2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19; Psalm 24; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29
This story of John the Baptist is a bit curious, isn’t it? It is dramatic, full of tragedy and confusion, and foreshadows in a very obvious way the passion and death of Jesus Christ. He was the voice crying out in the wilderness to prepare the way of Jesus. He identifies Jesus (in John’s Gospel), as the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. He baptized Jesus and may have been related to Jesus, too. And he preached a message like Jesus to repent, as we discussed last week: to reorient our lives around God thorough the mercy of Jesus. And, interestingly, the story of John the Baptist’s martyrdom is the only story in Mark that is not about Jesus or His disciples. John’s story reminds us that Jesus came to confront earthly power, injustice, and sin, all seen on display through Herod and in his wife/daughter in Mark.
The story of John: his father’s visitation by the angel; his father’s muteness; his father speaking for the first time in months to name him John, no family name, but his own unique one (meaning, in Hebrew Yochanan, God is gracious). His leaping as his mother meets a pregnant Mary, carrying the Christ-child. There is so much hope, so much light, so much promise and joy rushing forth at his birth. Isn’t there nearly always when a child is born?
Then, we see him on the desert plain, yelling, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make his paths straight.” And he is eating weird food and wearing strange clothes and most renderings or paintings of him are of the wild-eyed prophet with crazy hair. John, and this is important, shows us how hard it often is to announce the way of the Lord, calling folks to a reordering of their lives around the Risen One, and speaking truth and honesty, even when most don’t want to hear it. The Baptist puts it all on the line, not sparing even the powerful Herod Antipas who can have him killed and, ultimately, does so, even if he feels a little bit guilty about it. The life that began with such promise and hope seems to go worse than nowhere; it ends in violent abruptness…kind of like someone else we could name?
How is this story of John meant to unsettle us? How is Mark warning us of the abuse of power but not for its own sake, not simply to scare us or to encourage us to become more politically aware. Mark tells us John’s story, in part at least, by letting us know that God in Christ would have it another way? Because Jesus calls us to adoption as children of God, He would have us to love others, to collapse on the world the kindness, compassion, and hope that Christ brings with him. John the Baptist was the advance cry of change but it is, of course, Jesus himself who shows us the way to promise, to do more than reorient our lives to God. Jesus will tell us that the God of blessing would have us be entirely his and, if we are all to be His children, there is no room for some to be His and others to not be. We are all made his through the lavish gift of salvation that is the blood and body of Jesus.
The story of John is a story about the abuse of power, the inherent evil of a seduction that would have us look to please the world, rather than to seek relationship with each other in Christ. Herod could have spared John; it was within his power and he seemed taken with John, smitten with his message of repentance even though John was often attacking him. Yet, he was ultimately more enamored with his seductive stepdaughter and the appearance of weakness in front of his guests. He could have saved John but he wanted to save face more. The world can be a seductive place but it can also be one of incredible courage and hope; John was a prisoner to the hope that Jesus might represent, even though he did not live long enough to see it. How can we be prisoners of the hope of Jesus’ promise?
The prophet Zechariah proclaims:
Return to your fortress,
O you prisoners of hope;
even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you.
Sounds a lot like the Psalmist today who cries out:
They shall receive a blessing from the Lord *
and a just reward from the God of their salvation."
Such is the generation of those who seek him, *
of those who seek your face, O God of Jacob.
Lift up your heads, O gates;
lift them high, O everlasting doors; *
and the King of glory shall come in.
Return to your fortress, O you prisoners of hope…
The promise of God has always been predicated on the willingness to God’s people to enter into hope with God, to trust that God would, in the end, be with us and save us. The Advent of Jesus, His coming into the world, ramped up that hope to place never before seen because, now, God was with us, living in hope with us. A prison house seems very far removed from hope, a place where only darkness and the threat of violence can reign. Survival may be possible but the survival of hope cannot be abided. Did John have hope in his prison cell before Herod sent his guard down to kill him? To strip him of his last measure of dignity? To bring his head on a platter, in total humiliation? My guess is that John did live in hope. He had lived to see the Messiah with his own eyes and to proclaim him with his own lips. John, my great guess would be, was a prisoner of hope – the bars that formed around his heart were forged by God – the unbreakable bond that trusting in God, turning to God for help, and accepting God’s grace can give us. It does not always bring us to the ending we imagined for ourselves. But, if we refuse to give in to the darkness, the light of hope will carry us, always, into the light of God’s presence, in the end.
Ends in destruction and violence, seemingly the end of his story; much like crucifixion would seem to be the end of Jesus’ story
It reminds us not that all ends in loss and failure and death, but that we are called to live a different way: as prisoners of hope.
Annunciation to a childless couple; muteness of disbelief; his name is John meet Jesus – joy; prophetic voice that blazes the trail. Incredible light and message of repentance.
But it all comes to nothing, as darkness descends in the form of political power, and it all ends in abrupt and predictable violence. Power doesn’t want to listen to repentance; power likes the world just the way it is.
John and the message of hope; where is it?
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.
Where do you find room to exercise hope? Are we willing to speak on hope’s behalf, even if it isn’t popular?
Shawshank and the message of hope. Hope can be perceived as a dangerous thing, pie in the sky kind of thinking, setting us up as suckers for a world that wants to make hope an impossibility.
How can we live in a world without hope? How can we, in Jesus, be prisoners to hope?