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Sermons

The Beheading of John the Baptist

September 30, 2012

Bible Reading

King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for 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.

But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

(Mark 6:14-29)

Reading from Swedenborg

When we understand some true idea but we don’t will it at the same time, it is not a truth for us, no matter how much it seems to be. If our will is bent on doing harm, good and truth stand far apart. But if our will is for some good, however unclear that seems, they are not separate but linked together, even though the order in which they stand is reversed, with truth leading good rather than good leading truth; because that is the way in which we begin to be regenerated.

The reason why “the neck” means “what joins together” is that higher things that belong to the head communicate with lower things that belong to the body by means of the neck. So, influx and communication, and therefore union, are meant by what is in between. This will be seen far more clearly when we look at the correspondences of heaven with the various parts of the human body. And because “the neck” has this meaning of connection and union, the phrase “bands around the neck” therefore means the cutting off and therefore the destruction of truth, which happens when spiritual things that are continually flowing in from the Lord are no longer allowed to pass into the rational part of a person’s mind, nor, as a consequence, into the natural part of their life.

(Arcana Coelestia 3542)

Sermon

And Herod sent an executioner and commanded that his head should be brought. And he went and beheaded him in prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. (Mark 6:27-28)

I’m going to take us into what must be one of the oddest parts of the gospels: the story of John the Baptist being beheaded. There it is, in all its grisly detail. You could be forgiven for asking, “What’s that got to do with anything?” It’s like when a radio cricket commentator suddenly starts talking, during a boring five minutes, about a new shin-pad design, and you think, “Oh, come on, get on with the match! I’m not here for that.” But just as shin pads do have quite a lot to do with cricket—at least, far more than the blueberry muffins the commentator was talking about earlier—so this beheading of John the Baptist has a great deal to do with the overall flow of the gospel story, which of course is not about John but about Jesus Christ. Nothing, absolutely nothing, in the gospels is a side issue or a bit of padding to fill out the chapter!

When we look at anything in the gospels, we are looking at the growth and development of love—the Lord’s love for us and our love for the Lord—and what we do as a result of that love. That’s what it’s all about. It’s a union. It’s a meeting up. It’s ultimately a relationship we have.

But it’s also a process. We do not (usually) read something in the gospels and feel that we are going to definitely start following the Lord, loving the Lord, from now on. We don’t make that kind of decision. If anything, it’s the Lord who makes that decision on our behalf, perhaps seeing that we are ready for a new awakening. So the Lord moves us up and onto a level of feeling that just wasn’t there before.

What normally happens is that we are aware of, say, half a dozen general spiritual ideas that we have grown up with or come across. Those ideas sit inside our heads, and we can think about them, turn them over, take one and look at it, put it back again, and feel that we have some kind of helpful belief base. But up to this point, we don’t really feel them. We know them, we have them. “There is a God. There’s heaven (and there’s hell). God runs everything. God gives us the Bible. I am meant to be good and do some good. I have a part of me which isn’t very good.” And so on. Which one shall I take out and look at, or maybe use in some way?

That level is very much like John the Baptist. If you know the gospels fairly well, you’ll know that John comes before Jesus, baptizes people (and if that isn’t an introduction, what is?), and says, “One comes after me who is greater than I”—that’s Jesus—“and I must decrease, and He will increase.” And, about halfway through the gospel, John gets beheaded and is never mentioned again, because from now on it’s all about Jesus.

If I can run that sequence a bit more abstractly, you first have truth—which is really all about love or good, almost like a signpost for it—but when the love or good comes into its own because of what the truth did, then the truth isn’t so important now, and it can move to the sidelines. John can give way to Jesus. Thinking about something gives way to being and doing it.

Except for one thing. John the Baptist doesn’t do his bit and then take a long service leave. He gets beheaded. Decapitated. “Off with his head!”

And suddenly—and this is why it seems so odd to us—you are in the middle of the biggest political intrigue possible. Herod is the king. Well, actually, Herod is the puppet-king installed by the Romans to keep everyone quiet. There he is when the wise men ask, “Where is he who is born king of the Jews?”

