Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Choice...

My heartfelt thanks to The Rev. Dr. Delmer Chilton, Sally A. Brown, and Emerson Powery for their insights on the Gospel and Epistle readings.

Oh, the part where I say "For Herod, the hens came home to roost on his birthday...?" I almost wrote, "things came to a head..." Some puns do not need to be made.
Mark 6:14-29
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.

This is the Word of the Lord.

You’ve heard the phrase “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree?” It might have originated with Herod Antipas. The man in our Gospel reading today is the son of the Herod who, decades before, when he heard about the birth of the Messiah, had ordered that all male children less than two years old be put to death. Antipas grew up in a royal household defined by intrigue, greed, and murder. That he’d grown up at all was an accomplishment; the elder Herod had a reputation for being so obsessed with protecting his own power that he went as far as to have his wife and two of his sons killed.

When his father finally died, Herod Antipas inherited a portion of his father’s territory, which was split up by Caesar Augustus between Antipas and three of his brothers. He also inherited his father’s love of all things Roman, and the conviction that he could have and do anything he wanted, so long as he made sure Rome was happy.

As an example of this, while visiting Rome, Antipas had stayed with his brother, Phillip, and had fallen, madly and mutually, in love with Phillip’s wife, Herodius. So Antipas simply divorced his own wife, forced Phillip to divorce Herodius, and married her.

For obvious reasons, it was horrifying to the residents of Galilee – to every Jewish person, really. Thus John the Baptist had been speaking out against the marriage. Now, I’m sure he wasn’t alone in his open and passionate criticism of Herod, but John’s popularity among the residents of Galilee meant that his words carried a lot of weight, and that represented a danger to Herod Antipas’ authority, and this of course meant that John the Baptist couldn’t be allowed to speak…

John was arrested and thrown into chains. Herodius made it clear to Herod that she wanted John killed, but Antipas was, apparently, more scared of John the Baptist than he was of his wife. After all, though Herod had been educated in Rome and was steeped in Greek and Roman culture and habits, he was (at least by birth) a Jew, and he had to have been familiar with the prophets. What of the rumors were true, and John the Baptist was Elijah, returning to prepare the way for the coming Messiah? What if this wild-haired man dressed in animal skins was right, and Herod needed to repent?

I can imagine a sleepless, tormented Herod going down the stairs under his palace night after night, descending into the dark, stinking recesses of the dungeon where John was kept under guard, barely fed and living in filth, and talking softly, out of the earshot of the guards.

And I can imagine him coming back up those stairs later, head spinning from words he couldn’t comprehend, mulling over concepts he couldn’t grasp… and night after night, he’d be back, braving the stench and the rodents to listen to the prophet speak from behind the locked door of his cell.

The Reverend Doctor Delmer Chilton says that Herod Antipas is a “perplexed seeker, a dabbler in the mysteries of God. He believes just enough to keep him awake at night but not enough to change his way of living.”

After all, for Herod Antipas to repent certainly meant giving up Herodias, and may well have included giving up his stranglehold on power, giving up his comfortable life. There’s very little doubt that, night after night, Herod was challenged to change, and night after night Herod had the opportunity to change, and honestly? If Herod had really wanted to change, he would have. But there was money to be made, parties to be had, and more power to gain.

I think that, all too often, Dr. Chilton’s description of the perplexed seeker would fit many Christians, including me. How many of us keep holy things hidden away in the basement of our lives – not willing to throw them out, but not really sure what to do with them?

Honestly, many of us live our lives without paying much attention to the holy. There’s too many other, more immediate things going on, after all. There’s work to be done, entertainment to be had, television to watch… and besides, who knows how taking all that stuff seriously might challenge us to be different? Truth be told, most of us are happy with the way we are. We don't want to change; if we really wanted to, we would.

For Herod Antipas, the hens came home to roost on his birthday. There was a party, plenty of guests, and part of the entertainment was a dance by Herod Antipas’ daughter, who Josephus tells us was named “Salome.”

Now, I’ve heard this dance portrayed as not much more than a striptease. You may have heard Salome’s dance referred to as “the dance of the seven veils,” but I want to suggest something far less risqué. The word used to describe Herod’s daughter here in our reading is the same Greek word that is used for the little girl we spoke about a few weeks ago, the one that Jesus raised from the dead. Perhaps Salome just did a very darling little performance, and everyone thought it was precious.

