Brandishing his signature pipe, The Rev. Dr. Thomas Ridenhour peers over the rims of his glasses and stares fire into the nervous student's eyes.
What's the good news, Preacher? Huh? Huh?
The seminarian rifles through his sermon and can't find any—thus the withering stare to sear the question into the soul.
Dr. Ridenhour knows that left to their own devices, preachers will beat people up with ideals rather than lift them up with grace.
He also knows that one day his fumbling student will have to stand up and read about Herod's fatal cowardice and John's gruesome death to people who know that world only too well and have come to hear a different story, something other than the familiar, perpetual dumpster fire of human history, at least a sliver of hope to keep going.
So what is the good news in this mess we call the gospel of the Lord?
We are still here.
The world's violent insanity is nothing new; a long parade of petty powers have spilled countless buckets of blood but haven't obliterated life or canceled the sunrise yet.
Life and truth survive somehow even when prophets don't.
The many terrors of history are parts of a bigger story the church dares to name gospel; Mark writes of Herod's horrors as the setting for good news, the location where grace arrives, or to borrow John's language, the darkness in and against which the light shines.
The saga of John's demise, sordid and painfully real as it is, is backdrop.
Word of the preaching and healing of the disciples has reached the palace; God's meddling in Herod's kingdom did not die with John.
Now there are a dozen others on the loose working in the name of Jesus, whose ministry and fate are foreshadowed by John's.
Even top shelf cruelty, deception, and death cannot completely squash love and truth and life.
With John executed and buried, God introduces a new prophet.
The prophet's name is Herod.
John, whom I beheaded, has been raised, the king says.
Of all the possible explanations for the worrisome outbreak of healing and hope among the people, Herod the honest butcher settles on resurrection from the dead.
He puts his nervous, bloody finger on the good news.
God raises what we kill.
God transforms our terrible ideas into good news, which is the witness of the cross.
God turns our tragedies into salvation, our hot messes into hope.
So Mark immediately follows this story with the story of another banquet.
Thousands of common people with no power or social importance gather around Jesus and his disciples, who feed them all with five loaves, two fish, and zero severed heads.
Into the territory of the treacherous kingdom of Herod steps the kingdom of God, with welcome and nourishment and healing and hope for all.
It's a very different story than the day-to-day news full of nothing new.
Resurrection happens; life wins; truth triumphs; love endures; people matter, precisely here in this world that so desperately needs some good news for a change.
John is still dead, but those divine powers that drove him are still at work.
The sun still rises, the light still shines, grace still persists.
In us and in spite of us, God's goodness lives on.