For my first Communion at the age of 8, I was given a Childrenâ€™s Bible that I read almost every night. Mainly for the pictures of course. The pictures were bright and colorful and vibrant and told the story just as much if not more than the words did. I still remember many of them very well in my mind. One of them sticks out today because of our gospel reading and that is the bloody head of John the Baptist on a platter. Itâ€™s hard to forget an image like that.
Not only can you see that image in a Childrenâ€™s Bible, but in many of the worldâ€™s churches and museums. It is one of those images like the Crucifixion that doesnâ€™t need much explanationâ€”most people recognize it and it stays with them for the rest of their lives.
The drama surrounding Johnâ€™s beheading, however, needs a little bit of explanation. There were many rulers named Herod during the time of John and Jesus, all related to each other, and the Herod in the gospel is known as Herod Antipas. He was the son of Herod the Great, and when his father died, his lands were divided up between his sons and Herod Antipas inherited the lands in which John and Jesus did much of their ministry.
He is responsible for both beheading John and for handing Jesus back over to Pilate for his final interrogation and crucifixion. Herod imprisoned John because John condemned his relationship with Herodias who was both the former wife of his half-brother Philip, and his niece.
John remained in prison until Herod made a promise to the daughter of Herodiasâ€”called Herodias in this reading, but actually known as Salomeâ€”to make any wish and he would fulfill it. And Herodias took her revenge on John and had Salome ask for his head to be delivered to her on a platter.
It is no mistake that when we hear about John the Baptist we are ultimately directed towards Jesus. Both John and Jesus preached in Herodâ€™s territory. Both John and Jesus threatened his power because they spoke the truth and had influence over the people.
Herod has opportunities to save John and Jesus from death, but he rejects both of them.
And John and Jesus are both brutally murdered for the sake of the truth.
The images of a head on a platter, of a man nailed to a cross are vivid signs of rejection.
Vivid signs of the power of evil triumphing over goodness and truth. I canâ€™t image what the disciples of John and of Jesus must have felt like when the men they followed and looked up to and trusted were ultimately rejected and murdered by worldly powers.
I canâ€™t imagine what fear they must have felt when they took their dead bodies and laid them in tombs, probably fearing that they might be murdered too.
There is a link here with John the Baptist and Jesus, but we too are also linked in to this story. We can often find ourselves feeling like their disciples must have. The images of a head on a platter and a man nailed to a cross do not soon leave us, will not leave us. These are images of our leaders, of those who we trust and love and attempt to follow the best we can. But if this can happen to John and Jesus what does that mean for us?
Being a disciple is risky; we are surrounded by worldly powers that seem to overtake us at times. Sometimes it is discouraging that the truth and justice donâ€™t seem to win the day,
but that lies, and greed, and selfish power seem to. Jesus and John didnâ€™t give us any indication that being a follower of Jesus would
be or will be easy. Look at how they both ended upâ€”beheaded and crucified.
Most of us will not be beheaded or crucified, on account of the truth, but there are other ways in our daily lives we are persecuted, challenged, and live in constant tension between following Jesus and the truth and following the world and its lies.
Those who follow Jesus in the truth know that the cross is inevitable. There is no Jesus without the cross. We live with the tension that our God was rejected by the world we live in, condemned to death, and nailed to a cross.
But John and Jesus didnâ€™t buckle under pressure like Herod did. They lived in truth no matter what. And it led to their gruesome and horrific deaths. If you thought being a follower of Jesus was going to be glamorous or easy, it might be time to reconsider that.
So where does this leave us? Where do we get our courage, our strength to be followers of Jesus when being a follower is anything but easy? Ironically our strength comes from that which condemned both John and Jesus--the truth. The truth that in the end the power of
evil does not prevail, that the cross was not the end for Jesus, but that he rose from the dead and destroyed death. All for our sake! Jesus promised to stay with us, strengthen us, and comfort us.
Without this truth, I am not sure what we have. Without this hope, I am not sure I could be a follower of Christ. But beheading and crucifixion are nothing when Christ is the Victor and death is not the end.
We may have the images of a bloody head on a platter and a bloody man nailed to a cross forever stuck in our minds, but we know these images are not the end of the story. The story continues with the image of a risen Lord, robed in white, cross and grave behind him, nail wounds visible, yet risen, alive, with us and active in you and me. Amen.