Drama 7-15-18

In this sermon, based on Mark 6:14-29, I explore the story of John the Baptist’s death. This is an oddball gospel, both in terms of its location within the narrative as well as the absence of Jesus within it.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/drama-7-15-18

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

All we have to do is take a quick glance around the sanctuary to see the decorations, and we can tell that it was VBS week.  I love VBS week…it is wonderful…Each day, somewhere between 35-40 kids, another dozen or so jr high and high school helpers, a handful of adults, and 5 camp staff flocked into the church…and the energy level is off the charts.

Its loud…its crazy…its exciting…and I love it. There is just nothing else like it throughout the course of the year. Now, I spent some time trying to come up with the perfect words to describe the atmosphere here in the church during VBS…and in the end, the one that seemed the most fitting was simply…dramatic.

Now when I call it dramatic, I don’t mean to say that there was a lot of angsty drama going on, the likes of which we see on various reality tv shows…quite the opposite in fact…but the stark difference between a normal week here in the church building and the week of VBS is…well…dramatic…its what we might call epic craziness. (pause)

And speaking of epic craziness…let’s talk about the Herod’s for a moment shall we? (pause) Interestingly enough…the Herod family is smack dab at the heart of today’s gospel lesson…and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say, this is an odd one. Because while we typically refer to this story as the death of John the Baptist…we could make the argument that even John is somewhat secondary in this passage.

But to begin to make sense of it, we need some background…as the passage kicks off today, the very first name we hear is Herod…and honestly, Herod is kind of a common name throughout the gospel isn’t it? But when you hear the name Herod, you need to remember that its not just one guy…in fact its an entire family.  They all stem from Herod the Great. He was actually the big wig at the start of the gospels.

He’d come to prominence about 30BC, and had found enough favor with the Roman Senate to get the old “king” in Israel kicked out, and to get himself established in this role throughout much of the region. He was brilliant but cruel…and he was excessively paranoid that someone would usurp his power just like he had done…he was so paranoid in fact that he actually had many of his own family executed if he thought they posed a threat.

Speaking of family, Herod the Great had a ton of wives, and countless sons and daughters…and once he found himself in the twilight of his life, he did start passing along authority…establishing 4 of his sons as something called a tetrarch…not really a king…not really a governor…but somewhere along those lines…and then once he died, all four of these sons who now had a little power for themselves, started jockeying for position and greater authority…and that includes Herod Antipas, also known as King Herod here in today’s story.

Now remember, he wasn’t a king, and in fact when he asked the Romans for the same title given to his father they just sorta laughed at him…He had authority…he had power…but it wasn’t as absolute as he liked to think it was. And so he was constantly scheming, just like the rest of his family…trying to make deals, and broker arrangements to better his position. They’d ALL learned it from Herod the Great, and from what information we can find from history, the whole family, which carried on in prominence over the course of about 4 generations, was just as guilty.

Take for instance, Herodias. By this point, she’s married to Herod Antipas…but previously, she’d been married to his half-brother Philip, another tetrarch.  Herodias divorced Philip and married Antipas at some point.  Even stranger, she was already a Herod…thought to be a generation younger…a niece to both Antipas and Philip…the daughter of yet another brother. And she doesn’t seem like an overly nice person either…holding grudges against people who speak out against her and her apparent opportunistic nature…people like John who is imprisoned over this type of thing.

Now we’ve got more junk going on to…because Herod throws himself a party…he invites ALL the bigwigs from Galilee, the region he controlled…and as they are at this party…something kinda disturbing happens.

We hear that the daughter of Herodias comes in and dances…and that her dancing “pleases” Herod and the guests. We don’t know exactly what’s going on here. We don’t know if she’s a young girl, or if she’s older….we don’t know if she’s a willing participant in this whole deal or if she’s being coerced. We also don’t know exactly what the dynamic is between these two. She might be Herod’s daughter…although she’s probably his step-daughter.  Regardless, the odd-ball language really seems to be some thinly veiled indications that there’s some pretty major inappropriateness going on here…and I’ll let you fill in the blanks yourself on that one…and if that is in fact the case, I can only think that this whole family dynamic is utterly depraved. They’re power-hungry. They’re opportunistic…they’re wildly inappropriate. (pause) You think you’ve got family drama…your family’s got nothing on the Herods.

Now in the middle of this, some more trickery happens, and Herodias takes full advantage of this drunken oath made by her husband towards her daughter, and uses it to silence the critic who has spoken out against her…as she instructs her daughter to ask for the head of John the Baptist.  To add to the whole deal, the daughter ups it a notch as well, giving it a flair of the dramatic, by asking for his head on a platter.

