And You Thought Reality TV Was Bad!
A Sermon Preached at Centenary United Methodist Church
Sunday, July 15, 2012
Even in the face of deceit, treachery, and murder, the kingdom of God is never finally thwarted, but always advancing toward its fullness.
It is not always easy to do the right thing; and it is often easy to be quiet when something wrong is being done. Whether in business, church, politics, or family, we have experienced more than one occasion when doing or saying the right thing might risk for us the breakdown of a relationship or being ostracized in some way. How do we respond to the challenge to do what is right? Do we calculate what others will think, what the cost might be, how others might perceive us—or do we do the right thing even when it might cost us a relationship, our job, or our lives?
Here in Mark’s gospel, we gain insight into two broad ways of approaching the dilemma of whether to do what is right or what is expedient. If we are honest, we may see some of both of these approaches in ourselves. This striking passage, which probably needs an R rating, comes in the middle of two important events in the experience of Jesus and his disciples. Jesus has commissioned the twelve to go out into the world to preach the gospel, heal the sick, and free people from the power of evil. Then, the twelve return to report to Jesus about how God has blessed them on this, their first mission. Mark is not just filling time in his gospel while the disciples are on the road—he is trying to teach us something about the shape of Christian discipleship.
Jesus, through his own words and deeds and the ministry of his disciples, was developing quite a reputation. Herod couldn’t help but wonder who this Jesus was, where he came from, how he got so much power, why he was so popular, and whether he posed any immediate threat to him. His immediate thought was to interpret Jesus through a concept familiar in the ancient world—he was simply John the Baptist raised from the dead. Believing that the ghost of a great person often took up residence in someone else, Herod couldn’t help but wonder if John had come back from his grave to haunt him.
Herod had good reason to worry. A prophet whose message had much in common with Jesus had also gained a wide following. His name was John the Baptist. He had called people to prepare for the Messiah’s arrival by repenting of their sin. But John the Baptist had the temerity to challenge Herod, the king of
The incestuous, murderous nature of this family is astonishing, even by modern standards. Because of the numerous marriages, the family genealogy is nearly impossible to sort out. So, I want to read a bit from William Barclay’s commentary so you can get some sense of why John, and undoubtedly other devout Jews, were so disgusted with this family who ruled over them.
Barclay writes: “First, Herod married Doris, by whom he had a son Antipater, whom he murdered. Then he married Mariamne, the Hasmonean, by whom he had two sons, Alexander and Aristobulus, whom he also murdered. Herodias, the villainess of the present passage, was the daughter of this Aristobulus. (Herodias, would have been the granddauther of Herod the Great). Herod the Great then married another Mariamne, called the Boethusian. By her he had a son called Herod Philip. This Herod Philip married Herodias, who was the daughter of his half-brother, Aristobulus, and who was therefore his own niece. By Herodias, this Herod Philip had a daughter called Salome, who is the girl who danced before Herod the ruler of
You get the picture. Herod Antipas, like his father Herod the Great, used his power to get whatever he wanted from whomever he wanted it.
John had the audacity to speak the truth about Herod to his face. Herod had John thrown in prison. But something intrigued Herod about John. He was strangely drawn to the preaching of this prophet from the desert who’d had the courage to tell him the truth. Perhaps he secretly contemplated how his life might be different if he could have the courage to repent of his own sin and go down a path different from that of his father’s.
One evening, Salome, the daughter of Herodias, danced for Herod at the palace at Machareus, which stood on a lonely ridge, surrounded by terrible ravines, overlooking the east side of the Dead Sea. Dancing in a way only prostitutes would, Salome, with the approval of her mother, pleased Herod greatly. He was so enamored with this sensuous display that he rashly promised her: “Whatever you want, I will give you—up to half my kingdom.”
