In Jesus we see the true reflection of what it means to be a human being, to stand in love with God and the creation, and to be truly ourselves as we are created and called to be, no matter the cost or consequences.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Time after Pentecost, Sunday 15, year B; texts: Mark 6:14-29; Amos 7:7-15
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
One of the challenges Christians have with the Bible is that it is “other” than us. It’s a set of texts from a completely different time, two to three thousand years from our time, written by a series of authors whose life and world view were shaped and formed by completely different experiences than ours, and written to cultures that are as foreign to our culture as if they were from another planet. And yet we read it regularly, not only in our weekly worship of God but in our daily lives, and we expect somehow that it will speak to us with God’s voice, that somehow we will be led to the grace of God which Jesus embodied and lives in the world. This makes for difficult struggles sometimes. If you’ve ever read a portion of Scripture and set it down and thought, “I have no idea what I’m supposed to do with this,” you know what I mean.
Of course there are ways around this. Study of the different times and cultures, study of word meanings and history, all these things help us enter the text with eyes different from our 21st century minds and lives. Sometimes that helps. But the thing is, we claim that these ancient texts are the written Word of the Triune God for us and for our lives, and that seems a more powerful claim than historical references and understandings can make. Somehow, this Word is supposed to speak to us, for us, about us, it is supposed to challenge us, comfort us, instruct us, it is supposed to point to our Lord Jesus Christ and his grace in our lives and the life of the world. Simply understanding historical context or other such things doesn’t necessarily bridge the gap between the written Word of God and us. To put it simply, no matter how much we know about Herod Antipas and John the Baptist, and Herodias and Herod Philip, and even Herod the Great, we still need to know what at all this Gospel reading today has to say to us. Otherwise all we have today is some interesting and rather sordid history, and we can move on to our Sunday afternoon activities untouched and unchanged.
There’s a theological concept that Christians have long held about God’s law that might be of help here. Christian theologians sometimes will compare God’s law to a mirror which tells only the truth about us. We hold God’s law up to our lives, in our face, and what we see is the true state of things. So, for example, we can take one of the Ten Commandments, hold it up to our lives and see what it reveals, where we fall short, where we’ve lived up to it. It helps us see the truth of our lives.
I wonder if we could adapt this approach to today’s readings. None of us likely will ever have experiences like Amos or John, speaking God’s truth boldly to rulers or presidents, and suffering the consequences. None of us likely will ever be a ruler or head of state that makes rash promises or is threatened by prophets of God. In that sense, these stories have little or nothing to do with us. But perhaps there’s some truth in each of these characters which reflects a truth about ourselves, and which might help us hear what God would have us hear about our lives, the world, and our call as children of God.
So, let’s first lift up Herod, then, and see what we might see.
First, though, the historical background would be helpful as a start. The short story is that this is Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, who was the king when Jesus was born. Herod Antipas is not technically a king, though Mark calls him such, he’s a tetrarch, who rules over one chunk of his father’s former kingdom, under the permission of the Roman emperor.
Herod the Great, his father, had a number of sons, and a number of wives, and murdered many of his sons and even some of his wives. One of his murdered sons, Aristobulus, had a daughter named Herodias. She married her uncle, Herod Philip, one of Herod the Great’s other sons. That alone was problematic. But Herod Antipas, of our story today, seduced his brother’s wife, who yes, was also his niece, and she married him, while she was still married to his brother, her other uncle. It’s an ugly story.
John the Baptist properly denounced these family values and said what everyone else was thinking, that this was wrong in God’s eyes in more than one way. Herod Antipas then threw John in jail. Now we’re caught up.
But look at what Mark says about Herod and what he thinks about John: He fears John, because he recognizes him to be righteous and holy. In other words, he knows at a deep level that John speaks truth from God, including the truth about his illicit marriage to his niece/sister-in-law.
But Mark also says that Herod “liked to listen to John,” though he often was “perplexed” when he did. We almost get the impression that Herod might have gone down to the jail cells and talked with John from time to time during this period of imprisonment. So he’s jailed him, but he respects, fears, likes, and honors John.
And yet, when he traps himself by his rash promise to Herodias’ daughter, this powerful tetrarch develops a case of powerlessness. He knows what’s right, that seems clear. He knows John’s value and who he is. He even likes him. But he can’t bring himself to act in the right way. He acts instead in an evil way.
So that’s our first mirror: how are we Herod Antipas? How often do we know the right thing to do but out of fear or shame or cowardice we do the wrong thing? He didn’t want his guests to think ill of him. He didn’t want to lose face at his party. How often is this us? Where our fear of what others might think or do to us keeps us from following God with our lives? Where our fear of the truth about our lives leads us to want to cover it up? And not only keeps us from doing the loving thing, but even leads us to do evil things, wrong things?
Herod Antipas seems uncomfortably familiar.
Now let’s lift up Herodias, too easily the villain of this story.
Clearly she’s meant by Mark to be blamed for this beheading: Herod promises the moon, her daughter gets the promise, but she asks Herodias what to do. Herodias wants John’s head.
But consider why: John has publicly humiliated her. In speaking the truth about her bigamous relationship with two of her uncles, and speaking it publicly for the court (and probably more worrisome, the commoners) to hear, John exposed her. Again, everyone already knew the truth. But having someone walk around denouncing you publicly can’t be an enjoyable experience.
