Well, that’s a lousy story for a Sunday morning, isn’t it? Packed with guilty fear, questions of incest, plottings of vengeance, manipulation of children, murder… it’s hard to read. It should be hard to read.
And in a gospel where most of the stories have a relatively happy ending – a healing, a miracle, freedom from the demonic – it’s jarring to come across one that ends with human evil killing a man of God.
It’s also a gospel story in which Jesus is almost peripheral. It comes as a flashback, triggered by the news that Jesus’ disciples are out two by two, sharing stories and healings. As Jesus’ fame spreads, everyone speculates on where this miraculous new rabbi has sprung from, and Herod feels haunted by his guilty conscience:
Uh-oh, the prophet I murdered has come back to life, even stronger.
The moral of this terrible story isn’t at the end. It’s right at the top, revealed by Herod’s haunting: God’s power and purpose in the world can’t be murdered. God’s work in the world can’t be halted by our human errors, our fear, our sinful inattention. God’s will can’t be suppressed even by death.
If you think there’s some foreshadowing there, you’re right. But it’s not just that the resurrection of Jesus will be good news at the end of this story. It’s good news at the beginning of this dark flashback that the Word of God can’t be killed by the government, by intentional suppression or by the wrongs we do while we’re trying to avoid embarrassment.
Because that’s apparently why Herod killed John the Baptist. He orders the murder of a man who intrigues and interests and challenges him – a man who he listens to for the word of God – in order to avoid being embarrassed, shamed in front of his guests for breaking a foolishly extravagant promise.
It’s tragic that that’s what kills the prophet John. But it happens all the time.
This is, perhaps, the gospel story that sounds the most like our nightly news: tragedy caused by a messy mix of resentments, anxieties, fears and divisions. And just like our daily headlines rarely feature healing forgiveness, there’s no gentle healing, no clean forgiveness of the sins in the story of Herod and John. But the good news that the Word of God persists, in spite of sin and murder, introduces the story without cleaning it up.
Herod’s reaction to that good news is worth paying attention to. His sense of haunting discomfort might even be familiar to many of us.
Think about it – have you ever done something you wish you hadn’t?
Raise your hand if you have never felt bad about a decision or an action.
Or if you’ve never hurt someone else without deliberately intending to.
So most of us know then, what regret feels like. How it can haunt you, like it haunts Herod, when something – even a good thing – reminds you of the damage you wish you hadn’t done.
But did you notice, today, that regret is not the end of the story? It’s where the story begins as we heard it today. Because the flip side of Herod’s haunting regret is the news we need to hear: that the stupid, mean, damaging, inattentive hurt we’ve done – our sins – cannot stop the Word of God, the healing and grace and power of God, from filling the world and growing stronger.
Jesus comes, bearing forgiveness and healing and inspiration and resurrection, not to erase our regrets, but to bring us into God’s story in the midst of them; into the working out of God’s purpose in the world, even while we’re still tangled in our messy human weakness.
Mark sets this messy story right in the middle of the mission of the disciples. It’s triggered by their going out in the world, full of power to heal and teach and invite joy. Then we recall the murder of John, followed immediately with the disciples coming to Jesus to report on their success in healing and spreading good news. I wonder if Mark wants us to see Herod – sinful, messy, broken Herod – in the midst of that good news, and to rejoice for him that he hasn’t killed the word of God.
Just as we should rejoice that none of the hurtful things you and I have done, or left undone – as we’ll confess together in a few minutes – can suppress or stop or even slow down the power and purpose of God in the world.
We confess our sins so that we can see that truth, and let go of the fear of guilt that holds us back from rejoicing in and sharing God’s redeeming purpose.
We confess our sins, and remember this messy gospel story, so that we can dance in the presence of God.
Just like David.
In the fragmented excerpt of his story that we read this morning, we hear about David dancing in the streets, and about the feasting, music and dance that celebrate bringing the Ark, the physical symbol of God’s presence, into Jerusalem. But when all the parts of that story are told, you notice that David’s dancing happens right in the midst of messy, petty, human sin.
There’s the embarrassment, the shame, that Michal feels at the sight of David’s naked exuberance, and that she tries to share with him, burdening the celebration with greasy human fears about status and pride.
And there’s the missing bit of today’s story: where the power of the Ark kills one of its bearers, and David abandons the symbol of God’s presence in someone else’s house out of fear, and doubt, and maybe guilt. The biblical historians aren’t as specific about David’s motivation as Mark is about Herod’s, but one notices that David is quick to head back to claim the ark for his own when it turns out that it’s reported to be showering its keeper with blessings.
But whether David’s triumphal claiming of the ark is motivated by relief of doubt and fear, or by normal human greed for free good things, for blessings, this story, like Herod’s story, is clear that neither human failings and sin, nor the fears and doubts that cause our wrongs, can stop the power and purpose of God from getting to where God wants them to go. And that dancing in the street – pure, exuberant celebration of the presence of God – is entirely appropriate, even in the presence of shame and doubt and sin.
None of us – or very very few of us – are free of regret, error, sin or fear. But none of that can stop or suppress or kill the power and purpose of God.
So it’s right, a good and joyful thing, to dance anyway, in the presence of God. It’s right to dance – or to sing, or laugh, or play or shout, however you express exuberant joy in God’s presence – in the midst of all that’s wrong. Because that exuberant celebration lets us turn our whole heart and being over to God, whose purpose and power cannot be stopped, by us, by evil, or by anything.