When the Call Seems Cruel
Last night at prayer meeting, somebody said while we were praying over this, right before we were praying over this story, “I don’t like this story.” There are good reasons not to like this story. But I believe God has something really significant for us to hear through this unlikable story. So, if you will turn, if you’re not already there, to Mark 6. And welcome, if you’re live streaming. Mark 6:14. We’re going to be there in a moment.
William Borden was born in 1887, heir to the Borden fortune. When he graduated from high school, he traveled around the world and he saw a depth of poverty and spiritual hopelessness he had never seen before, and the Lord used that to get a hold of his heart. He gave his life to Christ. He renounced his life of opulence to follow Jesus. He felt called to be a missionary. Throughout college he lived simply, shared Christ often, served the poor, and secretly gave away a fortune. He graduated from Yale and then Princeton, boarded a ship for China, stopped in Egypt in order to learn Arabic so he could minister to the Chinese Muslims, contracted spinal meningitis and within a month was dead. He was 25. When you read his story, a story that is so remarkable …. This man who had everything, renounced it all, loved people, didn’t care about money, just wanted to be used to glorify Jesus. And then all of a sudden you come to this place where he gets sick and dies. And you’re thinking, “What in the world, God? Is this a joke? Is this for real? God, are you sovereign, or are you sadistic?”
Do you ever feel that way, ask those questions? It’s similar to the feeling you get when let’s say you’ve worked hard in a job to tell the truth, to do what is right, not cut corners like maybe everybody else is doing, and then before long you realize you don’t have a job. And you think, “What in the world, God?” Or you jump into a ministry that just seems to have the power of God on it and you’re just seeing God do things all over the place. And then before long, you realize that the leader of the ministry is siphoning funds for his own benefit. And it’s like, “God, really?” Or you keep yourself pure waiting to give yourself to your husband, and a month after you get married you realize he’s a porn addict. Or you wait and pray and pray and wait to have a child, and finally get a positive pregnancy test, and just after telling your friends, you miscarry. And you just have that sick kind of feeling. “God, are you playing games with me? Are you laughing, because we’re not laughing?”
The message of Mark 6:14-30 could be titled, “When the Call of Christ Seems Comically Cruel.” “When the Call of Christ Seems Comically Cruel.” You say, where do you get this big idea in this passage? Because we could preach a message from this passage on how murdering an innocent man will haunt you the rest of your life. That’s in here. Or, never make a promise when you’re drinking with your friends. That’s in here. Or, if you try to honor marriage around people who don’t, you could lose your head. That’s in here. But none of these are the main point of the passage. How do we know? How do we know the main point? One of the ways we know here is by this pattern we see in Mark, what we’ve called — not we, everyone calls — the Markan Sandwich. We’ve seen a few of them already in Mark, we’re going to see a bunch more. But where the meat interprets the bread, and the bread interprets the meat. Well, what do we mean by that? Let me show you.
Last week, the second part of Ryan’s message described the sending of the disciples (6b-13). This week, we see the killing of John the Baptist (14-29). But then notice Mark goes back to the returning of the disciples in verse 30. Why not put verse 30 right after the sending? Send them out, do miracles, heal, preach, bring them back, and then tell about the execution of John. But he doesn’t do that. This is what a Markan Sandwich is. He splits a story so that the story in the middle helps interpret the stories on either side and vice versa.
So, why did he put verse 30 at the end of the execution of John? And you might say, “Well, it explains Herod’s response to Jesus’ disciples’ ministry.” It does, but why does that matter? Because it gives us a window into discipleship. What does it look like to be a follower of Jesus? And we’re seeing, we’ve seen, we will see as we go through Mark, all the expectations of the disciples will be crushed as to what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus. This story does it in a big way. There are times when Christ’s call seems comically cruel.
Now look at how this unfolds in four stages. You could describe these four stages as confusion, conflict, calamity, calling. Let’s look at those one at a time. First of all, confusion. Verse 14, King Herod hears the news of Jesus’s growing in popularity, the miracles that he and his followers are becoming known for, and rumors are flying. Who is this? Some believe Jesus was John the Baptist “raised from the dead (verse 14),” hence the miraculous powers. Others believe Jesus is Elijah in fulfillment of Malachi 4:5. Others believe he is a prophet. Verse 16, but Herod believed that Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead. Herod is haunted by the guilt of the innocent man he murdered, and Mark then explains the conflict that led to John’s execution.
Number 2, conflict. Verse 17, the source of the conflict is a tragic merging of personal and political tensions. Don’t miss that. That’s really important when you think about how the call of Christ can feel cruel, even comically cruel. There’s a merging of personal and political tensions. And in order to understand these, we’ve got to do a quick history of the Herods.
