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July 16, 2006 (Sunday 15 • Time after Pentecost)
Interim Pastor Steve Jensen
Usually as I prepare a sermon, I develop the different possibilities of emphasis and choose the one I think and pray most needs to be spoken to that day. However, as I mulled over this 6th chapter of Mark, I noted that as he returns to John’s death at a time when Jesus seems to be enjoying success and popularity, it sends a sobering note. That serves as a reminder of what happens to preachers who threaten established authorities.
Reviewing the story of John’s death further suggested to me that it was important to look at the story from two sides—that of Jesus and his disciples, including the prophet John, and that of Herod Antipas and company—because I think both sides speak to us today.
As both chaplain and clinical coordinator of a substance abuse counseling center, I saw so frequently how quickly young lives could spiral toward ruin and disaster with one bad decision. Week after week I tried to communicate to groups of men and women that when they rationalize and give themselves permission to do something they know to be wrong just one time, it makes it easier the next time something tempting presents itself to choose the wrong one. We know, for example, once giving oneself permission to experiment with a “safe drug,” people are far more likely to move on to other drugs.
Those therapists, social workers, teachers and parents among you are likewise aware of the same dynamics in making other wrong choices, particularly when we’re young. If we’re not confronted by a person of influence and encouraged to change direction, we can soon find ourselves on paths to places we shouldn’t go.
I suspect each of us can easily return in our minds to very specific examples of that in our own lives and thank God that some individual or group of persons cared enough about us to take a risk and be a prophet to us.
Herod Antipas may well have learned and repeated various attitudes and behaviors from Herod the Great. Herod the Great knew well how to use Roman power and influence to his advantage, building his wealth and garnering protection. Despite wanting to secure his legitimacy and acceptance as king by marrying a princess and engaging in an incredible building campaign that included rebuilding of the temple over a 10-year period and the mountain fortress of Masada, he also engaged in rather hedonistic behavior, throwing lavish parties and bestowing incredible gifts on those he thought could be of use to him.
But he was also an incredibly insecure man and had absolutely no hesitation in putting to death any who could possibly outshine him or even remotely usurp his power—to include his brother-in-law, two oldest sons, and his wife.
Herod Antipas, we see, isn’t very different. Except that God sends John the Baptist to him to call him to repentance—a seed sown among the thorns. There is something still alive in Herod’s soul, some tenuous connection to the God of creation, that stirs and calls to him whenever he hears John speak. He didn’t reject the message and the messenger like so many others.
Those experiences with John are quite ambiguous, however—angry with him for publicly calling him, the king, to task, but captivated by his passion and call to repentance.
That tenuous remaining connection to God makes it clear to him who sent John, and it caused him to want to protect John from harm.
Ah, but his gluttonous, pompous attitude and behavior, his insecurity and need to be respected by others catches up with him when his wife conspires with her daughter to use Herod’s lechery against him and silence this man who dares to publicly embarrass her.
Herod was in a tough spot. He was deeply perplexed. But he sold out. He had made an oath. His guests had heard it. He must keep his word. And so it was that the cares of the world choked out the Word he had heard. That willingness to sacrifice others to maintain honor, prestige, and power wasn’t unique to Herod. It remains one of the great temptations of persons in positions of authority.
How many times, in the nightmares that followed, would Herod regret that action that caused him to ignore the inner voice from God and sever his remaining connection with him? Gladly hearing the word and having one’s life transformed by the word are not the same thing.
How many times in our lives have we purposely ignored the voice of God within us, willing it to be silent, when it went against something we thought, at least for the moment, we wanted to do or be? How often have we regretted such decisions? Perhaps more importantly, have they made it easier for us to go down unhealthy paths or have we learned instead to trust God’s voice?
Let me turn for a moment to another emphasis I see in this scripture, the emphasis on Jesus, John the Baptist, and other disciples.
When I was old enough to attend my first Bible camp in the Catskill mountains of New York, I was thrilled at all the activities and adventure they offered—swimming, canoeing, hiking, camping, group games, camp fires, and more. I wasn’t sure about the required Bible study and worship, but it seemed to be the price you paid to be there. Yet as the week progressed, I appreciated the flannel storyboards, the music, and the personal stories of missionaries. That is, until the last night. I don’t know what they were thinking, but they showed the actual film footage of a missionary group who had gone to the Amazon to bring the Gospel to the natives. I’ll never forget the vivid images of people killed with spears and machetes by the natives they had come to love. Then as the end of the 16mm film flapped against the take-up reel, the leaders asked us to bow our heads, close our eyes and pray with them. At the end of the prayer, they asked we keep our eyes closed, but indicate by raising our hands who were ready to take up the Gospel and bring it to these heathen. At age 12, I certainly wasn’t ready to go to the slaughter and was suspicious of any kid who raised their hand. It struck me as foolish and reckless and wasteful to blithely head off to such dangerous places, no matter how much you loved God.
It’s been a very long time since I was 12 and over the years I’ve been to numerous countries and met even more ethnic peoples. I’ve seen first-hand the incredible work many of our missionaries and their supporters have done, and I’ve been fortunate enough to be in positions to share my faith with people hungry to hear of the love, acceptance, and forgiveness that comes to believers in the Christ who sacrificed himself for us.
Certainly over the years we’ve all read about the faithful of various denominations and traditions who have gone off to foreign lands and peoples to spread the Good News. Happily the Christian faith has caught fire in several nations and they now host the fastest growing churches in the world.
Other people of faith in Christ, however, continue to be harassed, prosecuted, kidnapped, imprisoned and killed on their missionary journeys. And that’s just overseas.
We have ample record that prophets who speak for God among their own people rarely are appreciated or loved and most often pay a heavy price for their faithfulness. Even Jesus was forced from his own hometown after attempting to tell people he cared so much about that God was unhappy with the way they were living their lives and that he had come to show them a new way. And he was crucified for not being the kind of Messiah people wanted him to be.
So when we talk about the “E-word,” evangelism, or simply about living our lives as visible responses to Christ’s love, or inviting another to join us in worship, I’m not unaware that even here being faithful carries risk. While no one is likely to lose their head in such an endeavor, it does bring at least the possibility of strained relationships or embarrassment.
We know that the disciples were shaken to the core by the beheading of John and the crucifixion of Christ and wanted nothing more than to return to familiar lives and essentially tune out all that had gone on during their association with Jesus. We’ve talked in past weeks about their hiding out and staying to themselves even after the miraculous resurrection and appearances by the risen Christ.
It wasn’t until they allowed the Holy Spirit to come into their lives and gave themselves totally and completely to God’s will that they were able to be prophets and proclaimers, healers, and lovers of people near and far.
We likely will never be called upon to risk our lives for the Gospel. But we are called upon to risk our comfort, to shine the light of the Gospel on how we live our lives, and to let God lead us and guide us. Only in trusting fully in the God who gives life and gives it fully can we be both prophets and priests by how we live.
And being sinful in nature, having made mistakes and wrong choices, we fully know what that is like. Yet having been forgiven and given new life, we know, too, how it feels to be redeemed, to have our guilt taken away, to discovering that God has enabled us to use even those bad choices to reach out to others in need of a word of hope and peace and love.
Be alert to the voice of God within you and choose not to silence it but to heed it. Allow him to use you as a prophet to those around you and trust that he will show you the way and give you not only the words but the heart. Not despite, but because of, your unique shortcomings and flaws, respond to God’s call that you and only you are specially suited to reach another with, “Here am I, Lord. Use me.”
Copyright © 2006 Steven Jensen
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