Matthew 14:1-12 – Speaking Truth to Power

16th century Russian Orthodox icon of John the Baptist

At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, and he said to his attendants, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”

Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, for John had been saying to him: “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered John a prophet.

On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for the guests and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison. His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother. John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus. (NIV)

John’s murder is a story about our world – a world of power, sex, and intrigue. Times may change, but people across the ages do not change. Humanity is fundamentally the same in every century. And the world is still the world, no matter the historical time. 

The contrast between Herod and John supply us with two types of people who exist throughout every age of humankind, offering us the choice of which way we will go with our lives. The story illustrates for us the reality of living in a fallen world as a devout person.

The Herod in today’s Gospel lesson was a son of Herod the Great, the one who killed all the male babies when Jesus was born in order to try and get rid of any rival king (Matthew 2:1-18). King Herod is displayed in the narrative as a tragic and pathetic figure who is ruled by his own lusts. He seems too proud and wimpy to admit he made a rash promise and killed a man just to save face with his guests at a party.

Talk about a Jerry Springer worthy family drama, here it is: The Herod family was rich, proud, and downright violent. They tended to marry within their own clan to hold their power and possessions for themselves. Herodias married her uncle Herod Philip; Salome was their daughter. Later, Salome married Philip the tetrarch, half-brother to Herod Philip. Through marriage, Salome became both aunt and sister-in-law to her mother. Then the Herod in our story married Herodias, who had been married to Herod’s half-brother, Herod Philip. Having fallen in love with Herod Antipas, Herodias divorced Herod Philip to marry Herod Antipas. Sheesh, nothing like complicated family drama.

St. John the Baptist Rebuking Herod by Italian artist Giovanni Fattori (1825-1908)

Into this violation of Old Testament marriage laws (the Herod’s were Jewish) came John who made no bones about the fact this was not right (Leviticus 18:16, 20:21). Herodias nursed a grudge against John for speaking out against her and Herod’s choices. Hell, hath no fury like a woman’s scorn, and when Herodias found an opportunity to get rid of John, she coached her daughter into asking for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Herod, too insecure to take back his ridiculous promise and look like a fool, consented to the execution of John.

In contrast to all this tragic theater is John the Baptist. John was a messenger of God and a preacher of repentance. As one who was preparing the way for Jesus, his message was simple and to the point: Repent, for the kingdom of God is near. John got into trouble and lost his life because he spoke truth to power by meddling in the life of King Herod and his family. The Herod’s were the political establishment of the day, and John did not temper his words when dealing with them.

There is a refreshing integrity about John. He was always the same no matter where he was, and no matter who the people were around him. In contrast to Herod, John was bold, courageous, confident, unafraid, and secure enough in his relationship with God to engage in ministry without thought to the consequences.  He was unconcerned for what others might think of him if he proclaimed truth in the public square, and it did end up costing him his life.

The story of John the Baptist’s death speaks about the hostility of this world. And it prefigured and foreshadowed the death of Jesus. Like John, Jesus was executed by the civil authorities. Herod, like Pilate after him, hesitated to execute and was swayed by the crowd. Herodias, like the chief priests toward Jesus, finally got her way through scheming and manipulation. John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it, just like Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus did for Jesus.

These stories, on the surface of things, appear to be only gloom and doom. Yet, there is a message of hope and joy. The absurd is working out itself in deliverance from sin, death, and hell. Through death, Jesus conquered death. We now have no fear of death; its sting has been taken away. Without fear of death, we have no reason to fear life with its troubles and tribulations.

The fork in the road is between the way of John or Herod. It is a values-based decision. If worth is derived from what we do, what we have, and/or other’s opinion of us, we will likely identify more with Herod and his choices. If there is a preoccupation with hoarding power and control, this is the path of Herod. 

Conversely, if the ultimate value is in knowing Christ crucified and the power of his resurrection, then we identify with John as our spiritual ancestor. If security and worth is derived from being in Christ, then there is boldness to speak truth to power and give grace to the powerless.

Herod saw no further than his immediate needs and safety; he failed to discern his own heart. Because of his spiritual blindness, Herod did not look away from himself and look to God. Faith in Jesus comes when persons look away from themselves and look to Christ who holds the power to free all from spiritual bondage.

Let us look to the example of John the Baptist who consistently sought to do the will of God as best as he understood it. Together with all God’s people past and present, we declare that God is with us, the kingdom of God is near, and the love of Christ brings faith and hope.