The Herod mentioned in verse 14 and following is one of four Herods in the New Testament. This one is Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great. Herod the Great was the one, you remember at the beginning of the Gospels, who killed all the 2-year-olds in and around Bethlehem in order to try to kill Jesus. Herod the Great was not great. And this is one of his sons, Herod Antipas, who was married to the daughter of Aretus, king of Nabatea. Yet he decided he didn’t want to be married to her anymore. He wanted to be married to his niece, Herodias. Herodias however, was married to Philip, Antipas’ brother. But Philip was not really motivated to achieve great political accomplishments and was basically disinherited. So, Herodias decided she doesn’t want to be with this unmotivated king. She wants to be with Antipas, who is going somewhere. So, Herodias divorces Philip, marries his brother Antipas. Who is Herodias? Herodias is the daughter of Aristobulus. Aristobulus is the half-brother of Antipas. Aristobulus was killed by Herod the Great, his father. Did I mention Herod the Great is not great? He killed his own children when they threatened his power. Now Herod Antipas divorced his wife, married Herodias, who divorced her husband. John the Baptist who is single; however, he lives out Hebrews 13:4, “Let marriage be honored by everyone.” And so, he announces to the king that his marriage, verse 18, “is not lawful [to be married to] your brother’s wife.” Herodias isn’t happy about that. Verse 19, she holds a grudge against John, wants to kill him for personal reasons because he pointed out her sin. But also, there are tons of political dynamics going on here.
Remember, Aretus, King of Nabatea, is ticked at Antipas for dumping his daughter. Rome gives power to the Herods only if they use that power well. So, Herodias, who dumped her first husband to have power with Antipas, is angry at John the Baptist, who because of his non-inclusive preaching exposing her unbiblical marriage, is threatening the stability and potential power of her husband, Antipas. Because, if Rome gets wind that some prophet is pointing out Antipas’ personal sin, and it’s creating instability, they will pull Antipas’ power. Does that make sense? Have I lost you? The Herods. I mean, it is serious soap opera stuff. So, Antipas, however (verse 20), is conflicted. He has this love/hate thing going on with John. He hates the fact that John exposed his sin, but he admires John’s purity and his courage. There’s something magnetic and terrifying about a man who’s willing to say what needs to be said no matter what the cost.
And so, that sets us up, that’s the conflict that sets us up for the calamity, the calamity in verse 21. This horrible event occurs at an exclusive banquet Herod hosts — Harold, there’s no Harold. Herod, be clear on that — Herod hosts for his officials at Machaerus. This is a fortress palace on the east side of the Dead Sea. This was both palatial and seemingly invincible. There was a prison on one end and a palace on the other. The historian Josephus claims that this is where John the Baptist was executed. Verse 22, Herodias’ daughter, Salome, who is her daughter from her first marriage to Philip, danced. Everyone was pleased, so much so that Herod wanted to reward her. He promised her whatever she wanted. She didn’t want an iPhone 12, didn’t want air pods or yoga pants. She wanted John’s head, obviously coached by her mother. And so, the king was torn. He doesn’t want to kill John, but he also doesn’t want to look like a liar in front of all his officials, which would be a sign of weakness in his mind. So, he kept his word and took John’s head. Even liars can tell the truth when the pressure is on them. John’s disciples came and buried his body. Verse 30 returns us back to the mission trip of the disciples. Look at verse 30,
“The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught.”
And again, that leads us back to the calling because verse 30 is tied in all the way back to verse 7, when Jesus called the Twelve and sent them out. And I want to review here for a second. Why would Mark split the calling with this story of the execution of John? He could have easily put it in afterward if he didn’t want us to see something significant in John’s execution that is relevant to the calling of Jesus’ disciples. Jesus said in Matthew 11:11 that there is none born of a woman who is greater than John. So, John is not second string. He’s top shelf, first string, and look what happened to him. He didn’t just die. He was humiliatingly beheaded as a result of a drunken ruler, a devious dancer, and a scheming mother. This is pitiful, isn’t it? It’s almost like if you took Jimmy Fallon and put him in a blender and “Days of Our Lives” and ISIS, you get this. It is comically cruel. And we’re left with the question, God, is this how you treat your faithful followers?
This is the question Kenneth Taylor asked when he was in college. He was on summer break; he found the story of William Borden in his father’s bookshelf. He pulled it off, he started reading it, and he came to the part where Borden died so young. He threw the book down, and he said to God angrily,
“If that is the way you treat those who trust you and follow you, then you are not for me, and I will go my own way.”
Taylor describes the plunge he took, the spiritual plunge toward the rocks below and also went on to describe how God rescued him.
