My! That is a disturbing story we just heard. It’s awful! Where is the Good News in that? It’s a disturbing story of a murder, a disturbing story of a wildly dysfunctional family. It is a graphic story of a gruesome beheading, something that seems to belong more in a horror story than here in the Gospel. It’s only made more disturbing by its location because it is here in Mark’s Gospel. Mark’s Gospel is very short, and every story in Mark’s Gospel is short: a couple of verses on the baptism, a couple of verses on the wilderness, a couple of verses on the beginning of his ministry, a couple of verses on this teaching and that teaching, this healing and that healing. If you take all the stories in Mark’s Gospel and look at them next to the other Gospels’ versions of the same story, Mark’s Gospel always ends up shorter. Not just a few verses, but often half or a third or a tenth of the length. And yet, this story is longer than Matthew’s version, longer than Luke’s version. Mark is always trying to move us forward, which is probably why his Gospel is so short. He is punctuating all these moments, trying to move you forward into the future, move you towards the ending point, towards Holy Week, towards the crucifixion, towards the Resurrection. And yet we get to this story, and we have a flashback. We don’t stop and linger in this moment, we have to go back chronologically in time to do that lingering, to dwell here in this disturbing story. Mark wants us to stay here for a while. He wants us to be here, dwelling in this horror story.
The mid-twentieth century author, Flannery O’Connor, one of the icons of the type of literature called the Southern Grotesque once said that there is a moment in every story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected. There are many such moments in this story that we heard today. The first takes place after John is arrested, and it says that Herod liked to listen to him. This is an ongoing theme. There isn’t just one time that Herod went and heard John; Herod liked to go hear him. It says that when he did go hear him he was greatly perplexed. The word translated as perplexed is not a helpful translation, because it is not just confusion that Herod feels here, but it is more of a disturbance. Herod is disturbed when he hears John the Baptist speak. Now of course part of that is because John is telling him that what he did with his brother’s wife is immoral and unlawful, and of course that is disturbing to Herod. But I can’t imagine that he kept going back to hear that message; I can’t imagine that John would waste the opportunity to do what he had always done—proclaim the Good News, to prepare the way of the Lord, to share his prophetic imagination. And as you remember, John’s imagination was rooted in Isaiah’s prophetic imagination, which was a reflection of God’s vision for this world. When John comes on the scene, we are told he is the embodiment of Isaiah’s words that there would be a voice from the wilderness preparing the way of the Lord. It goes on to say that every mountain would be made low, and every valley would be raised up, and all the rough places in this world would be made smooth.
John’s prophetic imagination was one that encountered the world’s imagination, and said that there would be a leveling out. In God’s imagination all of us are equal before God, made in God’s very image, and that needed to be reflected here in how we lived. So John approached the world’s imagination which said some people have coats, and some people don’t have coats—that’s just the way it is. And John said no. If you have an extra coat, give it to somebody without so that everyone can have a coat. In a world that said that some people have food and some people do not have food and that’s just the way it is, John said no. Those of us with food need to share it so that everybody can eat in this world. John’s imagination was one in which the mountains came down and the valleys came up, and all those rough spots are smoothed out so that everybody can have a warm coat, and every one can go to bed at night with food in their stomach.
That prophetic imagination was disturbing to Herod because he was one of those mountains. He was afraid of what would happen if that mountain came down. He would lose his power and wealth, and he didn’t know what that could look like. His imagination couldn’t quite get there. Yet it also says that Herod was attracted to this message; he liked to listen to John. Why did he like to listen to him? Because while this message was disturbing, it was also beautiful. This imagination in which everybody has what they need was beautiful. Herod is stuck here in this tension between that which is disturbing him and that which is attracting him. In the tension of this moment we have one of the first moments in the story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected.
The next such moment happens at the party when his daughter asks for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. It says that Herod was deeply grieved by this. He’s deeply grieved because he likes John. He’s deeply grieved because John is a righteous and holy man. He’s deeply grieved because he knows that this is an immoral thing, that John has not done anything deserving the death penalty. And yet, Herod has been asked to do that. On the other side, he is afraid. He is afraid to embarrass himself in front of his guests. He is afraid of what they will think of him if he does not follow through on his commitment. He is afraid they will think he is weak if he doesn’t go through with this. In this tension between that which he knows in his heart, and the tension that he knows in his fear we have the second moment in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected. And Herod rejects it. When the plumb line is placed in the midst of his life, in the midst of this decision, he is found not to be plumb.
There is a third moment in this story, and it actually happens at the beginning, chronologically what happens next. That is when he finds out about Jesus and he thinks that this is John, whom he beheaded. In that moment he realizes the mistake he had made and is again offered this moment of grace waiting to be accepted or rejected. The story leaves it open-ended. We do not now how he finally responds. Herod disappears from Mark’s story completely. In Luke’s version he shows up at the crucifixion where he says that Jesus didn’t really do anything wrong and sends him back to Pilate. We do not know what Herod’s final decision is.
There is a moment in every story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected. Paul teaches us this morning in the Epistle reading that the glorious grace has been freely bestowed upon us in the beloved, and the riches of God’s grace have been lavished upon us. This is an over-the-top vision of the abundance of God’s grace in this life. Over-the-top does not mean it is not true, it means that God’s grace is truly that abundant, that it rains down upon us, giving us the nourishment we need in this life.
God’s grace is there in every one of our stories. We can feel the presence of that grace waiting to be accepted or rejected. That grace is so lavish that it is coming before us every day. It is here in this moment, it is out there in the world at work, at school. God’s grace is lavishly poured upon us, waiting to be accepted or rejected.
In a few minutes we are going to sing a hymn, a hymn written by a man named John Newton. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see. John Newton had one of those moments in his life where the presence of grace could be felt. He had before him the opportunity to accept or reject it. John Newton was a slave trader, the captain of the ship. One night when there was a great storm that threatened to break up the ship and send it down, John Newton felt that amazing grace come to him, and he accepted it. He left his career as a slave trader and changed to become an abolitionist, fighting to bring the grace of God to this world. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.
There is a moment in every story, in the Gospel, in your life, in my life, in which the presence of grace can be felt, waiting for us to accept it or reject it.