Mark 6: Losing our Heads
Sunday morning worship, May 6, 2018
Mark 6 speaks to our moral weaknesses, our fears, our need to save-face, and to the impact peer pressure can have upon our lives. Since all of us have probably struggled in one or more of these four categories at one time or another in our lives, maybe by learning to work together, starting even this morning, we can begin to turn the tide against the influence this poisonous mixture has had upon us. Beginning with verse 14, Mark recounts the story of John the Baptist’s death at the hands of the region’s King Herod and how the people in the region of Galilee came to understand Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth was in Galilee, so Jesus offered them His Kingdom’s ‘good news’ promise. His hometown folks were amazed at His teaching, but they couldn’t get past their memories of His earlier life among them. So as Jesus offered them a new life, they “took offense at Him” (v3) and Jesus “could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them” (v5). Jesus’ visit home ends with Jesus being “amazed at their lack of faith” (v6). The people of Nazareth were more concerned about saving face than opening their eyes and accepting what Jesus was offering. But as Jesus and the Twelve extended their ministry throughout Galilee, “Some were saying, ‘John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.’ Others said, ‘He is Elijah.’ And still others claimed, ‘He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago’” (vv14-16). But Mark wants to focus on King Herod and his family and not on the general populace. “But when Herod heard this, he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!’” (v16).
Religion and superstition worked at cross-currents with political intrigue and social uprising in this chapter. This King Herod ruled from 4 B.C. to 39 A.D. and pretty much did whatever he wanted locally and focused on a larger Roman future. William L Lane in his NICOT commentary on Mark says, King Herod’s “total disregard for Jewish sensitivity was displayed not only in his marriage to Herodias, but in the selection of an ancient cemetery as the site for his capital, Tiberias. By this choice Herod virtually excluded Jewish settlers, for residence in the city would render them perpetually unclean in terms of the ritual law” (p.211). He ran afoul of John the Baptist with his decision to take Herodias from his half-brother Herod Philip. When John continued to stir the already agitated populace by publicly and repeatedly stating, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife,” King Herod, with Herodias’ powerful backing (“Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him, but she was not able” (v19)) had “John arrested…bound and put in prison” (v17). Lane says, “The powerful Nabatean forces across Herod’s border posed a definite threat to his security, and the tetrarch could not afford to have the provincials also inflamed against him. Nevertheless, he recognized that John was man of God and sought to keep him in protective custody against the vindictive intentions of his wife” (p.219). Lane concludes, “More weak than cruel, Herod listened to John with an undeniable fascination. John’s word left him perplexed, and in anguish. Yet he found a strange pleasure in the authoritative preaching of this holy man…too weak to follow John’s counsel, he nevertheless had to listen” (p.220).
Think on that for awhile: too weak, but fascinated. Although he ruled 43 years, he never enjoyed popular approval because he cared so little about the Jewish religion. This King Herod lived for Rome’s approval, which he never got. When the story of John the Baptist’s death resumes in a few moments, we will find Herod is surrounded by “his high official and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee” (v21). He was insulated and oblivious to much around him; his sole focus seems to be on Rome. Although he had taken Herodias from brother Philip, Herodias was more trouble than comfort. Herod’s life could be characterized by a phrase I learned in a book I read by Walter Trobisch back in seminary—“Living with Unfulfilled Desires.” When we want things that we don’t possess and we allow those desires to become strong motivators in our lives, we set ourselves up either for heroic actions or for tremendous falls. If our desires are for the things of God and those desires have been placed inside of us by God Himself, the intimacy we experience with God as we struggle through the sacrifices necessary to birth God’s desires in time cover the gamut of emotions but ultimately find total joy on the day of their birth. Consider the comments of Sarah on the day of Isaac’s birth after following Abraham through his 25 years of struggle: “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me…Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age” (Genesis 21:6-7). Consider the words and actions of Joseph when he was finally reunited with his father Jacob after such a long separation and so many struggles that finally placed him atop the nation of Egypt: “As soon as Joseph appeared before him, he threw his arms around his father and wept for a long time. Israel said to Joseph, ‘Now I am ready to die, since I have seen for myself that you are still alive’” (Genesis 46:29-30).
