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Growing in Christ
Sermons for the Summer Season
King 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." But others said, "It is Elijah." And others said, "It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old." But when Herod heard of it, he said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised."

For 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. For John had been telling Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for 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. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When 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." And he solemnly swore to her, "Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom." She went out and said to her mother, "What should I ask for?" She replied, "The head of John the baptizer." Immediately 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." The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent soldier of the guard with orders to bring John's head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
-- Mark 6:14-29
After her beguiling, hypnotic dance before the dinner guests, the young girl approached her uncle, Herod Antipas, who was now also her stepfather because he had abandoned his previous wife to marry the young dancer's mother; the girl ran to her stepfather with a request. "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter." Her stepfather sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring back John's head. The soldier rushed to the prison and cut off John's head, quickly returned with the severed head on a platter, and gave it to the girl.

We come to church on a pleasant, summer Sunday morning to hear the gospel, the good news, and what we seem to get with this morning's assigned text is Nightmare on Elm Street and Natural Born Killers, a gruesome R-rated-for-violence tale of lust, greed, misused power, and blood revenge. "I want his head on a platter, and I want it now." And Herod immediately fulfilled the young dancer's request.

What is going on here? How did this story slip into the biblical record, into holy scripture? This is the only narrative in the gospel of Mark that does not specifically mention Jesus or the disciples of Jesus. Why is this a gospel reading?

Actually, the story of John the Baptist is at the heart of Saint Mark's confession that Jesus is the Christ, that Jesus is God, present with us and for us, even in the midst of our sometimes violent, unjust world. John the Baptist -- his message, his person, his death -- is a crucial component in the book of Mark's confession of faith.

There is a fascinating children's picture book titled Zoom. With each turn of the page in this book, the reader takes a step back, in a sense, and has a better view of the subject portrayed in the book -- a more inclusive view. As each page is turned, the reader is offered a more complete understanding of the subject. For example, on the first page of the book is a picture of what appears to be an aerial view of a Midwestern farm. Pictured on the page is a barn, a silo, and a grove of trees. It is obviously a farm.

But on the next page, as if looking through the lens of an imaginary video camera that is zooming away from the subject, frame by frame, we discover that the farm is only a toy farm set and we can see now, as our vantage point moves further back, a child playing with the small farm figures. Turn the page, and we discover that the child and toy farm are just a picture on a toy catalogue cover. What is the whole story? Turn the page and we can now see a boy holding the catalogue, and he is on a deck chair on a cruise ship, which, a page later turns out to be a poster on the side of a bus. It becomes as confusing as real life. We keep turning the pages to find out what is coming next, how all this will end, and where it is all going.

Astute young readers find clues on each page that provide a hint of what's coming next, but it's not until the last page, at the end of the book, the final picture, that we see the total context. Not until the last page is the truth revealed.

The same author/artist, in another book titled Re-Zoom, attempts to play with not only spatial relationships but also with time and culture. As you turn the pages in this book, ancient Egyptian people are revealed to be just hieroglyphics on an obelisk in the middle of a street in nineteenth-century Paris which, turn more pages, is actually part of a modern movie set, and so on and so on, until the end of the book where it is all made clear.

The gospel of Saint Mark is a Zoom-book with a surprise ending. And the part John the Baptist plays is of prime importance. As we turn the pages and work our way through the various symbols that form the story of John the Baptist, we are ushered through a multitude of different perspectives that guide us to the divine gift revealed on the last page of the gospel of Mark. John the Baptist prepares us, including offering clues on each of his pages, prepares us, in terms of space, culture, time, and meaning, to see and comprehend the big picture, on the last page.

Let's zoom in!

John the Baptist is where all four gospel books actually touch down in history together to begin the story of the ministry and message of Jesus, and foreshadow the final page of the story.

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee ... the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
-- Luke 3:1-2

That is how Saint Luke affixed the message in real time.

The book of Saint Mark actually begins on the first page with John the Baptist, and it is that first picture that has set our mental image of John. From chapter 1:

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins ... Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.
-- Mark 1:4, 6

John the Baptist.

My first mental image of John the Baptist was from Sunday school picture books. As I envisioned him, it was John as a "wild man," stomping out of the desert wilderness wide-eyed, insect-parts sticking to his mustache and bushy beard, his hands sticky from wild honey, matted hair in disarray, shouting words of fire and brimstone to Galilean villagers who were probably freaked out by John's appearance. I could envision frightened villagers nervously whispering to one another, "Who is this guy? Call 911. Get him to mental health."

But if we could zoom in on that time period, and when the four gospels were compiled and first circulated, John the Baptist was not viewed as a wild man, but just the opposite. Far from being considered in the gospel communities as a wide-eyed eccentric or some spaced-out hermit, John was actually viewed as a person that we should also aspire to be if we are to be faithful children of God in stressful, trying times. They believed that John knew the will and promise of God, and that even under very difficult circumstances -- with all the pressures of a culture becoming more pluralistic, and the alien occupation of the Roman empire demanding compromises of one's traditional value system -- the Jewish faithful believed that John was one person who remained faithful to God, and, according to the text, they flocked to him to be baptized. John was the image of faithfulness.

Turn the pages and look at all the pictures. According to scripture, John ate locusts and grasshoppers. At first glance today, that may seem awfully strange.

I remember when I was just a child, on one of our family sorties into Manhattan for the day, between museums we browsed through the exotic food section of some West Side deli, and my little brother, Tim, convinced my parents to purchase a small box of chocolate-covered grasshoppers. The deal was, we all had to eat some. They tasted like mini-Nestle Crunch bars.

