Sermon–July 15, 2018–The Problem with Kings


8 Pentecost—Proper 10-B, July 15, 2018

William Bradbury

Amos 7:7-15, Psalm 85:8-13, Ephesians 1:3-14, Mark 6:14-29

Several years ago Stephanie and I went into Boston to see Blue Man Group. It was a lot of silly fun, watching three men do all sorts of strange things, but what makes them stand out is their faces and necks are painted bright blue. But here’s a thought: if everything on stage and in the audience was the same color as Blue Man Group’s faces, could you see them? If the print in a book is the same color as the page it sits on, could you read it?

We need contrast in order to see and in order to understand. At first, it seems strange for Mark to include the story of how John the Baptist dies. It’s the only story in Mark that doesn’t include Jesus, yet it’s important because it provides the necessary contrast for us to see who Jesus is and what the alternative way of life that he is offering to us.

So a little background: Herod Antipas who we’re talking about today is one of three sons of Herod the Great who was King of Judea, under the authority of Caesar Augustus, for almost 40 years. The Wise Men come to see King Herod the Great to discern where the King of the Jews is to be born. We remember under Herod the Great, the empire strikes back and murders all the baby boys in Bethlehem. When Herod the Great dies in 4 BC (Yes, Jesus was born in 4 BC because of a mistake made by the monk calculating the calendar) Herod’s kingdom is divided among his sons: Philip is put in charge of the territories north and east of Judea, Herod Archelaus is put in charge of Judea, and Herod Antipas is in charge of Galilee and Perea.

Herod Antipas, divorces his first wife, after hooking up with Herodias, his niece and wife of his half-brother Philip. According to Leviticus 18:16, 20:21 being married to a living brother’s wife is deemed an incestuous relationship. It is not clear whether Herodias had a choice in any of this.

Things are rocking along among the rich and powerful, when the prophet John the Baptizer comes on the scene, proclaiming the approach of God’s Kingdom and the need for everyone to repent of their sins. John thinks no leader is above God’s Law, so he also denounces Herod Antipas for his relationship with Herodias.

But to maintain her position, Herodias needs John to be silenced, because if Herod kicks her out, then she will have absolutely nowhere to go.

Herod is also upset by John’s meddling in his personal life, but he believes John is a man of God and he likes to listen to him. Then, Herod has a birthday bash with the well-heeled and well-connected of Galilee, and at one point Herodias’ daughter by Philip, performs a dance, probably a lude dance, for the drunken men. Herod is so taken with her dancing; he offers her any gift she wants. Her mother tells her, “Ask for the head of John the Baptist!” So the little girl runs to Herod and asks for the head of the Baptist to be brought into the party on a platter!

Herod is deeply grieved by the request, but instead of doing what he wants and what he knows is right, he orders John killed so as not to appear weak.

Stanely Hauerwas in his 2015 Brazos Commentary on Matthew says of this story, “Herod exists in an unreal world created by and for those who occupy positions meant to sustain the illusion that they are accountable only to their own desires.”

John Calvin writing in the 16th century says this story reveals “the usual vanity of kings.”

Williiam Placher in his commentary on Mark’s Gospel, written in 2010 Writes, “the bully in the schoolyard or the office often acts out of deep insecurity. So Herod, who is the most powerful person in the room, gives way.”

When we put Jesus next to Herod we are able to see the contrast between the vanity and weakness of bullies and the virtue and power of Jesus Christ.

“Herod uses his power to destroy others and defend himself. Jesus uses his power to heal others and reveal the mercy of God.

Herod doesn’t want to appear weak. Jesus embraces weakness as a witness to his trust in the presence and power of God.

Herod makes an oath. Jesus teaches against making oaths (Matthew 5:33-37)

Herod demonstrates the violence the powerful use to maintain their status. Jesus demonstrates the non-violence the faithful use to build the Commonwealth of God. See New Interpreter’s Study Bible, page 1772

Seeing Jesus contrasted with Herod, reveals why Empire must kill Jesus, John, Amos, and all the prophets. Pilate writes on the cross, “Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews”, in order to proclaim that Empire’s violence, oppression, and fear, will always conquer faith, hope, and love.

But in light of cross and resurrection, we see the power of bullies is weakness and the weakness of love is strength. As we heard Paul write last week, “In Christ, when I am weak, then I am strong.”

History continues to reveal the power of this Gospel truth.

Mahatma Gandhi, who lived an ascetic life of a Hindu holy man, employed nonviolent civil disobedience that led India to independence.  Martin Luther King, Jr, whose only power was soul power, employed nonviolent civil disobedience that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Gandhi was assassinated in 1948, King was assassinated in 1968, yet both continue to inspire movements for human rights and freedom across the world.

But history also shows our work is not done, for we are continually being confronted with those who follow the way of Herod and we are always having to choose which story we are going to live in and to live for: the story of power and violence or the story of the Crucified Jesus.

Of course, we all have times we are afraid to stand with the prophets when we too are benefitting from the status quo. It was southern senators of the Democratic Party who filibustered the Civil Rights Act and nearly killed it. Lots of good Christians, pastors and people, supported MLK in private but not wanting to lose their wealth and status, kept quiet in public. We are all bound by the system. There are no innocents among us!

But Paul reminds us today that in Christ Crucified we are liberated from all systems of empire that would enslave us, because God first chose us in Christ. As he says today in Ephesians,

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing…he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world…and destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ….” 

If our starting point is the choice of God in Christ FOR US, then we can face our fears and follow Jesus in creating the Beloved Community.

Then, in the power of the Spirit, the Church provides the contrast the world needs in order to see the difference between the world’s way and God’s way, which is always the Way of the Cross.