Sermon for Pentecost 6B Proper 10
Amos 7:7-15, Mark 6:14-29
I'm on a preaching run for about four to six weeks, depending on fast my colleague heals from her surgery. This is always a challenge of time-management with the day job and life in general, so I try to be proactive and work on my sermons ahead as I have the time. When I saw this Sunday's lectionary a couple weeks ago I literally said, "God, you have GOT to be kidding!" I thought about avoiding the whole thing by going with one of the OT readings or the Epistle, but I got to thinking that Mark is judicious what he includes, so you know, there's just got to be some Good News in there somewhere! So I set myself the task of finding it and this is what ensued. It preached pretty well this morning at my place, and I will be giving it another go in a little while at the nursing home.
A “perplexed” king, a seductive dancing girl and a beheaded prophet. What on earth does any of this have to do with Jesus? Well here it is before us in the Gospel of Mark, and we know that Mark’s purpose was to tell us of “the good news* of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. How on earth does this work, we might wonder? Jesus does not even show up in this Gospel, let alone do any of the things he is usually about in Mark. So, what’s the point?
I have to admit, when I saw that this reading was the one assigned in the lectionary for this Sunday, my first reaction was less than enthusiastic. And I had to ask that question, too. Why on earth tell this story then or now? What could possibly be the good news here?
Let’s start with the big picture. John, as we know was a prophet. Just like Amos, whom we heard from in the Old Testament reading this morning. Prophets. The scriptures are full of them. In addition to Amos, we have Abraham, Moses, Samuel, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Nahum, Jonah, and Ezekiel. And of course there were the women …Sarah Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah, Esther and many many more. Prophets. Those who told the truth about God. Because that is what a prophet does. Whether he or she does it willingly and fearlessly or only after great prodding and with some reluctance…the prophet is called to stand and tell the truth that “God is here and wants you to join in relationship with God to bring about God’s kingdom.” The prophets appear when something has gone amiss in relationships. When injustice and opression are front and center, when hatred, not love are ruling…a prophet’s voice is heard crying out. And it is inevitably and always a call to conversion, a call to repentance, a call to acting like the kingdom of God is at hand right here and now.
Because that was John’s message…he said it at the very beginning when he burst out of the wilderness…”Repent for the kingdom of God is near.” And people were apparently stirred up by this wild and wooly man. This prophet John was not a mainstream kind of guy. He lived in the wilderness. He did not dress well or act refined. He was out there at the edge and he preached a rather unsettling message. And yet something about him and what he had to say drew people, at least some people, in. We hear in the Gospel that “The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.”
The kingdom of God is near. Imagine a world where the radical love of God is the dominating force…a world where we would wage peace instead of war, where we would strive for generosity not acquisition, where justice and mercy would be common, and tolerance and concern for others would be an everyday thing. It would be a world in which it would be safe enough for all to be vulnerable, safe enough for all to live and love freely as God loves. God’s kingdom, the world we are created for in God’s great dream for God’s beloved ones. God’s kingdom is near….we need only repent. This very same message of God’s kingdom being near is not only John’s message but it is the one that Jesus preached and lived, and it is the same message that Jesus instructed his followers to proclaim. This is the good news and at least one of the reasons why this particular story appears in the middle of Mark’s Gospel.
Not everyone of course was happy with John’s message. The end to John’s life reads like something off the tabloid news. Herod had broken up his brother Phillip's marriage in order to take Herodias as his wife. John had confronted Herod with his message of repentance and the nearness of God’s kingdom, and talked to Herod about the problems with his marriage to Herodias, which upset her greatly. In order to placate Herodias, Herod had John arrested. This, despite the fact that we are told that Herod personally felt John to be a righteous and holy man, and even enjoyed listening to his “perplexing” message. At Herod’s birthday party, the evening’s entertainment was provided by the daughter of Herodias and Phillip, also named Herodias. She so enchanted Herod that he told her that she could have anything she wanted. She consulted her mother, who told her to ask for John’s head. Herod seemingly does not want to grant the request, but does not have the strength of will to refuse and look foolish in front of his guests, who had heard him make his promise to give her anything she asked. So poor “grieved” Herod does as she asks. And John, prophet of repentence and teller of truth bout the nearness of God’s kingdom, is killed.
Jesus continued to preach this message and to live it out in his own life and death. Repenting. Turning our hearts and our lives another way. The only way that God’s kingdom can come is to turn our lives to another way of being…not to the world’s way but to God’s. Entrance into God’s kingdom requires a choice to believe that in Jesus, God’s kingdom on earth indeed is near. And, more importantly as followers of Jesus we are the ones charged with carrying the prophetic message about that kingdom. The choice to do this of course is a challenging counter-cultural one. It flies in the face of much that the world says is important. Sometimes the message is perplexing. Sometimes it requires that we make hard choices and take risks, taking the chance that others will reject the message and even shoot (or behead) the messenger.
John’s listeners were encouraged to take action – “repent” is a verb. In its most literal sense repentance involves turning ourselves from one course to another, stopping, changing direction, setting off in a new way. And being a follower of Jesus may sometimes require that of us. As one writer pointed out, the earliest and most radical Christian form of confession was simple. “Jesus is Lord.” Not money or power or possessions are our lords and masters. Not righteousness, or winning, or being the best and brightest. Not getting it right, or being in control or triumphing over. In the kingdom of God, Jesus is Lord. This Jesus who gave us one commandment -- to love one another as God loves us. John urged his listeners to prove their spiritual intentions by concrete deeds. Perhaps repenting, then, is not the only verb required. Love, too is demonstrated in action, turning our lives more and more to resemble this Jesus whose disciples we are by virtue of our baptismal covenant. As another prophet, Micah tells us, to “Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.”
John’s prophetic call was to repent, to make our crooked ways straight, to flatten the hills and to make space for the coming of God’s kingdom here on earth. May it be so. Amen.