Along about mid-week, I'd been struggling with what direction to go with today's message. Then several disruptions in my normal routine came along and I was going nowhere fast with this sermon. So to spur ideas, I dug into my files and found my sermons from the past. Now those of you who follow closely understand that our lectionary cycle is three years. In other words, every three years we read these same three readings on the 6th Sunday of Pentecost. I found 6 old sermons from these readings, 18 years worth. Five of them were based on the reading from Ephesians, one from the Old Testament option about David and the Ark of the Covenant and not a single one based on this gospel reading. So I decided it was time to tackle this gospel story and here I am, trying to come up with a meaningful message based on a drunken king making a reckless promise to a young dancer coached by her evil mother.
The next three words, “heard of it.” Heard of what? The works that Jesus was doing, performing miracles in the villages of Galilee and beyond. Now these Herods were all kind-of Jewish and kind-of Roman. Basically, they did just enough religion to try to make the people believe they were faithful members in God's line of the monarchy. This Herod Antipas knew the Old Testament, at least the basics. Considering how this man Jesus could be doing all those miracles, his advisors came up with some possibilities; Elijah or another Old Testament prophet? Herod himself believed it was John, whom he beheaded, come back to life. And then we get a flashback to the infamous party. We know this part pretty well, the drunken Herod offering up to half his kingdom for the young girl who dances; the young girl who at her mother Hordodias's bidding requested, “I want you to give me the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” Disgusting. Evil. And not at all what Herod himself wanted. He had become kind of fond of John it seems. He believed John was holy and so Herod protected him while in prison. Who do you think he had to protect him from? Herodias; she hated John for pointing out the sinful marriage, a marriage which went against God's Law as given in Leviticus 18:13-16 specifically 16 “‘Do not have sexual relations with your brother’s wife;” Pretty specific and John would not just look the other way. John was determined to hold his leaders to a high standard; the standard God had put in place for the nation of Israel. And so Herodias schemed to have him killed under the auspices of the king. A sad, violent, unhappy ending for the man of whom Jesus said, “of all who have ever lived, there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist;”
So where do we go for a practical look at this story? One thing it demonstrates is that God has not promised that nothing bad can happen to believers, even those who are fully committed to God's work in this world. This came up in bible study as well this week. In chapter 12 of Acts, we read that the apostle James was killed by Herod (yet another one, Herod Agrippa I) while Peter miraculously was saved by an angel of God. Why was Peter saved and not the equally faithful apostle James? It is an unanswerable question for us, but it may help us when we struggle with our why questions. And since we can't answer the why of John's gruesome death, perhaps our task is to find Jesus in this story. C. Clifton Black, professor of Theology at Princeton helped me find this connection. “Herod foreshadows Pilate in the same way that John (foreshadows) Jesus. The two prefects are nominally in charge. Like Antipas, Pilate is amazed by circumstances surrounding an innocent prisoner, swept up in events that fast spin out of his control, and unable to back down after being publicly outmaneuvered. Like John, Jesus is passive in his final hours, faces with integrity his moment of truth, and is executed by hideous capital punishment, dying to placate those he offends.” There is much in the story of the execution of John that runs parallel to the story of Jesus and his cruel death. But I don't want to leave it at just another story of the powerful bringing sorrow and death to the weak. John came to earth to, as he said, prepare the way for Jesus. And Jesus came to show the world the Father's love. He did this in how he lived his life as well as how he faced his death. And ultimately, Jesus showed God's love by bringing us into the kingdom through his resurrection.
And this point is why I have always turned to the Ephesians reading in the past. It is the story of God's choosing us for salvation. Listen again to the wonderful, powerful words in the passage from Ephesians, one of my favorite passages in the whole bible. “(God) chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world.” “(God) destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ.” “In (Jesus) we have redemption.” and “In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance.” And that can bring the question, “What inheritance? The author answers that too, it is an “inheritance toward redemption as God's own people, to the praise of his glory.” So much theology here and so much good news of salvation! And while this good news is not found clearly in John's beheading, because of Jesus the good news is there. And because of Jesus, the good news is ours to recognize and celebrate! Jesus died for us, Jesus lives and reigns in heaven for us, we are adopted children in God's family; brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus. Good news; great news!
Stories like the beheading of John or the martyrdom of James or Stephen can make us question either the goodness of God or the power of God, or both. But we are not privy to the full story. We don't see the work of the Holy Spirit working in and through the very things that cause us to ask, “Why?” As I said earlier, Jesus gave John the Baptist great praise, the greatest human being on earth. But I did not include the second part of his quote, “yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” We are welcomed into the kingdom of God, we are children of the heavenly Father, we are great in the eyes of God. Not because of what we have done, but because we belong to Jesus. And we gather here on Sunday mornings to celebrate that fact. As we sing, we pray, we confess, and we share--we fulfill the call in Ephesians to do all to the praise of God's glory.
John did all to the praise of God's glory; from preaching baptism for repentance to recognizing the Son of God to holding up the law to the powerful rulers. Ephesians begins by announcing that God “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” But that does not mean that we are not to be blessings in this world; our daily lives are to reflect the love and grace of Jesus. Doing all for the praise of God's glory means that Sunday morning is really not sufficient. We are called to live for God's glory every day. It was our former Executive Presbyter Sue Coller who told us that as important as Sunday morning is in our faith journey, it may just be much less important than our actions every day of the week. We live for Christ, not because it means nothing bad will happen to us, but because God has made us children of the Kingdom through Jesus. And Jesus has shown God's great love for us. And we have the promise of an inheritance that is eternal and wonderful. And so we can sing of the mighty power of God; power to create, power to save; power that was both given and forfeited in Christ Jesus. May we know the power of God's love. May we share that love in the world around us. And may we do all to the praise of God's glory and power and might. Amen.
I Sing the Mighty Power of God 288 PH (3 verses)