Salome went to her mother and asked her advice. Herodias told her, “Ask for John the Baptist’s head to be brought on a platter.” She did. And Herod, Mark says, was deeply grieved. That’s an odd response, isn’t it, for someone who had no compunction about taking his own brother’s wife. Here is a moment of decision for Herod. There is no reason he cannot refuse this request. Yes, he will look bad for a moment in front of his guests, and yes, his wife, Herodias, might become so furious with him that she leaves him. But this moment is a moment where Herod can make a break with the troubled past of his family and his own sinfulness and start down a whole new path. And perhaps he considers this—for he was deeply grieved. But, the opinion of his guests about him, and his need to please his wife, were in the end more important. So, like his father before him who’d murdered his own sons, this Herod concedes. John the Baptist is executed. His head is brought to Herodias on a platter. What a birthday present!
Herod represents many things. He is intrigued by John’s proclamation of the truth about his life, but not willing to embrace that truth. He is grieved over the prospect of John’s death, but unwilling to lose faith with his guests or his family. Thus, he misses the possibility of new life because the cost is just too great. He cannot stand the thought of being seen by his guests or his subjects as breaking a silly oath. He cannot stand the thought of his wife’s anger toward him because of his sympathy for one who had called her way of life into question. In the end, he cannot stand to be associated with this prophet who came to point the way to Jesus, the one his own father had tried to crush when he was only an infant. Intrigued, attracted, perhaps, almost persuaded—but in the end unwilling to make a break with his past, his way of life, his standing in the community.
I doubt that any of us has been involved in things quite as unseemly as Herod and his family, nor have we been in positions of great power where we have faced the moral question of how to maintain our integrity and hold on to power. But we are tempted each day in ways we do not perhaps want to acknowledge. Maybe we are not tempted to murder—but we are tempted to fail to see that because God has created all of us on this planet, there is no human being outside of the scope of God’s concern—and therefore no human being we can write off as having no claim on us. Maybe we are not tempted to do anything it takes to gain and hold political power, but we may often fail to consider what it means to say that Jesus is Lord over all things. And in light of that claim to consider whether we are putting some other loyalty ahead of that—loyalty to family, or business, or nation?
But, we are presented another alternative—another way to respond to God’s claims on us. That of course, is John the Baptist. John is an odd, somewhat frightening character to me. Frankly, I do not know how comfortable I would be with John’s demeanor or his message. He strikes me as an intense, no-nonsense sort of guy. He is consumed with being faithful to God, and he wants others to be faithful to God as well. I am not sure how well his message would be received today. We live in a time when the most popular preachers who sell the most books are able to help us adjust to the complexities of modern life rather than challenging them at their core. We often prefer messengers who show us how to cope with stress, how to manage anxiety, how to put faith to work for our own prosperity. Many churches are eager to find ways to help people feel comfortable with Jesus so they out-Disney Disney. John the Baptist comes along telling people that Jesus is coming to establish his reign upon the earth and that unless you want to be left out, you need to repent. John calls people to line up their lives so they fit God’s purpose, not to try to fit God’s purposes into their own sense of their needs. I rather think John might admire people who travel some distance each week to come downtown to worship. It would remind him of all that time he’d spent in the desert, trying to listen to God’s voice.
So, John stands up to Herod. He tells him his whole life is a sham. He makes him question everything. There are only two possible words to describe someone like that: stupid or courageous.
If a sermon is anything, it is to be a proclamation of good news. This is a difficult text because it’s hard, at least at first glance to find the good news. In this text, we come across a very messy family situation that might make Jerry Springer blush. We read about a horrible, violent execution at the end of a seductive dance that would make Dr. Phil ask, “What were you thinkin’?”
Here’s a try at an attempt to find good news. First, even in this messy, unseemly situation that involves incestuous family relations, a gross abuse of power, and a grotesque execution with the victim’s head presented on a platter, God is present. God is at work. I know it’s hard to see how immediately. But the fact that Mark tells us this story means that it was important to early Christians who needed to know how God brought salvation to the world in another person, Jesus, who lost his life under circumstances that were just as unseemly. The simple telling of this story in all its gory detail reminds us that God is not absent from the messiest of human situations. “Where can I go from your spirit,” the Psalmist asked. “If I descend to Sheol, to hell itself, you are there.” The corollary to affirming that God is present in such a situation is to remember no matter how messy our lives or the lives of people we love become, God is with us. That affirmation also comes with a challenge and a summons for those of us who can hear it and bear it; a summons to refuse to run from messy, uncomfortable situations, believing that with God’s help, we might just be the vessel through which some measure of healing and grace flows to others.
