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Sermon for Sunday 11 July 2021

First Reading: Amos 7:7-15

7This is what {the Lord God} showed me: behold, the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. 8And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “Behold, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass by them; 9the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.” 10Then Amaziah the priest of Bethel sent to Jeroboam king of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the midst of the house of Israel. The land is not able to bear all his words. 11For thus Amos has said, ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.’” 12And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, and eat bread there, and prophesy there, 13but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” 14Then Amos answered and said to Amaziah, “I was no prophet, nor a prophet’s son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs. 15But the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’”

Psalm 85:1-13

1You have been gracious to your land, O Lord, you have restored the good fortune of Jacob. 2You have forgiven the iniquity of your people and blotted out all their sins. 3You have withdrawn all your fury and turned yourself from your wrathful indignation. 4Restore us then, O God our Savior; let your anger depart from us. 5Will you be displeased with us forever? will you prolong your anger from age to age? 6Will you not give us life again, that your people may rejoice in you? 7Show us your mercy, O Lord, and grant us your salvation. 8I will listen to what the Lord God is saying, for he is speaking peace to his faithful people and to those who turn their hearts to him. 9Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land. 10Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. 11Truth shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven. 12The Lord will indeed grant prosperity, and our land will yield its increase. 13Righteousness shall go before him, and peace shall be a pathway for his feet.

Second Reading: Ephesians 1:3-14

3Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. 7In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. 13In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

Gospel: Mark 6:14-29

14King Herod heard of {Jesus’ works}, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some said, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” 15But others said, “He is Elijah.” And others said, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” 17For it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. 18For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, 20for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly. 21But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. 22For when Herodias’s daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests. And the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.” 23And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.” 24And she went out and said to her mother, “For what should I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist.” 25And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. 27And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison 28and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. 29When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

Pride and Guilt and Promises and Regret, Oh My!

I have a confession this morning: I’m always amazed at how people can get hooked on soap opera type shows.  These stories are ridiculously exaggerated portrayals of highly dysfunctional families, and sometimes they’re filled with what one could call royal intrigue.  I realize that these stories are so outlandish that they could never happen in real life; or could they?  My opinions aside, if you really do like these types of riveting stories, might I suggest you look no further than our New Testament reading for today, the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus, and the lives of the Herod family.

Herod the Great was the patriarch of this particular and peculiar family and, as you may recall, he ruled Palestine from about 36 BC to 4 BC.  History records that he was, quite literally, an evil genius.  He was a great builder who was responsible for rebuilding the temple of Jerusalem, the fortress at Masada, and many other colossal projects.  He was a savvy businessman and a partner of Cleopatra in a business venture that extracted tar from the natural tar pits near the Dead Sea and used it to create a sort of primitive asphalt which they sold all over the Roman empire.

History would also lead you to conclude that Herod the Great was criminally insane, paranoid, and depressive.  Evidence suggests that everywhere he looked, he saw conspiracies that threatened his rule, and as a result, he was responsible for the execution of several of his wives and sons.  This is the same Herod who met the three Magi and was responsible for the slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem shortly after the birth of Jesus.  He died in 4 BC, about the time of Jesus’s birth, and, by all accounts, his death from chronic kidney disease and gangrene was long, slow, and excruciatingly painful.  Now while recognizing that one must to be careful about judging another person, when it comes to people like Herod, people who are power hungry, greedy, vengeful and absolutely self-serving, it leaves us to wonder, does God allow for appropriate judgment to take place in this world and in the next?

When Herod the Great died, his kingdom was divided among three of his sons: Herod Archelaus was given the territories of Samaria, Judea, and Edom.  However, within a very short time, Herod Archelaus proved himself to be totally incompetent and was deposed by Caesar Augustus in favor of a Roman prefect named Valerius Gratus who was then replaced by Pontius Pilate in 29 AD.  Herod Philip received the “territories east of Jordan and Herod Antipas was given the region known as Galilee where he reigned for 41 years.  At some point, around 30 AD, Herod Antipas traveled to Rome where his half-brother Philip had a house, and he was invited to stay with Philip and his wife, Herodias.

It wasn’t long before Antipas and Herodias found themselves drawn to each other and engaged in a torrid affair behind Philip’s back, and before Antipas left, he and Herodias pledged to divorce their respective spouses and marry each other.  As anyone who has seen even a few episodes of “All My Children”, “General Hospital”, or “The Days of Our Lives” can tell you, this was a bad idea.

