Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Seventh after Pentecost

Mark 6: 14-29

Good morning and grace and peace.  The reading from Mark familiar to us not simply from our Bible reading but also and perhaps more vividly from countless paintings and plays and cinematic representations.   The passage begins as King Herod begins to hear the buzz about Jesus--his preaching of the need of repentance and new life, his miracles of healing, casting out demons, announcing that the Kingdom is at hand,  gathering great, enthusiastic crowds.  

This is “Herod Antipas,” one of the sons of Herod the Great, who was the king we heard about back when the Wise Men from the East came searching for the newborn king.   It’s not clear that Herod Jr.  makes any connection, whether he might be recalling some story his father might have told him about his fears  when he first heard of the supposed birth in the Davidic City of Bethlehem of  a Jewish Messiah foretold in the ancient scriptures. 

But what he hears about Jesus does trigger another memory for Herod, and a then a powerful cascading of anxiety.  Just as Jesus was doing now, John the Baptist had some time ago rolled onto the scene with a passionate and compelling message.  Also gathering big crowds, which always worries tyrants and dictators.  Calling the people of Jerusalem and Judea to take their blinders off and to see just how far they and their political and religious and cultural leaders had wandered from the pathway of life that God had intended for them.  How bad things are both in how they are conducting their personal lives and in terms of the society around them.  Calling them to turn around before it was too late.  Before they would be swept up into the chaos of complete darkness and evil.   Revolutionary talk.

And at that John had with boldness pointed the finger not simply at some generic  class of leaders, but directly at the conduct and character of Herod himself.  He made it way personal.  Although Herod ruled this Jewish people he was not himself Jewish, descended from the line of Greek autocrats that had first shown up in the region with Alexander the Great--and Herod’s public manner of life was rife with harsh in-your-face  immorality, shocking and offensive certainly to the sensibilities of a Jewish community rooted in the moral culture of Scripture.  He was known and even seemingly proud and ostentatious about his greed and cruelty, his gluttony, his disregard for any ordered sense of sexual conduct or the dignity and sacred character of marriage.  

John made it all real personal, pointed the finger, denounced the unholy marriage of the king to the woman who had been his sister-in-law--and the consequence was inevitable.  Arrest, imprisonment, torture.  You just don’t mess with the king.  And it would have been automatically a death sentence, except—and this is so interesting--except that Mark seems to say to us here that somehow  in spite of everything John had managed to find a chink in the armor of the king.  His word had penetrated, touched a place of vulnerability.   Herod hated John for what he was saying, and yet he found it hard to turn away, to stop listening, because at some deep-down level, Herod found himself wrestling with his own conscience, some glimmer of recognition, the poignancy of conviction, with a sense gradually emerging that what John was saying  just might be true.  The Evil King wanted to turn away from John, turn to a different channel, but he just couldn’t.

I don’t know.  Maybe you’ve been there.  I have, that’s for sure.  A little Herod in all of us.  That moment when the people who seem to be against you suddenly seem to be the people who know you best.  Maybe even better than you know yourself.  Who see right through the façade.  So Herod is torn, until this cinematic dinner party, music, feasting, drunken laughter, and behind the scenes the plotting of Herodias, the wife of the King, who is beginning to see that her husband is beginning to question his actions in regard to their marriage.  And then Salome’s seductive dance—the alluring highlight of all those C.B. DeMille movie scenes--and the rest is history.  The gruesome head on the platter, now haunting the dreams of the king as the days and weeks and months and years roll along.
And now: Jesus--and it all comes back at once, and the sudden crushing weight of the memory is such that Herod can hardly breathe.  As if the Baptist himself has returned from the dead.

