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.

Mark 11:27-33 – Dueling Authorities

They arrived again in Jerusalem, and while Jesus was walking in the temple courts, the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you authority to do this?”

Jesus replied, “I will ask you one question. Answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or of human origin? Tell me!”

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’ …” (They feared the people, for everyone held that John really was a prophet.)

So, they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”

Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” (NIV)

Because Christ is Lord, we might overlook that Jesus, in his earthly ministry, was an outsider. Although a teacher, a rabbi, Jesus was neither a priest nor a member of any Jewish religious sect. He walked around as if he owned the place (which he did) and this gave no end of consternation from the established status quo religious leadership.

Jesus made significant inroads into people’s lives, especially with outsiders like himself, and this created anger and jealousy with many of the religious ruling class. Since Jesus was not a card-carrying member, the leaders wanted to hear from him why he kept acting confidently and deliberately on their religious turf, as if he had authority to do so.

The established authorities are depicted in today’s Gospel lesson as a craven bunch who did not want to alienate the crowds yet were eager to get the upstart Jesus out the way. This appears to be an age-old situation of leaders putting their fingers to the wind to go with whatever will keep them popular and in power. Since Jesus consistently refused to play such games, the authorities believed he needed to go. They, however, had no intention of risking an outright confrontation and showing their shadow motives.

Jesus clearly connected himself with John the Baptist, both coming from the same authority. John was yet another figure for whom the established leaders could not control. We ought never to underestimate that threats to status quo leadership who have no inkling of being public servants when true moral authority comes along. The lack of conformity from both John and Jesus would cost them their very lives.

Speaking truth to power while not becoming defensive is a tricky art. Yet, Jesus did it. Continual challenges to his authority left him unfazed as to his mission and purpose on this earth. Christ was assertive without becoming despotic; forward without taking the bait of useless arguments; confident with no hint of arrogance.

For me, the contrast between Jesus and the religious authorities is trenchant. The confident, wise, and calm authority of Christ is in direct opposition to the fear, anxiety, and worry of the ruling leaders. Whereas they kept anxiously ruminating about what to do about this threat to their established authority, Jesus exhibited a non-anxious presence which maintained a steadfast focus on God’s righteous, holy, and benevolent rule and reign.

Sometimes, continual fear is a clue that one is so worried about losing the person, place, or position they possess that the divine gets pushed aside.

Questioning Christ’s credentials was the giveaway that the existing religious authorities were concerned about their power and privilege, and not the people. The wise person will see such queries for what they are.

Wherever we observe those who refuse to share power, have a xenophobic bent toward outsiders, and will seem to do just about anything to maintain the status quo, there we will find the abuse of authority. Conversely, where we observe a deep concern for equity, justice, and the common good of all persons, there we see compassionate leadership who will champion ethical leadership and espouse moral authority.

In any democratic society, we must choose our leaders wisely.

Great God of hope, in these times of change and uncertainty, unite your people and guide our leaders with your wisdom. Give us courage to overcome our fears and help us to build a future in which all may prosper and share together through Jesus Christ our Lord in the strength of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Exodus 10:21-29 – From Darkness to Light

Darkness

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward the sky so that darkness spreads over Egypt—darkness that can be felt.” So, Moses stretched out his hand toward the sky, and total darkness covered all Egypt for three days. No one could see anyone else or move about for three days. Yet all the Israelites had light in the places where they lived.

Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and said, “Go, worship the Lord. Even your women and children may go with you; only leave your flocks and herds behind.”

But Moses said, “You must allow us to have sacrifices and burnt offerings to present to the Lord our God. Our livestock too must go with us; not a hoof is to be left behind. We have to use some of them in worshiping the Lord our God, and until we get there, we will not know what we are to use to worship the Lord.”

But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he was not willing to let them go. Pharaoh said to Moses, “Get out of my sight! Make sure you do not appear before me again! The day you see my face you will die.”

“Just as you say,” Moses replied. “I will never appear before you again.” (NIV)

The ancient Israelites were in bondage to the mighty Egyptian empire. After four-hundred years of bondage, God called Moses to lead them out from Egypt to the Promised Land. The only kink was the Egyptian Pharaoh’s outright reluctance. As the most powerful human on the planet at the time, Pharaoh was used to getting his way on everything. God knew it would be a process of deliverance, and not just a sudden event.

So, a series of ten wonders or miracles occurred that struck at the heart of Egyptian power and religion. A discernible pattern quickly developed in which Pharaoh refused cooperation; God sent an incredible devastation on the land; Pharaoh relented with a half-repentance; God lifted the devastation; and, with things “back to normal” Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and he would not let God’s people go. Rinse and repeat a lot more times.

Today’s Old Testament lesson recounts the ninth wonder done by God, using Moses. Although the miracle of complete and total darkness lasted a full three twenty-four-hour long days without harming any human or animal, the sheer fear and terror it brought to the Egyptians left them in a three-day state of suspense. Living on the edge in anxious apprehension is psychologically overwhelming. At least with the other plagues, you could see what you were up against.

Fear in the dark

In the land known as the “eternally rising sun,” the uncertainty of the perpetual darkness was meant to humble Egypt and put it in its place. Yet, with nine strong and full wonders from God, Pharaoh remained intransigent and stubborn. He was not going to let all that slave labor walk away while he was in charge.

