This week we are handed the awful story of the beheading of John the Baptist. And we can ask where is God in this passage?
John, the messenger who helps pave the way for the Messiah has been mercilessly executed; an act of revenge. The account is doubly vile, in that a child, the daughter of Herodias is used as a pawn in the scheme. While in the very public company of guests, Herod promises the child anything she requests. She runs to her mother to seek what she should ask for. And now the vengeful intentions of her mother overpower the words of Herod’s promise. The request is for John’s head. Herod is constrained by his own words, his own pride. A prophet has been lost. And a child has lost her innocence. She has not become aware of her subjugation… and may not for some time (lest she realize the power of her words when hefting John’s heavy head on a platter for her mother).
The power of words.
I keep thinking of this girl, the power of her words, and the regret. Regret is apparent in the very first lines of the passage in the voice of Herod who believes that this Jesus (he is hearing about) must be John now “raised.” It is an odd way to consider resurrection or reincarnation because Jesus is a full grown man. But what begins to become clear – and what Herod may have meant, is that John’s POWER has been raised. From here on out, Jesus’ ministry begins to take shape. John the Baptist was the one who has prepared the way. If you remember: the beginning of the Gospel of Mark (our earliest Gospel) begins by Jesus being baptized by John:
The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way”—
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”
And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him.
This is Mark 1-5. Powerful Words.
John is preaching about repentance. Yesterday I was listening to author Jason Reynolds and Krista Tippet in a discussion about the power of words. Krista brings up the word repentance, reminding us that it is about turning: changing our ways, and turning. She reminds us that in the Greek and the Hebrew, “the word is kinetic. The word actually is about stopping in your tracks and walking another way…”
In our story, the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to John the Baptist. They are seeking a new way: a new way of forgiveness and turning to God.
Krista and Jason Reynolds bring this conversation forward into our own time while we look to find repentance, reparation, and forgiveness in our country. Reynolds encourages us to seek a new way. He acknowledges we all get caught up in our insular busy worlds; moving from work, to school, to home, to store, to church….but then he asks us: “What if you were to explore – to speak to your neighbor…
…what if you were to walk the other way? What if you were to explore the places around you? What if you were to speak to your neighbor and to figure out how to strike a conversation with a person you’ve never met? What if you were to try to walk into a situation, free of preconceived notion, just once? Once a day, just walk in and say, “I don’t know what’s going to happen, and let’s see. Let me give this person the benefit of the doubt — to be a human.”
As Krista says: this makes repentance sound “manageable.”
While the figures in the Gospel are consumed and constrained by their own words and the power of their words, so too we should consider our own forms of narrative, history, story and the power of words that have moved us to make meaning, false meanings and constraints, and now perhaps remake understanding as we work on repentance.
The Power of Words.
Jason Reynolds goes on to tell us that it is narrative that brought us racism. In the 1400s Gomes Eanes de Zurara helped proliferate the notion of just slavery through his writings. Although he was not the first racist, he was able through his writings to justify slavery in Europe as a way of civilizing and Christianizing Africans. This is a negative example of the power of words. It is imagination gone haywire, and ruthless, and vengeful, and subjugating. It is false story that becomes internalized and lived for centuries. Yet, as Reynolds so faithfully suggests, “Imagination can set off 400 years of something wrong… but imagination can also set of 400 years of something right.”
Jesus is for us an icon of our greatest imaginings; of what is possible in God: the path of peace. The Messiah, our salvation, is when as the psalmist says this week, “Mercy and truth have met together;
righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven.”
Although we cannot change the past, we “innocents” of today can be raised out of our subjugation, raised into the power of our full life in Christ if we stop in our tracks, turn to our neighbor as Jesus commissioned, and discover that here is where God is.