The gospels share John the Baptist with us as a kind of anticipation and forerunner and even key and clue about Jesus.  All four gospels seem to say that for us really to understand the story of Jesus, the story of John the Baptist is essential.  Like Jesus, John’s birth was remarkable, foretold in scripture, announced by an angel.  Like Jesus, John had a work of proclamation about repentance, calling the people to a renewal of life in a restored right relationship to God, who was about to come among us in power with judgment and authority.  Like Jesus, John came into conflict with civil and religious authorities because of this proclamation.  Like Jesus, John was executed by those authorities.  Like Jesus, John had disciples who cared for him, even in death, and who took his body out from the place of execution and laid it in a tomb.  “A voice crying in the wilderness: prepare ye the way of the Lord.  Make his paths straight.”

If we want to understand what God is about in Jesus, what God has done, Mark is telling us, we can let this story of John the Baptist settle in and teach us.  To show us first of all what it is that we’re up against.  Which is where this story of John’s execution brings us.  The Herods of this world.  What Paul in Romans 8 may be thinking of.  “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness or peril or sword?  As it is written, “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”  What drove Herod the Great to the Massacre of the Children of Bethlehem—and what pushed his son in that moment of drunken vulnerability to order the execution of John.  This cosmic battle not “out there” but in here—inside, in the human heart.  In me, in you.  Serious business.

If we want to understand what God is about in Jesus.  If we want to understand what Jesus had in mind for us, for you and me, as he held us in his mind and in his heart at the Cross, we can let this story of John the Baptist settle in and teach us.  If we need to be taught.  About the cruel and dark and horrific inevitability of sin and the consequences of sin. The children of Bethlehem in all their innocence were helpless, without defense.  Even John in the strength of his spiritual power and proclamation of the truth fell before the power of wickedness.  On our own any of us might put up a good fight for a while, but the end is darkness.   If we don’t get that, we won’t every really understand why Jesus matters.  How desperately we need him.

As Martin Luther sang, “Did we in our own strength confide, that striving would be losing.  Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing.”  John cries in the Wilderness, and the pathway is opened.  “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”    “He is on his way!” John announces.  And then as promised, Jesus arrives with power, Cross and Resurrection.  Again Romans 8, which I keep connecting to as I read this story:  “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor thing things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Herod may be strong,  but there is one who is stronger still.  The forces of Evil are great, but their end is certain.

The John the Baptist story seems to be one that is about defeat, the good falling before the bad, the worst of our humanity triumphant over the best that humanity can offer.  A story that may be one we sometimes believe even about ourselves.  That we are powerless and doomed to defeat and darkness.  But then we would see that the story of John pushes us on further.  Forcing us to look straight on into the darkness, and then through the darkness to what God has done and is doing.

I’m reminded  of what is as you might remember one of my favorite films.  

In the 2006 movie Superman Returns there is a scene at the beginning.  Superman has returned to Metropolis after many years on some kind of unspecified task far away, I can’t remember the details.  A sabbatical.  And he discovers that in his absence things seem to have changed.  At one time he was cheered as a hero, but now he seems to be regarded more as a problem, a disruption.  He wants to be involved, but he is turned away again and again by people who feel like they no longer need the kind of help he can offer.  Even his old flame Lois Lane has moved on.  A new job, a new boyfriend.  A boyfriend that Superman has real concerns about.  Not that Lois will listen to what he has to say.  She has this amazing conversation with the Man of Steel.  “You seem to think it’s your job to save the world,” she tells him.  “But the fact of the matter is, the world doesn’t need a savior, and neither do I.”

The fact of the matter is, we don’t need a savior.  

Well—if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know that Lois has spoken a bit too soon.  Lex Luthor and his evil gang are even as Lois is speaking at work to bring on chaos and destruction, with a full dose of Kryptonite, and things are about to go very bad indeed. 

That’s what Mark’s gospel has for us this morning.  To say, to remind us, that if we think we don’t need a savior, that Jesus is optional, then we’d better think again.  Because the reality is that in our world and in our lives, without that savior, it’s going to be all Herod, all the time.

Thanks be to God, that’s not how the story ends.  And for us to remember that as we open the newspaper and as we look into the mirror and into our own heart.  Not how the story ends.  No matter how deep the darkness the lights come on at last in the singing of the old Easter hymn.  “Death is conquered we are free, Christ has won the victory.”

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