TITLE: A Good Word for Bad Times
SCRIPTURE: Mark 6:14-29
If a preacher were flipping through the Bible looking for "101 Stories to Inspire Great Preaching," he or she would probably not linger long over this story of the martyrdom of John the Baptist. It isn't a very uplifting story -- as a matter of fact, it is a "downer." The good guys lose, and Mark depicts the loss in gruesome terms. The king not only has John the Baptist killed, but he passes his head around on a platter. We know that things like that happen, but we would just as soon hear about something else when we come to church. We deal with enough unhappy things six days a week, and we would rather hear something encouraging on Sunday.
But this story is in the Bible -- not only in the Bible, but in the Gospels -- books that many churches treat with special reverence, because they tell us about the life of Jesus. The story of John's death is in all three Synoptic Gospels -- Matthew, Mark, and Luke -- and that suggests that it is important. Perhaps we need to take a moment to see if there is, in this story, a word from God for us today.
When I first read this story, it seemed pretty grim, but when I studied it in more detail, I realized that there is something more here than the death of a martyr. This is also a story of hope -- an encouraging story for difficult times. It takes some digging to learn that, but learn it I did.
This is a story set inside another story. Mark has been telling the story of Jesus sending the Twelve on a mission -- a very successful mission --and then he interrupts that story to tell this story of the death of John-- and then he comes back to the story of the Twelve, which he concludes with this verse:
"The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught" (v. 30).
The apostles told Jesus what they had done! What had they done? Just before telling us about John the Baptist, Mark told us that the Twelve had called people to repent, had cast out many demons, and had anointed many sick people and cured them (vv. 12-13). In other words, these apostles had been doing great things for Jesus. Mark interrupts that happy story
to tell us the grim story of the death of John the Baptist.
This isn't the only place where Mark inserts one story inside another one. Why would he do that? Why would he do it here? Why would he start telling a big success story, and interrupt it with this terrible story about John's death? Why would he include the gruesome details – Herod and his guests passing around John's head on a platter at their banquet?
As nearly as we can tell, Mark did that as a way of saying, "Look! Terrible things happen! Nothing could be more terrible than this gruesome story of John's death! But don't be fooled! That is not the whole story! Something important is going on in the background while John is being martyred, and that something important is God conquering evil – disciples casting out demons.
He is saying, Yes, terrible things happen -- but wonderful things happen too! And the wonderful things trump the terrible things. God is at work in the world, and we should never wonder who is going to win. This story of John's death -- set inside the story of the apostles' successful mission -- promises that God will win -- and God's people will win.
That doesn't mean that it will be easy. When Mark sets this story of John's death into the middle of the story of the Twelve casting out demons, he is reminding us that bad things happen -- that bad things happen even to good people -- and that the bad things that happen to us are not necessarily God's punishment for our sins. John the Baptist wasn't doing something wrong when they killed him -- he was doing something right.
Herod imprisoned John because John criticized Herod for marrying his brother's wife. That upset Herod a little bit, but it upset his wife, Herodias, a whole lot! She wanted to kill John. It is very possible that Herod imprisoned John just to keep him away from Herodias. Mark tells us that Herod tried to protect John -- that he liked to hear him talk. He saw something good -- something holy -- something true -- in John, and wanted to protect him from the wicked queen.
But, then, one night Herodias got her chance. Her daughter danced a dance that pleased Herod a whole lot. I don't even want to think about what kind of dance it was. Any other father would have put a stop to it immediately, but not Herod! He told the girl that she was wonderful, and offered her anything she wanted -- up to half of his kingdom.
So the girl did what young girls often do when faced with a great decision -- she went to get her mother's advice. What should she ask? The answer was easy! She should ask for John's head. And so she did -- even adding her own touch -- she not only asked for John's head, but asked for it on a platter!
Even Herod was horrified at the idea -- but he was also trapped. All the important people in his kingdom were at that banquet, and they had heard his offer -- and they had also heard the daughter's request. Herod found himself between the devil -- literally -- and the deep blue sea. He didn't want to kill John, but he also didn't want to embarrass himself in front of his friends. And so he did kill John -- just as he and Pilate would later kill Jesus.
But, in the background, the apostles were out there on their mission -- preaching -- calling people to repentance -- casting out demons – healing the sick. God was not absent, and evil was not winning the race. Yes, one good man was being murdered, but dozens or hundreds were being saved.
Mark's church needed to hear that! By the time Mark wrote this Gospel, the church was suffering terrible persecution. Christians were being imprisoned -- even killed -- not because they had done something wrong, but because they had done something right. I believe that Mark wrote this story within a story to reassure them. Yes, bad things were happening,
but they should not doubt that good things were happening too. God was at work in the world, and everything would come out all right in the end.
We need to hear that too. If life was difficult for Christians in Mark's day, it is often difficult for us as well. 9/11 reminded us that we live in a dangerous world -- a world where we can no longer take it for granted that we are safe from attack. Persecution of Christians is rampant in many parts of our world today.
