High drama in our readings this morning with dangerous dancing in both the Old Testament and Gospel! The ark of the covenant that David is bringing in to Jerusalem is too dangerous to touch and the ecstatic cultic dancing performed by priests and people is joined by the king himself as a way, perhaps of weaving the spirit of God into the midst of the people. King David is on a high, drunk on the Holy Spirit, and doesn’t care that his trophy wife, the oppressed daughter of Saul, is making fun of him. Dangerous and demonic dancing also in the Gospel as a king falls under the influence of another sort of spirit and makes a rash promise. We need to be careful which spirit we imbibe!
In our gospel reading this morning, we’ve taken a little detour. Jesus has sent out the disciples out in twos – under-equipped and over-excited – and in a little while they’re going to be coming back to report on how things went. We’ve already had a hint that their mission is not going to be plain sailing – as we saw last week Jesus has got himself cut down to size in his home town and it’s no easy job that they’ve been given – nothing less than to confront evil, to offer hope and bring restoration and reconciliation to communities that are demoralised and divided, healing to the sick and hope to the fearful, the marginalized, and the down-trodden. In words the same mission we have been given in our own time and place. And today Mark goes back a few paces to give us the back story, the wider context which is – you can’t do this sort of stuff without making powerful people nervous.
Jesus is no longer just an obscure country preacher, he’s come to the attention of the high and mighty. Confusingly enough, this isn’t the King Herod – the one who gets anxious and homicidal around the time of Jesus’ birth – the family tree of the Herods is complex to say the least, made worse by their habit of marrying into other parts of their own family – the one we’re talking about today is Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great and not actually a king at all - just a local governor or ‘tetrarch’ put in place by the Romans, but every bit as murderous as his dad. And here Mark gives us some of the popular gossip about Jesus that’s got Herod so worried, but in the process shows us something of his own take on what resurrection is all about. Is this Elijah come back to life? Herod is more terrified by the other possibility doing the rounds – that Jesus, whose public ministry didn’t really start until after John the Baptist had been executed, might be John risen from the dead. Obviously not on a literal level, given that Jesus and John spent time together in the desert. On the other hand, Jesus is certainly the one who fulfils the meaning of what John was doing and preaching out there in the desert. So there’s a sense in which Jesus might have been seen as carrying through on John’s mission, metaphorically as John raised from the dead.
And to explain all that, Mark needs to detour back a little bit further – why did John come to such a sticky end? Here, Mark’s colourful story about drunken parties and dancing girls contrasts with the more pragmatic explanation of his contemporary, the Jewish historian, Josephus, who says that Herod arrested John and executed him in the mountain fortress of Machaerus because his preaching made Herod nervous. Josephus tells us Herod was afraid of John’s popularity, afraid that John’s call to repentance was not just a call to personal holiness but the beginning of a dangerous popular uprising. At any rate Herod was both fascinated and afraid of what John was preaching.
John the Baptist was a wild card, the people who flocked to him out of Jerusalem thought he was the first authentic prophet for four hundred years. What made John popular was the same thing that made him dangerous – his preaching. In Luke’s gospel we get a pretty good idea of what John’s sermons were mostly about: "…His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." (Lk 3.17-18) John was no smooth-voiced crowd pleaser – with his camel skin clothing and his wild eyes John wasn’t interested in preaching warm fuzzy feelings. John was preaching the end of the world – that God was getting ready to do something so decisive that it would be the end of the old order of things. If he was around today, John would be talking wildly about global warming and the end of civilisation as we know it.
What else was John doing out there in the desert? He was baptising – not a new thing, there’s evidence the Essene sect had practiced some sort of ritual washing as an act of purification – but the way John did it was different – John made people come out to the Jordan – into the desert on the other side of the river and then baptised them in the Jordan as they crossed back over into the Land of Promise – in other words John was re-enacting the defining story of the Jews, the flight out of Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea and across the River Jordan into new life as God’s people. If Herod was nervous about this, he had every right to be! Because what John was doing was challenging people to say where they loyalties really lay – with the Roman Empire and its ordering of things, or with God’s ordering of things. Baptism, for John, was not a harmless, cute ritual in church on a Sunday morning but a dangerous act of commitment that threatened the Roman Empire’s practice of oppression and injustice. We need to keep this in the front of our minds when we baptise, here in our parish church. Baptism isn’t safe, baptism poses the question, ‘how are you going to live?’
So the question for Herod becomes, John’s out of the way but who is this upstart Jesus of Nazareth? Is he reincarnating John’s brand of mischief and if so, what’s he going to do next? The question isn’t too far off the mark – but as we know Jesus is going to turn out to be even more dangerous than John. Like John, Jesus lived and practiced his belief that God was doing something brand new. But where John the Baptist expected God was going to come crashing down from the sky, Jesus realised that God works more subtly than that. Jesus knew that God’s Holy Spirit works from within, organically, like yeast in a loaf of bread, transforming our perspectives and our priorities and waiting for us to get the point that it’s up to us to do something about the evil and the injustice in the world. Up to us to do something about a world in which some children still grow up – even in our wealthy country - without any reasonable expectation of a safe home, or enough to eat, or the chance of an education and a good job. That’s what Jesus is talking about with his kingdom of God metaphor – it’s the demand for us to participate in God’s priorities, to make God’s priorities present in the here and now.
Of course, it’s a challenge. Pretty soon the disciples are going to be coming back from their mission, and they’ll be telling Jesus how they anointed the sick, how they taught, how they encouraged people and experienced God working through them. But in the meantime, in today’s story, Mark is reminding us that faithfulness to Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God implies opposition. In Mark’s gospel it’s an opposition that the disciples never do quite confront. At the end they’ll run off into the darkness, utterly demoralised. Only after Jesus’ resurrection will they find the courage to have another go.
It’s a challenge. Mark is saying, to his own community and to us, ‘what about you? What sort of disciples are you?’ What would it take for people to say about the Church, about us: ‘who do they think they are – Jesus raised from the dead?’ It’s dangerous dancing, weaving the Spirit of God into the life of the world.
And of course, that’s exactly what we do tell ourselves that we are, every single week, in the Eucharist – that we are the body of Christ, the resurrection body of the risen Jesus. What Mark is claiming is that if we actually live that promise, the consequences might be dangerous and electrifying. How do we live out the unsafe implications of our baptism with integrity? It’s about having courage and vision – even at our local level, together and as individuals, as Christians living and working in our city, it’s about seeing ourselves first and foremost as sent by Jesus, in ones and twos, to gossip and to live his dangerous and life-giving Gospel.