But right here still relatively near the beginning of the book of Mark, we’re brought to the edge of this precipice, and we are forced to look over. Okay, God, what does it look like to follow Jesus? What kind of guarantees? Jesus, if I follow you, then I’m going to have a healthier life, right? A more respectable life, more predictable. And then you read this, and it’s like, “Whoa, whoa.” This is the man you say there’s no one like him that’s been born of a woman. And he dies like this? So, this raises big questions. Let’s wrestle with a couple of them.
First of all, can you think of a time when God took you through a trial that felt comically cruel? Some of you, immediately you have one in your mind that you’ve experienced. Some of you are saying right now, “I’m in there. I’m right there right now. Doesn’t make any sense to me.” And it’s not just a trial about someone doing something to me. It is rocking the very core of who God is. It feels like he promised something, I prayed for something, and he did the exact opposite. And what I mean by comically cruel is, it does not fit the picture of what the call of Jesus in our minds should look like. It seems like … Take this scenario, for example. We have no problem with the fact that God is going to call some of his people home, right? We know we live in a broken world and people are born, and they die. And so, in our minds, it’s okay. But if you’re going to call someone like John the Baptist home, we have an idea of how that should happen. This guy, think Mel Gibson, think “Braveheart,” on a hill, proclaiming the kingdom of God, arrows flying everywhere, and one takes him down as he points to heaven. You know, it’s like, “Yeah, yeah!” (I don’t know what that was.) We can imagine that scene, and it could be glorious. But he’s sitting in his jail cell, and a king who’s most likely been drinking too much makes a stupid promise. And a scheming stepdaughter with a jealous, angry, bitter wife. Head on a platter. And then, this is the scary part, God even records it. I want you all to know, this is my best. This is top shelf. This is one of the greatest servants who has ever walked on earth, and this is how his life ended. And the rest of us on the B squad are thinking, “Whoa, what does this mean?” It feels like a skit gone bad. What is happening here?
But I think this is really important. Do you ever feel like your trials seem too trivial to be from God? We look around at people who are doing what we view as great things, and then we hear stories of their trials, and they seem consistent with the great things they’re doing. I just got a text yesterday from one of our missionaries about a guy in his church put in prison, in jail, and we’re praying for him. But as we pray for him, we’re like, “Wow, he’s serving Jesus, paying the price.” That is sad, but it makes sense to us. But some of our trials feel comically cruel. It doesn’t make any sense. We can’t put it in a category of what we thought God would do. And so, it rocks our faith at a level that other trials might not. It seems too trivial.
Will you, second, be honest about what this kind of thing feels like? And why it’s so important to be honest about this is because when we get these huge doubts like, “God, are you doing anything in my life?” We end up not running to him because we don’t think he has anything to do with the trial. We distance ourselves from him. “Well, it was my fault that I’m in this.” Or it seems too trivial — there are other Christians that are more important and are doing bigger, better things. And at the very time we need him most, we compartmentalize him out of our experience. Which is the exact thing we do not want to do. We begin questioning his goodness. It feels like he’s taken us down a road that …. We prayed for wisdom, and we followed him, and then we find out it’s a dead end. Do you ever feel like that? God, are you tricking me? And this is one of the reasons this story is so close to the beginning of Mark, embedded in the context of the sending and returning of Jesus’ followers, gives us a window into the fact that following Jesus is not going to look like what my imagination and the Disney movies that I’ve seen have shaped me to portray or imagine. So, being honest about the anger, the helplessness, the doubt, the uselessness, the feeling of being on the shelf — all those feelings that can come when this kind of thing happens.
Number 3, are you willing to see your idols suffocated and your faith strengthened? Your idols suffocated and your faith strengthened. Remember, we’re in this context of faith. Beginning of Mark 6, Nazareth did not believe, did not see miracles. Disciples believe, going out with power. John the Baptist executed. Disciples returning. It’s all part of that context. And these two things go together. As our idols are suffocated, our faith is strengthened. What do I mean, idols? Let me give you a few examples. The idol of expectation, what I imagine God should do, suffocated. The idols of control, the idols of reputation, what people think about me in the midst of this trial. The idols of security. Here’s a big one, the idols of certainty. I know what God is going to do. And we become like Job’s friends, thinking we can come up with a formula for why something happens and what God did or didn’t do.
God has been teaching me a bunch about this. I’m reading through the Bible, in Numbers and Deuteronomy. Let me just give you one quick example. Deuteronomy 8:3, God is talking about taking Israel through the wilderness.
“And he humbled you [God humbled you] and let you hunger and fed you with manna.” [What is manna? That bread-like substance that appeared on the ground each morning to feed Israel] “… fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know.”
