Today, we get really real.
Before we delve into our Gospel text from the book of Mark this morning, we need to see what immediately precedes it. There is the rejection of Jesus and His teaching in His hometown of Nazareth–which I preached on last week. Then the writer Mark records the following:
7He [Jesus] called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 9but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 10He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11If 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.’ 12So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 13They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
This snippet sets the scene for our Gospel lesson for today–the beheading of John the Baptist. It’s not pretty. Not pretty at all. For it is into this world that the disciples go out to preach. It is this world that the disciples go forth to bring healing and cast out demons. For certain, it was a world that was created good–it was created perfectly, but it is now a world that is fallen. It is now a world that is depraved. It is a world full of sin.
There are many in today’s world that do not like to hear talk of sin and depravity. There are many who believe that people are inherently good and that if we just taught people the right things; if we just steered them into the right places; if we just built up their egos enough; if we just passed the right laws and statutes; then we wouldn’t have any sort of violence, hatred, bullying, or the like. And then events like Charleston, South Carolina happen where a kid enters into a place of sanctuary and kills nine people gathered to worship and study. We ask, “Is there no safe place?” “How come racism isn’t extinguished even though we’ve had 50 years of non-discrimination laws?” We clamor for more hate crime laws; more gun laws; more openness to those who are different from ourselves. And we think such things will make a difference. We think such legislation and cries will change the world. We think they will end sin and depravity, but we are chasing fool’s gold. Why would I paint such a bleak picture?
Let’s enter into the text for today. The picture there is very, very dark. There is no good news to be had. Word of the disciples’ preaching, teaching and healing reached the puppet ruler of Galilee: Herod, and Herod became concerned. This wanna be king thought that John the Baptist had returned from the dead to haunt him. This sets the stage for one of the most depraved scenes found in scripture. It’s utterly dark.
John the Baptist, of whom Jesus said, “No one greater than he has ever been born,” was locked up in Herod’s prison. You see, John was a prophet. John called people to repentance. He was sent by God to prepare the way for Jesus, and John took notes and named names. John was fearless when it came to pointing out the sins of people and calling them to change their ways, and John didn’t shy back from those in power.
Herod had arranged a marriage to a neighboring ruler’s daughter, but at some point and time fell in love with his brother’s wife, Herodias. Rather than obey the law and remain faithful, Herod sent his wife back home (severely angering the neighboring ruler) and stole his brother’s wife away. John the Baptist called Herod on this egregious sin, “It is not lawful for you to be married to your brother’s wife!!”
Now, most of the commentaries are quick to point out that John’s proclamation was very troublesome for Herod. Not only did the proclamation anger Herodias, but it caused political problems. It kept Herod’s divorce public and in front of the neighbors who eventually went to war with Herod! To keep John quiet, Herod had him thrown in prison. Herodias wanted John dead, but Herod wasn’t going to kill him. Herod knew John was a prophet, and we are told that on a certain level, Herod enjoyed listening to him–even though Herod did not change his behavior.
All of this leads up to a feast that Herod throws celebrating his birthday. Now, this might not sound too bad to us. I mean, most of us here celebrate our birthday in some fashion–as parents, most of us work to make that day special for our children, and as we age–particularly as we get into advanced age, we really mark those milestone birthdays! This is commonplace for us, but not so for the Jewish people. Most Jews in that time did not celebrate birthdays–that was a Roman custom. So, here we see Herod, who was supposed to be Jewish, embracing a cultural practice that was not his own. Why? Because he longed to be accepted by the Roman authorities. He longed to be seen as a legitimate ruler. He longed to be accepted by those in power. He was willing to sacrifice his own cultural identity for another to have power. And that’s not the worst thing we see in this text. It gets worse. Far worse.
For Herod calls together all the movers and shakers from the region of Galilee. Mark records that Herod invited, “his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee.” This means he brought in all the higher ups; all the power players; all those with status and pull. Herod surrounded himself with power and wealth because, again, this is who he wanted to impress. This is who he wanted to be like. Average folks were below him, and this gets him into a lot of trouble in just a little while.
Okay. The scene is set as we have Herod throwing a party with all the movers and shakers of the community. They are dining on fine food. They are drinking the finest wines. They are very happy and reveling. Nothing like a little bit of gluttony and drunkardness to highlight one’s day. Remember, I said this scene reeked of depravity! So, now, let’s throw in some child pornography.
