Lectionary Year B
July 16, 2000
Mark 6:14-29

Step VI: Contemporary Address



Last Friday night, Renita and I went down to the Blockbuster store around the corner to rent a video. We had wanted to see a particular movie for quite a while, but it was always checked out. You know how it goes with recent releases. Last Friday night, though, we got lucky. I guess we were early enough to beat the hardcore weekend movie crowd. There were several copies of the film we were eager to see on the shelf. Perhaps some of you saw it when it came out in the theaters a few months ago. It is called "The Crucible."

"The Crucible" is based on a 1950's play by the contemporary American playwright, Arthur Miller, about the Salem witchcraft trials in colonial Massachussetts sometime in the 17th century. The main character, John Porter, is a hard-working farmer, a man of good Christian character, a husband and a father of two children. During his wife's long-lasting illness the year before, he falls for their eighteen year old maid Abigail and commits adultery with her. Ashamed of his deed and deeply repentent, he confesses this act to his wife, and both decide to ban Abigail from their property. From this moment on, Abigail is possessed by one thought and one thought only: How can she make her former lover fall for her again? How can she destroy John Porter's marriage and get rid of his wife? An opportune occasion arises when Abigail--caught by the town's minister, who is also her uncle, Mr. Paris--and several other girls her age are accused of conjuring up spirits in the woods on account of the devil.

A minister who is familiar with exorcisms of the devil, as well as the high court of Massachussetts, moves into Salem in order to get to the bottom of the devil's schemes to take over this good Christian country. Abigail sees her chance and accuses John Porter's wife of sending out her spirit in order to victimize Abigail. She knows if Porter's wife will be condemned she will be hanged, and Porter will be hers again. Threatening the other girls with destruction of their lives, they play along out of fear for Abigail. As the story unfolds, several of the town's most respected elders fall victim to the slanderous accusations of these young women, who are always afraid that their scam will be uncovered.

John Porter, who sees through Abigail's plan, risks his good name by confessing publicly his adultery in order to save his wife from the gallows. But with Abigail cornered, she accuses Porter of being in allegiance with the Antichrist. Only a written confession of his allegiance with the devil can keep him from being hanged, but Porter does not give in. Not wanting to blemish his name and the testimony of his Christian friends, he chooses death over life with his wife and sons. Thus, Porter's life expires at the end of the hangman's rope, while Abigail flees town after plundering the minister's purse. The credits inform us that nineteen people altogether were executed in the Salem witchcraft trials on the whim of a lustful young woman's charge before the madness stopped. Nineteen Christian martyrs died a good death by giving witness to they believed.

The story about the death of John the Baptist that we heard just a few moments ago bears great semblence with the Salem witchcraft trials. John, a righteous and holy man, is thrown into prison for reminding Herod repeatedly of his unlawful union with his brother's wife, named Herodias. But Herod does not kill John because he knows that the prophet's character cannot be questioned. Herodias, however, is only waiting for an opportune occasion to get rid of this unkempt man who keeps reminding them of their sinful act.

This occasion arises at Herod's birthday party. Perhaps Herod was influenced by the presence of all the important people--the courtiers, his military officers, and the leaders of Galilee--that participated in the celebration. Perhaps the party got out of hand as they were all drinking heavily, their inhibition levels lowered by alcohol. Herod was ready to do almost anything to please his guests and himself. Perhaps right at this moment, when all codes of decency and the fear of God's prophet were down, the beautiful daughter of Herodia's appeared and danced so seductively that Herod had to have this girl. Even if it should cost him half of his kingdom. He seals this promise with a dreadful oath. Herodias, who had only been waiting for Herod's weak moment, demands the head of John the Baptist. As her daughter relates her mother's wish to the king, he cannot retract the oath he solemnly swore. And Herodias gets her wish--John's head, served on a platter.

Who was this unusual man they called John the Baptist? John seemed to have been a preacher who baptized people in the plains of Jordan, south of the oasis of Jericho. Central to his message was the radical repentance of sins, ablutions, or washings for cleansing, and the imminent expectation that God would intervene in the lives of human beings. Leonhard Goppelt, John Alsup's teacher, points out that John " ... did not gather a special community around himself, but like the prophets of the Old Testament he called all Israel to repentance as preparation for the storms of calamity gathering on the horizon." In other words, John was waiting for the end times, the time when God's chosen ones would finally encounter God face to face. Jesus knew this. He referred to John, and only to John, as the prophet of God in his time (Mt 11:9f.). You see, John was special. Very special. He was the one who baptized our Lord Jesus Christ, a baptism to which Jesus referred as a baptism from above, from God. John was the only one who had God's authority to baptize Christ, thus preparing the way for Him. The Swiss theologian Karl Barth points out that John was the only individual in the New Testament who is addressed as "hagios," as a holy human being. John was actively waiting for the salvation of those who returned from their path of sin in order to turn again to God. He believed that this salvation was a historical reality, a reality that would touch the lives of the baptized.

This was John's firm belief, and for this belief he died. This belief cost him his head. Is this the "fate" of a prophet, a holy one of God, to get caught up in human vileness? If John were right and God works in our lives in order to bring about salvation, why does God allow His prophets to be killed by the whim of human depravity? Being God's chosen one is a dangerous occupation. It can cost you your head.

