Text: Mark 6:14-29
Date: Pentecost VI (Proper 10) + 7/12/09
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI
Remember that the overriding question of at least the first half of Mark’s Gospel is, “Who is this Jesus?” Who is this that even the wind and sea obey Him? Who is this that such miraculous powers are at work in Him? Who is this that we hear such wisdom from Him? There were various guesses as to the answer. “Isn’t this little Jesus who grew up here whose mother and brothers and sisters we know?” “Isn’t this the carpenter?” Others answered the question in a religious way, as in today’s text. Some said He is John the Baptist come back from the dead. Others said He is Elijah who is to return before the Messiah. Others said He is a prophet. There would be still others who were not as much impressed as offended, especially as He began to gain popularity and numbers of followers. They would accuse Him of being if not in league with Satan maybe even the devil himself. Among all those answers, today it seems the most common answer to the question “Who is Jesus?” is, “Jesus is…irrelevant!” Nevertheless, the question keeps coming to you, who do you say that Jesus is? For your answer to that question reveals as much about yourself, your relationship to Him and therefore your spiritual condition, as it does about Jesus.
Today we hear of King Herod, Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, tetrarch of Galilee and Perea from 4 bc to ad 39. He had heard of the mission activity of Jesus and His disciples. Herod cared little especially about the religious sensitivities of the people he ruled. His marriage to Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, was bad enough. But he had also chosen an ancient cemetery as the site of his capital, Tiberias, which virtually excluded Jewish settlers since residence in the city would render them perpetually unclean in terms of the ritual law.
So now, Herod, who is this Jesus? He had heard the theory that Jesus was some sort of prophet, then maybe even the prophet Elijah of old. The idea that caught his attention, however, was that Jesus was John the Baptist come back from the dead. Now, St. Mark takes this opportunity to tell the story of the passion and death of John the Baptist to relate the background of the superstitious fear of Herod. You see, people don’t have to be Christians or Jews or necessarily very religious at all in order to feel and experience a guilty conscience.
What did Herod feel so guilty about? You heard the story of his birthday party and Herodias’ daughter, Salome’s dance that inspired the oath of Herod to give her anything she wanted, “up to half of my kingdom,” and then the manipulation of that situation by Herodias to take revenge and finally have John the Baptist murdered. Herod probably would have felt less guilty about it all except, as St. Mark tells us, 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,” even though part of John’s preaching was the hammer of the Law condemning Herod for his illegal and immoral marriage. In other words, there was just enough “gospel” in John’s preaching that caught Herod’s attention, drawing him towards the way of repentance of sin and faith in God’s promises; not enough to actually repent and believe, but “just enough” to at least make him feel guilty—guilty of his sinful marriage; guilty now of being forced into murdering a prophet of God.
It doesn’t seem, on the other hand, that there was anything approaching guilt, remorse or even revulsion on the part of Herodias or her daughter either at the willful murder of another human being or much less at the horrific detail of having his head delivered to them on a platter. When reading this I can’t help but think of the horrors we have witnessed under Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical rule of Iraq and of the other Muslim terrorists. On the other hand one ought not to be surprised of the extreme cruelty of which sinful man is capable. But besides the sin of murder, what makes it worse is this was an attempt to silence God, to silence God’s Word by eliminating His prophet, just like in today’s Old Testament reading and like all the prophets of old. So, thought Herod, who knows if God couldn’t raise the Baptist from the dead to come back and take some sort of divine revenge on him?
A lot of people think God plays games like this, that God is in the business of taking revenge, of raining on people’s parties, making you feel guilty, condemning people at every turn, “getting back” on people for something you did or didn’t do. But, you remember the famous “gospel-in-a-nutshell,” John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” But do you not also remember John 3:17? “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” The condemnation has already been done through God’s sending of His Law and by writing His Law on people’s hearts. He doesn’t need to rain on your party or take revenge. That is “built in,” so to speak, in your conscience. If the Church or the Bible or God makes you feel guilty, that’s not the goal, it is only the means toward the goal: the goal of repentance of sin and the forgiveness of sin and salvation out of God’s great love for you.
So who should you, who do you say Jesus is? He is not John the Baptist come back from the dead. How could that be, especially if you know that Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River? John the Baptist, on the other hand, is Elijah who was promised to come to prepare the way for the Messiah. John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus, pointed Him out calling Him “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” John was a prophet, a spokesman for God who said of Jesus, “He must become greater, I must become less.” So, who is Jesus? He is the Messiah, the promised Christ of God. He is the Lamb of God who takes away sin. He is Lord—a confession says the Apostle John no one can make except by the Holy Spirit, and He is God-in-the-flesh, the Incarnate Word of God who could not be silenced even when He was crucified, dead and buried. For God raised Him from the dead, not as someone else but as Himself, Jesus, to live and reign for all eternity.
Who is Jesus? This is the greatest, most important question a person can be confronted with and must answer. For there is no other name given among men by which we must be saved. He is the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to God the Father but by and through Him, Jesus, our Savior, the Son of God and Savior of the world.