Antipas’ wife heard about the plan, and knowing that the Herod men had, in the past, practiced a kind of divorce that involved having their wives accused of treason and then having them executed, she fled to her father Aretas, king of Nabatea, who refused to accept such an insult to his daughter and vowed revenge against Antipas.  This is just one more fascinating aspect of this soap opera story; a story we’ll leave for another day.  Meanwhile, Herodias declared herself divorced from Philip.

Jewish law, at that time, did not allow for a woman to divorce her husband, but Herodias, Philip and Antipas were also Roman citizens, so they conveniently hid behind that loop pole.  Herodias filed the appropriate papers and off she went to join Antipas in Galilee.  (Just to add one more tidbit to this intriguing tale of debauchery, Josephus records that Herodias also had another husband before Philip, whom she never bothered to divorce; but why should that surprise us?)  Back to Jewish law, Herodias has married her husband’s brother while her husband was still alive, and according to Jewish law, that was considered incest.  Now, enter, John the Baptist…

If you will allow me to refresh your memory, last week’s gospel lesson ended with Jesus giving His disciples instructions for going out to spread the gospel.  He told them to travel light, be good guests wherever they stayed, and, if their ministry was rejected, to shake the dust from their feet as they left as a testimony against that town before moving on to someplace else.  As the disciples head out, Mark pauses to bring us up to date on the life and ministry of John the Baptist using a literary device known as a flashback.  We know it’s a flashback because earlier, in chapter 1, verse 14, Mark told us that Jesus didn’t start His ministry until “after John was arrested.”  It’s interesting that Mark at this point feels that it’s necessary to fill in some narrative holes.

Up to this point John the Baptist and Herod Antipas have seeming enjoyed a fairly tolerable, if not cordial, relationship.  We’re told that Herod “liked to listen to him.”  Some scholars interpret this statement to mean that Herod listened to John from a distance and was a fan of his rhetorical skills.  Others believe that he may have invited John into the palace for lively discussions about theology and Jewish law and whatnot.  What’s important to note, is that all that is about to end. 

John, a man called by God from the womb to announce the coming Messiah, was a man of deep convictions, zero political correctness and obviously a man of no fear, tells Herod, in a very public way, that his marriage was an incestuous one; one that is illegal and immoral, and he must divorce Herodias, and send her, and her daughter, (who is now, by the way, Herod’s stepdaughter and niece) away.  Herodias catches wind of this and gets both angry and scared.  Herodias wants revenge.

Herodias likes the power, the wealth and status and as such, had gone “all in” with Herod Antipas.  If she were kicked out, she’d have nowhere to go.  No power, no wealth no safety net.  She had burned her bridges with her ex-husband.  In the first century, she and her daughter would literally be, on the street.  Add to this the Herod men’s history of having their ex-wives executed on trumped up charges, one can imagine her fears.  So she reacts as any good soap opera character would do, she goes to Antipas, throws a hissy fit and tells him that she is hurt, humiliated and deeply offended by John the Baptist and, who does he think he is, anyway?  

Why, in any other country if a man — prophet or not –— said something like that about the king and the queen, he would be put to death, immediately.  You can almost picture Herodias’ temper tantrum play out as you read the story.  But Herod Antipas was reluctant to do this because he appreciated John and he enjoyed their talks.

Besides, John was a respected Jewish holy man who was righteous in every way according to Jewish law.  So Herod thinks the easy way out is to have John thrown in prison instead of having him killed.  Many scholars believe that the prison John was in was a kind of protective custody.  He, like the Apostle Paul in Rome, was under arrest, but probably treated fairly well, all things considered.  Some believe Herod continued to have talks with John while keeping him out of the public eye.  As you can imagine, this did not satisfy Herodias’ desire to be rid of John.  She had a grudge and she wanted him silenced permanently, so she continued to look for an opportunity.  Apparently, she didn’t have to wait long.

A few weeks later, Herod throws himself a big birthday bash.  He invites all his courtiers, officers, the satraps, governors, and other high-ranking officials of Galilee and, in the Roman tradition, it was a multi-day, drunken, blowout of a shindig.  Mark tells us that at one point during the party, his stepdaughter/niece, who was also named Herodias, after her mother, came in and danced for Herod and his guests. 

Whether Herod was simply an enthusiastic patron of the art of dance, or a drunken letch being seduced by his teenage stepdaughter, we cannot know, but he offered to reward the girl for her wonderful dance and told her she could name her own prize, anything she wanted, up to half of his kingdom.  Confused and a little taken aback by the generosity of Herod’s offer, she ran to her mother and asked for her advice and, here, momma Herodias sees her chance and takes it.  Mark is clear in what happened next: “What shall I ask for?” the girl asked. 

