What shall I ask for?

Mark 6: 14-29, from the Question Mark series of talks?

The story of the death of John the Baptist

Today’s question looks a nice one, but unfortunately it has a nasty answer – and a very unpleasant outcome. What shall I ask for? Says the dancing girl in the story, who has been promised a reward for her dancing – and she can have anything she likes…

We are asking questions this term. Questions that arise from the account of Jesus’ life written into the Gospel of Mark. The stories are remembered by Peter, the apostle, fisherman and best friend of Jesus. I have not attempted to order the questions by topic, but just accepted them as they arise in the sequence of the chapters.

Today’s story is about the beheading of John the Baptist. The dancing girl asks for the beheading of the holy man, John the Baptist. A suggestion given to her by her mother.

Shocking though it is, I believe that we can learn from the story – and it is totally relevant to today – bearing in mind the news items that we have stunned us in recent months – news items of horrendous behaviour to individual people across the world.

We have seen ideology and extremism wrapped up in violence and hatred, human being to human being. So we might say that ‘there is nothing new under the sun.’

And, as Christians, we do have something to reflect on that is embedded in our faith – our faith rooted in the reality of our broken world – and rooted and established on the strong foundation of God’s love and power revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.

So we do not lose hope, despite the sharpness and shock of news stories, of the history of humanity, and even our personal sorrows

I will be speaking about 3 points today

1.   The potential nastiness of human nature revealed

2.   We have freedom in God’s world to make our own choices

3.   The impact of a godly life

Point 1 - The potential nastiness of human nature revealed

The Bible story tells it as it is. If you have any doubt about the value of reading the Bible, this story actually gives it to us. The full reality of human life described without hiding things.

If we were to open our pew Bibles at the first page, we would read these words…

Genesis 1:27-28

So God created humankind in his image
Male and female he created them
God blessed them …                     and it was good.

And humanity is given the responsibility to care for the earth, to name the animals, to walk in the garden with God – as a friend, companion, without fear

And then things go completely wrong when human freedom to choose is limited by God, but human beings demand absolute free choice – including that which is harmful. The results are the breakdown of relationship between God and humanity, the breakdown of relationship between man and woman, and between humanity and the earth.

Whatever we believe about how this came about, (I have no time to discuss today, the origins of evil, the creation order), the Bible portrays the end result as discord, disunity, fear, and spiritual death.

What do you and I think about that, I wonder?

I personally would prefer not to think about the bleak stories of our history, and the depressing news items. But they are real and at some point in our lives, I guess that each and every one of us will experience something unpleasant done to us by a friend, colleague or family member;

and perhaps is it not only me who is sad for the times when I have caused upset to another person by my behaviour.

Here is a poem that describes our capacity for self-deception a poem written for children – but for us too! A poem written by Steve Turner, published in

‘I was only asking’, © 2004, Lion Publishing.

Hitting is not really hitting
It’s pushing with a little more clout.
White lies are not really white lies;
They’re truths
With some bits taken out.

Nasty is not really nasty;
It’s telling
Facts people can’t face.
Shouting is not really shouting;
It’s talking
With more volume and bass.

Cheating is not really cheating;
It’s taking
What you think you deserve.
Gossip is not really gossip;
It’s sharing
Some things that you’ve heard.

Stealing is not really stealing;
It’s finding
What fell off a shelf.
Naughty is not really naughty;
It’s just being
True to yourself.                                By Steve Turner


Jesus of Nazareth was quite clear, that it is not only external things that are nasty in our lives, but the stuff that comes out of our own hearts – see later in the Gospel of Mark chapter 7:21-22, no amount of washing the outside of our bodies, says Jesus, will deal with the inner discord:

Evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, envy, slander, arrogance and folly

Nice list – yuk – do I need to say more?

This is why when we come into God’s presence, when we worship him, Sunday by Sunday, we usually begin with a time of reflection and saying sorry to God, the confession in our worship.

The reality of brokenness is there in our hearts and we can ask God for help every single week


So the potential nastiness of human nature is revealed in this story about John the Baptist


Point 2 – We have freedom in God’s world to make our own choices


In the story, Herod has chosen to marry his brother’s wife, while his brother is still living


(the story behind it is deeply entangled – it became a saying in the Jewish community ‘it is safer to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son’, because Herod the Great bumped off so many of his relatives; )


Herod Antipas had married Herodias, his brother Herod Philip’s wife,

He had broken the Jewish law, and outraged the laws of decency and morality. Salome was the daughter of Herod Phil and Herodias.


Herodias was the daughter of Herod Antipas’s half brother and therefore his niece

Herodias was also the wife of his half brother Herod Philip and therefore his sister-in-law

(William Barclay)



This family were seemingly making a series of bad choices


Salome the girl in the story chooses to dance at the birthday party of her relative Herod Antipas. It pleases him. He is probably a bit overcome with alcohol as well as the general environment of excess.

He says she can choose anything she likes as a thank you present.

