Mark 6:14-29 14 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some said, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” 15 But others said, “He is Elijah.” And others said, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” 17 For it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. 18 For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, 20 for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly. 21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. 22 For when Herodias’s daughter 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 to you.” 23 And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.” 24 And she went out and said to her mother, “For what should I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist.” 25 And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26 And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. 27 And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison 28 and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.
Grace be to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The Zombie business is staggeringly successful these days. Zombies used to come out only on Halloween, but now they’re mainstream. Monster High, a line of Zombie dolls, games, and clothing accessories, makes the living dead fashionable and cool. Past slogans include “Freaky just got fabulous” and, more recently, “Where screams come true.” Brad Pitt took zombies to the big screen in 2012 with World War Z, which grossed over $540 million in ticket sales.
We human beings throughout the ages have been curiously fascinated with death. It’s both mysterious and frightening. Science and common human experience tell us the mechanics of death. The body simply stops working. The organs shut down. The body goes absolutely unresponsive.
But then, there’s that mysterious side of things. Is there nothing more after death? Can the body be made alive again? Wonder and curiosity abound. For centuries, people have imagined the dead coming back to life through the use of extraordinary powers. Zombies, the living dead, originated in cultures heavily influenced by voodoo. Western cultures, including ours, are influenced by the Greek and Roman myths surrounding Persephone, the goddess queen of the underworld who is released from the doom of Hades in the spring only to return to death in the fall. The hope underlying all these stories and myths, both ancient and modern, is that death is not the end.
Today’s Gospel demonstrates that the Jews of the first century certainly believed that death wasn’t the end. According to v 14, many were saying that John the Baptist had been raised from the dead in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. That, they thought, was where Jesus’ extraordinary power to perform miracles came from; he’s John raised from the dead!
Herod Antipas, son of the infamous Herod the Great whom the Maji visited and who killed the babies in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill Jesus, certainly believed that Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead (v 16). Such a thought couldn’t have been very comforting to him. Herod had had John beheaded as a result of a foolish promise made during a debased, drunken feast (vv 22–28). People with a guilty conscience will often do and think strange things.
Herod’s guilty conscience really began before John entered the picture; v 17 describes the scandalous love affair between Herod and Herodias, which led to an even more scandalous marriage. Herodias was married to Herod’s brother, Philip. Tradition records that Herod seduced Herodias and then convinced her to divorce Philip and marry him. Herod seduced his brother’s wife and married her in view of all the world.
John the Baptist, that fiery desert preacher of repentance, would not countenance such an incestuous affair. “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife” (v 18). John does what all faithful prophets and preachers of God must do: proclaim God’s unrelenting Law in all its force and severity regardless of the position, power, and influence of the person. Like Nathan, that famous prophet of old who looked King David in the face and declared, “You are the man who deserves to die for committing adultery only to murder the woman’s husband to cover the sin,” so John declares the stench such actions were before the Lord God.
Repent, O man, O woman, O child! It’s not lawful for you to have other gods, misuse the Lord’s name, despise His Word and Sacraments, dishonor parents and other authorities, murder your neighbor with hatred and envy, lust after sexual intimacy with someone not given to you by God as husband or wife, steal by taking what isn’t yours or by not giving what you rightfully owe, destroying your neighbor’s good name and reputation under the pious pretense of “speaking the truth,” or desiring anything or anyone the Lord hasn’t given to you. The Law speaks loudly even to you Christians. “It is not lawful . . .”
A guilty conscience arises from thoughts, words, and deeds that violate God’s Law. Herod knew his sin with Herodias. And he also knew John “was a righteous and holy man” (v 20). Herod’s conflicted, guilty conscience led him to follow the murderous madness of his wife’s rage in having John imprisoned (v 17). But Herod also protected him and even gladly heard him (v 20). Odd, don’t you think? Herod gladly hears the man he wrongfully imprisons, the very same man telling him that living and eating and sleeping with Herodias is an offense to God.
It doesn’t make sense. But then again, sin is a maddening violation of what is good, true, and beautiful. Sin seldom makes sense. It’s not without reason that the apostle Paul laments his sinful condition in Rom 7:22–24: “For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Within the same man, faith and unbelief, the desire for sin and the desire for righteousness all coexist.
Who will deliver us from the living death of a guilty conscience? For once we were just like King Herod. We were born into sin and were held captive by our sinful nature. Now, the same man whom Herod thought was John the Baptist returned from the dead: Jesus, the miracle worker from Nazareth. Through your baptismal connection to Jesus, you are delivered from bondage to sin and freed from death, sealed with the promised Holy Spirit. No longer are you walking in the futility of a sinful mind that is neither alive to God nor at home in this fallen world. You have “heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation” (Eph 1:13). In Jesus, you are made new and alive again. Peace with God and man is restored.
The tragic death of John the Baptist powerfully and prophetically proclaims the mission and ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ. The disgust we feel over Herod and Herodias’s scandalous and incestuous marriage should serve as a warning for us. Sin is corrosive—not just sexual sin, but any and every violation of God’s good and Holy Law. We must not allow ourselves the luxury of thinking that such sordid sins happen to others. Within each of us is a world of sins. You once walked according to the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind like the rest of mankind (Ephesians 2:1-3). But the Lord Jesus came to save you from them through his life, death, and resurrection. Daily we pray “thy will be done” in the hope and confidence that God our Father “breaks and hinders every evil plan and purpose of the devil, the world, and our sinful nature, which do not want us to hallow God’s name or let His kingdom come” (Small Catechism, explanation of the Third Petition).
The death John suffers was prophecy in action, pointing to Jesus’ pending death. Our Lord would not die under the order of Herod, though Herod was complicit (Lk 23:6–16). Jesus died under a different government official, Pontius Pilate, who likewise declared his victim innocent and righteous, only to cower under pressure from others. The disciples of John took the body of their martyred master “and laid it in a tomb” (v 29). Joseph of Arimathea, a fearful disciple of Jesus, would take the Lord’s crucified body from Pilate and lay him in a tomb. John lived and died in prophecy to the mission and ministry of Jesus.
The joyous difference between the prophecy, John the Baptist, and the prophecy’s fulfillment, the Lord Jesus, is that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day in order to destroy the power of death and the devil (Heb 2:14), to give us justification unto eternal life (Rom 4:25), and to wash our consciences clean (Heb 10:22), to deliver you from the power of sin and free you from walking in the course of this world in obedience to the prince of this world. He give you a new life, now, in this world. You are being renewed in a life like His. A life in Christ to walk in his love and forgiveness and to invite the rest of the world into his light and deliver him from the ruler of this world.
So many in our world are fascinated with the foolishness of a living dead. But this is real:
Our Dear Lord Is Not Part of the Living Dead;
Rather He Is Death’s Living Conqueror.
Because Jesus lives, you live—pure, clean, holy in the sight of God’s heavenly host. Connected to the Lord’s death in Baptism, you are likewise living recipients of his resurrection life.
Death is not the end. The stain of sin and a guilty conscience are never permanent. The Lord Jesus lives and reigns to all eternity in order to give you his undying life. Live well, dear saints, in the joy and peace of Jesus’ victory. Christ is risen from the dead!
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.