No One Man Should Have All That Power: A Sermon on Mark 6

 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some weresaying, ‘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.  – Mark 6:14-29

Dear friends in Christ, grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Creator and from our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Some days are just jaw-dropping, earth-shaking shockers. Pure disasters. There are some days that, no matter how you shake it, it’s just a bombshell. The morning of September 11th is one of those days. Anyone who watched the news that morning, and in the days to follow, was simply stunned.  September 11th, 2001 is one of those days.

November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas. A presidential motorcade was making its way through Dallas, shots were fired, and an American president was dead. A nation was completely numbed. That day was, without a doubt, a disaster.

Somewhere around 29 C.E. in Galilee was another one of these days. John the Baptist was one of the only authentic prophet of God in Israel for around 400 years. Crowds came in from all around to the Jordan River to hear John preach. People revered him. It was an honor to hear his words. But one day, John got caught up in a power struggle between Herod Antipas, who was the ruler of Palestine at the time. And his brother Herod Philip. This can get pretty confusing. You see, Herod was a family name. So when we say Herod, we’re actually talking about a whole group of people. So Antipas was the ruler of Palestine at this time in Mark. On his way to Rome, in 29 C.E., he visited his brother Philip and almost immediately falls in love with Philip’s wife, Herodias – who also happened to be Antipas’ niece. Because they are related by blood, Antipas knows that if he marries Herodias, he’ll have a firmer grip on the throne – he’ll have the upper hand in the power struggle between him and his brothers for power in the Roman Empire – anything for a little more power, right?

So Antipas marries Herodias – after he divorces his first wife, Phasaelis mind you. Here’s where John the Baptist comes in. He proclaims that the marriage that had just taken place between Antipas and Herodias was incestuous and wrong. John’s criticism, since he was so well-liked and revered in this area, was a political liability. These words and charges were dangerous to both Antipas and Herodias. Antipas feared John because he was a threat to the power structures, but also, as it turns out, Antipas thinks of him as holy and righteous. It turns out, he actually might like listening to John as well.

Herodias, however, is having none of it. She doesn’t like John. She doesn’t fear John. John pisses her off. Any chance for Herodias to express her displeasure and act on it arises when Antipas throws a banquet for many of the local leaders. Herodias’ daughter (also named Herodias – like I said, it gets confusing) dances for the men in the room and completely entrances her stepfather. Antipas, caught up in a moment of drunken excitement promises to give her anything she wants, up to half of his kingdom. When Herodias’ daughter comes to her and asks for her advice in this situation, Herodias strikes. “Ask for John’s head on a platter.”

Now you have to remember the scene here. Herod is in the company of prominent locals and VIPs of the community, and certainly can’t go back on something he promised his stepdaughter after she had just wowed all of them with her dancing. He can’t be made to look weak or timid. He can’t look anything other than completely in control of the situation. So he consents. And we know what happens after that.

It can be tempting to look for the “moral of the story” in our Bible passages, but it rarely satisfies what we’re looking for. The Bible wasn’t written as a behavior manual for little children, or as a way to help you make everyday a Friday. It’s a book that, if nothing else, tells us the truth about ourselves and about the world we live in. It tells us about our humanity in all of its bruises and flaws. It tells us the truth of our brokenness, shame, and sin. But it also tells us the greater truth that God’s love breaks through our sin to redeem us and save us, even if it’s from ourselves.

If you really want to find a moral in this story, it’s probably something like this:

The people who are in power are used to getting exactly what they want. They are willing to do anything to hold tight to what they have or to get more. And those who speak out or stand up against them proclaiming that life doesn’t have to be that way or that things can be different are usually trampled.

That’s what happens to John. And as we continue through Mark’s gospel, we’ll see that when Jesus clashes with authority, authority wins – for a short time.

This isn’t much of a moral. It’s pretty depressing. It doesn’t offer us a lot of hope. But what gives us hope is that this is only the 6th chapter of Mark. This is the middle of the story, not the end. But what this story does is points us to the end of Mark’s story, where another truth-teller is silenced by the authority of the day.

