Sermon on Mark 6:14-29 Preached on the 11th of July 2021 at St John and St Philip's in The Hague
We can all remember moments in our life where we experienced fear. It can come in many forms. Sometimes it stops us in our tracks, or it feels like a weight is on our shoulders, it can be a nagging voice in the back of our mind or it can be in the air so dense that it makes it hard to breathe. Before I started my placement as an intern for the Church of England, I worked in the theater, the costume department to be exact. My love for theater began at a very early age. And when I was reading our gospel passage, I was transported back to when I was 17. It was my final year of secondary school and I was struggling through my exams. That year the musical Sunset Boulevard was touring the Netherlands, and I loved it so much I went to see it multiple times. For those unfamiliar with the story, a short introduction.
An aging silent film queen refuses to accept that her stardom has ended. A young screenwriter is hired to help her with her comeback. She has written the script herself, and of course will star in the main role as Salomé. King Herod’s daughter. She is depicted as being in love with John, dancing before Herod to safe her love interest from his inescapable fate. As the young writer tries to persuade the actress to see the truth that she can’t return to the silver screen, the lady becomes more adamant in believing in her comeback, silencing the fear that she perhaps has been forgotten.
And I wonder if, like the silent film queen, Herod isn’t also beginning to lose his grip.
He is married unlawfully to his brothers wife. He is not actually a king, but rules a quarter of the kingdom. By divorcing his previous wife, he has put tensions on two sides of his territory and he is not particularly popular at the moment. In his conversations with John, Herod Antipas is clearly pointed toward what is right and just. He knows his marriage is unlawful, and he knows that John is the one who can save him. Herod has build himself a prison of fear, and John is his open door. But if he chooses to follow John, what will he have to give up? His rule, his political career, his family, and for what? Herod Antipas is afraid to lose any influence he still has.
Then we have Herodius, who is trying to get up in the world. She was married to Philip, the half-brother of Herod Antipas. But Herodius wants more. And by deciding to marry Herod, they break sacred marriage vows and family bonds, all this, to raise herself in society. Her motives seem ego and status driven, fueled by an imminent fear to go unnoticed.
Then finally, Herodius daughter. Who is being pushed around by both parties. It’s explicitly told that she is Herodius daughter, and we assume she is Philip’s daughter and not Herod’s. She is still young, and probably quite attractive. When Herod offers her up half his kingdom as thanks to her dancing, she turns to her mother to decide what to ask for. When given what she requested, she once again rushes back to her mother to deliver the “gift.” She is controlled by fear and used by both parties.
We have three characters, one that is on his way down, the other trying to rise up, and the last never getting a chance at all.
And then, with some relief, we come to our final character. John the Baptist. We know, he is righteous and holy, and so does Herod. And when John points out that the marriage with Herodius is unlawful, he points out the moral faults that Herod is committing, smearing his reputation and threatening his political authority. With every action that raises Herod or his wife’s stature, their moral characters fall. And Herod’s wife feels threatened by John pointing that out. John however, is not experiencing fear, throughout his ministry he has been fearless.
Now, let’s set the scene, picture, a big banquet, in a time where status is everything. A young, attractive girl is dancing, and when Herod looks around the room he sees all his guests being entertained. They will speak of this party far and wide, telling how good it was, how much wine there was, and how wonderful the entertainment was. The dancing girl makes Herod look good in front of all the nobles and commanders and raises him in political stature.
Herod is intoxicated. And entranced by the dancing he offers the girl anything she wishes for, up to half the kingdom! He even swears on it! He realizes his mistake when the girl comes back with her request, she asks for the head of John the Baptist on a platter, his fate is sealed. With this act, not only John’s fate is sealed, also those of everyone involved.
Herod has sworn an oath, if he does not keep that what will his guests think? Any political stature he gained during this banquet will be forgotten if he breaks his promise, he will be known as someone who can not be trusted, who has no integrity. So he can’t refuse the request.
Herod didn’t listen to John, who not only warned him but also offered a way out. John spoke about the unlawful marriage, about the immoral way Herod was leading his life, about decisions he was making. The fact that Herod now offers half his kingdom to Herodius’ daughter, but was afraid to follow John because he did not want to lose his kingdom, is striking. The man acted on fear. But in beheading John, he also, in a matter of speaking, beheads himself, he loses his dominance and hands it over to his wife. In his anxious search for ego-driven stature, he loses, and kills the one thing which would have saved his soul.
Our three main characters experienced fear. They feared the truth, the unknown, they feared losing control, and were unable to trust. All of us here have experienced fear. We have been stopped in our tracks, we have felt that weight on our shoulders, we have heard that nagging voice in the back of our mind and we have felt the air get so dense with fear that we struggled to breath. Fear can paralyze, and make it hard to decide what is right or wrong.
Now, we don’t all have the luxury of a prophet imprisoned in a corner of our house, pointing us in a morally right direction. Or a screenwriter who tries to show us the reality of our fears. So it is our own responsibility to notice when fear is present, and we need to make an active decision to not be led by that fear.
In Psalm 56:3 David says, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in You.” And that is exactly what John has been living out, his never ending trust in God, is an example for how we can trust. But we need to allow ourselves to break through any fears we are experiencing.
Herod feared losing everything, but if we cling onto the things we are used to having, and unwilling to let go, how will we ever gain anything else? By letting go of fear, releasing the past, and let go of things we frantically hold on to, we make space. And then we can trust that God will fill that space with something wonderful, something uplifting and up building.
Herodius feared not being able to rise in the world and to not be someone worth noticing, but once again, what would happen if we would let go of that fear, the insecurity, of that drive to go up up up. Wouldn’t God be able to take us even further then we could imagine, if only we put our trust in him? Aren’t we already everything he desires us to be when he has created us in his image?
And Herodius’ daughter, literally controlled by fear, and therefore unable to be her own person. Unable to make her own decisions. God wants us to flourish, to grow, to be who he has meant us to be. But that is not possible until we allow God to turn us around, have us face our fears and follow the path that John has laid out for us.
We all fear, but our faith can help and support us. To push forward, drop the weight from our shoulders, silence the voice in the back of our mind, and breathe in the fresh air when we allow ourselves to trust. Our faith breaks us out of our prisons build on fear, raises us from the depths, so that miraculous powers can work in us. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.