And here’s where things get really dicey. Herod doesn’t want to do it. Granted he’s had John arrested…and he probably didn’t like the criticisms any more than his wife did…but apparently he also enjoyed having John around…but when those who think they have power foolishly flaunt it, often it bites them doesn’t it? And that’s what happens here.

Herod has a choice to save face with the people he needs to impress, or he can do the right thing and deny the execution of an innocent man…and we see what happens…and the innocent…the one who lacks power in this particular case, suffers at the hands of the powerful. (pause)

Here’s the thing.  As we’ve already mentioned…this passage is known as the death of John the Baptist…and rightly so.  But did you notice that this entire thing is basically a narrative side-note…this whole account is simply the apparent thought process behind Herod Antipas remembering that he had John killed…an event that had happened quite a bit before where we find the story in Mark’s gospel…we’re about half way through the whole deal…but we actually heard that John was arrested back in chapter 1…clear back at the beginning…so why don’t we hear about his death until now…why on earth did Mark think it was fitting to interrupt the flow of the gospel narrative for Herod to hear some current events and then justify it by remembering a utterly crazy situation that had happened a year or two earlier? Think about that.

And as you think about it…I want to back up to VBS…Monday through Thursday of this past week…the church was crazy…good crazy…but crazy. But then as I sat in my office on Friday…the silence was deafening.

You’ve heard that phrase before right…a deafening silence…its weird but somehow fitting…that once your ears have grown accustomed to the noise…silence seems to be somehow “louder.” (pause) I bring this up…because in the midst of the craziness of this story in and around John and the Herods…there is a silence that is equally deafening. A profound silence when we recognize it.

Keep in mind…this is the gospel lesson right. Now is there someone we haven’t heard from? A name…a person…that we tend to think of whenever we think about stories from the gospels? (pause) This passage has the RARE distinction…of never mentioning Jesus. He’s not here…granted…this story happens because Herod hears about him…and as soon as this gospel side-note wraps up, Jesus pops up to feed the 5000…so he’s around…but he’s not here is he?

Where’s Jesus…or perhaps, we might ask the broader question…Where’s God in the midst of this story.  The powerful, preying on the weak…where’s God?   Family members stabbing each other in the back to better their own position or authority….where’s God?  Horribly inappropriate actions going on between a girl and her step-father, not to mention being manipulated by her mother…where’s God? (pause)

It’s a little disturbing isn’t it? Shocking even…to notice the apparent absence of God here. And I can’t help but wonder if that’s often the interpretation when we see the brokenness in the world.  Where’s God when innocent people get caught in the crossfire…when students are gunned down in their classrooms…when young women and even small children are trafficked…or pulled from their parents.  When there is famine, or pollution…or disease…or accidents…where’s God then?

I hear these questions constantly…or I hear something similar…what does your Bible have to say about this stuff? (pause) Here’s the thing…if you read the Bible…and not just to cherry-pick feel good verses, or something to smack the other side of the political line with…but if you really read it…you’ll find that narrative of the Bible is just as much about the apparent absence of God’s presence as it is about God being among us.  And that can be a tough pill to swallow if we take it at face value.

But here’s the thing about the scriptures…they aren’t intended to be taken one verse or one story at a time…the scriptures, even though they were written over the course of thousands of years in several different languages by people of multiple cultures and faith traditions who lived on different continents….somehow the Holy Spirit has shaped them into a narrative that all fits together…a narrative intended to reveal that even in those instances when it seems like God is far away or worse yet that God hates me…or even worse yet, that these is no God…even in these times…somehow someway God is still work behind the scenes, whether we see God’s presence or not.

Jesus isn’t named in this story…and yet Mark tells us this past-tense recollection of a previous event here…in the midst of Jesus’ ministry…in the middle of the physical presence of God in our reality…in whatever it is that God is up to, bringing about the kingdom of heaven in the midst of this brokendown messed up reality…this is where Mark tells this story.

Because Jesus came into our realty…the one where it often seems like God is far away or just non-existent…and Jesus has done something about it…and not only that, but Jesus has given us a promise that despite the brokenness that all too often rears its ugly head…and makes those without power or influence feel even less so…that this is not the end…and that there is somehow more.  And so we hope for that amazing, mindblowing promise…of which we’ve only been given a glimmer…we hope for it…and because this promise is given by the man who is also God we trust it.

And we live our lives in a way that reflects it.  That’s what a life of faith is.  We live out our faith as we trust in that which we can only hope for.  We live in a confidence that no matter how bad things might be….this is not the end…and that the last word will belong to God, whether we can find God’s presence in this moment or not. That’s faith…when we can still hope, even in the midst of drama. Amen.

2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Teresa O'Brion on July 17, 2018 at 10:06 am

    Hey. Just letting you know that I just caught up with your last 3 sermons. It’s about time!! They were great. Keep up the good work. Have a great day. Love you.

    Reply

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