Stop there for a second. He humbled you, allowed you to hunger, fed you with something that you did not know.
What does manna mean in Hebrew? It literally means “whatness.” It comes from the question, “What is this?” But if you think of it as a noun, it’s “whatness.” He fed you with “whatness.” What is this? And notice he clarifies twice. “Which you did not know, nor did your fathers know.” He’s giving you things. He’s leading you through things that you cannot explain. You don’t have a category for it. It doesn’t fit your formula. It’s not something you thought he was going to do. Why did he do that? Well, he fed you with whatness, “which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, [why?] that he might make you know…” So, you begin to know what you need to know when you begin to know what you don’t know. Really! We only begin to know what we need to know when we begin to know what we don’t know. And a lot of the idols of certainty need to die before we can really know what we need to know. Well, what do we need to know?
Look what he tells us. “…that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” And this is the passage Jesus quoted in the middle of his wilderness temptation. This is what I need to know. I need to know this more than I need to know how to explain how I got in the trial that I’m in. I need to know more what it means to live by every word of the Lord. I need to know that more than I need to know how I’m going to explain what’s going to happen or anticipate or prepare for everything in the future. No, God is actually going to lead you down paths through trials that feel comically cruel so that you will realize you don’t know, so that you can know what you really need to know, so that we can live by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. He feeds us with what we do not know, “whatness,” so we can be sustained by the One we know.
And this point that we’re seeing back in Mark 6 is not simply some random story. No, the execution of John that feels so comically cruel, is painting a picture not just of discipleship, but is pointing toward what? The cross. Not just the one born of a woman who is greater than all the others. The Son of God will be mocked, beaten, crucified — comically cruel.
Look how Paul describes this. Turn with me to 1 Corinthians 1, 1 Corinthians 1. If you use a seat Bible, it’s page 952. 1 Corinthians 1, page 952 if you grab one of those Bibles near you. Look at verse 18 and following.
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing [it seems comically cruel], but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs, and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to the worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him, you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”
Imagine interviewing John the Baptist today. His only boast is in the Lord.
William Borden, after he died, they returned his Bible to his parents, and they found three sets of two words written in the Bible with dates. The first one, “No reserves,” had a date where he renounced his wealth. He gave away about a million dollars in his short life, which today would be about 27 million dollars. The second, “No retreats,” with the date which most likely was the date right after he had told his father his calling. And his father, obviously speaking out of hurt, told him, “You will never work in our company again.” And he wrote in his Bible, “No retreats.” And then shortly before he died, he wrote “No regrets.” No regrets.
One of the benefits of reading of the stories of people in the way past who died serving Jesus, one of the benefits of that is you get to see things from a little bigger perspective. As horrific as it would be, he was born in 1887. For him to die — he lived such a brief life — as we look back now, we can clearly see, he would still be very dead at this point, from our perspective. Even if he had lived to 100 years old. No regrets. No regrets, even though to us sometimes things seem way too short, way too unpredictable, way too uncontrollable. When you step back, and you begin to look at it from God’s eternal perspective — God, I want to look at my life that way and not be lost in my dot on the page, my dash. When the call of Christ seems comically cruel, it is not, from God’s perspective.
Let’s pray. Father, you are speaking to a part of us that is really sensitive. As Americans, we really value the ability to understand, to know with certainty what works and doesn’t work, to establish mechanisms and formulas that lead to high productivity and predictability. And yet, when we step back and look at our lives as a whole, Lord, we are humbled. There are so many things about your ways that we don’t understand. Even this weekend when we think of Palm Sunday, Jesus, you rode into Jerusalem as a king and yet humbly on a donkey. You were worshiped as the Messiah, yet within days, you would be crucified as a criminal. It seems so comically cruel. And yet this is your way. Jesus, today you reign has risen Lord, King of kings and Lord of all lords, all the Herods, all the kings and people that felt they were so powerful — dust.
Father, please speak to us now. Show us your sovereign hand that yes, there are times where you were leading us through a time of hunger so that you will feed us in ways that we don’t fully understand, that at times seem comically cruel — “whatness.” But you’re doing it so that we would know things of what it’s like to feed on your promises even when we can’t feel them at all, to see your work in our weakness, your strength in our uncertainty.
We humble our thoughts, Lord. As 1 Peter says, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God.” And we know at the proper time you will lift us up as you’ve done for John, as you did in Jesus, as you did for William Borden and Kenneth Taylor. Lord, use this unlikely, undesirable story to reframe our understanding of what it looks like to be called by Christ and bear good fruit for your glory now. In Jesus’ name, amen.