Almighty God, through your providence John the Baptist was wonderfully born and was sent to prepare the way of your Son, our Savior by the preaching of repentance. Lead us to repent according to his preaching and, after his example, constantly to speak the truth, boldly to rebuke vice, and patiently to suffer for truth’s sake; through Jesus Christ your Son, our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Psalm 42 – Sadness and Hope

As a deer gets thirsty 
    for streams of water, 
    I truly am thirsty 
    for you, my God. 
In my heart, I am thirsty 
for you, the living God. 
    When will I see your face? 
Day and night my tears 
    are my only food, 
    as everyone keeps asking, 
    “Where is your God?” 

Sorrow floods my heart, 
    when I remember 
leading the worshipers 
    to your house.  
    I can still hear them shout 
    their joyful praises. 
Why am I discouraged? 
Why am I restless? 
    I trust you! 
And I will praise you again 
    because you help me, 
    and you are my God. 

I am deeply discouraged 
    as I think about you 
from where the Jordan begins 
at Mount Hermon 
    and from Mount Mizar.  
Your vicious waves 
    have swept over me 
    like an angry ocean 
    or a roaring waterfall. 

Every day, you are kind, 
    and at night 
you give me a song 
    as my prayer to you, 
    the living Lord God. 

You are my mighty rock.  
    Why have you forgotten me? 
    Why must enemies mistreat me 
    and make me sad? 
Even my bones are in pain, 
    while all day long 
my enemies sneer and ask, 
    “Where is your God?” 

Why am I discouraged? 
Why am I restless? 
    I trust you! 
And I will praise you again 
    because you help me, 
    and you are my God. (CEV) 

Sadness. Every human on planet earth knows the feeling. Since we are emotional creatures, profound sadness even to the point of depression and/or despondency will happen. Yet, despite the universal nature of discouragement and tears, many Christians buck the sadness.

Far too many believers focus so exclusively on victory in Jesus through his resurrection, ascension, and glorification that they use religion as their denial when unwanted emotions like sadness come banging at the doorstep of their soul. 

So, I most emphatically say: Depression is not sin. To be discouraged is not the Enemy. Experiencing sadness is neither wrong nor selfish. Quite the opposite, in fact. It is necessary to sit with our emotions and feel the breadth and depth of them. Both our spiritual and emotional health come through an awareness and robust engagement with our feelings. To refuse to feel is to put the stiff arm to God.  

The psalmist does anything but deny his feelings. He brings them before the Lord and spreads them out before the Divine. Why am I discouraged? Why am I restless? Why the sadness? Could it be that God has forgotten me? Where is the Lord? Is God angry with me? Are my troubles the result of divine wrath? 

To blandly say we have never uttered or thought such questions is a telltale sign of denial. The bottom line for many folks is that they do not want to feel because such emotions complicate their lives. Besides, discouragement and sadness hurt. “Why feel,” we reason, “when it only brings pain?” 

Ah, yes, the avoidance of pain. And there is no pain quite like emotional and spiritual pain. Much like an open wound which needs a liberal application of painful peroxide, so our spiritual wounds must sting with the salve of emotional feeling. Healing is neither cheap, easy, nor painless. It typically hurts like hell. 

The psalmist’s own pain revolved around feelings of alienation from God, being cut off from fellow worshipers, and harassed by others around him. Understandably, he experienced despondency and loneliness. The psalmist wondered if anyone, including God, even cared what he was going through. In other words, he is desperate for God to show up. 

I am going to make a simple observation about this psalm: The psalmist did not get any answers to the several questions he posed. He even repeated them, to no avail. The only form of comfort the psalmist received was to remember what God had done in the past. Somehow, someway, this will help with the difficulties of the present. 

There are times in life when we must recall what we know about God, ourselves, and others. If the Lord has delivered in the past, God can do it again. If others helped before, perhaps they will be present in the here and now. And just maybe, even likely, you and I will discover a resilient spirit within. We already possess everything we need to not only survive but to grow and thrive in life. 

Hope arises from holding the big picture of the past, present, and future together at the same time. When present circumstances are difficult, and it appears we are about to swallowed up into the now, we must hold the past and future along with it, in careful tension. Then, we shall find the ennoblement to keep going. 

Trust in the future, a confident expectation of hope, is born from the trustworthiness of the past. A prayerful song in our heart will carry us through till our hope is realized. 

Exodus 3:16-25 – A Great Reversal

Moses and the Children of Israel by Richard McBee
“Moses and the Children of Israel” by Richard McBee

“Go, assemble the elders of Israel and say to them, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—appeared to me and said: I have watched over you and have seen what has been done to you in Egypt. And I have promised to bring you up out of your misery in Egypt into the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—a land flowing with milk and honey.’ 

“The elders of Israel will listen to you. Then you and the elders are to go to the king of Egypt and say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us. Let us take a three-day journey into the wilderness to offer sacrifices to the Lord our God.’ But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him. So, I will stretch out my hand and strike the Egyptians with all the wonders that I will perform among them. After that, he will let you go. 