Yet when those desires come from within us, when they do not come from God Himself and they drive the important and even insignificant decisions of our lives, we set ourselves up for failures of all sorts. What kind of man can take his brother’s wife away from him and live publicly with his brother’s wife while his brother is still alive and ruling in a nearby region of Israel? Herodias herself knew. She knew the sexual weaknesses of men. So she sent her daughter from Philip, now a teenager and under her control, before the group of lascivious men gathered around Herod. Mark starts, “Finally the opportune time came” (v21). When Salome danced, “she pleased Herod and his dinner guests. The king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.’ And he promised her with an oath, ‘Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom’” (vv22-23). Herodias wanted John the Baptist dead. Look now at King Herod’s reasoning: “The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her” (v26). We began this message with the statement, “Mark 6 speaks to our moral weaknesses, our fears, our need to save face, and to the impact peer pressure can have upon our lives.” King Herod’s moral weaknesses allowed him to take his brother’s wife, live with Herodias in a weakened moral state that resulted in taking John the Baptist captive in the first place, and now sexually aroused by his step-daughter, he abandons the moral high road. King Herod’s fear of losing face in front of his guests and his fear of refusing his wife publicly reinforced his weakened conscience. A false understanding of the place of oaths in religion and in social situations coupled with the rash words spoken without thinking through the consequences, sealed Herod’s decision.
We can spend hours talking about each of these failures. God made us to be intimate with another, naked and unashamed are the words. Elicit sexual experiences are a poor substitute for what we are supposed to find in the arms of our spouses. We have social fears that manifest in our relationships with others. Many times we lack, forfeit, and destroy what could be important relationships because of fears we won’t even admit to ourselves. We also face fears from the physical realities of the world around us. Mark addresses these fears at the end of this chapter when the disciples saw Jesus walking on the water and thought he was a ghost. None of us like to be embarrassed. Often times we say our parents embarrass us so we keep them at a distance we shouldn’t. Maybe parents are embarrassed by their children as well. Spouses, friends, basically anyone can publicly embarrass us at the drop of a hat with an ill-spoken word or story. These incidents live long and can powerfully impact important relationships. Books upon books have been written about the impact of peer pressure on the decisions we make. But behind all of these manifestations, I believe lie two truths. The first involves the significance we place upon our relationship to our Heavenly Father. The second is that phrase I’ve never been able to shake, “Living with Unfulfilled Desires.”
Surrendering to God, to God’s will, and to God’s ways are all very difficult. The road we travel from first coming to know Jesus as our Savior, and then as our Lord to a place where we can actually begin to approximate a level of intimacy with God/Jesus/Holy Spirit is an incredible journey. It doesn’t happen quickly. It doesn’t happen by accident. We have to make many choices and sacrifice many things along that way. But let me tell you it is worth it. You know I spent a few days in the hospital this past week. Being ministered to by you was an incredible experience. It has changed many things in my way of thinking, especially knowing I have to go through all of this again, though hopefully in a significantly simpler way. I reflected that my dad was born into this church in 1934. His mother attended before that date. So for almost 100 years this specific body of believers has been ministering to my life. Think of that—almost 100 years! What lasts 100 years in our new and improved world, especially relationships? How can I say ‘thank you’ enough? I’ve wanted so many things for you since I’ve become your pastor, things I never thought came true. I’ve lived and worked to make happen many things that are still unfulfilled desires of mine. Let me say unequivocally that the hardest thing in life is just to want what God wants for us, nothing more and nothing less, and to trust that God will give it to us in the right way at the right time. It’s so easy to want, to want more, to want different. It’s so hard to live in total contentment, peace, love, and joy. But those are the things the Holy Spirit promises if we stop wanting something else. Being in a hurry doesn’t make Christmas come any earlier. But if we wait patiently, and live in the strength and power of the Holy Spirit, the gifts will be there when we need them. You were there for me when I needed you. I want to say thank you. I also want to say what we have is good, it’s real, it’s worth its weight in gold, and everyone should want it. The bottom line: It’s God’s gift.