She asks Herodias – who does not like John the Baptist – says to have his head on a platter – and Salome goes along with it


I don’t really need to elaborate at length on this series of bad choices

Mixed in here I think are

fickle decisions from being drunk

Inappropriate relationships

And then for Herod, who respects John the Baptist, a choice nevertheless to allow for the violence against John, because presumably Herod cares more about the opinions of the party-goers than the morality of such a violent act


Is it pride in his position and their regard of his companions that overtakes any sense of shock or horror at the ethics of choosing a beheading as a present at a birthday party?


And the reasoning behind the choice of Herodias?

As God’s prophet of the day, John the Baptist has challenged the family about their lifestyle


So bad choices – bad actions – and the story recorded for all time


Alternatively we have good choices – but they don’t lead to an easy life


John the Baptist

Set apart from childhood

The forerunner of Jesus of Nazareth

In the desert with locusts and honey

And hair shirts

Baptising all who want to begin a new life with God’s forgiveness and blessing


He does not mince his words and keeps it up, even when it hurts, to Herod: ‘it is not right that you take your brother’s wife’


& so John is put in prison, in Machaerus, on a lonely ridge, the fortress of Herod, surrounded by ravines, on the east side of the Dead Sea. A grim dungeon. As a tourist I believe that you can visit it today. It is on the opposite side of the Dead Sea to Masada (that we have visited).


His holy life of good choices, is not always loved and respected.

His holy life of integrity, is too disturbing

John is suffering, not for his own sinfulness, but for the bad choices of others;


Does this happen in today?

We know that it does. Many good people suffer undeserved treatment, actually because they are people of integrity and people of generosity, which challenges and disturbs others in revealing the wrong attitudes and choices underlying their own lives


So what are we to take away?


Point 1 – the potential nastiness of human nature revealed

Point 2 – we have freedom in God’s world to make our own choices

Point 3 – the impact of a Godly life


Firstly, at the beginning of our reading, we heard that when this same Herod heard about all the healings, good teaching and miracles of Jesus of Nazareth, he assumed that this was John the Baptist raised from the dead


In other words, John had such an excellent reputation in Herod’s own mind, that the good things of the ministry of JESUS were the same as the good things he associated with JOHN


Jesus also held John in such high regard that when he heard of the death of John, he withdrew for quiet prayer, and he said these words:

Matthew 11:11, “I tell you the truth, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist



You may like to know that every single day in the Anglican service of Morning Prayer (here is an advert! 8.15am in the Chapel – just sit and be with us if you like – no need to say anything or pray aloud; we love having company)


Every day we say these words of the Benedictus:


And you child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation, by the forgiveness of all their sins.” From Luke 1.


It is all about John the Baptist and his work – coming ahead of Jesus – and speaking of forgiveness of sins


How brilliant is that?

What would we all like to be remembered for, I wonder?

So even though he was in prison; even though he lost his life through a drunken birthday party and bad choices of people seriously compromised in their lifestyle

John remains a hero and will be remembered for that


This is maybe still not a full answer to our dissatisfaction with the portrayal of the story?


Or to the problem of evil human choices represented in the story?


So I finish with the story of Jesus of Nazareth.

He too offered healing, forgiveness, new life, food at picnics, a team to belong to, hope in eternity, prayed to a heavenly Father who loves, provides daily bread. He too was not accepted in his goodness.

He too suffered death, but not at a birthday party – but on a cross, and here on our church wall is the crucifix that tells the story


And this was not the end.


The horrendous reality of our human brokenness

And the ugliness of our choices were not the end


Jesus has risen from the dead

Jesus is alive today – our Saviour and our Lord

The story did not end with the cross

Jesus rose from the dead and lives for eternity

He is interceding for us


Peter in his first letter: Chapter 1 v 18-19

For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver and gold that you Christians were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down by your forefathers, but you were redeemed (rescued, given forgiveness and a new start) by the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.


Paul’s letter to the Colossians he says:

God the Father has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the Kingdom of the Son he loves in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. Colossians 1:13-14


In Christ, God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. Colossians 1:19-20


Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour, but now God has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation, if you continue in your faith. Colossians 1:21-23a


Jesus’ own words:

The Son of Man has come not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many,” Mark 10:45



Corrie Ten Boom: A lady imprisoned with her father and sister in a Nazi prison camp during the Second World War because she had cared for the Jewish refugees; despite her unjust suffering she knew the love of God and these words of hers are often quoted:


‘There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still’


‘God takes our sins

– the past – the present – the future –

and dumps them in the sea

and puts up a sign, saying

‘No fishing!’



The story for us today need not end with human brokenness. But with hope.


Jesus Christ is risen. We celebrate his giving of himself and his demonstration of power over evil and his forgiveness of sin.


Let’s live in his story.



Forgiven people.

We can come here again to receive his blessing and a new start with his new life


Marion de Quidt, Sunday 12th July 2015, St John the Evangelist, Hook


Thank you to authors for resources used for this sermon:back

Steve Turner, ‘I was only asking’, © 2004, Lion Publishing.
William Barclay, the New Daily Study Bible © 2001, St Andrew Press
The New International Study Bible, © 1993, The International Bible Society