When I read today's text, I was really puzzled. What was this story doing here in Mark's gospel? At first, I thought it had nothing to do with it at all, other than the fact that John the Baptist was mentioned. But the more I reflected and meditated about it, the more I was intrigued by this strange account of John's death. Right before the writer of Mark's gospel launches into telling us about Herod's grizzly deed, he informs us that Jesus' ministry is in full swing. He had just given His disciples authority over unclean spirits and commissioned them to go out and do ministry in His name. For this mission, they are only supposed to be equipped with the bare necessities. Jesus instructs them as to where they should stay and what they should do, and their successes are proof that their Master's instructions were right on, so to speak.

The passage after today's text seems to pick up where Mark left off in the story about the ministry of Jesus' disicples. As the apostles come back from their mission trip, perhaps a mission trial run, they report about their work to Jesus. Apparently aware of the fact that this kind of ministry is extremely exhausting, Jesus takes them aside to take a well-deserved break. But they cannot slip away unnoticed; the people come rushing in to meet them. Jesus, who has compassion on them like sheep without a shepherd, begins to teach them. And as the evening approaches and the people get hungry, He commands His disciples: "You give them something to eat!" Since they do not know how, He shows them. Looking up to heaven, He blesses the loaves and fishes and breaks the food to be distributed. "And all ate and were filled."

And here is our passage. In the midst of all the beauty and the wonder and the power of ministry in the name of Jesus Christ, we read what awaited the one who was chosen by God for God's service, chosen to make straight the paths of the One who would not baptize with water, but with the Holy Spirit. John loses his head and his final destination is the tomb into which his disciples place his mutilated body. However, in this John is not alone. Even our Lord Jesus Christ, the "monogenaes tou theou," the unique One of God, the only One who was and is and will be truly Holy, is not spared from that which awaits those whom God has anointed. He, too, loses His life as He is crucified, dead, and buried. Jesus' earthly destination, too, was a cold and barren tomb. And what about us? Has not Jesus told us that through our baptism we became His children whom He knows by name, that He is our shepherd and we his sheep? The answer seems simple: Following Christ, having faith, and doing ministry in His name will cost us our heads. And while we are led to the slaughter like sheep, others seem to be dancing on our graves like the guests of Herod's birthday feast or the Jerusalem crowd after Christ's crucifixion. The Psalmists bemoaned this a long time ago. The righteous suffer while the wicked seem to prosper. How long, O Lord, must we watch this senseless suffering?

While this is a legitimate question that we can put right at God's doorstep, we must address another question first. Do we belong in the corner of the rigtheous or in the corner of the wicked? Have we not, all of us, waited sometime in our lives for an opportune moment to take advantage of somebody else's weakness and vulnerability? How about that time when we beat a colleague to the punch and got that promotion instead of him or her? How about that time when we snatched the girl of our best friend away from him? How about that time when we closed that business deal by massaging the facts a little bit? How about that time...? Can we hear John's voice who was calling the people to repentance before he baptized them, how he was calling Herod and Herodias to repentance for their adulteruous relationship? Can we hear Jesus' voice who, after coming out of the wilderness, clearly laid out His message: "Repent and believe in the good news!"

What's good news about all of this? Sounds a lot like "doomed if you do and doomed if you don't" to me. But in our hearts, I believe we know that John and Jesus spoke the truth. Just like Herod, who liked to listen to John although John's message troubled him deeply, we like to listen to the Good News although the Gospel exposes our shortcomings. It makes us squirm in our seats a little bit, doesn't it? And the more we listen, the greater the doubts if we are living our lives in a way pleasing to God. Just as Herod seems to hate to love John's true words, don't we hate to love God's good news sometimes because its truth exposes us. John's reminder about Herod's unfaithfulness cost him his head, but in beheading John, Herod did not get rid of the source of his discomfort, which was God's word. And we will not get rid of our discomfort by turning our backs on God's word either.

So what's the good news in light of the fact that we cannot get rid of our discomfort no matter how hard we try? The good news is that we cannot get rid of our discomfort, no matter how hard we try! The good news is that God will never let us go, neither in life nor in death. As St. Paul wrote in his second letter to the Corinthians (4:8): "We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; troubled, but not driven to despair." Furthermore, Paul also reminds us that while we belong to this side of the resurrection, we cannot please God (Rom 8:8). It is not so important to be the most holy or the most righteous or to get ahead of our neighbor. Instead, Paul says, we ought not strive so much to please ourselves but our neighbor because Christ did not strive to please Himself either, but first looked out for His sheep (Rom 15:1-3). And in seeking to please our neighbors, we become true servants of Christ (Gal 1:10).

True. To please God and to live the Christian life is a dangerous occupation--it can, no, it will cost us our heads. But it is the promise of our Lord Jesus Christ that everyone who will lose his or her life for the sake of the good news of God will find it. Peggy Thompson, whom we entrusted to God's eternal care last Wednesday, found her life in Christ. Our Lord and Savior is living proof of the truth of this reality. For the tomb was not His final destination, it is empty; it has no power over the Living One who is alive today. God's chosen people are not doomed, they are given life everlasting. The God who calls us by name, and whose children we are, wants and desires our salvation. It is God's promise that we will be raised on that day and that God already awaits our coming with arms wide open in order to feed us at the heavenly banquet to which all of us are invited by God's grace. On that day, we shall dance and sing and celebrate together with all the saints of all times and places at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.

Let us pray!
Lord, help us to live as your people with clean hands and pure hearts. Guide us in our living so that we would not lift up our souls to what is false, so that our opportune moments become your opportune moments. And in this, O God of mercy and compassion, assure us that we will receive your blessing and salvation to eternal life. We lift up our hearts, minds, and souls to you, Almighty God, so that you, the King of Glory may come in. AMEN. (Based on lectionary reading of Psalm 24).

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