SERMON 7/15/12 Pentecost 7B
2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19; Psalm 24; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29
When we find ourselves in a hopeless place, a culpable place, a hurt or wounded place, it is the Good News of God in Christ that shines light into our darkness. As we enter the story in the Gospel today, we find Jesus on the scene, changing things up and bringing Good News to those possessed of broken spirits and those who were sick, blind, and lame, but Herod Antipas was distraught and a little frightened at what was going on in his little “neck of the woods.”
Herod Antipas was a 1st-century ruler of Galilee and Perea, and he bore the title of tetrarch (“ruler of a quarter”). Antipas inherited these territories from his father Herod the Great and ruled them as a client state of the Roman Empire. He was responsible for building projects at Sepphoris and Betharamphtha, and more important for the construction of his capital Tiberias on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Named in honor of his patron, the emperor Tiberius, the city later became a center of rabbinic learning. Antipas was no unknown, weak, or puppet ruler as is depicted sometimes on film and screen, he was a central figure in the life of this region. Despite his power and influence, Herod had a great secret. In fact, with his actions at the recent banquet of death, at which John the Baptist was executed, he has added deeds that are even more shameful to his repertoire.
Why was Herod afraid of Jesus? Deep problems with his personal relationships seemed to be a pattern for him. Early in his reign, he married the daughter of King Aretas IV of Nabatea. However, on a visit to Rome he stayed with his half-brother Herod Philip I and there fell in love with Philip’s wife, Herodias, (granddaughter of Herod the Great and Mariamne I and his niece), and the two agreed to marry each other, after Herod Antipas had divorced his wife. This would be Herod’s downfall and eventually lead to a war with Aretas, a defeat, and eventual exile as King. Herod, needless to say, had some issues.
John the Baptizer did not hesitate to point out Herod’s folly of marrying not only his niece (against Jewish law), but for divorcing his wife and marrying his brother’s wife (also in conflict with Jewish law). I believe that Herod was deeply troubled with his own actions, because he liked to hear John speak. Maybe John’s call to repentance gave Herod some hope that there was light that could shine in his own relational darkness. Nevertheless, Herod’s wife became a voice that eventually influenced him to silence the accuser, and of course, she had another plan. We know the story where there was a seductive dance, a character challenge, and finally an execution. Herod succumbed to the pressure because he faced the disdain of his friends and the threat to his popularity, had he not carried through with his premature promises. John died because of Herod’s choices.
Herod, like most of us, was wrestling with his own demons. He was torn between his adulterous relationship and the offer to pursue repentance and amendment of life, and because of this tension, he was led to choices that brought destruction on others. Herod rejected the call to change, to become new, to experience grace and forgiveness. He silenced the voice of Kingdom living, despite how much he considered himself a fan of John. Then, he heard that Jesus was casting out demons, healing people, and doing deeds of power, and Herod feared, John had been raised from the dead. The message of God that is calling us to change, despite our resistance, cannot be squelched.
Being a fan of Jesus may be considered a good thing, but our salvation is not about admiring Jesus, but about how the Gospel makes us more like Jesus, not that we feel good? C.S. Lewis once said, “I didn’t go to religion to make me ‘happy,’ I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.’ Herod was a fan of John and later of Jesus but when John’s message became a little too uncomfortable for him; he silenced the voice. “Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.” Herod liked sitting on the sideline, watching John do his work, hearing him preaching repentance, and calling others to change, but he kept his distance. The message was a little too close to his personal brokenness.
You can silence the messenger, but the message always remains. In today’s reading, John is dead but now Jesus was on the scene and Herod was afraid. Herod faced Jesus later on in the story when Pontius Pilate sent him over for trial. Herod wanted to be a fan of Jesus too, not because of his call to enter the Kingdom of God, his call to transformation and grace, but because he wanted to be perplexed and entertained. “Show us miracle Jesus, dance for me” was his response to the message, not “change me, enter into my darkness and show light, excise my wounds, and heal me.” The message of the one who “prepared the way,” and the ministry of “Immanuel, God with us” sounded good and it was entertaining, but the cost of letting it sink in was too great, it required a death but not of the messenger. It required Herod to die to his old ways. In order for us to experience the new life the Gospel brings, we need to die to who we have been. As difficult as this may sound, discipleship leads to death.
The Good News, the Gospel is a balm to the injured, the bandage of hope to the brokenhearted, the salve of hope and new life. As followers of Jesus, we must face that we have been wounded in some deep, profound way. For most of us, there is a hurt that we put away and have kept in a box for a long time. Maybe that wound was one inflicted upon us. May it is a wound, we inflicted on another. Maybe we brought a hurt upon ourselves because of our own choices. Whatever the case may be, each of us carry the burden of injury, and it is painful.
Herod had wounded others, and he in turn had been wounded by his choices. He needed healing. For whatever reason, sometimes we reject the soothing balms the Gospel offers us, which could bring healing and restoration. The pain of bringing that all up again though may be too great and so, our wounds remain. Herod listened to John, but from a distance. Herod liked John’s teaching, but he never allowed the message to get close enough to excise his wounds. Sometimes we wait too long, the wound festers, the damage goes deeper, and the healing may require extensive surgery. Herod waited, and in so doing, he wounded John, he silenced him, he killed the healer. It is then, that facing the possible pain of cleaning out of the wound, cutting out the infection, and enduring the subsequent healing process, may be too much for us, because it is a long and arduous process. The reality is, we have to endure pain, and we may have to endure death so that we might experience resurrection.
There is no Easter day without Good Friday. There is no resurrection without death. There is no new life, until we die to the old life. The Good News that God’s love brings about new life, is a healing balm and it restores us to healthy relationships with God and each other. The Good News requires us to let the Great Healer work on the deep wounds of our souls, so that healing will come. The Good News requires us to die to ourselves, so that we can experience new life. It happens now once, but day after day, week after week, year after year. The Benedictines have a saying, ““We fall and get back up, we fall, and get back up, and we fall and get back up.” We are called to die every day, so that we can experience a glimpse of resurrection every day.
The tragedy of the story of the beheading of John is obvious. There is another human tragedy in this story and that is Herod’s tragedy. A man finds himself face-to-face with the possibility of grace, forgiveness, healing and new life, and he chooses death instead. For us, following Jesus may require us to let go of something we would rather not, to bring up an old wound that is still painful, to face a dark part of our lives that remains hidden. If we can offer that up to God, we can experience life afresh. God gives us the strength and courage to die to our brokenness, so that God’s grace can raise us to joy, peace, and reconciliation the Good News of God in Christ proclaims.