TITLE: Bad News, Good News SCRIPTURE: Mark 6:14-29
If you didn't know anything about the Bible, you would probably think that it was full of goodness and light. The Bible does have plenty of goodness and light, but it never hesitates to tell it "like it was" -- warts and all.
We have plenty of "warts and all" in our Gospel lesson today. It tells about King Herod and his wife Herodias -- and Herodias' plot to kill John the Baptist -- and John's head being served on a platter at a royal banquet.
(NOTE TO THE PREACHER: Our text refers to both mother and daughter as Herodias, but Josephus, an early historian, refers to the mother as Herodias and the daughter as Salome. That is probably more detail than you need to include in your sermon, but you should be aware of it in case someone asks about it.)
Herodias hated John the Baptist because John had told her husband, Herod, that he had no business marrying her. It's a pretty seamy story. She had been married to Herod's brother, but had left him and married Herod.
John the Baptist rebuked Herod for that. "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife," he said. That made Herod's wife angry, and she wanted to kill John -- but Herod wouldn't let her.
Now comes the surprising part. It upset Herod when John told him that he shouldn't have married his brother's wife, but our scripture text says, "and yet (Herod) liked to listen to (John)" (v. 20).
Herod liked to listen to John! Why would that be? I believe that he liked to listen to John because he knew that John would tell him the truth. Like most rulers, Herod was surrounded by people who told him how wonderful he was -- how dashing he looked -- what a good decision he had made. He knew that he could never get the straight scoop from them.
In part, Herod loved flattery. We all love to hear how wonderful we are -- but there is something deep inside us that yearns to know what is really going on. At some point, we want to get past the flattery to hear the truth.
I believe that is what happened to Herod. He was weary of the boot-lickers who surrounded him. He saw that John was, first of all, a man of rock-solid integrity -- and secondly, a man of great wisdom. Herod was like a man who had eaten nothing but candy for a month. What he yearned for was steak -- baked potato -- salad -- something with substance. What Herod really yearned for was truth.
So John told him the truth. "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." And Herod listened! It bothered him, but he listened!
But then Herod had a big party. All his friends were there. They ate too much and drank too much and did the kinds of things that men do when they're drunk. Herod's daughter came in and danced a lewd dance -- and they loved it -- even Herod loved it. Any other father would have sent his daughter to her room without dinner, but Herod said, "Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it."
The girl recognized that this was a great opportunity, and didn't want to make a mistake. She went to her mother, and said, "What should I ask for?" Her mother replied, "The head of John the Baptist."
That would have been a stopper for most young girls, but not this one. She not only asked for the head of John the Baptist, but added, "on a platter."
So Herod, unwilling to let his guests see him break a promise, had John killed and his head brought on a platter -- one of the dinner courses -- a bloody head.
John's disciples heard about it, and buried John. End of story.
But I entitled this sermon, "Bad News, Good News." Where's the good news? The story of John the Baptist is embedded in the middle of another story -- the story of a successful preaching mission. That's where we find the good news -- in the other story.
Why would Mark interrupt a good news story to tell a bad news story? Why not tell one story to the end and then start the next one? Most scholars think that Mark did that to emphasize that God's good work continues even when terrible things are happening -- even when great Godly servants, like John, are dying.
The people who first read this Gospel needed to hear that, because they were suffering persecution. Horrific things were happening to Christians -- as horrific as a bloody head served on a platter. But when Christians read this story within a story, they could see the Gospel continuing its spread unabated, even in the midst of terrible things like martyred Christians. It gave them hope.
We too need hope. We too live in tough times. Our economy has tanked, and people have lost their jobs. We are at war in two places. Iran and North Korea either have nuclear weapons or will have soon. We live in a time when it is all too easy to lose hope.
But the story of the death of John the Baptist -- a "bad news" story set inside the story of the Gospel spreading -- reminds us that God is still at work in our world. Bad things might be happening -- terrible things -- but God and God's people will prevail.
