Who doesn’t love a birthday party?
Kids certainly love them, especially if they’re the birthday boy or girl. Friends come bearing gifts, there’s cake and ice cream, maybe an outing at a special venue—a pool, a movie theater, or Putt-putt.
Blowing out birthday candles is a rite of passage, though the more candles there are the less excited we are.
For parents though, birthday parties can often be stressful and full of drama. Mom and Dad want everything to be perfect but, inevitably, something goes wrong.
Here are some stories from birthday parties gone wrong:
A family threw their 8-year-old daughter a surprise party, but when everyone yelled “Surprise!” the little girl burst into tears. She told them “Surprise parties make my heart hurt.”
One party hired a clown to entertain a bunch of 5-year-olds, only to have the kids scream in terror when he came out. The parents had to ask the clown to leave. (Clowns can be creepy.)
At a party held at a kid friendly amusement-restaurant, one kid showed up with a stomach bug and puked in the ball pit. As a bonus, everybody left with the party favor of their very own stomach bug.
Another family went all out and spared no expense to create the birthday party of the century for their daughter, except only one guest showed up. Turns out the birthday girl’s class had conspired not to go because she was a “mean-girl bully.” The only kid who showed up did so because he felt bad for her.
All of these, of course, pale in comparison to what has to be the worst birthday party in the history of birthdays found in our text for today.
At the parties I mentioned parents and little ones may have lost their minds (and their lunches), but no one lost his or her head. That ultimate party literally took place at the infamous birthday bash thrown by Herod Antipas.
This story is told as a flashback in Mark’s gospel. But it’s important to understand that…
Once upon a time King Herod Antipas became aware of an itinerant preacher from Nazareth who was performing all sorts of miracles. Herod Antipas wasn’t technically a king but a Tetrarch or Roman-appointed governor of the territory of Galilee and Perea. His father, Herod the Great, was called a king, but he, too, was really one in name only, being a client of Emperor Augustus at the time Jesus was born.
Rumors about this itinerant preacher from Nazareth named Jesus had been circulating and people speculated about who he was. Some thought he was John the Baptist raised from the dead, others Elijah and still others thought he was one of the prophets (vv14-15).
Note these are the same rumors Jesus’ own disciples mentioned when he would later ask, “Who do you say that I am?” (8:27-30).
Herod Antipas was convinced only one of those rumors could be true—John the Baptist, the prophet whom he had both feared and revered, had come back from the dead (6:16).
This is where Mark gives us the party flashback.
Herod Antipas arrested John and put him in prison because the prophet had condemned the king’s marriage to the queen—more on that in a second.
This was a big no-no, but throw in also that Antipas saw himself as a modern messiah, working, as he was, on the temple in Jerusalem as his father had done. John attacked that line of thinking by saying in effect no real messiah would do the kinds of shameful things Herod Antipas had done.
And what had Herod Antipas done? He had fallen in lust, with his sister-in-law, Herodias, who was the wife of his half-brother Philip. History tells us they met when Herod Antipas visited his half-brother Philip on the way to Rome. Antipas saw Herodias and his sense of greed and lust took over. Herodias, saw Antipas and the idea of becoming the wife of a Tetrarch appealed to her sense of greed and selfishness, and so they agreed to marry.
Each got a divorced, and move into the king’s palace together where they planned to live happily ever after. But this marriage, as you can imagine, was a political firestorm, and that will come up a little later. But it was also a major violation of Jewish law which forbade marriage to a brother’s wife unless it was to raise a deceased brother’s children. (See Deuteronomy 25 for more info on that law). But in this case, Philip was not only alive; he and Herodias had a daughter who was now without her father.
Enter John the Baptist who spoke the truth about all these issues.
This, of course, did not sit well with the selfish and self-serving Herodias, who now saw John the Baptist as a pain in her aspirations and wanted him gone.
Herod though, feared and protected John because he was a holy man, and oddly enough, Herod actually liked John’s preaching even though he clearly didn’t get it because Antipas should have been squirming at the truth John was preaching.
John was proclaiming nothing less than the coming of the real messiah (1:7-8). The kind of kingdom and power that Herod Antipas desired was nothing compared to the one who would usher in the kingdom of God. But Herod Antipas would be confused about Jesus until the end.
