Why do people go to church? One reason people go to church is they think its a safe, quiet place to get away from the world for a time. Another reason is to help prepare them to face the coming week – sort of like a pit stop. The first reason is about coming in from a dangerous world, and the second is about being ready to go out. The emphasis is on going out instead of coming in. Do we come to church for the purpose of being better prepared to leave?
So which is it? Why do we come here? Its a bit of both really. For example, in Mark 6:31: Jesus said to them, "Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest." For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Jesus and his disciples needed a quiet place to get away and rest.
But then, their attempt to find a quiet place fails. The crowd outflanks them, presses in on them, and Jesus continues his ministry to them. The story that follows is the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus works a miracle to feed all of them right on the spot. So Mark, even though he recognizes the need for a time to retreat from the world also recognises that people need to be looked after to get them ready for the future.
And Mark gives us one other big clue. One of his favourite techniques as a storyteller is to frame parts of the story within other parts. And the activity that frames this story of the feeding of the five thousand is mission work, preaching and teaching and healing. Previously in Mark's Gospel, Jesus sent the disciples out two-by-two to preach and teach and heal. And then, after the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus goes right back to preaching and teaching and healing. The emphasis in this chapter of Mark's gospel would seem to be on the mission, which frames the feeding of the five thousand. We eat for a purpose: to go in peace to love and serve the Lord! We eat for mission.
If this part of Mark's gospel is about mission, and about how we are fed for mission, then why do we have this strange story about the death of John the Baptist? In fact, we might even go further than that by asking why Mark put this story in his gospel at all! His story is so focused on Jesus. Why does Mark go back to tell this story of John the Baptist's death at this point? Mark told us in passing all the way back in chapter 1 that John was dead. Why does he stop to elaborate right here, in chapter six? In this story about Jesus, why does Mark describe the death of John the Baptist at all?
Well, Mark's framing technique give us the answer; this story must have something to do with mission. And I think it's this: there is a potential danger with the cross that lies ahead for Jesus. There is the potential that we see it as so unique - because Jesus is uniquely the Son of God - that we see his death on the cross, too, as so unique that it becomes isolated for us from the other suffering in the world.
The danger Mark is anticipating is that the cross would stand so alone in our minds and hearts that we would stop connecting it with all the other suffering. I think that Mark tells this story about someone else’s suffering - John the Baptist - so that we will continue to connect it with our mission. And that mission is to be with those who continue to suffer in this world. Jesus died on the cross not to wave a magic wand to make all the suffering go away instantly, not to somehow take those of us who believe away from the suffering.
The cross brought Jesus fully into the suffering of this world, and as long as that suffering lasts he calls us to also respond with love to the suffering. His cross was not that different from John the Baptist's death. Jesus and John died in similar ways at the hands of evil people, in the midst of a world distorted by the powers of sin and death. What was different about Jesus' death was that God did raise him from the dead, to expose those powers of sin and evil.
But God's answer was not to forcefully make it all go away. And so the suffering continues still in this world, and Jesus continues to call us to stand with those who suffer and to continue to expose it. The cross is not about winning a ticket to have eternal sanctuary away from the world's suffering; it is about being nourished and fed by our Lord himself so that we may follow in his mission of responding to the world's suffering. This is a dining room; not a sanctuary.
There is another person who suffered besides John the Baptist in this story: Herod's and Herodius' daughter, who may also have been named Herodius.
When our text calls her a "girl," the original Greek word there is the one that more specifically indicates that she is a young girl, a little child. Often, this daughter is depicted as a young woman, a seductress, who does a seducing dance for her father Herod. But Mark's choice of words speaks against that picture. We need to picture a young child here, who does a cute, innocent little dance that pleased the crowd. (Think Shirley Temple and “The Good Ship Lollipop)
When her father makes the extravagant offer of choosing any gift that she desires, well, that's too big a choice for a child. So she quite naturally goes to her mother for advice. And what does her mother do? She brings her own little girl into her adult scandal. Her terrible desire of wanting revenge on John the Baptist for exposing her infidelity in her marriage, prompts her to get her little girl to ask for John's death – in other words made her daughter a partner in murder.
Jesus will later tell his disciples (Mark 9:42): "If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck." That's precisely what Herodius did to her own daughter – cause her to sin.
Do you realize the implications of this story? For what happened to Herodius' daughter is still happening all around us. We are allowing our children to get caught up in our sins, of poverty, and violence, and divorce, and sex run rampant. And our children are suffering. Do you realize how much our children look to us each day to know what to desire? If we can’t be good model’s for them of what to desire, if we do not give them proper guidance, there are plenty of other people ready and waiting to tell them what they should desire. TV will tell them. Advertisers will tell them. Or will we tell them? And more than tell them: show them with our lives of loving care and nurture.
How can we be strong enough for such tasks? By coming to this place to be fed. To be fed with the Spirit of our Lord himself through Word and Sacrament, study and service. Our Lord himself came as a child, the Son of his Heavenly Father, and he showed us how to desire what God desires, to love and serve one another, to loving respond to the suffering.