We need to seek out good news stories -- faith stories -- God stories -- because we live in a world where bad news stories come at us from every angle. Every time we read a newspaper or check the Internet, we find ourselves swimming in bad news stories -- stories about crime and mayhem -- stories about evil regimes -- stories about bankruptcies and people out of work.
But those aren't the only stories. Those just happen to be the "bloody head on a platter" stories that get people's attention -- the lurid stories that sell newspapers -- the sensational stories that attract eyeballs to web sites.
There are other stories out there -- stories of faith triumphing over adversity -- stories of people helping people -- stories of parents raising up children in the way that they should go -- good news stories that build us up rather than tearing us down. We need to hear them. We need to seek them out. We need to be reminded that there are still good news stories -- that God is still at work in our world -- and that God will ultimately prevail.
You have heard people say, "You are what you eat!" -- and, in a sense, that is true. If we eat healthy foods, we are likely to have healthy bodies. If we specialize in foods made of sugar and refined flour, we are not likely to have healthy bodies.
The same is true for our hearts and souls. If we consume bad news stories 24/7, we can expect to be depressed and miserable. If we seek out good news stories -- the stories that nourish and encourage -- we can expect to have healthy hearts and souls.
Pastor Fred Craddock tells of visiting a woman in the hospital. He hadn't seen her in church for a long time, but she was worried and asked him to visit. When he walked into her hospital room, he saw that there was no Bible on her nightstand. Instead, he saw a stack of junk magazines -- movie star romances-- that kind of thing -- not a spiritual calorie in the whole bunch. "No wonder she is panic stricken!" he thought. "She has no spiritual resources to deal with the storms of life!"
What about you? I know that you are swimming in a sea of bad news stories, because newspapers and television and the Internet are full of bad news stories. But I would like to encourage you to seek out good news stories -- stories of faith -- stories that show God is at work in our world -- stories that remind us that God will ultimately triumph.
That's one of the benefits of coming to worship. The scriptures and the Lord's Supper and the sermons remind us that God is at work in our world and in our lives.
That's one of the benefits of participating of fellowship groups, to get acquainted with other Christians. That's one of the benefits of getting involved in a Bible study group or youth group or Sunday school class. When we rub elbows with other Christians, their faith rubs off on us and our faith rubs off on them.
That's one of the benefits of reading the Bible. The Bible is full of bad news/good news stories -- stories where God triumphs over evil.
That's one of the benefits of reading Christian periodicals like Guideposts, Our Daily Bread, or other Christian periodicals. It's one of the benefits of reading Christian books -- a trip to the Christian bookstore might be in order.
That's one of the benefits of doing good things for others. When we help another person, we are reminded that we are God's people -- and we are reminded of what God and God's people can accomplish.
This week, as we go into a world of bad news stories, let us seek out good news stories. Let us remind ourselves that God is at work in our lives and in our world. Let us live in the fervent hope that God will prevail -- and that, by God's grace, all will be well.
HYMN STORY: Lead On, O King Eternal
When Ernest Shurtleff's seminary class was preparing for their graduation, they turned to Ernest, who had written two volumes of poetry, and asked him to write a hymn for their graduation ceremony. He wrote "Lead on, O King Eternal" for that occasion.
This hymn is really a prayer -- a prayer for God's guidance. It speaks of marching and "fields of conquest" and "battle song" -- not because it celebrates war, but because it acknowledges the daily struggle in which good people must engage against evil. It looks forward to the celebration of victory -- not with clashing swords and stirring drums, but with "deeds of love and mercy" -- acknowledging that Christ calls us to conquer the world by demonstrating love and showing mercy rather than by using force.
This hymn acknowledges the difficulties of the Christian life -- standing armed only with holiness against "sin's fierce war. It acknowledges the reality of the cross, but celebrates the reality of the crown -- the reward of those who are faithful -- and closes, "Lead on, O God of might!"