Posted on Wed, Jul 15, 2015
July 12, 2015
Gospel Text: Mark 6:14-29 – “The Cost of Grace”
The Death of John the Baptist
14 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, ‘John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.’ 15 But others said, ‘It is Elijah.’ And others said, ‘It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.’ 16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.’
17 For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. 18 For John had been telling Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ 19 And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20 for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. 21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22 When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.’ 23 And he solemnly swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.’ 24 She went out and said to her mother, ‘What should I ask for?’ She replied, ‘The head of John the baptizer.’ 25 Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’ 26 The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27 Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28 brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
Who preaches on the death of John the Baptist? Where is the “Good News” in today’s Gospel? Who is this prophet called “Amos” and the priest “Amaziah,” and what are they talking about? And between these dark and painful passages, what is the “Blessing” that Paul is talking about to the people of Ephesus?
It was said, that the two main engines that drive corrupt leaders are “greed” and “fear.” And what do we hear about the person who has the courage to stand up against this corruption with truth and courage… Sometimes, when they expose the Truth, it may cost them their lives. At great cost, truth and courage can change the world; however fear, greed and evil only bring on suffering.
Today we actually have two stories of corrupt leaders that are confronted by the truth and the tragic consequences to their truth telling. The truth proclaimed by the prophets exposed the sin and rebelliousness of the kings, and the resulting actions of the kings against these prophets, exposed their fear and cowardice before God.
But we are not to assume this is just a story about two corrupt and cowardly kings… we see examples of this same kind of fear and greed in kings and leaders even today. If a country’s’ leaders are afraid of their neighbors, we see an arms build up, or saber-rattling, instead of efforts to try to understand one another. If a leader is afraid of his or her own people we see the stifling of freedoms and the incarceration of people of descent. We also see this in our neighborhoods; if someone is afraid of their neighbor, people buy a pit-bull, put up higher fences or in some cases justify the purchase of a gun for the purpose of self-defense. Fear demonstrates itself on all levels in so many ways, and causing the consistent result of continued suffering of the oppressed and arrogance of the corrupt.
As the scripture describes leaders and people of long ago, they also describe people and leaders of today. First let us look at the relationship between the prophet Amos, and the king of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, a man named Jeroboam. Jeroboam was a corrupt and evil king. It is interesting that even though Amos was from the Southern Kingdom of Judah, he felt so strong about prophesying against the corrupt king Jeroboam north of his homeland, and left his home and marched right into Jeroboams’ Temple in Bethel.
At that time, the whole northern empire was living the good life, enjoying a long period of so-called peace, prosperity and security marked by a revival of artistic and commercial development for the upper crust under King Jeroboam. However, in order to support this flourishing lifestyle, social corruption and the oppression of the poor and helpless were prevalent. Many people gathered for huge so-called ‘sacred’ festivals just for the purpose of enjoying eating and partying, all at the expense of the poor. Some of these people also began to mix the festivals of Israel with the religious rites of what would be called pagan deities… of which the prophets were very displeased… The people of Israel felt that because of their election by Yahweh, they would be spared judgment for their sins and injustices. But Amos made it clear that “with great power comes great responsibility, and BECAUSE of their election by Yahweh they would be called to a far greater responsibility and would be punished more severely for breaking their covenant with Yahweh... And above that, since all people were living in prosperity at the cost of the powerless, Amos didn’t just prophesy against Israel, but against all the tribes and religions is the area.
In Amos 2:4-5 Amos condemns the religious leaders of Israel for rejecting God’s laws and leading Israel astray with his famous line, “Israel is condemned for selling ‘the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals’”
King Jeroboam had a priest at Bethel, he was called Amaziah; Amaziah was known as the, “idolatrous priest of the Golden Calves at Bethel.” Yet strangely, the scripture makes it clear that both Amaziah and Jeroboam could also see that Amos spoke the Truth, and they were afraid of Amos. When Amaziah says to Amos, “O seer, go, flee to the land of Judah earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom. (Meaning, “I see you are a prophet of Yahweh, please go back HOME!”) They know that Amos speaks the truth so they banish him out of Bethel. The apocryphal work The Lives of the Prophets records that Amos was then killed by the son of Amaziah, but Amos was buried in his homeland.
Amos preached the Truth about God’s faithfulness to the poor and oppressed… and it cost him his life, but he is one of the first of the Minor Prophets recorded in scripture because his words are the word of God. King Jeroboam, on the other hand, remains in history just as he was, a corrupt and evil man… with a name that is hard to pronounce… and no one knows about Amaziah, the priest of the golden calves at Bethel.
The Gospel for today tells of a parallel story. Herod is weak and afraid, and John the Baptizer has been publically preaching the Truth, Herod has married his brother’s wife, flying in the face of God and the Law! Herod is gutless but his new wife is clever and conniving. At a party and before his servants and friends, he makes the outlandish promise to his daughter after she graced them with a dance recital, to give her ANYTHING in his kingdom! His daughter runs to her clever mother to make sure she asks for the right gift from the king. Because he is afraid of loosing face to his audience, Herod caves and grants her wish… even though the scripture makes it clear that Herod acknowledged that John was a righteous man and that Herod actually liked to listen to John… down in the dungeon. Notice that after the soldiers carried out their gruesome order they didn’t bring the plate to king Herod, but gave it to the girl…
Look at the pattern, the prophets were sent by God to preach the Truth. It cost the prophet his life, but the Truth remains. And the Truth becomes a gift of guidance to us all. God is Faithful; and we have been given the gift of repentance and forgiveness and through God’s amazing grace, we are freed to be the compassionate, merciful and justice seeking people of God. But the people of the scripture, rich and poor, still mirror the world of today.
So, where is the Gospel today? Where is the Good News for us? Later in the Book of Luke, we will be invited to another meal hosted by a great prophet, it is Christ the Lord, and He too is dealing with a corrupt, selfish and fearful ruler by the name of Pilate. Pilate too, sees Jesus as more than a teacher, but very possibly a man sent by God, and Pilate is afraid his very legacy may be influenced by the sentence he may make for this Jesus of Nazareth. As expected, he too is a coward, and washes his hands of any responsibility he may have for this preacher… and gives him over to those religious leaders who are so blinded by their fear of Jesus, they can only think that for the better of their social order, this Jesus must die.
However, when Jesus finally gets some time with his disciples, and during their holy celebration, the Jesus will say, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; 16 for I tell you, I will not eat it* until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’ 17 Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, ‘Take this and divide it among yourselves; 18 for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’ 19 Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ 20 And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.*
The Gospel is found in Jesus’ obedience to our salvation and forgiveness in giving his body and blood for us, in the middle of this corrupt and oftentimes painful world.
The same pattern of suffering for the Truth occurs. Jesus goes to the cross and gives his life, for the blind, fearful and arrogant, the corrupt religious and political leaders, the soldiers, the suffering and oppressed, those passionate enough for preaching the Word of God that they know it may cost them their lives, and all of those still just walking and searching for Truth. (I know several missionaries that gave their lives for the sake of their calling to preach the Good News, but their death was not in vain. Their faithfulness remains an inspiration to all committed to preaching Christ crucified and risen.) That is the Good News. Who are you in each of these stories? I think we play the role of each character some time in our lives… And guess what? God’s forgiveness and grace never changes, it is always there for you. Amen.
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