Get your copy of “Messiah: Biblical Retellings” here, or download a free chapter here. (Published under my pen name, C.A. Gray)
Today’s podcast is a meditation and retelling of the ministry and death of John the Baptist. Here are the related passages:
- Birth: Luke 1:5-25, 57-80
- Ministry: Matthew 3, Matthew 11:2-19, Luke 3:2-20, 7:18-35, John 1:15-39
- Death: Matthew 14:3-12, Mark 6:17-29
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This is my retelling, but the podcast also includes a discussion:
“John!” the guard barked from the bars of my cell, rousing me from my doze. I’d been sleeping a lot lately. Too much, perhaps. But what is too much when you spend all day and all night in prison anyway? “My Lord the King,” the guard announced, turning to bow in the direction of the dungeon’s entrance.
Herod strode in, in all his finery. He was a big man, or maybe he only looked big because he wore his enormous ermine-rimmed purple robe and that ostentatiously tall crown that must weigh as much as his head, day in and day out. It was as if he thought someone might forget he was the king. Still, I’d actually gotten to the point of looking forward to his almost daily visits to me in the last year since I’d been here. It was one of the few diversions I had left.
“Drowsing again, old friend?” Herod’s voice boomed and echoed in the dungeon.
“If you wish me to do otherwise, might I suggest a change in venue,” I retorted.
Herod’s laugh at this was disproportionate to the joke. I thought by now I understood why he found it so funny though. As a temperamental king whose word was law, he was surrounded by sycophants. I was the only person who would tell him exactly what I thought. I assumed he found it refreshing. Occasionally I wondered if he’d set me free if he found it slightly less refreshing, but I dismissed the idea. Herodias, his brother’s wife whom he was bedding, would never permit him to set me free, as I made it quite clear that their liaison was an abomination to the God of Israel. If she’d had her way, I’d have been executed long ago. She had her way in everything else. The only thing that had saved me thus far was Herod’s amusement at my sharp tongue.
“It is my birthday today,” Herod declared.
I opened one eye. “Are you fishing for felicitations?”
“That is the traditional response to one’s king, yes,” he growled. But then he didn’t wait for me to comply. “I am hosting a grand feast tonight. All the local dignitaries shall be there. As well as my wife and her daughter—”
“She’s not your wife. She’s your brother’s wife, and you’re living in sin,” I told him for the thousandth time. “Not to mention the way you lust after your own niece. It’s disgraceful!”
“She is very beautiful,” Herod mused, stroking his black beard and licking his lips like he hadn’t heard me. His eyes went soft at the thought of the girl.
“An utter abomination,” I declared, though I didn’t know why I bothered.
For whatever reason, though, my forthright proclamations seemed to amuse the king. He clapped his hands together, and did not contradict me. “Well, John, what news? What do you have to say for yourself today?”
“Nothing different than yesterday. Not a lot happens in here, you might have noticed.”
“That’s not so!” Herod protested, “why, I heard just yesterday that you had a visit from a group of your disciples. Two, in fact! What did they tell you?”
I winced involuntarily. Herod had found the chink in my armor of carelessness. Yesterday had been a particularly bad day for me, as the disciples had told me that it was the one year anniversary of my imprisonment. Somehow I’d thought… what? That Jesus would use his enormous influence on my behalf to free me? I didn’t know why he’d do that—it wasn’t as if he could use my help in his ministry, after all. From what the disciples told me, his message and works were about as diametrically opposed to mine as they could get. While I warned the publicans and sinners to repent or else because the Kingdom was at hand, Jesus had dinner with them! I heard a story in which he refused to stone a woman caught in adultery. He broke the Sabbath, time and again. He healed everyone who came to him for healing, and the people adored him for it. I knew all this already, and for months now when I heard such reports, I’d done my best not to feel envious of my cousin’s very different reception from my own.
He must increase, I must decrease. Those were my own words. I’d spoken them to my disciples to encourage them to follow him instead of me. I’d grown to manhood hearing the stories from my mother and father of my miraculous birth, past my mother’s change of life, and of the visit of the angel called Gabriel to my father Zachariah—the very same one who had visited Daniel!—and what he had prophesied of me. I was to be the forerunner of the Christ. The Lord had told me that the one upon whom I saw the Spirit come to rest would be the Messiah, who would baptize with fire. I knew that Jesus’ mother Mary and my mother were great-aunt and great-niece, but I’d never met Jesus before he’d come to be baptized by me in the River Jordan, six months into my ministry.