When Pilate sends Jesus to Herod, you can almost hear echoes of Herod’s experience with John the Baptist – “I don’t want any part of this.” He knows what’s involved with attempting to silence truth tellers. Authority wins for the time being, but it falls short in the end.

Martin Luther King once said,

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

He’s another story of what happens when power silences truth-tellers. This story of Herod and John sits in the middle of Mark’s arc. But it’s not the end. It bends back toward the story of Jesus on the cross and the ultimate shock and awe of the empty tomb.

Like this story, we’re currently living in the middle – the time in between. In a lot of our lives, power still trumps justice. In two days, Pastor Megan and I are taking 8 of our youth down to New Orleans for the ELCA Youth Gathering. We could probably ask some of the people we meet down there about what happens when power trumps justice.

Martin Luther writes that a theologian of glory calls good evil, and evil good. But a theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is. The beheading of John the Baptist invites us into our call to be honest – to call a thing what it is. It invites us into our call to speak the truth. Even when that truth can be hazardous to our health. Amen.

Cheers,
Eric

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Jesus, Kanye, & LeBron: A Sermon on Mark 6

He left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honor, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief. Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’ So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them. – Mark 6:1-13

Dear friends in Christ, grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Creator and from our Lord Jesus who is the Christ. Amen.

I heard a story a couple weeks ago about an elderly woman who lived down the street from a young Neil Armstrong. She described him as quite the troublemaker — sort of an Eddie Haskell type character. So when she saw on her television that little Neil Armstrong from down the street was the first man to step foot on the moon, she refused to believe it. There’s no way that bratty kid from down the street could possibly become the first man to walk in space.

This is kind of like when Jesus comes back to teach in his hometown. Initially the crowds were astounded. But then they started wondering where little Jesus from down the village pathway could become such an astounding teacher and prophet. Listen to their words: “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary?” This is a total dig on Jesus. The lowly carpenter from the single-parent family? How could he possibly be teaching like this?

And it makes sense too. 3 chapters earlier — in Mark 3 — Jesus pretty much disowned his family. “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” This is kind of like the equivalent of LeBron James jet-setting back to Cleveland to show off his brand new championship ring. The people of Cleveland would riot in the streets if something like that would happen. The people who were listening to Jesus consider this an insult to his hometown and so his neighbors are rightfully pissed.

Then Jesus comes in with “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown.” I’ve been listening to a song lately called “No Church in the Wild.”  It’s by a couple of guys named Kanye West and Jay-Z. The hook of the song starts out by comparing power dynamics. “What’s a mob to a king? What’s a king to a God? What’s a God to a non-believer?” The question we could ask Jesus in Mark’s gospel today is “What’s a prophet to people who won’t listen?” So we get a hint that something is about to change. There’s about to be a major shift in Mark’s story.

He calls the disciples to him and begins to send them out 2 by 2 to go into the homes and preach repentance and drive out unclean spirits. This 2 by 2 thing isn’t new to us with Bible stories, is it? We remember Noah. Except, in Mark, this is just turning Noah’s command on its head.

In Genesis, Noah essentially calls out that all creatures should come to him 2 by 2 or they would die in the flood.

In Mark, Jesus sends the disciples out 2 by 2 so that there may be life.

In John 10, the gospel writer says that Jesus has come that we may have life and have it abundantly. God has come down with a love so overflowing that it not only fills us, but it breaks out of our homes and our lives. It breaks out of every boundary we try to put on it and explodes out into the world. We’re sent out to live like this love matters.

We’re sent out to live loved.

When that happens, when we love people as we have been loved, there is healing. Hearts that have been broken, heels that are bruised from being dug in the ground against our family and friends — all of these wounds that we have are healed in love. Demons are cast out and those have fallen ill are anointed. So our job is to go out!

Live the precious life that you have been given knowing that there is not a single thing you can do to separate us from the love of God. Amen.

Cheers,
Eric

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