Sunday, July 12, 2015
When I first read the gospel for today, I wished we had decided to take THIS Sunday off for vacation! Then I was tempted to preach on our second lesson from Ephesians, since it much more obviously has more edifying material for us. But in the end, I had a hard time reading this gospel and then just moving on to preaching about nicer things – God was calling me to wrestle with and preach on this difficult text.
So the first question I asked myself as I read through the gospel was, “What does this have to do with Jesus?” At first glance, this is a story about Herod, his wife and daughter, and John the Baptist. Jesus is barely mentioned. Recently, Pastor Rich and I watched the movie, Killing Jesus, based on the book by the same name by Bill O’Reilly. One of the main subplots of the movie is this story about King Herod and why he beheads John the Baptist. He is a weak, local ruler – his wife constantly ridicules him for this. As a Jewish Roman citizen, Herod is essentially under both the Jewish religious leaders and subject to Roman rule, as the Roman Empire has taken over that territory of Palestine. In the movie, you really get to see how Herod is desperate to please others – his wife, his friends, the Jews he represents but also the Roman government – so that he can hang on to what little power he has.
In the gospel reading, we also see how Herod is wrestling with how to use the limited power he has– he is mystified by who Jesus is, and he likes to listen to John, although he’s perplexed by his message. If you read through the gospel of Mark, you may notice that this is the only flashback that Mark includes – and it’s for a good reason. Mark wants to help us learn not only more about who Herod and John are, but who Jesus is. Some think Jesus is Elijah – Elijah in 1 Kings also was threatened by King Ahab, who was heavily influenced by his wife, Jezebel. Elijah was not afraid to speak the truth to Ahab and Jezebel, and they didn’t care for that. Herod is afraid that Jesus is John, come back from the dead to haunt him because of what he’d done. But Mark in this flashback also includes a flash forward – Pilate will please the people rather than God by letting Jesus go to his death on the cross. We will hear these same words again, “they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb,” not at the death of John, but at the death of Jesus. This Jesus is powerful, like John, we learn, but also, we learn that following Jesus is dangerous – he will end up killed, and as his followers, we could, too.
So my second question as I read this gospel story was, “What does this have to do with us today?” Most of us in this country are fortunate to be able to follow Jesus without our lives being threatened, even if we may endure a little ridicule sometimes. It just so happens that our Bible study group was talking about fasting as a spiritual practice today, and we learned that fasting is more than just not eating for a day or so. The author, Marjorie Thompson, reminded us that fasting from something helps us place our relationship with Christ above our relationship to food, or to our phones, or to our TV, or to whatever else dominates our lives. Shawn Copeland in another great book called Practicing Our Faith talks about it this way – fasting is the spiritual discipline of saying yes and saying no. King Herod, I think it is safe to say, did not practice when or to whom to say yes and no very well! Even when John confronts him about his marriage to his sister-in-law, which was forbidden by Jewish law, part of Herod wants to say yes to John and his message. He likes what he hears, even though he doesn’t understand it. But instead, Herod chooses to say “yes” to a lot of the wrong people – to his wife who is even more power-hungry than he is, to his daughter, and to his guests, so that he doesn’t lose face and can keep them happy. His “yes” to the wrong thing means John the Baptist is killed.
At our baptism and again at our confirmation, we (or our parents) are asked, “Do you renounce all the forces of evil, the devil, and all his empty promises?” Most of us, I think, have said “yes.” Unlike Herod, we have said “yes” to following Jesus and “no” to evil. But saying “yes” to Jesus means saying “no” to a lot of things, some of which are not easy to say no to. As hard as it is to admit, don’t we at times fall into the same trap of Herod – saying “yes” to the wrong people because we like to make other people happy, or to make ourselves look good? We react and do what we think will please others before we think hard about what will please God. And so we say yes when we should say no – yes to sleeping in instead of putting God first with worship on Sunday morning, yes to putting just one more thing on the calendar instead of taking time for prayer, Bible study and time with family and friends, yes to the TV instead of eating a meal around the dinner table in real conversation with others, yes to checking our email and text messages around the clock to be available to others 24/7 without leaving any time for us to be available for God or to have needed resting time for ourselves as God commanded us to do. We fall so easily into the same trap that Herod does, wanting to listen to God’s message through John and Jesus, but inevitably listening to the swirl of voices around us that convince us to put other things first before and in place of God.
My parents have a wall hanging with a poem about God’s love in their house that includes these words, “Love is the ability to say no when yes is more easily said.” As parents and grandparents, you may have an easier time saying no to your children than you do to others. We know that saying no can be a really good thing for kids – they learn to respect boundaries and limits. It’s good for them not to have candy and soda pop at every meal. It’s good for them to play outside and read books and not just play video games all day. It’s good for them to learn to save some of their own money to buy one thing they want than to get whatever they want every time they go with you to the store.
As adults, the choices we make about when to say “yes” and “no” get a bit more complicated, don’t they? We have the power to say no – Herod had the power to say no – but we must practice it, whether it’s freeing up our calendar for more time with God and with our families or whether it’s speaking up when someone is being ridiculed for their faith or being treated in a very un-Christian way by friends we know and love. Still today, even though our lives may not be in danger, it takes courage to follow Jesus. It means we live life differently – it may change what kind of TV or media we pay attention to and how we respond to the world around us, it will change how we relate to our families and friends, and decisions about how we spend our time. For people pleasers, we may have to make more than a few people unhappy by saying “no” to them, even when yes is way more easily said. For those who struggle with addiction (and who doesn’t have an addiction of some kind, whether its to alcohol, sex, to our phones or to our TVs), we need accountability partners to help us say yes to healthy, positive things so our addiction can’t take hold. But in practicing those “noes,” we are more able to freely say “yes” to God and to God’s way in the world.
The most freeing message I hear in today’s difficult story for us is that in navigating all of the noes and yesses in our lives, God in Jesus Christ continues to say yes to us, over and over again. Yes, you are my child, my beloved. Yes, you CAN follow me, even though it may be difficult at times. Yes, I forgive you your sins. Yes, I love you so much, I am willing to take on an even worse fate than my cousin John the Baptist and be crucified for you. Yes, I may have died, but God has raised me up to give you life. Yes, truly today you will be with me in paradise. So often at the end of our prayers, we say Amen. Jesus says it to his disciples many times – “Amen, I say to you…” “Amen” simply means, “yes – let it be so.” With every Amen, we say yes to God’s yes for us. Let’s say it all together this morning as we go out with faith and good courage: Amen. Amen!