Immediately, momma Herodias ceases the opportunity and replied, “The head of John the Baptist.”  To this the young Herodias wastes no time in returning to Herod.  “I want you to give me, at once, the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”  Talk about a sobering moment.  Here Herod sits, he’s made an ill-advised and most likely drunken promise, and his pride won’t allow him to lose face in public.  Mark paints for us the impending result: Herod was “deeply grieved yet, out of regard for his oaths and his guests, he did not want to refuse her.”  He sends a member of his bodyguard with orders to see to the execution and when the head of the Baptist was brought forth, the girl receives it without hesitation and, in turn, gives it to her mother.  Mark then concludes the story by telling us that, when John’s disciples heard about his death they came, took his body, and laid it in a tomb. 

The story of the death of John the Baptist, as distasteful as it is, does help us understand a couple of things.  First it shows us that Jesus was not the reincarnation of John the Baptist or Elijah or one of the other Old Testament prophets as some believed.  Jesus is as unique an individual as was His cousin, John the Baptist.  Second, it shows that John the Baptist was not raised from the dead as some were, no doubt, claiming was the case.  

Here, Mark makes it clear that John was a prophet of God who was martyred for speaking truth to power as was oftentimes the case with God’s prophets.  The Lives of the Prophets, an apocryphal book written at some time during the life of Jesus, said that many of the ancient prophets died this kind of death.  For example, the prophet Isaiah was, according to legend, sawed in half for confronting King Manasseh.  Jeremiah was allegedly stoned to death for speaking an unpopular truth to the ancient Egyptians.  Ezekiel was supposedly “killed by the Chaldeans.”  Micah was ordered executed by King Jehoram.  Amos was said to have been tortured by Amaziah the high priest and murdered by Amaziah’s son.  Zechariah was beheaded beside the altar in the temple by order of King Jehoash.  And of course, the martyrdom of God’s chosen messengers didn’t stop with the Old Testament messengers.

By the time Mark wrote his gospel, sometime around 65 AD, it’s likely that Stephen had been stoned to death, Paul had been beheaded, Peter had been crucified, James the brother of Jesus, had been thrown from the wall of the temple, then stoned to death, James the son of Zebedee had been executed by Herod Agrippa, and Andrew was crucified in Greece, all for speaking truth to power.  Sadly, John the Baptist just was one in the endless line of martyrs that was the prophetic tradition.  One thing we do know is, John was not the Messiah.  And that was, to a great degree, Mark’s point in telling us this story.  But he had another point as well.  For us, the story of John the Baptist’s death is the story of two men and two promises. 

Herod Antipas was the king whose worldly power was the power of life and death over others.  He had the power to take a life, but he was powerless to save the life of an innocent man whose only crime was telling the truth.  Filled with pride, desperation, fear, and now exposed, Herod was willing to sacrifice the life of another, an innocent man of God, in order to save face.  He directed the death of an innocent man in order to maintain his temporal honor, prestige, and power in front of other evil men.  John the Baptist, on the other hand, was the innocent, the exact opposite of Herod, God’s witness who was willing to sacrifice himself in order to proclaim God’s word of truth.

Herod was the king whose promise became his prison, who found himself bound hand and foot by his own words, unable to act, except in the cause of self-preservation.  John was the pauper, the desert hermit, dressed in animal skins, who was so detached from his sense of self, that he was able to speak truth to power with no thought of the personal consequence.  Herod was a symbol of the old way, the empire who ruled by the power of violence, oppression, and despair.

John was the forerunner of the One who was coming, the One who would announce the dawn of a new kingdom, a kingdom of love, and light, and life.  John was sent to prepare the way for Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God, in whose name we gather, and whose name we have taken upon ourselves in baptism.

At last, this story of the beheading of John the Baptist teaches us the pitfalls of pride, of guilt, of hasty and ill-advised promises, and of regret.  In this world we can, by devious and unscrupulous means achieve power, wealth, and prestige, but this will do us no good on the day of judgement.  And it just might be our prison in this world as well!  This story also teaches us that speaking to God’s word of truth to power can be costly. 

Our willingness to speak truth to power can be costly, at least in terms of this world’s estimation, and many have paid the ultimate price for their witness.  But despite the cost in this life, we have nothing to fear.  One thing is certain, because Jesus defeated death in His resurrection, death does not have the final word for the child of God.  Jesus promised, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it (Matt. 16:25). Amen.

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