So when the Herod Antipas’ birthday rolled around, he decided to throw a party— for himself— and invite the rich and powerful members of his court. Jews generally didn’t celebrate birthdays, but the Romans and Greeks did and the king, being an aficionado of all things Roman, wanted to party.
And party they did. The parties of the Herodian court were legendary for their excesses. We can be certain Herod indulged in more than a few glasses from the punch bowl.
It was amidst all this that Herodias saw her chance to bump off that annoying prophet John. And to do so, she had her daughter dance for her step-father.
Obviously loosened up from partying, Herod Antipas went gaga over his stepdaughter (another no-no) and made a rash oath to give her anything she wanted, even half his kingdom—which wasn’t his to give in the first place. When the daughter asked her mom what to ask for, the new self-serving queen was ready with the request: “I want you to give me the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” (v. 25) Not exactly cake and ice cream.
Herod Antipas was trapped by his own words. Not wanting to lose face in front of the members of his court, he reluctantly ordered the prophet’s head served up on a plate. The girl gave it to her mother, as though she were giving her mother a party favor. (vv. 26-28)
John’s disciples came to claim his body and laid it in a tomb— a reminder that some form of death is often the party favor for those who speak truth to power.
Isn’t this a great story?! How people think the Bible is so boring is beyond me.
It’s interesting that Mark spends more ink on this story than others we might expect.
In his rapid-fire telling of the Gospel story, he doesn’t give us any account of Jesus’ birth and only a few slight details on his baptism by John, his journey into the wilderness, and little of the teachings about which we read in the other gospels.
Yet this story looms large, and it’s because Mark wants us to consider several lessons.
First, following the true king is a costly business.
Giving our allegiance to Jesus will put us sideways with the political and social forces that aim to govern our world.
Speaking the truth often results, at best, in being ignored and pushed aside, but at worst, it may put us on a cross. That’s where the true messiah will go, and he doesn’t hesitate to tell us that we’re odds-on favorites to join him there. (8:34)
This is a theme Dietrich Bonhoeffer explores in his classic book, The Cost of Discipleship. There, he reminds us that “When Christ calls a person, he bids him come and die.”
But this odd story in the Gospel of Mark gives us a second point to ponder—that we are invited to a different sort of party.
Immediately after this horrific story about a birthday party gone wrong, in verses 30-44, Mark tells of another party story where things go better than anyone could have imagined. It’s about Jesus and 5,000 people getting together, but only one person thought to bring a dish to share. So with just five loaves and two fish, Jesus throws the party of the century!
In contrast, King Herod Antipas threw a party to honor himself, with an exclusive guest list restricted to the rich and powerful. And then, in his drunken lust, condemned a holy man—who he liked— to death.
Mark doesn’t seem to care about the real messiah’s birthday, and yet tells us how Jesus threw a party for the poor and hungry out of compassion and brought life to people in need.
The question Mark sets up and asks is his third point to ponder, “Which king do you want to follow, and which party do you want to be part of?”
Do we want to be at the party of the selfish and self-serving? Or do we want to be at the party of the one who reaches out to the poor and needy, the party of the one who heals and loves unconditionally, the party of the one who brings people together and doesn’t tear them apart? Which king will we follow?
In A.D. 36, King Aretas—the father of Herod Antipas’ first wife—remember I said the politics would come back around—attacked and defeated Herod Antipas’ army. The Jews were elated, considering this to be divine punishment for beheading John the Baptist.
As a result, new Roman Emperor Caligula, who knew the game of Antipas and Herodias, banished them from their territory. I doubt Herod Antipas threw himself any parties after that, and I bet his wife wondered why she got with him in the first place.
John’s death foreshadowed the death of Jesus who, like John, had spoken truth to power. The result is the same. Death.
But we know that wasn’t the end of the story. The Jesus party was just getting started, and it’s still going on today. It’s a party where all are invited and all are welcome. It’s a party not of power and greed, but of hope, peace, joy, and love.
So may we know that if we’re not at this party, it’s not because we haven’t been invited.
Jesus invites us to the party, today and every day.
And today, and every day, would a good day to accept the invitation to come party like Jesus. Amen.