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The Death of John the Baptist (A Sermon on Mark 6:14-29)
“So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing; 13and when those who bore the ark of the LORD had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. 14David danced before the LORD with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod. 15So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet. 16As the ark of the LORD came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD; and she despised him in her heart.” (2 Samuel 6:12-16)
You could be forgiven to asking why I’ve chosen to preach on this ancient story of David’s adventures with the Ark when the rostered Gospel reading for today was on the beheading of John the Baptist – a far more sultry tale.
The truth is that I am preaching in the death of John the Baptist, but I couldn’t resist starting with our reading from the Hebrew Bible as I see an important connection between the two stories, and the connection is not the dancing!
Yes, in both these stories people dance, and in both stories the dancers seem to be scantily clad, but that’s about where the similarities end. David’s performance (at least according to David’s own interpretation) was a deeply spiritual affair – an early attempt at liturgical dance, perhaps – whereas Salome’s dance seems to have been far more carnal in intent.
It’s not the dancing. The common thread I see between the two passages – the story of David and the ark, and the story of the death of John the Baptist – is that in neither case is it obvious what spiritual truth we are supposed to get from the story.
If you are a person of faith like me, you probably believe, as I do, that these stories were not simply given to us as good yarns to keep us entertained on cold Sunday mornings. The stories are part of God’s word to us, and God speaks to us through these stories. And, so I ask you, what is God saying to us through the David story?
The standard evangelical position in this regard is that what God is saying to us is whatever the original author of the text intended to say to us. That doesn’t solve the issue but it does reframe the question: ‘What is the author of this story trying to say?
Is the moral of this story that all of us should strip down and dance before the Lord? That’s one possible interpretation of the author’s intent, and that would certainly be a challenging conclusion to draw from the passage.
If we do take this message away from the passage and if we do try to be faithful to it, the results will probably be mixed. There would be some members of our church community who could quite likely grow the church through such performances. There would be others though, like myself, who would doubtless drive people away!
In truth, I don’t think this passage is a veiled exhortation to dance, or even a more general exhortation to honour the Lord in the best way that you can. If you ask the scholars what they think the author was trying to convey in this passage, interestingly, the consensus is that the author is trying to let us know that no descendant of Saul is ever going to be king of Israel again!
That message might not be immediately obvious, but the clue, apparently, is in the final verse (2 Samuel 6:16) regarding Michel, daughter of Saul and one of David’s wives, who we are told “despised him in her heart” when she saw David dancing.
The immediate sequel to this is that Michel and David have a shouting match over the incident, the result of which is that David cuts her off and, we are told, she remains childless to the day of her death! (2 Samuel 6:23)
Thus begins what scholars call the ‘Succession Narrative’, the main theme of which is the question of ‘who will be the successor to the throne of David?’ That’s certainly how Leonard Rost understood it, at any rate, in his seminal book of 1926 “The Succession to the Throne of David”.
From Rost’s perspective, the incident with Michel begins the process whereby potential claimants to the Davidic throne are gradually eliminated, one by one. No descendant of Saul (via Michel) will ever be on the throne. That is settled here. Subsequently, as we are told about the internecine rivalry between David’s children, others are gradually eliminated – Amnon, who rapes his half-sister is then killed by his half-sister’s full-brother, Absalom, who is also eventually killed. Then we have David’s affair with Bathsheba which produces a son, Solomon, and so, gradually, the succession narrative is resolved. That’s how the scholars generally see it, anyway.
My point is that if, in order to understand what God is trying to say to us in these stories, we need to understand what was on the mind of the original author, it’s not always immediately obvious. Who would have thought, initially, that this story about David and the ark was really, primarily, a story about succession to the throne?
Perhaps Leonard Rost is wrong, of course. That’s possible. Perhaps the author of this story in the second book of Samuel wanted to convey multiple things to us. That’s all possible. Either way, my point is that if God’s message to us in these passages is tied to authorial intent then God’s word to us is not always obvious.
I have exactly this problem with the story of the death of John the Baptist as recorded in Mark 6. It’s a gruesome tale, full of colour and vibrance, and great material for a movie, but what is the author trying to say to us through this story?
“When the daughter of 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.” (Mark 6:22-25)
What is God trying to say to us through this story? What is on the mind of the author who gives us this story? It’s not immediately obvious. I don’t think anybody has interpreted this passage as an exhortation to dance, though it could be seen as a cautionary tale concerning the dangers of dancing.
‘Don’t let what happened to Herod happen to you! Don’t get drunk and invite your partner’s daughter from a previous relationship to dance lest, in your drunken and lustful stupor, you make promises to commit acts of violence that you’ll later regret!
That’s a warning that I’m sure we could all take to heart, though I frankly doubt that many of the first readers of this story (or many of us) are really in much danger of following in the path of Herod.
