By Paul Koch –
We’ve probably all heard the story that our Lord told about counting the cost. It’s been retold in various ways over the years, but it is still a good thing to learn. He said, “Which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?” Or, “What king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand?” The cost of any endeavor is a real thing; it cannot be overlooked. No one wants to look like a fool having started off on some great campaign only to succumb to failure because the cost was too high, and they were unable to bear it. The unwillingness to consider the cost is problematic at best and catastrophic at worst.
Now, of course, this all makes sense. No one is going to go to war or try and erect a tall building unless they have thought through the whole process. Yet we go through our lives often committing to all sorts of things without fully counting the cost of those decisions. For the cost isn’t always financial; it isn’t always a matter of if we have enough funds or not. Sometimes the cost of our actions deals in intangible things like our reputation or our self-worth. The cost of a particular action might be that someone we care about loses trust in us. The cost of our words and deeds might be love and friendship. And so, while we may have gotten better at counting monetary cost, we are often not very good at counting the cost of those things that don’t register in our back account.
This ability and desire, or lack thereof, of counting the cost of our actions and decisions is part of the essential focus of being a parent. For most of what parents try to do is to help their children to count the costs. They want the best for them, they want them to succeed in life and they know what their own decisions have cost them in their lives. So parents seek to offer guidance and instruction for their children. Now, the trick is to get them to actually listen to you, to actually believe that you know what you’re talking about. But regardless, it remains true that almost all of our big life decisions, and perhaps quite a few that aren’t so big, carry with them a certain cost. Whether we know it or not, it is still there.
In Mark chapter six, Herod hears about the actions of our Lord. He hears about how he is driving out demons and healing the sick and even raising the dead. He hears about how he sends out his disciples to do these very same things and so we read that some say to him, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” The last time we heard about the Baptist, we heard that he was arrested. It was right after he baptized our Lord and he returned from the wilderness after being tempted by Satan. So, we might be caught a little off guard, what do you mean he’s dead? What the heck is going on? Well that story, a story that seems to haunt good old Herod, is a story that ought to shock us all. He seems worried that John has returned from the dead: returned with great power and might, returned perhaps to execute some sort of judgment or reckoning on Herod. He says, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
So, what has happened? Well, the story that plays out is suitable for a daytime soap opera or a special section of the Jerry Springer Show. John was in prison to begin with because of a girl named Herodias. She was the wife of Herod’s brother Philip. Or at least had been his wife, for after Herod divorced his wife he took Herodias as his own. Now this was a clear transgression of Mosaic Law and John, as a faithful messenger of the truth, called these so-called leaders of God’s people out for their public sins. In response to silence John, Herod had him thrown in prison. Yet there seemed to be something about John that always stayed Herod’s hand from putting him to death. We are told that Herod feared John as a righteous man. Even though he was perplexed by his words, Herod would gladly hear from John. This prisoner had an ongoing discourse with the ruler of Galilee.
There was a big birthday party for the man in charge. All the right people were there, the upper crust of society turned out to celebrate with Herod. There, Herodias’ daughter treated her uncle/stepfather to a dance. It was a beautiful and elegant dance. It was worthy of more honor than a simple round of applause and standing ovation. No, Herod stands before all his esteemed guests and says, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.” Such and gift! Such a wonderful blessing! She runs to her mother to get some council as to what she ought to ask for. But what does her mother ask for? “The head of John the Baptist.”
Herod doesn’t want to do it, of course. He is afraid of John, he respects John. He may not agree with John, but he doesn’t want him to die. Yet it is too late. He is caught in his own words. There are witnesses to his promise and he must follow through. So, Herod sends his executioner who removes John’s head from his body and brings it to Herodias’ daughter on a platter. She then takes the gruesome offering and presents it to her mother. We are not sure what happens to the head, but the disciples of John come and take away his body and lay it in a tomb.
Now, when you hear a text like this, I think the first reasonable question to ask is, why is this text even here? Do they just want us to know what happened to John? Does it serve some other purpose? What is the point of telling the story of John losing his head?
Well, to begin with, this is all about the cost. Not the cost of discipleship per se but the cost of salvation. There are some interesting things in this story, there seems to be an intentional overlap between the forerunner of Christ, John the Baptist, and Christ himself. There are eerie similarities, both are imprisoned because of what they say not what they do. Both are locked away without just cause. Both Herod and Pilate seem to want to free them rather than kill them, and they both grant the power to destroy them with reservations, even fear. After their deaths both Jesus and John are taken by their disciples and laid in a tomb. Interesting, then, that Herod fears that Jesus is John returned from the dead. For it is Jesus alone who rises from the grave, never to die again.
John was the forerunner, the voice of one calling out in the wilderness, the one who pointed to Christ and declared, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” John’s death points us then to Christ’s death. And that death is the cost of your salvation. You are part of the great rebellion of humanity. You are those who have turned aside from the ways of God and sought to make gods of yourselves. How could you ever pay the cost of the debts that you acquired? Can you sacrifice enough? Can you love enough? Can you be gracious enough, kind enough, faithful enough to pay off the cost? No. The cost is too much. It is beyond your ability to pay.
So, Christ counts the cost. He bears the sin. He faces the shame and the curse of the cross. He goes forth so that you may be free, so that you might live in the assurance and hope of your salvation. This gift cost John his head, it cost God the life of his only begotten Son, and it is given without strings to you. This gift then sends you out into this world with a whole new outlook on life. It sends you out with a radical assurance and confidence. It sends you forth in faith. Here you do not have to earn or even secure your salvation, for Christ alone payed the cost.
Now what you do in this freedom? How you live will carry with it its own cost. For there are ramifications to your faith. You bear a joy and light to a world trapped in darkness and they will want you to live in the darkness with them. They will try and snuff out the light. There will be doubts and trials and failures that will mark your life. And the greatest temptation will be when you begin to think the cost has not been paid, not for you, not completely, and so you begin to try and carry the cost yourself. In so doing you will take your eyes off our Lord, off the cross of your salvation, off the payment that has already been made, paid in full for you. And you think you need to justify the cost in your life.
But the Son of God has already paid it. He has done what you could not do. In him alone you are forgiven and sanctified. And he who paid the cost gives you his gifts so that you might endure the cost in your life each and every day. His gifts are now yours. His love is made complete in you.