Herodias’ daughter Salome enters into the court. She’s probably around 12 years old or so. This is Herod’s adopted daughter by his illegal marriage and his niece by blood. She comes in and does a lewd dance. Think 12 year old striptease. And no one stops her! No one!! Can you imagine that? Can you imagine watching one of your relatives–a child–strip in front of a lot of older men? Would you sit there yourself and enjoy what you were watching? That’s exactly what Herod does, and he is so pleased with what he sees, he makes a promise to his niece. “Ask me whatever you want, and I will give it to you–up to half of my kingdom.”
What a perverse thing to say and do! Not only is this incestuous, Herod has nothing to give. The “kingdom” he presides over isn’t his to begin with. He is a puppet of Rome. He can no more promise a part of his kingdom than he can promise to give her the moon. Herod is drunk on power and wine and debauchery and sensuality, and he opens his big mouth and sticks his foot into it. Then he swears an oath–a solemn promise that he will do as she asks.
Salome goes to Herodias and asks her mother, “What should I ask for?” Herodias, at this moment, I am sure, smiles an evil smile. “Ask for the head of John the Baptist.” There is no hesitation in her answer. There is no contemplation of wealth or jewels or fine clothing. This is pre-meditated murder.
Salome returns to the banquet and lays out her request, “I want the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” Herod, doesn’t want to do this, but he is bound by his oath. He would lose face amongst all those in power and prestige. His hand forced, he sends the executioner to behead John the Baptist.
If there is any bit of good news in this text, it comes toward the end as the disciples of John show a bit of compassion and bravery as they come seeking their leader’s body to bury it. That little bit of compassion, however, is overshadowed by the darkness we have just witnessed. This scene reveals the worst of humanity: hatred, defying God’s commands, gluttony, drunkenness, child-pornography and exploitation, adultery, striving for power, neglecting the poor, turning one’s back on one’s culture and heritage, selling out to those in power, making promises one can’t keep, wanting to maintain status and privilege in the face of poor choices. Oh, it has it all. It is a trip into the heart of darkness.
Into this world, Jesus sent his disciples. But do you find it as fascinating as I that the disciples preaching and healing and casting out of demons did little to change this reality? Do you find it as fascinating as I that John the Baptist’s proclamation and confrontation of sin did not do a blasted thing to change the reality of the world? Do you find it fascinating that no matter how much work the disciples did nor how many times John the Baptist confronted Herod with the truth, nothing changed? I find that extremely fascinating–and a bit alarming. Why?
Well, the conclusion that I draw from this, and not only me but plenty of others is, the proclamation of the law; trying to tell someone to do the right thing; urging people to be better people will not change the depths of human depravity. Pointing out another person’s sinfulness will not bring them to repentance. Why?
I am going to attempt to bring this home in a way that could get me in a bit of trouble, but I believe is none-the-less necessary if we are truly going to understand the Gospel. For you see, the reason telling people they are sinners and need to repent doesn’t work is the depravity we all have in all of our hearts. None of us want to hear that we are sinful. None of us want to hear that we are broken, depraved, or failures. We want to think that we are just find just the way we are, and we want to think that it is always that other person out there who have the problems. We look at Herod and Herodias and Salome and those gathered at the banquet and think, “Man, I am so glad I am not like them. They really need to get their stuff together.” Or, we look at Dylann Roof and think, “Man, that’s a sick kid. I can’t believe he shot all those people in that church. I can’t believe how racist he is. He needs to get his stuff together.” Or, “Man, those homosexuals out there, they are so depraved. They really need to change the way they act.” Or, “Those politicians up there in Washington are corrupt and need to be thrown out.” It’s always someone out there. It’s always someone else who needs to change.
But let me ask you this question: when is the last time you took a look deep into the recesses of your own heart? When is the last time you took a trip to understand the motivations that drive you each and every day? When is the last time you strove to understand who you are instead of looking at everyone else?
I mean, ask yourself this question: do you sit at home in your retirement years thinking, “I am glad I don’t have to do anything anymore. I am content to sit and watch the world go by.”? If that runs through your head, have you decided to turn your back on others who are in need? Have you not become self-centered?
