Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
July 12, 2015
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin
King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for 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. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias 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.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
Wow. That’s a discouraging passage. There is so much that is so wrong in this story. I’m glad the children have Sunday School today, because this is such a gruesome story; when they do eventually learn it, I trust their Sunday School teachers to nuance it and make it suitable for their young ears. … At the risk of turning this into a really depressing sermon, let’s take a look at it.
First: Herod married his brother’s wife. This is historically accurate, according to the first-century historian Josephus and other sources. Depending on the timing of the events, if this didn’t make him an adulterer, it at least made him incestuous, for this was not only his sister-in-law, but, according to other sources, Herodias was also his niece. That’s just wrong.
Second: Herod knew John to be a “righteous and holy man,” yet he had him imprisoned. Herod “liked to listen” to John’s teachings, and Matthew’s Gospel says he “did many things,” meaning he observed many of John’s teachings, but he just couldn’t quite bring himself to make a full commitment to John’s message. That’s just wrong.
Third: Herod’s daughter—technically his step-daughter, for she was Herodias’ daughter—and biologically his niece, for she was the daughter of his brother Philip during his marriage to Herodias—danced during his birthday party. Yes, it was that kind of dance. Historians affirm it. And Herod was so “pleased” with her dancing—Eeewwwww!—that he lost his senses and made a rash promise to her. Proper women in that day were kept covered, protected, honored—and this young woman’s mother and step-father had her dance at a prominent political event. That’s just wrong.
Fourth: Herod “solemnly swore to her” to give her up to half his kingdom. The implication in the original Greek—the type of oath he took—is that he invoked God as witness to this wicked, lascivious pledge. That’s just wrong.
Fifth: What did John the Baptist have to do with this event? Absolutely nothing. But there was a grudge, and an opportunity was found to bear it out in murderous violence against an untried innocent man. That’s just wrong.
And sixth: His head? On a platter? Brought before all the guests at the birthday party? That…is just horribly, disgustingly, nauseatingly wrong.
Now, for the record, I must point out that while Matthew’s Gospel follows Mark’s account of this event quite closely, the first-century historians (Josephus included) say nothing about the daughter’s dance or about the beheading being Herodias’ idea. Historians tend to lay all responsibility for John’s death on Herod himself—not the women. Make of that what you will.
But now—John is dead. John, who leapt in his mother Elizabeth’s womb when her cousin Mary, the mother of Jesus, came to her to tell her she was with child. John, a prophet himself, whose own coming had been foretold by ancient prophets. John, the forerunner of Jesus, who came to “prepare the way of the Lord, [to] make [a] path straight” for him. John, who wore clothing of camel’s hair and ate locusts and wild honey. John, who preached, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” and who baptized those who came—Jesus included—in the Jordan River.
John is dead, and his disciples are heartbroken. They bury his decapitated corpse and they go to Jesus and his disciples—to receive comfort, to seek direction, and to warn them. Because Herod, in his guilt over taking his brother’s wife and killing John the baptist, has now heard of the wonderful deeds of power that Jesus and his disciples are doing, and is now turning a suspicious eye on them. “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised…” Herod said.
If Herod feared a living, breathing John enough to have him executed, then how much more must he have feared a resurrected or reincarnated John? And if John had come back in the form of Jesus—implausible, but what person, mad with guilt, is truly rational?—then would Herod not have to put Jesus away too? If Herod was going to put an end to all of this talk of repentance, of authority over bondage and sickness, of restoration, of God’s kingdom being here, now, he was going to have to stop this Jesus of Galilee too.
What Herod didn’t realize was that this message is unstoppable. Just like the song our kids sang during VBS—Unstoppable! Two thousand years later, the good news of God’s love through Jesus Christ still prevails, still changes hearts, still heals souls, still topples systems of injustice, still brings peace, still creates order out of chaos.
This message—this message of God’s love—is unstoppable. This power that conquers all—love—is unstoppable. Herod didn’t know that.
It seems illogical, doesn’t it, that this is the message that got the religious and political powers of Jesus’ day up in arms? Love? Just love? Wasn’t God always love? Yes, but religion, in the days of Jesus and John, had devolved into an institution that survived by kowtowing to the Roman government, and civil religion had mingled with true religion to the point that it was unclear where one started and the other left off. The mores of Roman rule were infiltrating the faithful, and allegiance to one was being mistaken for allegiance to the other.
And along came Jesus—and John—preaching a different kingdom, a reign of love, a rule of peace, the kingdom of God, and that’s when Herod and his friends began to feel threatened. If this kingdom could be entered by repentance (literally “turning around”) into allegiance to love, then what would come of the power structure under which they had benefited so much? What would come of their cushy, familiar lifestyle? A rule of love? It must be stopped!
But this message of love is unstoppable!
PBS, in its series From Jesus to Christ, takes on the question, “Why Did Christianity Succeed?” In a nutshell, it’s because of its radical interpretation of the concept of love! Here are some excerpts from the manuscript of that PBS documentary:
One of the key words we find in [much] of the earliest Christian literature is the word “love” and, okay, people have always talked about love and that’s no surprise, but [the early Christians] talk about love in a very strange way. They talk about a God who loves, a God who loves enough that he would send his very son into the world. … [Christian doctrine says], “What a remarkable thing is this, that the Son of God comes not to conquer the Romans, not to establish a political state in Israel, but to demonstrate the love that the Creator of the universe has for all people?” This shaming act that Pontius Pilate used to try to wipe out this little group is turned about, in the Christian mentality, [into a demonstration of] God’s approach to us, and therefore sets a kind of model by which people ought to relate to one another.
So what set the early Christians apart was this concept that God’s love is a sacrificial love. This was a new concept among the Jews. Until then, it was the people who were doing the sacrificing, to gain God’s favor. And because God’s love is a sacrificial love, so is ours to be, toward one another. This, too, was a new thought in a culture that would not stop to help—to touch—a bleeding person because it would make them ritually unclean. The manuscript continues:
Love is [here] being re-defined as this “other-regarding” sacrificial act, [choosing] to put oneself on the line for the sake of the good of the other, and this is grounded in the claim about the way the ultimate power and structure of the universe [God!] manifests itself in human society.
This is the unstoppable message of the gospel! Like Jesus, we are called to “put ourselves on the line for the sake of the good of the other,” because that’s what God has done in regard to us. Quite frankly, this is what makes us a church, and not a social club. The God factor—the G-Force—the difficult prophetic voice that is willing to sacrifice self for the good of the other.
If you were not here last week, you did not hear my sermon on the difficult challenge of bearing the prophetic voice in the world. I am going to email that out to all of you this week, because I feel it speaks to so many issues we’re dealing with in this church right now.
Another way to put it is in the second verse of the hymn we are going to sing in a moment:
Wider grows the holy realm, reign of love and light;
For it we must labor, till our faith is sight.
Prophets have proclaimed it, martyrs testified,
Poets sung its glory, heroes for it died.
I know that “putting ourselves on the line for the sake of the good of the other”—standing up for love, justice and peace, even when it’s not the popular view—is not an easy road. But it is a godly road. And if we stay on the godly road, Black Forest Community Church, we are unstoppable. Amen?