It is a turning point in Jesus' ministry when this happens. You see, John the Baptist was Jesus' precursor, he paved the way for Jesus, and some speculate was even a mentor. He was a holy and righteous man and even Herod, the one who ordered him killed, feared him and his power. After he dies, Jesus must begin to proclaim on his own. Ironically, this follows Jesus' rejection in his hometown as well as the sending out of the disciples in the book of Mark. And that is for a reason. Mark is a reminding us that just because we are followers of Christ, doesn't mean life comes to us on a silver platter. In fact, most of the time, it is just the opposite, as is revealed through Jesus: sometimes discipleship leaves us feeling crucified.
Yet the model of discipleship many mega-church pastors are preaching now is one of a gospel of prosperity. It is a theory that if you pray the right prayer or give enough money to the church that you will receive reward of financial abundance and material blessings. That god of the prosperity gospel obviously wasn't around when John the Baptist got his death sentence. Wasn't John the one who had proclaimed and paved a way for the Lord? Wasn't it John who baptized Jesus in the River Jordan? Wasn't it John who was considered a prophet with the power of his preaching? And this was his reward?
This is a hard passage to preach about because we want to convince people to be disciples, and this passage isn't exactly a convincing advertisement. This passage makes us face the cold, hard reality that discipleship isn't easy, and in fact in means more sacrifice than a gospel which preaches God just wants you to "be happy." It hits us square in the face that the good, faithful people we know are often the ones that get the hardest knocks. It is a reminder of how sometimes unjust power in leadership doesn't get overturned before it is too late. We are told that just because we are on God's team doesn't mean we always win. And likely that isn't what we want to hear about discipleship. We want discipleship to make our life easier, not more challenging. But this is what Jesus' life teaches us as he reaches out to those who are suffering and hurting and desperate for the holy in their lives. Jesus time after time reaches out with time and energy and patience, even when it means physical exhaustion and emotional struggle and giving up power.
As many of you know, we are hosting a summer program in our church called Project Transformation. We have 9 college interns who run a daily program Monday - Thursday for 70 children who are underserved in our neighborhood. Each day the children go through reading tutoring, recreation, art, movement, and character building activities. Each week, I have had the privilege of leading their Bible story, and they share with me the injustices they see in their world every day. They share fears of failing the STARR test, and the importance of standing up for a friend who is being made fun of because he doesn't have money. They talk about not judging people because of the color of their skin. These kids do not have life handed to them on a silver platter, as many of them struggle in school, come home to an empty house and an even emptier pantry.
But today I watched as the children went through the lunch line. All 70 of them were counted, as important and valued. Each one of them said thank you as they were handed a turkey sandwich on wheat bread with an apple, carrots and milk in a Styrofoam container. It wasn't a silver platter. But it was a reminder to me: this is what discipleship is all about.