“And I will make the Egyptians favorably disposed toward this people, so that when you leave you will not go empty-handed. Every woman is to ask her neighbor and any woman living in her house for articles of silver and gold and for clothing, which you will put on your sons and daughters. And so, you will plunder the Egyptians.” (NIV) 

Moses spent forty years in the back side of the desert tending sheep. The first forty years were lived in the most powerful place on earth at the time, Egypt. Although Moses had a privileged position, he forsook his place to be in solidarity with the enslaved Israelites. With a skewed sense of timing and method, he slew a cruel Egyptian, and was forced to flee into the desert. 

The time eventually became ripe, and God was on the move. At eighty years old, God called Moses out of the desert and back to Egypt. The deliverance was going to be accomplished according to God’s designs and purposes, and not from the impetuous actions of a younger Moses. God knew exactly what he was doing and put Moses on a course which would strike at the heart of imperial Egypt and bring freedom to millions of slaves. 

Today’s story is laced thick with divine promises. After all, it is the promises of God which give people hope and a future. Referring to himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Lord connects the generations-long covenant promise to the Israelites and reminded them they are not forgotten. God’s covenant has neither disappeared nor changed; it still exists. While the Jews were languishing in slavery, God was not aloof but watching – carefully inspecting, caring, and paying close attention. 

The inheritance of the Promised Land was coming, and it would be realized. God affirmed the covenant, knowing the plans he has for them – plans to give them abundance and joy. And God knew full well that dislodging the Israelites from Egypt would take some work, since Pharaoh relied so heavily on slave labor to support his massive imperial state. 

You, like me, have likely noticed that God tends to move rather slow by our standards. We might question and wonder about so much injustice going unabated for so long. Yet, that is our perspective of things, not God’s. Whereas we often have our own self-interest at mind, the Lord has the concern of an entire world. God is patient and long-suffering, providing full opportunity for both individual and national repentance. The Lord is on the lookout for people to amend their errant ways and return to their true purpose for living. He only judges at the proper time. 

And when that time comes, look out! Nothing can stand in the way of God’s good plans for the earth. The ancient Egyptians had built an empire on the backs of slavery, and everything went into supporting the power and wealth of the state. God was not okay with this situation. As he had done many times before, the Lord would thoroughly dismantle and destroy the powerful system of oppression. God is the expert at flip-flopping the status of people – the slaves become free, and the free are bound; the hated become favored, and those who enjoyed all the perks of power and privilege become the despised. 

Embracing God’s upside-down kingdom means advocating for justice, righteousness, and holiness for all people, not just a select few whom I like. Jesus, over 1,500 years after Moses and the exodus from Egypt, had this to say: 

“Those who are last now will someday be first, and those who are first now will someday be last.” (Matthew 20:16, NCV) 

“Blessed are you who are poor, 
    for yours is the kingdom of God. 
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, 
    for you will be filled. 
“Blessed are you who weep now, 
    for you will laugh. 

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 

“But woe to you who are rich, 
    for you have received your consolation. 
“Woe to you who are full now, 
    for you will be hungry. 
“Woe to you who are laughing now, 
    for you will mourn and weep. 

“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. (Luke 6:20-26, NRSV) 

And the Apostle Paul said to the Church: 

“For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever!” (2 Corinthians 4:17, NLT) 

The New Testament references are not meant to sanitize or put a positive spin on the very real suffering that so many people have endured both past and present. It is, however, meant to lift-up the reality that we have a sure and certain hope. Our trust in the promises and presence of God will eventually be realized and gives shape to how we live today in persistent prayers with patience and perseverance. 

So, may the Lord of all creation bless and protect you. May the Lord show you mercy and kindness in your affliction. And, may the Lord be good to you and give you peace. Amen. 

Genesis 49:1-33 – The Long View

Blessing of the Twelve Tribes

Then Jacob called for his sons and said: “Gather around so I can tell you what will happen to you in days to come.

“Assemble and listen, sons of Jacob;
listen to your father Israel.

“Reuben, you are my firstborn,
my might, the first sign of my strength,
excelling in honor, excelling in power.
Turbulent as the waters, you will no longer excel,
for you went up onto your father’s bed,
onto my couch and defiled it.

“Simeon and Levi are brothers—
their swords are weapons of violence.
Let me not enter their council,
let me not join their assembly,
for they have killed men in their anger
and hamstrung oxen as they pleased.
Cursed be their anger, so fierce,
and their fury, so cruel!
I will scatter them in Jacob
and disperse them in Israel.

