On the surface, todays Gospel reading is a very strange story. In 32 verses Jesus is mentioned, but never says a word. After the rejection at Nazareth Jesus sends the disciples out on a mission to the surrounding villages, where they told people about Jesus, challenged evil, helped and healed, and generally brought people to faith and grew the kingdom. Jesus reputation was spreading fast, and people were coming up with all sorts of theories as to who he is? And where does he get his power from?
King Herod heard about this, and his guilty conscience made him think that perhaps Jesus was John the Baptist come back to haunt him. Then Mark goes on to tell this spine chilling story in which Herod not only had John the Baptist killed, but his head was passed around on a plate.
It was Herod Antipas, the son of "Herod the Great" who was ruler at the time of Jesus birth. Herod Antipas ruled only ¼ of his fathers kingdom with the guidance of Rome. So he was really a puppet governor.
The Herod family tree was quite complex. For example, Herod the Great married several times and had seven sons. He had three of them murdered for fear that they would depose him as king. Herodias (in our reading today) was the daughter of one of those seven sons; which means that Herod Antipas married his niece, and she had previously been married to two of the remaining four sons. And the dancing girl Salome was married to another of the four sons. If for some reason you wanted to know more about the Herod family, Hastings Bible Dictionary details all the complex relationships.
It is interesting to note that Salome doesnt get a mention again after this, which may indicate
John the Baptist showed great courage in criticizing Herod for marrying his brothers wife, who was also his niece. Criticizing the Kings private life in public was not a healthy thing to do, and Herodias had a powerful grudge against John.
But why? Why does Mark tell this story in so much detail? One of the things we notice is that this story of Johns martyrdom is sandwiched within the story of the successful mission of the 12 disciples.
And after Mark tells of the death of John the Baptist, and people passing his head around on a plate.
He goes back to the story of the disciples mission, and concludes in Verse 30, saying "The Apostles returned and met with Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught".
So by putting a bad story within a good story, perhaps Mark is saying, "Sure bad things happen, and bad things happen to good people, but thats not the whole story. At the time of Johns death God was at work through the disciples, who were out there growing the kingdom, and bringing people to faith. Marks church needed to hear that, because at the time he wrote, they were suffering terrible persecution, and people were dying for their faith.
So maybe he wrote this story within a story to reassure them and us, that even in the most terrible circumstances like the 9/11 or Bali bombings or bushfires or illness, retrenchment or broken relationships, cancer, Motor Neuron disease, whatever; God is still at work in our lives, and in the mission of our church. What sets us apart as people of faith, isnt that we live perfect lives, free from suffering, but that the presence of God is with us, on our best of days, and our worst of days.
When Mark wrote this some 30 years after Jesus death and resurrection, he was looking back with hind sight, and saying that both Jesus and John the Baptist were put to death by rulers who recognized their goodness but weakly gave away under pressure.
So Mark begins to shift the focus away from Jesus teaching to his death on the cross. For Mark the cross is the key to understanding who Jesus is. We dont understand him till we see him as "the crucified one". The one whose life of loving and serving and self giving, leading up to and including the cross, show us what God is like. How much God loves us and how far Gods love is prepared to go for us.
So Mark is saying if we are following in the steps of Jesus and John, we should not expect it to be easy. It may be as daunting for us, as it was for Peter and Andrew, James and John and the other disciples when they went out on that first mission, to share what they knew of Jesus with others. But they committed themselves to Jesus, and they found that they could do all sorts of things in his strength.
And its the same today. Jesus is still depending on us. Hes counting on you and me. And while that can be scary; he is with us always. He can speak through us, and use us in all sorts of ways in his service. Its not always easy, but we can all do things we thought we could never do, when the Spirit of God is at work in our lives.