Pastor Steve Molin
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Dear friends in Christ, grace to you, and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
It’s good to be home. Banff, Alberta was a spectacular sight, and being free from work responsibilities for two weeks was a gift, and the adventure of being in a slightly foreign country provided just the mental and physical refreshment that I needed. But after eleven days and 3400 miles of driving, the call of home was audible. Familiar bed, familiar faces, and the prospect of worshipping with you and preaching to you filled me with anticipation and excitement even before we crossed back over the U.S./Canadian border.
The excitement lasted…about a day! Because we also returned to bills that needed to be paid, and issues at work that needed to be addressed, and snarky attacks between two presidential candidates who have not yet even been formally nominated, and a gruesome murder just across the river where a father slit the throats of his three little girls. Hmmm, welcome home? And then to sit down and prepare a sermon on this tragic text from the gospel of Mark, where John the Baptist had his head chopped off and handed to a 12 year old girl to please her selfish mother. After just three days back, I tell you people, I’m ready for another vacation! But leaving the country again is not practical, and sticking one’s head in the sand to ignore the reality of the world we live in is not responsible. So what I’ve decided to do is to try to make sense of it all in this time we have together this morning, and then take a day off tomorrow and watch cartoons. Agreed?
We begin with a little background on John the Baptist. He’s the cousin of Jesus, do you remember that? Mary was pregnant with Jesus at the same time that her aunt Elizabeth was carrying John. We don’t know if they grew up together, but we do know that John was doing his preaching and baptizing at the Jordan River, telling people the truth about their sinful lives. He would label them “vipers and snakes” and call them to turn from their sinful ways. And then one day, Jesus showed up to be baptized, and John knew that Jesus was something special. “You shouldn’t be baptized by me,” he told Jesus. “I should be baptized by you!” Reluctantly, he baptized his cousin, who turned out to be the Messiah sent by God.
And then we don’t hear much about John…for about three years…until this story is recorded in the gospel of Mark. John being John, apparently he never lost his boldness and his passion for telling the truth of their sinful lives. And when John hears that King Herod, the most powerful figure in Galilee at the time, has taken his brother’s wife as his own, he again is compelled to speak the truth. And it’s not just adultery, it gets worse! Herod’s wife is also his niece. Sick! So John being John stands up to Herod and calls it what it is; it is sin.
Sometimes, telling the truth has its consequences…and they aren’t always good. Even though Herod sort of likes John, and is intrigued by his preaching, he simply cannot have a rogue prophet going around calling the king a sinner, and an adulterer, and incestuous, so he puts John in prison…at least, I think, until the dust settles. End of story, right? No, not even close.
Herod’s wife is threatened by John’s words and she wants him out of the picture. So when little Herodias, the 12 year old daughter of Herod and his wife, dances at a dinner party, it was such a good dance that Herod announces, “Honey, you are a wonderful dancer, so I’m going to give you anything you want.” Maybe he was just showing off for his guests, but he really said it. “Whatever you want is yours!” In today’s coddled culture, we often hear fathers say this to their daughters and sons, but it’s usually limited to a new Xbox, or a shopping spree at the mall, or a Chevy convertible. But this daughter’s dance must have been awesome, because Herod says, “Honey, I’m going to give you anything you want; even half of my kingdom!” And the girl rushes off and says, “Mom, what should I ask for?” And her mother says, “Ask for John to be beheaded.” And when Herodias dances back into the room she announces her wish: “I want John the Baptist’s head on a platter.” And Herod does it. Amazing. And amazingly awful.
Why was it important for Mark to tell us this story in his gospel today? This would have been a nice Sunday to preach about the farmer sowing seeds, or the Savior bouncing children on his knee and blessing them, or a slide show from my vacation, don’t you think? But instead we get a bloody, power-induced description of humanity at its very worst! It is complete with corruption, and murder, and incest, abuse of power and abuse of a child. It features an insecure King, his wicked wife, their confused daughter, and a bold man who was unafraid to stand up and say, “Enough!” Why would Mark dare to report such a depiction? It is because that’s the world he lived in…and today, so do we.