Whatever the case, though, Herod resorted to utter hyperbole to thank Salome for her performance. “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.”

And of course we know what happens next… but what if it hadn’t gone that way? What if, even before that birthday party, Herod Antipas had put aside his confusion and gone with what John was saying? What if at that party, when Salome told him what she desired, he’d ignored the complete loss of reputation, the rage of his wife, the shame of of going back on his word, and had spared John’s life?

I don’t want to make Herod a sympathetic figure here, because there’s ample historical evidence to prove that the man was, consistently, a slimeball. But I have to wonder how often we ourselves are confronted with choices – not life-or-death decisions that end up with someone’s head on a platter, but choices that are, in their own way, no less important: whether to follow the call of God or to stick with the safe, the familiar, the socially acceptable?

And what do I mean when I use phrases like “the call of God?” Is this merely a change of habits, making it a point to do good things and engage in regular Bible study and meditation? Well, make no mistake, these kinds of things are important, even vital, to our faith journey. But there’s more to the story than simply changing our actions. Paul touches on it in our Epistle reading today, I think. Hear the Word of God from the first chapter of the book of Ephesians, verses three through fourteen:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people, to the praise of his glory.”

Christians, we are not merely members of a group that picks Sunday morning for our get-togethers, we are the adopted children of the living God! We have been lavished with priceless gifts like redemption, forgiveness, and a spiritual inheritance of which the gift of the Holy Spirit is the seal!

God chose us “in Christ,” and thus every experience is reframed, from our most bracing joys and cherished achievements to our frustrations, our temptations, our most anguished regrets, and our most wounding losses. “In Christ” we are joined to the power and presence of God. “In Christ” we are knit to others who will cry over our dead with us, even as they help us sing hymns of resurrection.

At the same time, being “in Christ” is no sentimental togetherness. “In Christ,” our community has to reckon with the fact that we will be perceived at times as more of a threat than a blessing. Part of the “in Christ” community’s calling is to be a truth-telling, truth-living reflection of the God who has called it into being.

No, we may not be able to avoid trouble, to escape pain or danger or suffering. Frankly, I wish I could be one of those kinds of preachers who say if you pray this way or think that way or give your money to this or that ministry, God will give you a Cadillac and plenty of money and you’ll never be sick.

But I do know this: God’s plan for “the fullness of time” – gathering all things to God’s self – means that, whatever the wild and boundless Spirit of God leads us to and leads us through, we can be assured of two things: First, we never, ever go alone! We have the indwelling Holy Spirit, the very presence of God with us each step of the way, and we have one another, the Body of Christ, the community of believers to guide, encourage and support us in even our darkest hours.

And second, we know where this faith journey leads. Our inheritance awaits us, most assuredly, in the now-and-coming Kingdom of God! From the first epistle to the Thessalonians, chapter four, verses sixteen and seventeen: “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.

It’s funny, isn’t it? Last week, the residents of Jesus’ home town were offended by what Jesus had to say, and they turned away. This week, we read that Herod Antipas was perplexed by what John had to say, and ended up choosing to save face and mollify his wife. At the same time, throughout the Gospels, the disciples struggled to comprehend Jesus’ words and actions again and again.

The difference between all of them is that the disciples took a chance. When Jesus sent them out two by two, when he told them to fish for tax money or go find a guy carrying a jug of water, when he said to distribute a handful of food to a crowd of thousands, when he told them to cast their net on the other side of the boat, they did it! And on Pentecost they felt the wind of the Holy Spirit and caught the breeze. It took them places they never imagined, and may never have chosen to go, but in the end it was all worth it!

Because we are “in Christ,” and because Christ has died, and because Christ is risen, and because Christ will come again, we may not know where our faith journey goes… but we most certainly know where it leads!

And for this we say, Thanks Be To God!

1 comment:

  1. Nice job, John.

    I like the Chilton quote rather a lot and will probably need to use it in the future.

    But I totally would have used the pun. Or possibly have even moved it to the description of Salome doing her dance in an effort to get ahead in life.