Ask yourself this question: Why do I sit in traffic on a long commute to my job becoming stressed out and angry? Is it because I have to make ends meet or is it because I have a particular lifestyle that I want and I will forsake family, friends, church and other things because I need to maintain a certain amount of status? Have you not become self-centered?
Ask yourself this question: Why do you keep yourself so busy running all over creation involving yourself in all sorts of activities? Do you have to do all these things? Are you living for your children and grandchildren? Are you trying to please everyone so that you don’t have to deal with conflict or disappointment? And in trying to please everyone so that you do not have to deal with disappointment, have you not become self-centered?
Why do you look at other people and think they have problems and not yourself? Do you think you do a better job of living than they do? Do you think you have placed yourself above them because of your behavior or status or ability to create wealth? Does this not make you self-centered and self-righteous?
You see, at the root of most of our problems as a nation and as a people and as a community and in our families is self-centeredness–the idea that my needs come first; that I should have my needs satisfied. That people should do what I want them to do because I have it right. Yes, this self-centeredness is at the heart of Herod and Herodias and Salome and those in attendance at the banquet. It is also at the heart of Dylann Roof. It is also in my heart as well.
I’ve shared my story with you how I finally came to realize that at the bottom of my heart was the desire for recognition and power and prestige. I wanted to be a pastor that all other pastors looked up to. I wanted to be known as the guy who took a little church in Cat Spring, TX and turned it into a mega-church. I wanted people to ask me how I did it and clamor for my advice and buy my books and ask me to come speak at their gatherings. Oh, yes, I wanted all of these things very deeply, and I was willing to use you to get there. I wanted you to carry me, and when you didn’t cooperate with me, I would get angry with you. Of course, I would disguise all of this in churchy language, and I never considered that I was doing anything wrong; but oh how wrong I was. Oh how misguided I was. Oh how selfish I was. And no amount of people looking at me and telling me I was wrong was going to change me. No one pointing out how I should be doing things was going to make me see my own depravity. No. I had to come to see my brokenness. I had to come to see my sinfulness. I had to come to see that I needed not another set of rules but a Savior. Only then could my heart be changed.
That change was brought about by several things, but perhaps the most important piece came as I was healing after burning out. I was visiting my grandfather who was 94 at the time. I was asking him about his ministry as a pastor and if he ever experienced burnout. He shared with me story after story of things he had done, and then he said the following words, “I didn’t accomplish much in the eyes of the world, but the Lord and I are on very good terms.”
Those words burned into my brain in an instant because they confronted me with my own selfishness. I wanted to accomplish much in the eyes of the world, but those things are not important. The most important thing my grandfather said in his twilight was, “The Lord and I are on very good terms.” That’s really the only thing that matters. That’s the only thing that is lasting and eternal. And how in the world are the Lord and my grandfather on very good terms? How in the world are the Lord and I on very good terms? How in the world are you and the Lord on very good terms?
Not because of anything that you did. Not because of anything my grandfather did. Certainly not because of anything I did. But because of what Jesus did. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world may be saved through Him.
You see, Jesus was much more than a law giver. Certainly He emphasized that we should love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength and then love our neighbor as ourselves. But He knew that simply telling us to do that wouldn’t change our hearts. It would not reach into the darkness. Something else had to do that, so Jesus lived the life we were supposed to live. He loved God with all His heart, and He loved His neighbor as Himself. Then, Jesus died the death we deserved. Because of our self-centeredness, we do not put God first. We do not put our neighbor first. We live for ourselves–and when we live for ourselves, God says, “I will let you live for yourself for eternity, and you will never be satisfied!” That, my friends is hell! But rather than allow us to experience that, Jesus took that upon Himself. He experienced that Hell for us so that we would not have to. He then clothed us with His righteousness so that we can enter into the presence of God–not just when we die, but right here and now.
We no longer have to seek status in the eyes of the world. We no longer have to seek wealth or sex or busyness to fill us. We have a God who willingly dies for us when we do not deserve it. We have a God who makes our joy complete as we seek Him. When we look to that light and place our trust in that light, our hearts of stone are broken. Darkness begins to disappear, and we are transformed. And as we share that light, the world is transformed as well–not because of what we do but because of what Christ has done. Thanks be to God!! Amen.