“Judah, your brothers will praise you;
your hand will be on the neck of your enemies;
your father’s sons will bow down to you.
You are a lion’s cub, Judah;
you return from the prey, my son.
Like a lion he crouches and lies down,
like a lioness—who dares to rouse him?
The scepter will not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until he to whom it belongs shall come
and the obedience of the nations shall be his.
He will tether his donkey to a vine,
his colt to the choicest branch;
he will wash his garments in wine,
his robes in the blood of grapes.
His eyes will be darker than wine,
his teeth whiter than milk.

“Zebulun will live by the seashore
and become a haven for ships;
his border will extend toward Sidon.

“Issachar is a rawboned donkey
lying down among the sheep pens.
When he sees how good his resting place is
and how pleasant is his land,
he will bend his shoulder to the burden
and submit to forced labor.

“Dan will provide justice for his people
as one of the tribes of Israel.
Dan will be a snake by the roadside,
a viper along the path,
that bites the horse’s heels
so that its rider tumbles backward.

“I look for your deliverance, Lord.

“Gad will be attacked by a band of raiders,
but he will attack them at their heels.

“Asher’s food will be rich;
he will provide delicacies fit for a king.

“Naphtali is a doe set free
that bears beautiful fawns.

“Joseph is a fruitful vine,
a fruitful vine near a spring,
whose branches climb over a wall.
With bitterness archers attacked him;
they shot at him with hostility.
But his bow remained steady,
his strong arms stayed limber,
because of the hand of the Mighty One of Jacob,
because of the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel,
because of your father’s God, who helps you,
because of the Almighty, who blesses you
with blessings of the skies above,
blessings of the deep springs below,
blessings of the breast and womb.
Your father’s blessings are greater
than the blessings of the ancient mountains,
than the bounty of the age-old hills.
Let all these rest on the head of Joseph,
on the brow of the prince among his brothers.

“Benjamin is a ravenous wolf;
in the morning he devours the prey,
in the evening he divides the plunder.”

All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father said to them when he blessed them, giving each the blessing appropriate to him.

Then he gave them these instructions: “I am about to be gathered to my people. Bury me with my fathers in the cave in the field of Ephron the Hittite, the cave in the field of Machpelah, near Mamre in Canaan, which Abraham bought along with the field as a burial place from Ephron the Hittite. There Abraham and his wife Sarah were buried, there Isaac and his wife Rebekah were buried, and there I buried Leah. The field and the cave in it were bought from the Hittites.”

When Jacob had finished giving instructions to his sons, he drew his feet up into the bed, breathed his last and was gathered to his people. (NIV)

The theme of confidence works its way through the patriarch Jacob’s deathbed prophecies and blessings – a resolute conviction in the promises of God, that he will accomplish what he said he would do. Jacob expressed the hope and sure belief that God would bring the Israelites out of Egypt and into the land of Canaan as their inheritance – and, ultimately to the City of God, the eternal inheritance.

The Christian will find much in Judah’s blessing as the promise of the coming Christ, Jesus. Mentioning the implements of “staff” and “scepter” are symbols of authority. And, the reference to a donkey communicated a ruler was coming, as donkeys were the preferred mounts of royalty in ancient times. What is more, the washing of garments in wine, and eyes darker than wine, are allusions to the future blessing and abundance there will be through the tribe of Judah. In fact, the first miracle of Jesus was turning water into wine – a deliberate attempt by the Apostle John to connect Jesus with Old Testament messianic prophecies of abundance and blessing. (John 2:1-12)

long hallway

It is important for us to take the long view of life, keeping in mind that it took eighteen centuries for Jacob’s prophecy of Judah to occur. This long view is what gives us our confidence in life and provides the patience and perseverance we need right now.  Keeping in mind the big picture of God’s work in this world is necessary because if we do not, we will likely become discouraged with the circumstances we face right now.

The reason Jacob makes it into the great Hall of Faith is not because he was squeaky clean and perfect in how he lived his life, but because he took the long view, the big picture, and saw that God was going to fulfill his promises to Israel:

By an act of faith, Jacob on his deathbed blessed each of Joseph’s sons in turn, blessing them with God’s blessing, not his own—as he bowed in worship upon his staff. (Hebrews 11:21, MSG)

Furthermore, when we string the following three verses together across both Testaments, we see the long view of God’s purposes:

It is true that you planned to do something bad to me. But really, God was planning good things. God’s plan was to use me to save the lives of many people. And that is what happened. (Genesis 50:20, ERV)

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. (Jeremiah 29:11, NIV)  

And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28, NKJV)

In the Christian faith tradition, all God’s promises come together and are fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus. He is our salvation, our inheritance, and our hope.  To give our lives to him in complete trust of faith is both our challenge and our privilege.

May we live by faith, and not by fear.

Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through anxious times, so that we who are wearied by the changes of this life may rest in your eternal steadiness. Keep watch, dear God, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.