So she lashes out, and when she has a chance to destroy John, she takes it. At a rational level she must know it won’t change the truth. Or stop the talking. But it doesn’t matter. He must be silenced permanently.
Here’s our second mirror: when do we look at ourselves and Herodias looks back at us? When have we been told the truth about who we are or what we’ve done and we were so embarrassed, or humiliated by it that instead of recognizing the truth we lashed out at the messenger? For we who are not public figures more often than not this happens in our intimate relationships. Someone has the audacity to call us on our misbehavior and instead of asking forgiveness we’re overwhelmed by the embarrassment and strike out against them. Clearly not to have them beheaded.
But this attitude toward the truth that Herodias displays, this reaction to embarrassment, hits awfully close to home.
Next, I think we can consider John and Amos as one mirror.
Both are prophets of God, both speak to rulers, both are told to be quiet in one way or another. And significantly, neither backs down. Amos reminds King Jeroboam’s lackey that he isn’t on the royal payroll, that he’d rather be back home in the southern kingdom tending his flocks, but that God told him to do it, so he has to do it. John presumably persisted in his preaching until Herod had little choice but to jail him.
And this becomes the interesting mirror for us: is this ever our experience? And it’s related to last week’s story of disciples being sent out. When in our daily lives are we called to speak the truth for God, and what does that mean for us?
Do we ever feel the sense Amos felt, that we are compelled to make a difference, to speak up for justice and righteousness, regardless of cost? Do we ever feel the sense John felt, that the world was and is a disaster and it needs to be cleaned up to prepare for God’s coming into the world? Or do we even ever feel the grace the twelve felt when they were sent out two by two to heal and cast out demons? Do we feel we are empowered to do the same ministry Jesus did, or do we imagine that job must be someone else’s?
And what about the truth when we have to face it? Do we stand firm, regardless of consequences, or find other ways like Herodias and Herod? Surely Amos and John must have been tempted to back down or change their tune, but they didn’t. And in speaking God’s truth to a world which needed to hear it, these two who really had no power ended up powerfully changing things, whereas the power people in these stories were powerless to stop God’s truth.
By now you may have noticed the odd absence of Jesus in our discussion so far, and perhaps a similar absence in the Gospel story. It’s a fair question, though: what does the Son of God have to do with any of this?
Well, for one, Jesus is the source of our sending. Amos and John presumably had a direct sense from God about what they were called to be and do, and so, too, we are given our orders by our Lord and Savior. Like the disciples who were just sent out by twos a few verses earlier, so we in our baptism are given the call by Jesus to go out and proclaim the coming reign of God, and to bring the grace of God. So Jesus gives us assignments similar to Amos and John. The good news about that is that we know exactly what we are to do, like Amos and John. We have a clarity of call.
But second, we also have a model for how to do this call, how to live. Jesus, more than Amos and John, models the life of a child of God, standing in a broken, evil world with the grace and love of God, no matter the consequences. Jesus doesn’t call us or even model for us the fiery preaching of John and Amos, though some of his followers might have that gift and that call. Jesus rather models for us a life of forgiveness and grace, a life where we are known by the love we have for each other and the world, a life where we stand for the transforming love of God in our words and in our actions, no matter what.
And last and most important, Jesus gives us the power to be who are meant to be, who we are called to be. The whole telling of the episode of John’s beheading comes from Herod now wondering who Jesus is. But he wonders because of what Jesus’ followers are accomplishing. Quite unexpectedly, especially after Jesus’ failure at Nazareth, the sent disciples return with amazing stories of how they were able to cast out demons, heal in Jesus’ name, preach repentance. They were so impressive that news reached Herod not only of Jesus’ preaching and power but his disciples’ preaching and power. And he wondered where that all came from.
And so we are promised to be effective in the world. I sometimes think we underestimate the power of the Spirit we are given to be new people and faithful witnesses to God’s work in Jesus in the world. It’s so strong that we ought to be making people wonder where it comes from, like Herod did. There’s no reason we can’t expect abilities beyond what we think we have.
And certainly we can expect the courage, wisdom and grace we need to act differently than Herod and Herodias, to face uncomfortable truths about ourselves with confession and trust in God’s forgiveness. To be able to face such truths and find a way to become, with the Spirit’s power, different people, holy people. Just as we certainly can expect the same courage, wisdom and grace to boldly be God’s servants as Amos and John were, no matter the consequences.
In the end, the mirror we want to look into is the face of Jesus.
That’s the true gift of the Scriptures, the written Word of God. When they lead us to Jesus, they also lead us to our call. We are made Christs ourselves in baptism, and when the Triune God looks at us, what we look like to God is in fact little Jesuses, little Christs, anointed ones in the world. That’s what God’s Word tells us. And that’s also our model to which we aspire.
And the remarkable thing about Jesus, as we saw with his disciples in this sixth chapter of Mark, is that when he sends us, or any disciples, out, he changes them to be able to be who they are sent to be, called to be, created to be. In other words, he changes us so that when we look in the mirror we actually see our true selves, the only truth that really matters, beloved children of God who are loved and who are called to love.
That’s a power that makes the powers of this world powerless, and a grace that, when shared by all of the graced children of God, can change the world.
In the name of Jesus. Amen