Tim, who would become a biology major in college and later a bio-technician, broke them apart before eating them and identified the body parts: ("Hey look, here's a thorax and here's an antenna.") It was all very exotic and Bohemian. John the Baptist must have been pretty strange!

But turn the page. Soon after that first experience eating grasshoppers, I read in National Geographic or someplace, that grasshoppers or locusts (without the chocolate) are a very common food for those living on the edge of deserts; in fact, they are an excellent and readily available source of protein. And most importantly, according to Jewish guidelines at the time of John, locusts (along with wild honey) were listed as ritually "clean" foods. In other words, John was eating kosher, as well as healthy. What the pictures on the biblical pages show is that everything John did was faithful to the law of holy scripture.

And John's camel hair clothes? Along with wool and goat hair, camel hair is still the typical attire of desert Bedouins -- durable and warm for the cold desert evenings of honest work.

Turn another page. Living in the wilderness was not viewed as antisocial or psychotic behavior. At the time, it was viewed as faithful behavior; the wilderness was considered uncontaminated by religious or political impurity.

The wilderness was also a place at that time of escape for those who rebelled against the local enforced rule of the Roman-Gentile occupation and its perceived idolatry. The wilderness was a place of retreat, exile, and hiding but also a location of no compromise to one's religious principles.

Turn another page. Perhaps of paramount importance, the wilderness was a symbol of religious hope -- a place to receive insight into God and to receive God's guidance and blessing. The wilderness was the prime place for meditation and spiritual reflection, a place to be close to God.

Turn another page! See the wilderness as a "historic symbol." It was the location of escape and revelation for the chosen people of the exodus, the site of Mount Sinai and the divine gift of the Ten Commandments. The wilderness from which John emerged was considered the corridor to the promised land, to the promise of God. This is where John was coming from.

John was not something radically different. He was perceived as representing a return to the hope and promise of the Hebrew scriptures and ancient prophets; and people longed for direction in difficult, confusing times. As we turn all these pages of perspective and symbol, zooming along, where is it taking us? John emerged from the sacred wilderness to proclaim that one is coming who will be the corridor not to some new promised land elsewhere, but to God now present even here.

But the story of John reveals even more. What happens when our society is confronted by the way and will of God? The structures of human power including lust, fear, jealousy, and blood revenge are challenged by the prophetic word of a compassionate God. Human selfishness can lead prophets of God to a beheading or a crucifixion.

Today's gruesome narrative of the death of John, spokesperson of God, warns us of the risk of leading the prophetic life, which we are all called to do; and it foreshadows the arrest and execution of Jesus. But is this the last page of the story? Is this where it all ends, with Herod and Herodias sitting on the throne of final control?

The gospel authors considered John the Baptist to be the last, great prophet, speaking with the same authority as Isaiah. He emerged from the hope of the wilderness to bridge the old and the new divine promise to present life, and to set the stage for the coming of the Christ into this often unjust and brutal world, for the historical reality of Jesus.

We know now that Mark's story does not end with the death of John. We must keep turning the pages. Jesus moves into a life-altering ministry in Galilee. He then journeys to Jerusalem. And he, too, is executed by the human forces of greed and revenge. But it is only on the last page of the gospel of Mark that we can see the total picture; it is that last page that holds all of creation together, and that which blesses our sacred co-humanity. The final page is the victory of divine love over any injustice and even the reality of death.

John the Baptist sets us up for the good news. I should have mentioned earlier one other children's book of the same genre as Zoom and Re-Zoom, though by a different author. This other book is titled, Looking Down, and it reverses the process of the book, Zoom. Looking Down takes the reader on an excursion that starts in outer space. The first page holds a picture of the earth as a blue and white globe floating in the black of space.

But as you turn the pages, things become closer to home, and we can now see the mountains and the lakes, and then closer still to see towns and communities, until the book ends in a child's own backyard.

While Zoom starts with the very small and ends with a sense of the infinite, the book, Looking Down, opens with the extraterrestrial big picture and closes with the very familiar. God in flesh is also part of the message of the baptist's narrative. "I have baptized you with water; but Jesus will baptize you with the Holy Spirit" (Mark 1:8 paraphrased), is how John in Mark's gospel put it early on. Here is the Son of God in your own backyard, John proclaimed. This Christ is for you!

John the Baptist -- Zoom-book for God. I believe that our contemporary culture in many ways mirrors the context of Saint Mark's Greek Testament period -- that mixing of often opposing or contrasting ideologies and powers and affiliations that occurred in Palestine at the time of the Roman occupation.

This age of John the Baptist was also like our present times, when many people were reaching out for some meaning, some sense of divine purpose. Today we are in great need of people who can assume the role of a contemporary John the Baptist, faithful people who can connect the old and the new and effectively point others to the reality of the living Christ, who can lead others to the last page of the sacred story.

It is, of course, risky. There will often be various forms of lust, greed, revenge, and the misuse of power and authority, who will want your head, and maybe on a platter. It is not easy to take a stand before the powers that be -- for justice, for inclusive compassion, for effective peacemaking, for being Christlike.

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins ... Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.
-- Mark 1:4, 6

How can we take on that role today and bring others from the wilderness to the water -- from death to life -- from the first pages to the last page of the gospel story in the book of Mark, which is a picture of the empty tomb?

Sermon delivered July 13, 1997
First Lutheran Church
Duluth, Minnesota
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