“Eh, what’s that, king of the Jews? I am king of the Jews!” And he massacres all the Israelite baby boys under age two to make sure of his position. Later, he throws John into prison.

Do you remember hearing recently a report that they are pretty sure they’ve found the actual tomb of Herod? Herod really existed. He’s historical. A first-century historian called Josephus writes all about it. One of the important things about the gospels is that they are set in the context of actual history. These things happened. They’re verifiable. Here’s the first verse of Luke chapter 3: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, Herod being Tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip being Tetrarch of Iturea, and Lysanias Tetrarch of Abilene, and Annas and Caiaphas being high priests, the word of God came to John (the Baptist) in the wilderness.”

Whoa, that’s history! And don’t ever think otherwise.

But the relevance for us isn’t the history, of course (that just tells us it’s for real). The relevance is that, as well as this interplay of John (truth) giving way to Jesus (love), there’s the third ingredient, which is our ego, our natural resistance to any change. “Where is he who is born king of the Jews?” “What’s that? I’m king of the Jews.” We all have our Herod, who’s installed to “keep the peace”—and to keep it at all costs.

So Herod, hearing things about Jesus, thinks Jesus is John the Baptist risen from the dead (“Didn’t I get rid of him?”). Then the narrative rewinds into this amazing political-intrigue tale of how Herod’s family (our egos are so complex!) arranged John’s demise. That would suit Herod, because John knew that Herod had committed adultery with his brother’s wife, Herodias. But Herodias wanted to get rid of John even more (out of spite, rage, jealousy, revenge?). She bided her time. Herodias stands for the emotional aspects of our egos. Herod represents the way our egos justify and rationalize things.

So, it came to Herod’s birthday and a feast, and Herodias’s daughter came and danced. Let’s just say it might have been a very voluptuous dance— sinewy curves, scantily clad, extremely titillating. Because, you see, since everything has meaning, our ego also has a very sensuous, earthy side to it. Ego is so attractive, beckoning, inviting, bewitching—like beautiful Salome. How can you ever resist it? Herod is delighted and, like a fool, promises her whatever she asks.

The trap is set. Salome (the sensual) asks her mother Herodias (the deep ego passion), “Mummy, what shall I ask him to give me?” Herodias says, “Mmm, the head of John the Baptist.” The rest you know.

This strange account of beheading John the Baptist is an incredible statement about ego resistance. You could run a whole weekend course on the topic—how the ego plots and schemes, fears, dances, enchants, and finally pounces for the kill. We never know what games our egos are up to, maybe even right now! We just have to know that our egos are always up to something, admit it, and watch them like hawks.

The end result, of course, is the death of John, and Herod thinking Jesus is John come back to life. Of course, he is, on one level. You can conveniently kill the truth, but love is a much harder opponent to defeat. It will take the combined forces of the Roman Empire, Herod, the chief priests, and a misled, frustrated crowd to get rid of Jesus. And then Jesus rises again, because love is like that if you choose love’s way. A friend’s husband once walked out on her, and she said to us through tears, “He can do that. He can do anything, but he can’t stop me loving him.”

I want to end with a comment about John being beheaded. We’ve seen that John heralds Jesus and then moves off the scene. We’ve seen that John, like truth, comes first so that the ground is prepared for love, which is Jesus. The danger for us is that we want to keep truth in isolation as information, as ideas to turn over and speculate about, rather than go and do what the truth is urging. We can only isolate truth by beheading it, axing it at the neck, and holding it up severed from the body. “See my truth!” But of course it’s dead. It’s dead because it had been joined at the neck, the nexus. Head and heart. Heart and head. Head, heart, and hands.

In the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus says that when the prodigal son came to himself and decided to return home (become whole), while he was still a great way off, his father (the Lord) saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck, and kissed him. Amen.

Prayer

Forgive us, O Lord, when we listen, but do not hear;

When we look, but do not see;

When we feel, but do not act;

And by your mercy and grace draw us into the righteous deeds of your Kingdom of justice and peace,

Through Jesus Christ our Lord.

- Maria Hare (1798-1870)

Rev. Julian Duckworth