You think I’m being overly dramatic to suggest that Herod’s world is now our world? I am not being overly dramatic. Is Herod’s clutch of power any different than Syrian President Assad killing thousands of innocent people in order to retain power, or our President Nixon firing his entire cabinet in order to retain his throne? Do you think that the beheading of John the Baptist is any more horrific than a father murdering his own children? Are we any more civilized when a known pedophile is allowed to abuse children unchecked because if he were confronted, the football team might not go to a bowl game? Are we less corrupt than first-century leaders just because our leaders wear suits and dresses and smiles when they swindle our investment accounts, and raid our company’s pension funds, and lie to the government about it? And where are the John the Baptists now, who courageously stand up and say, “Enough!”?
So what’s the point in this “welcome home from vacation” rant of mine? The point is this; we live in a sinful world, and we are the sinners. We are liars, and adulterers, and power-seekers, and wealth-collectors. Let’s cut the hypocrisy and admit that “those sinful people” are us. Yes, our level of corruption might look different than those I have called out this morning, but it is there in all of us, I assure you. So that’s the first point; that as Paul said in Romans he also says to us: “There is no distinction to be made anywhere; all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God.”
The second point is that few are the voices in our world today that will stand up and call a spade a spade, or a sin a sin. The risk is different than the one John took; we’re probably not going to be beheaded if we dare to speak the truth, but we might be fired from our jobs. We might be ostracized from our circle of friends. We might be disowned by our families. We might lose our standing in the community and thought to be crazy, or radical, or pompous, or fringe. So we say nothing. And does our silence then make us complicit with those who are hurting others with their actions? I think it does.
As a pastor, I take this point with great sensitivity, because pastors are, by virtue of our office, supposed to be the prophetic voices in a community. We’re supposed to be the ones to stand up and call a spade a spade. Yet all the same concerns that prevent you from speaking with boldness are present in my life as well. It used to be that a pastor could stand up and speak a bold truth and the people, even if they didn’t like it, would ponder it. Not anymore. Today, when a pastor speaks what he or she perceives to be the truth, those who agree stand up and cheer, and those who disagree leave for another church. In other words, if the pastor is speaking “our truth” we stay, and if not, we find a pastor who does.
The third reason Mark included this story of Herod and John in his gospel is that this is the world into which Jesus has entered. And while Jesus certainly called people to live lives worthy of the name “Christian”, he also came to forgive the people who didn’t. And that is all of us. I can’t make sense of the beheading of John the Baptist, any more than I can make sense of the killing of one’s own daughters.
What I can say – boldly, and confidently, and without reservation – is that Jesus came to forgive people like us. And if he came to forgive people like us, then he came to forgive people like King Herod, and Jerry Sandusky, and Bernie Madoff and Amy Senser. Not because they deserve it, because they don’t. That is the radical nature of Jesus; he does something that none of us – not one of us – thinks makes sense. He forgives that which is unforgivable. And if that is not your truth, if it hurts your ears to even hear that Jesus loves the worst sinners, I suppose you could leave this church today and find a different one…a church that still requires people to live by rules and laws and expectations. A church where there is no grace. But then what happens when you mess up? Do you leave again and look for a church that forgives a little bit?
I don’t think we do that when we know a God that forgives a lot. Amazing Grace is not just a hymn title; it is a description of the God who loves us. Even in a world that seems to have gone mad with sin, God loves us. Even when promises are broken and hurtful things are done and said; a world where conflict and hatred reign, amazing grace seeps into the smallest of cracks. Today, for you, grace has come. Don’t be troubled by the thought of others and their great sin; be thoughtful of your life and the grace that has come to you. That’s the truth. And that’s consequence. Thanks be to God. Amen.
©2012 Steven Molin