the brave Muslim men, called the White Helmets. We see them run into bombed and burning buildings in Syria, pulling out children covered in ash and entire families when suddenly, the building collapses and some of them are killed too. We hear this story from families fleeing violence, facing death from dehydration at the border and now from toddlers who don’t recognize their parents after separation.
We need strong gospel medicine if we are going to withstand such losses and not lose heart. Starting with the fact that we don’t need to slap some transcendent purpose or meaning on all human experience. Christian friends our faith doesn’t require that we believe everything is part of a Divine plan, some things are just plain horrible. Period. The cross was not God’s plan A. It was plan B, or maybe plan C or D. Rather, faith is knowing God will not abandon us. Faith is trusting God to bring salvation and grace even out of horror—when all the evidence leads us to conclude otherwise.
How much more credible and relevant we, his followers, would be, if we’d follow Jesus’s example as we confront the world’s ongoing horrors? Some things are too terrible for words. We take them to the cross. Some hurts can’t be salvaged with a neat story. “So, honor the silence. Create space for grief. Mourn freely. And when you’re ready, feed the people around you whatever you’ve got. Somehow it will be enough, even if you can’t explain how or why. This is how we make the sorrows bearable.” (Debie Thomas, “Bearable Stories,” Journey with Jesus, 7/08/18) This is how grace heals the world. Not everything happens for a reason, but somehow, God makes beautiful sense of the jagged and bloodied pieces of our lives anyway.
Mark insists that we see this. Mark’s gospel intertwines the story of John and Jesus almost from the very beginning. There’s something important Mark wants us to know about the timing of Jesus’ ministry and John’s arrest. All the way back in chapter one, Mark told us it was “…after John was arrested, [that] Jesus came to Galilee, [following his baptism by John] proclaiming the good news of God, and saying ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near!” (Mark 1:14).
Furthermore, in his very first sentence, Mark called his work “a gospel.” This is easy for us to miss because now, we refer to all four evangelists as “gospels.” Yet Mark was the first and only one to explicitly do so. The word Evangelion meaning “gospel” or “good tidings,” was used for imperial announcements such as the birth of royalty, the ascension of an emperor, or a military victory. Mark’s word choice undermined the caprice of political-military power by appropriating its language and infusing it with new, deeper, and transcendent meanings (William H. Willimon). Mark not only invented a whole new literary genre, “the gospels,” but in doing so he challenged the powers of this world and pointed to the power of the kingdom that is coming in Christ Jesus by way of the cross.
For us, it means that faith in Jesus and the end of the death-dealing social-political-economic order cannot be completely separated. The death of John the Baptist foreshadows Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. The death of both John and of Jesus are an indication to us of the potential costs of discipleship. Things do not always, or even very often, go God’s way. But the way of the cross is the way of Life toward which, ultimately, all life must flow.
The death of John the baptizer opened a window through which to glimpse the stark contrast between the gospel of Christ and the ways of power in the world. Mark’s “flashback” to John’s imprisonment and senseless, brutal death, comes just as Jesus sent out the disciples, two by two, without bread or bag or money, to preach the good news. Herod had sent out hired men to arrest and to bind John, while Jesus sent out disciples to bring life and wholeness to others. Herod gave an extraordinary banquet for the rich and powerful with well-prepared foods in abundance. Yet, Herod’s banquet became an occasion for bitterness and betrayal. It exposed his foolishness, his precarious grip on power and lack of control. By contrast, as the disciples returned, Jesus bid ordinary people of every type and description sit on the green grass and provided a feast of abundance for 5,000 men and their families from five loaves of bread and two fish. It became an occasion for generosity and joy. It exposed the wisdom of Christ’s gospel and the power of grace to unlock human hearts in relationship to Christ Jesus. Christ Jesus showed us the way to respond to senselessness is to love our enemies and feeding them.
Our Christian faith is more than simply learning about Jesus. It is more than admiring Jesus. It is more than gladly hearing the Word. King Herod did all that, but the Word sown in his life did not bear fruit. The cares of the world choked it out. Christianity is not knowledge about Jesus, it is knowing God as revealed in Jesus. It is about having a relationship with God through Jesus. Our faith is about knowing and being known by God, trusting in God to bring harmony and blessing in abundance when we are broken and lost.