The more obvious explanation as to why this account is given is as a record of the Baptist’s death for his many followers. We know that John had many followers. Even as the Apostles go out preaching the resurrection, they come across followers of the Baptist. No doubt all of them wanted know what happened to their beloved master.
It would make sense to give a detailed record of the Baptist’s death. What makes less sense though, if the author of our story was really writing his account for the disciples of the Baptist, is why he gives so little detail about John and so much detail about Herod and the horrible machinations of his court.
This story from Mark chapter six is not actually a story about John. It’s a story about Herod, Herodias, and Herodias’ daughter, Salome. If you’ve seen the movie version, the only appearance John makes in this story is as a prop. Herod, Herodias and Salome all have speaking parts in this scene. John says nothing.
I guess it’s obvious why John says nothing as he doesn’t have a head, and maybe the author of the Gospel knew nothing about John’s final days or any last words that he might have said. In that case though, was it really necessary to give all the gruesome detail about Herod, the dance, and the platter?
When I consult the scholars again I find, as I suspect, that this narrative is not generally understood as being primarily a story about John at all. Neither though is the author really trying to focus us on Herod or Herodias, let alone Salome. According to the scholars, the author is really trying to say something about Jesus!
The link is made at the beginning of today’s story:
“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.” 15But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” (Mark 6:14-16)
Technically speaking, there are two passion narratives in the Gospel of Mark. The key one that we are most familiar with concerns the suffering and death of Jesus. This is the other one. The suffering and death of John prefigures the suffering and death of Jesus. Though they are obviously distinct, both are stories of humiliation, of the abuse of power, and of the lethal nature of the system.
John, as a prophet of God, was persecuted and suffered. Jesus, a prophet of God, would also be persecuted and suffer. Elijah, who also gets a mention, had his own history of persecution, of course, as did all the ‘prophets of old’, mentioned at the beginning of our passage. This, I think brings us to the heart of the message the author is trying to convey – namely, that the path of a prophet is a path of suffering.
Whether it be John or Jesus or Elijah or one of the prophets of old, you can’t speak the word of God without confronting the system, and you can’t confront the system without paying a price.
Some you may have heard the one-hour interview I gave last Monday as a part of the #Unity4J online vigil for Julian Assange. The vigil was made up of thirty-six one- hour interviews with a whole series of people, of which I was the final one!
I was glad to have the last spot, partly because it meant I got to close the vigil in prayer, but mainly because it meant I didn’t have to get up too early on Monday.
I didn’t realise though until I saw list of the other participants afterwards what an esteemed group I had been a part of. Amongst the others interviewed were people like Cynthia McKinney, Chris Hedges, George Galloway, Ciaron O’Reilly, Caitlin Johnstone, Ray McGovern, Peter Van Buren, and Daniel Ellsberg.
If you don’t know all those names, you likely recognise some of them. They are politicians and journalists and former intelligence officers, all of whom, for one reason or another, at some stage, spoke out against the system, and all of whom, I think, if they haven’t been imprisoned have been threatened with imprisonment!
It was a great privilege for me to see my name listed in that group, but sobering at the same time, of course. I’m not suggesting that any of these activists, nor Julian, are Christ-figures, but they do have this in common with the group listed in our Gospel reading today – Jesus, John, Elijah and the ‘prophets of old’ – that they all spoke out against the system, and they all paid a price for doing so.
This, I believe, is at the heart of what the author of our Gospel reading intends to convey to us in today’s story – that the path of the prophet is a path of suffering – indeed, simply that faithfulness to God and to Jesus inevitably leads to persecution.
This, of course, has been such a common theme in our Scripture readings lately that you’d be forgiven for finding it all a little repetitive. We’ve had Saint Paul hammering away, week after week, telling us how it’s all the pain that he’s endured that shows the integrity of His discipleship, as Jesus Himself has talked repeatedly about how the Son of Man must suffer.
I think the Scriptures keep repeating all this to us because it is so counter-intuitive that we are likely to forget it unless we are constantly reminded. There is something elemental in us that says, ‘if you are doing the right thing, things will go well for you’. That just seems so logical and almost the essence of how good religion should work.
I’m not suggesting, of course, that God never rewards those who are faithful. Even so, what the Scriptures keep reminding us is that the opposite is also true – that the faithful struggle – and that if you are genuinely true to God and to Christ, you are going to get yourself into trouble. Things will go wrong for you.
I do believe that this is at the heart of what the author of Mark’s Gospel intends to convey to us in this story. Even so, I won’t take it to heart if you prefer to interpret this narrative, and the story of David and the ark, as being s simple guides on good and bad ways to dance.
In truth though, uncovering God’s word in Scripture requires more than diligent thought and academic prowess. It also requires courage. For ultimately our Scriptures point us not only to timeless truths about the universe but to things about ourselves that we might not want to face, and they bring us to Jesus, who is both a wonderful and a frightening person to meet.
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