And then there are the more personal threats -- threats from without and threats from within. When I was growing up, lots of people didn't even lock their doors. With minor exceptions, a person could walk the streets at night without fear of attack. It would seem that those days are gone forever. Now we hide behind security systems in our homes and in our cars. We buy cell phones, in part, so that we can call for help if necessary. That is what I mean by "threats without."
But the threats within are just as frightening. Some years ago, a doctor took a look for polyps, and told the patient that he had discovered a flat polyp. This person didn't understand the significance at the moment, but it didn't take long to discover what "flat polyp" meant. It meant cancer -- and surgery -- and three weeks in the hospital -- and six months of chemo -- and weeks of radiation -- and a quarter of a million dollars in medical expenses, most covered by insurance, thankfully, but not all. "Flat polyp" meant living five years wondering if they would see another year. It meant establishing two plans for their family -- one to be used if they lived and the other if they died.
But it isn't just serious illness that threatens to undo us. Can remember, when you were younger, feeling really terrible because you were in love and the other person wasn't. You can talk about puppy love, but those who have been through that -- and nearly everyone has -- know that it is not puppy pain.
When faced with danger or pain, it is difficult to believe that there is anything right about the world -- or our lives. But the story of John's martyrdom -- set inside the story of the successful mission of the apostles -- tells us that God is at work -- and it tells us that God will
win. This story reassures us that, if we walk with God, in the long run, all will be well. That is an important promise to remember when we are in danger -- when we are suffering.
Some years ago, Charles Colson -- Nixon's old henchman -- became a Christian because of the pain and guilt that he felt over his role in Watergate. His conversion turned his life around. He had been a tough guy who had specialized in making people miserable. He became a gentle guy who specialized in bringing people hope.
About fifteen years ago, Colson announced that he had a malignant tumor. He said, "I thought I would be shattered." He talked about the pain of hearing his doctor tell him that he had cancer -- and the pain associated with the treatment of his disease -- but then he said this:
"As many have discovered before me, I saw in my confrontation with fear and suffering
that there is nothing for which God does not pour out his grace abundantly."
I don't know if the name Helen Keller means anything to you or not. Some years ago, she was quite famous, but I don't often hear her name mentioned today. Hers was an amazing story. As a toddler, she suffered some sort of disease that left her blind and deaf. She grew into childhood completely cut off from sight and sound. Her parents tried everything to
communicate with her, but were largely unsuccessful.
Then her parents invited Anne Sullivan to work with young Helen, and Anne tried something that she called "finger spelling." She devised a code that she could tap into Helen's hand. She tapped a word for "doll" and handed Helen a doll. Helen realized that Anne was trying to say something, but couldn't understand what. Then Anne tried to teach Helen the word for "cake," but again Helen failed to understand. The two of them worked together for a month, gradually developing a bond and friendship -- but Helen still couldn't grasp what Anne was trying to teach her.
And then, one day, Anne tapped the word for "water" and then pumped water from an old hand pump over Helen's hand -- and Helen "got it." Her face lit up with joy because, for the first time in her young life, she had a way to communicate with the people around her. It was an enormous breakthrough, and it changed Helen's life -- it changed Anne's life -- and
it changed the lives of millions who heard Helen's story.
Helen Keller became famous, because she was a woman of enormous spiritual depth. She wrote things that encouraged people who were having a hard time. People knew how much she had suffered -- and how much she had overcome -- and they found themselves very open to hear Helen's counsel. As an adult, Helen said many wonderful things that helped many people. One of them was this. She said:
"Although the world is very full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it."
Any of us could say those words, but they have real power when they come from the lips of one who has genuinely suffered and genuinely overcome the suffering.
"Although the world is very full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it."
A few years ago (Nov. 1995), in the little devotional guide, Upper Room, Susan Stracke wrote a story about a broken sand dollar. You have probably seen a sand dollar -- those lovely little seashells. Susan had bought a sand dollar while vacationing at the ocean one summer. Sometime later, one of her children bumped into a piece of furniture, and the sand dollar fell to the floor and shattered into three pieces.
Susan and her son gathered the pieces together and took them to the kitchen, where they tried gluing them back together again. In her article, Susan said:
"As we glued the parts together, we noticed the intricate structure within. Had it not been broken, we would never have known of the beauty hidden inside." She went on to say:
"I think we are a little like that sand dollar. When our spirits are broken, God puts us back together again. During the healing process, God helps us discover inner resources we would never have known existed within us had we not experienced being broken."
I think that is one of the things that Mark is trying to tell us in this story within a story -- the story of John the Baptist's death set inside the story of the apostles' mission. He is telling us that, if we will walk in faith, God will transform our Gethsemanes into lovely gardens where we -- and others -- can come to find strength and to grow in faith. He is telling us not to lose hope even in the midst of the most terrible circumstances, because God is still at work, and God will prevail. He is telling us that:
"When our spirits are broken, God puts us back together again. During the healing process,
God helps us discover inner resources we would never have known existed within us had we not experienced being broken."