I “wonder” what it takes for most of us to make a major change in our lifestyle – what we need to go through before we cry “uncle” and let go. The more power and control we have, the harder it is to do so. Humans are creatures of habit, and wherever there are long standing routines there you will find great difficulty in changing those practices.

No one simply wakes up in the morning and decides to be a jerk. Instead, it is likely that one day a person will arise, look in the mirror, and not recognize who is looking back at them. A series of choices and habits over a long stretch of time eventually formed the undistinguished blockhead. The Apostle James once described the pathology behind the person in the mirror:

You are tempted by the evil things you want. Your own desire leads you away and traps you. Your desire grows inside you until it results in sin. Then the sin grows bigger and bigger and finally ends in death. (James 1:14-15, ERV)

By reading today’s story Christologically we have a clue as to the remedy and reformation needed to form newer and better habits. Just as all Egypt was in three days of darkness due to sin, so Jesus was three days in the dark grave because of the world’s sin. And just as the ancient Israelites were delivered from their cruel bondage from Egypt and entered the Promised Land, so in Jesus Christ humanity is liberated from their power-hungry, money-grubbing, control-obsessing ways of being insensitive dolts to forming new habits of humility, justice, and love. The Apostle Peter said:

You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9, NRSV)

It is the aim of the Christian to look out at the world and bring love where love is not; to discover it is more blessed to give than to receive; and, to have a deep sense of justice which works for egalitarian ways and the equity of all people, not just people of privilege.

So, may we gain a proper perspective of ourselves, others, and the world. And, may we resist the Pharaoh’s among us, while championing the needs of the downtrodden of this old fallen world. May we be like Christ and see Jesus in each person we encounter.

God, you have given all peoples one common origin. It is your will that they be gathered as one family in yourself. Fill the hearts of humanity with the fire of your love and with the desire to ensure justice for all. By sharing the good you give us, may we secure an equality for all our brothers and sisters throughout the world. May there be an end to division, strife, and war. May there be a dawning of a truly human society built on love and peace. We ask this in the name of Jesus, our Lord, through the might of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Psalm 149 – Praise and Punishment

Church stained glass windows sword dividing

Praise the Lord!
Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise in the assembly of the faithful.
Let Israel be glad in its Maker;
let the children of Zion rejoice in their King.
Let them praise his name with dancing,
making melody to him with tambourine and lyre.
For the Lord takes pleasure in his people;
he adorns the humble with victory.
Let the faithful exult in glory;
let them sing for joy on their couches.
Let the high praises of God be in their throats
and two-edged swords in their hands,
to execute vengeance on the nations
and punishment on the peoples,
to bind their kings with fetters
and their nobles with chains of iron,
to execute on them the judgment decreed.
This is glory for all his faithful ones.
Praise the Lord! (NRSV)

The initial question that arises with me is this: Is this a psalm of praise to the Lord, or an imprecatory psalm encouraging the punishment of the wicked? Well, perhaps the obvious answer is “yes.” I suppose what I am really struggling with is that out of all the one-hundred fifty psalms in the psalter, only this one has this unique combination of vocal praise and punishing action.

The psalm begins much like many psalms of praise but takes the unexpected turn of a call to a war-like operation to execute vengeance on enemies. I freely admit that I do not know quite what to make of this strange amalgam. I wonder along with the venerable Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann who said, “One cannot tell whether this is a responsibility to fend off oppressors or a temptation to gather imperial power.”

Perhaps my wrestling with this psalm is really the struggle with history itself. The Holy Scriptures do not shy away from the realism of its times and often offers historical events and human attitudes with unvarnished narratives. The Bible, and especially the psalmist, will not let us sanitize the past as some idyllic bygone era of divine drama to be envied. Instead, we receive the liberation of God’s people with all its harsh truth.

So, it could be that is why I also loathe seeing some mass market crosses which look ornately beautiful, as if Christ’s death was some pleasant affair. Deliverance from sin, death, and hell came at an awful price. Jesus absorbed all the foulness and degradation of a tortuous ignoble death. In other words, he was a bloody mess, publicly displayed for all to jeer at and be repulsed by.

What is more, for the Christian, perhaps the sagest approach to today’s psalm is unabashedly choosing to view it through Christocentric lenses. Christ is the strong man who has bound the ruler of this dark world with iron chains and secured our liberation from a hellish existence. And the Lord will return, the nations of the earth will be judged, and the faithful will reign with Christ forever.

Even if I read a bit too much into the psalm by interpreting it Christologically, it still leaves the intention of the imprecation open as to its true nature. In other words, the psalm simply does not tell us the trajectory of the curse which comes out of the praise. We are left to wonder in what kind of direction it goes. The Christian tradition of reading psalms and seeing Jesus in them might be our best guide.

Whichever way we choose to examine this unique psalm, the thing which we do know is that it unequivocally stands as a defiance of the nations and peoples of the earth who oppose the living God. Resistance to injustice, unrighteousness, and evil is encouraged by this psalm. The only ruler of this earth who has absolute power is God; and, anyone or any group which attempts to gain and grab such power for themselves is to be resisted. For the harsh reality of living on this created yet fallen earth is that violent and insolent people still desire total control and will do just about anything to get it and keep it.

Almighty and sovereign God, we, your people, ask in the Name of your most precious Son, Jesus Christ, our risen and ascended Lord, to look upon the good desires of your humble servants, and stretch forth the right hand of your power to be our defense against evil in all its insidious forms. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.