Six months. That was all I got. It wasn’t really that I was jealous…. I wouldn’t have begrudged my cousin any amount of success. I’d have gloried in it as the fulfillment of my life’s mission, but—well, how could he be the Christ, after all, when his message was so completely different from mine? He wasn’t an ascetic at all! Where was the fire and brimstone of an angry God? The Messiah was supposed to become the king, too! And yet, the current king still held me here in his clutches for his own amusement, while Jesus was off preaching a message of grace unlike any of the prophets of old. Had I gotten it all wrong? Had I missed my entire life’s purpose?
I’d never asked him myself before because at the time, I hadn’t thought I needed to. I’d known Jesus was the One. The Holy Spirit had told me so, and I’d seen the Spirit come down from heaven like a dove and light on his shoulder after I’d baptized him. I even heard the voice from heaven, declaring it to be so. What Jesus had said to me in that moment had been confirmation too—I’d said, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” He didn’t deny my words. What he’d said was, “Let it be so now. It is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness in this way.”
But after a year of rotting in prison, hearing reports of Jesus’ behavior that were nothing like what I’d expected of him, memories of my earlier certainty had given way to doubt.
So yesterday, in a moment of weakness, I’d sent my few disciples to Jesus and just asked him, point-blank, if he was the One or if we should look for another. When they returned a few hours later, they told me, “He didn’t answer us right away. But then in the space of an hour, we watched as he gave sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, made the lame to walk, cleaned the lepers, raised a widow’s only son from the dead, and preached the good news to the poor. Then he told us to come back and report all this to you. Then he added, ‘Blessed is the one who does not fall away on account of me.’”
I’d closed my eyes in tears when I heard this, and then started laughing. I didn’t know if my disciples understood his answer, but I did. He’d fulfilled all the Messianic prophecies from Isaiah 35, and then threw in raising the dead to boot, just to make really sure I didn’t miss it. If he’d just said, “Yes, I’m the One,” I’d still have doubted. Instead it almost was like he was speaking to me in a code that only he and I would understand. My heart filled with joy.
“Well?” Herod growled at me, bringing me back to the present moment, annoyed that he was not commanding my full attention.
“Have you heard of Jesus of Nazareth?” I asked him.
Herod frowned. “Mmm. Name sounds familiar, maybe. Why do you ask?”
I met his gaze squarely, and prophesied, almost like a threat, “You will.”
A few hours later, when I’d fallen back into a doze, I heard two sets of footsteps on the stone stairs leading into the dungeon. The sound roused me, and I was disoriented. Tonight was Herod’s big birthday celebration. I had expected no visitors until the morrow. But when I saw that my visitors were two of the king’s own guards moving swiftly as if on a mission, I knew at once what this portended. I stood up and squared my shoulders. I was not afraid, but my heart pounded almost painfully in my chest.
“Tell me why first,” I said quietly, but my voice was steady.
“Herod’s orders,” said the executioner shortly, opening the door that stood between me and death.
I shook my head. “He would not have ordered such a thing on his own. Who forced his hand?”
The executioner narrowed his eyes at me. “The king’s word is law. How dare you suggest otherwise?”
I laughed shortly. “At this point? You think I have anything to lose? Let’s be honest, shall we? Herodias pulls the strings in this palace. You know it and I know it.”
As I spoke, the executioner forced me to my knees and stretched my neck forward, which told me the way in which I was about to die. At least it would be quick. His companion guard told me the rest of the story: that Herodias’s daughter had danced for him in such a way that he was thinking with something other than his head. He promised her anything she wanted. She’d asked her mother what to request, and her request had been—
“Your head. On a platter.”
At first I was struck dumb with horror. “Just what every teenage girl wants,” I heard myself say, though even my voice sounded far away. A rush of blood to my ears seemed to muffle all the sound in the room.
But then, an utter calm suddenly descended upon me like a blanket. Jesus’ words through my disciples from earlier that day came back to me. The lame walk. The blind see. The lepers are cleansed. The deaf hear. The dead are raised. Blessed is the one who does not fall away on account of me.
“No, Lord,” I whispered aloud. “I will not.” My job had been to prepare the way for the Lord. I’d completed my mission. My part was done.
I closed my eyes, stretched forth my neck, and smiled.