There’s an awful lot of dancing in our lessons this morning! David and the people dancing for joy as the Holy Ark is brought into Jerusalem. Salome, called Herodias in Mark’s gospel, dancing for Herod and twisting his heart in foolish ways.
The gospel lesson is difficult, isn’t it? It’s a snapshot of the relationship between Herod and John the Baptizer. Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, who rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem, Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, had married his sister-in-law, his brother wife. He was also her half-uncle. The Herods – Herod the Great and all of his sons – were part Jewish and lived according to Jewish Law when it suited them. John the Baptizer condemned Herod Antipas for marrying his sister-in-law and half-niece, so John was arrested. I love Mark’s description of their relationship: ‘Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.’
If only Herod hadn’t thrown that dinner. If only Salome had not danced. If only Herod hadn’t made his foolish promise to give her whatever she wanted. Perhaps Herod would have finally understood John. Perhaps he would have joined John in the Jordan River. Herod made a foolish promise and John the Baptizer lost his head.
And then Herod has such a guilty conscience that when he hears of all the healing that Jesus is doing, he’s convinced it’s John, come back to life.
Why does Mark put the story of John’s beheading right here in chapter 6? What is Mark telling us? What lesson ought we to learn from this passage?
Mark reminds of the deep cost of discipleship – John the Baptizer was doing everything exactly as he was supposed to. He was calling people to repentance, he was baptizing in the river Jordan, he supported his cousin Jesus in his ministry. John was doing everything right, he was a great disciple – Jesus says there is no disciple greater than John. And yet… John is thrown into prison and then beheaded. Being a good disciple does not guarantee a long and happy life. Being a good Christian does not guarantee good times.
Mark puts this story about the death of John in between the stories of sending the disciples out two by two and their return, which we’ll read about next week. It’s a reminder to us, to all disciples that following Jesus is a costly endeavor.
There are those who say that if we are faithful to God, we will receive everything we ask for from God. It’s the vending machine concept – we put in our faithfulness, our good works, and we get health and wealth from God. It’s really an ancient idea – the gods require sacrifices from us in order to protect and defend us.
Relationship with God is something quite different. Any Christian who tells you that Jesus wants you to be healthy, to make lots of money and to have an easy life, is telling you a lie. That’s not how it works. John the Baptizer did everything right and he was thrown in prison and then lost his life. Jesus did everything right and he was crucified. Why would we expect our lives to be remarkably different than John’s or Jesus’?
We are called to be disciples, we are called to follow Christ, not for what we can get from the relationship but because of what we have already received. We have received God’s gracious love and acceptance. We have received forgiveness for all the ways that we fall short. We stand redeemed, made holy through Jesus Christ and his saving work for us. We follow Christ because we know what we have received, because we are grateful, and because we want to be like Jesus. We want to walk the way he walked, live the way he lived, love the way he loved.
Salome dances and John the Baptizer loses his head. This is what it means to be a disciple.
Before you decide that being a disciple is all death and no fun, though, remember David dancing in our reading from Second Samuel. Joyful exuberance is also part of being a disciple. David and the people of Israel move their most sacred object – the Ark of the Covenant – that piece of furniture made for the Exodus journey. The rod of Moses is kept in the Ark. And the presence of God lives between the two cherubim that adorn the top of the Ark. During Samuel’s time, the Ark resided in Baale-judah, which you may know by its other name: Kiriath-jearim. Okay, it wasn’t kept in a large city, but Baale-judah was a safe place. Once David has unified the country under his rule, he moves the Ark into his capital city, Jerusalem, with much joy, dancing and feasting.
Dancing and feasting with joy is also part of discipleship. Every baptism, every confirmation, every marriage is a reason to dance and feast. God is good. God has blessed us. In our dancing and our feasting we find hope and strength for the difficult days.
Every week, when we come to the rail for communion, we are feasting, too. Not raisin cakes like David served – but the bread and the wine we share here is feast for the soul. We gain strength for the week ahead of us and we are reminded that this feast is just a glimpse of the great feasts we’ll celebrate with all of our friends and family in the kingdom of heaven, just a glimpse of the life to come.
The life of a disciple is not always an easy life. But I imagine that if we asked any of the Saints or Apostles or John the Baptizer they would tell us it’s worth it, it’s worth what it will cost us. May we understand those things God wants us to do, and may we have the grace and power to faithfully accomplish them. And may we find moments of joy as well. Amen.