Second, there are times are efforts to confront injustice, dysfunction, abuse of power will not always be met with open arms. Indeed, we may get ourselves in a good bit of trouble trying to speak truth to power, or by insisting on obeying God’s call rather than, like Herod, doing what is expedient.
Finally, in the end, true heroes of the faith are those people who find strength and courage to be faithful even when it is costly. That’s what we learn from the prophets. That’s what we learn from John the Baptist. That’s what we learn from Jesus. That’s what we learn from Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and Desmond Tutu. With God’s help, we can become people with the spiritual strength to stand up for the right even when that is not popular, even when it may turn out to be very costly to us personally. We believe our faithfulness, even if met with great opposition, can be a vessel through God’s victory is attained.
Who was United States Senator Edmund G. Ross of Kansas? I suppose you could call him a Mr. Nobody. No law bears his name. Not a single list of Senate greats mentions his service. Yet when Ross entered the Senate in 1866, he was considered the man to watch. He seemed destined to surpass his colleagues, but he tossed it all away by one courageous act of conscience.
Let’s set the stage. Conflict was dividing our government in the wake of the Civil War. President Andrew Johnson was determined to follow Lincoln’s policy of reconciliation toward the defeated South. Congress, however, wanted to rule the downtrodden Confederate states with an iron hand.
Congress decided to strike first. Shortly after Senator Ross was seated, the Senate introduced impeachment proceedings against the hated President. The radicals calculated that they needed thirty-six votes, and smiled as they concluded that the thirty-sixth was none other than Ross. The new senator listened to the vigilante talk. But to the surprise of many, he declared that the president deserved as fair a trial as any accused man has ever had on earth.? The word immediately went out that his vote was shaky.
Ross received an avalanche of anti-Johnson telegrams from every section of the country. Radical senators badgered him to come to his senses. The fateful day of the vote arrived. The courtroom galleries were packed. Tickets for admission were at an enormous premium.
As a deathlike stillness fell over the Senate chamber, the vote began. By the time they reached Ross, twenty-four guilty votes had been announced. Eleven more were certain. Only Ross’s vote was needed to impeach the President. Unable to conceal his emotion, the Chief Justice asked in a trembling voice, “Mr. Senator Ross, how vote you? Is the respondent Andrew Johnson guilty as charged?”
Ross later explained, at that moment, “I looked into my open grave. Friendships, position, fortune, and everything that makes life desirable to an ambitions man were about to be swept away by the breath of my mouth, perhaps forever.”Then, the answer came, unhesitating, unmistakable: “Not guilty!” With that, the trial was over. And the response was as predicted.
A high public official from Kansas wired Ross to say: “Kansas repudiates you as she does all perjurers and skunks.” The open grave vision had become a reality. Ross’s political career was in ruins. Extreme ostracism, and even physical attack awaited his family upon their return home.
One gloomy day Ross turned to his faithful wife and said, “Millions cursing me today will bless me tomorrow...though not but God can know the struggle it has cost me.” It was a prophetic declaration.
Twenty years later Congress and the Supreme Court verified the wisdom of his position, by changing the laws related to impeachment.
Ross was appointed Territorial Governor of New Mexico. Then, just prior to his death, he was awarded a special pension by Congress. The press and country took this opportunity to honor his courage which, they finally concluded, had saved the country from crisis and division.
Where would we be if John the Baptist had not had the courage to speak the truth without regard for his safety and security? Where would we be if Jesus had not entered willingly into the messiness of our human lives and lived faithfully, even to the point of his death on the cross? What kind of impact could we make on the world if more of us were willing to allow a little bit of that fearless, reckless, courageous faithfulness rub off on us?