Sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, A.R., on July 12 2009.
Psalm 85:8-13; Mark 6:14-29
“Mirror, mirror, on the wall. Who’s the fairest of them all?”
“Look into the glass, deeply, deeply. See into your future.”
“The tarot cards know all.”
Occasionally, you’ll see (usually in a rundown mobile home parked somewhere near a rather isolated highway) a sign for a palm reader. The closest I’ve come to such, believe it or not, was when Janet and I visited Havana, Cuba in the summer of 2000. We were there for a Baptist World Alliance General Council meeting and had some time off. So, we decided to saunter through the market area of the city. The tarot card dealers in the market square, outfitted in their colorful dresses, from what I was able to observe, were making quite a brisk business. I guess there are just some curious folk who always want the proverbial peek around the next corner.
But, as Cheyenne Bodie said to young Lilac, “The people I know who try to look into the future are really bad guessers.”
Have you ever wanted to see into the future? When I was in elementary school, about the fourth or fifth grade, I remember one day perusing the latest issue of The Weekly Reader. You remember The Weekly Reader, don’t you? If you’ve got a little gray in your hair you do. There was an article about what our world would be like at the dawn of the 21st century, filled with predictions of how we would be living in the future. Well, we’re now almost a decade into that era and I don’t see anyone driving a hover craft, do you? That’s what was foreseen by the author. I’ve seen people who drive like they’re flying low, especially on I-630 (including that guy in the pickup who cut me off Tuesday morning), but not the way that futuristic writer predicted it.
George Orwell got into the act with his novel 1984, but he also missed the mark in many ways. Why? Though it may be interesting, and maybe even a little fun, trying to predict the future is really an exercise in futility. Cheyenne Bodie was right.
That was not the case for Jesus. If there was ever anyone who could see his future, it was the Nazarene carpenter. He could foretell, with a little help from Herod, what his fate was going to be. It would be the same as that of his cousin John.
When Jesus hears about the death of John the Baptist, you can’t help but feel he must have had a premonition that his own life would end as violently as did John’s. This story from Mark’s gospel is a magic mirror revealing what manner of death Jesus will also suffer.
Let’s set the stage for this fascinating, bloody, violent, tempestuous story…
Jesus has sent out his disciples to tell the good news in the hinterlands of Galilee. And they were successful, no doubt beyond their wildest imaginations. They cast out demons and healed the sick, just like their Master had been able to do. Can you imagine how fast word was spreading? They didn’t have Facebook or Twitter, to say the least, but Galilee is not a terribly large chunk of geography. Word-of-mouth spreads quickly, and the news of Jesus and his disciples soon reaches the ear of Herod. Not only does the Galilean teacher have tremendous power, but evidently he is able to transfer that power to those who follow him.
And if there is anything Herod knows, and lusts for, and always wants more of, it is power. Power is what got him into office, and it is power – raw power – that will keep him there. Herod Antipas is the poster boy for power.
When you hear the name Herod, don’t be fooled into thinking there was only one. We know of the Herod who slaughtered the innocents in an effort to slay the newborn Messiah. When Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt, they were escaping the latest threat of death at the hands of Herod. Herod killed the apostle James and arrested Simon Peter. Are you familiar with that story in the Book of Acts where Herod heard Paul’s defense of himself at Caesarea? They are all different Herods! There was Herod the Great, Herod Archelaus, Herod Antipas, Herod Agrippa I, Herod Agrippa II… Not one of them the same person, but they were all of the same family and definitely cut from the same piece of violent cloth. The Herod family left their bloody footprints all across the New Testament,1 and this story we read a few moments ago is but one of them.
It is interesting in the way Mark tells it. He is fond of telling a story within a story, beginning with one narrative, then interrupting himself with another, only to return and finish the one he had first started. He does it again here in a flashback that is sandwiched in between the accounts of Jesus’ sending out his disciples to minister in the surrounding regions of Galilee. We cannot help but get the feeling that there is a reason for Mark’s telling it this way. Do you wonder what it is? I do.
I also have a theory. The story of Jesus sending out the Twelve to perform ministry in his name follows right on the heels of his rejection in his hometown of Nazareth. Jesus gives his disciples the authority to have power over demons. They are to teach and heal those who have infirmities. They are instructed not to take any extra provisions, but to depend on the hospitality of those they meet. If they are met with such hospitality, they are to bless the household. If not, they are to shake the dust from their feet. God will render justice to the inhospitable when justice is called for, and in God’s own good time.
Later, Mark will tell us that the disciples return and report to Jesus their success. But sandwiched in between this is the account of the death of John the Baptist. Do you find that strange? These stories seem to be poles apart, and have absolutely nothing in common. At least it would appear to be that way… until you realize to whom Mark is writing.
Mark is communicating with a church under siege, a congregation enduring persecution, a fellowship that is finding it increasingly difficult to continue their ministry. I wonder if Mark isn’t telling this story within a story to give them encouragement. The success of ministry is mixed in with the tragedy that a violent world is prepared to inflict upon those who follow the way of Jesus. The gospel is not for a sanitized world. It is right smack dab into the face of violence and evil and raw power that the Suffering Servant climbs up on that cross and yields up his life as the means of showing God’s mercy and grace. A world depending on power, a world managed by Herod, doesn’t understand this and probably never will.
But Mark is saying that the Herods of this world will not win. Political expediency is not the final word, nor is the violence that often accompanies it. The final word is grace. And that grace is lived out in the nails that will be driven this week into houses here in Little Rock that need renovating, and in the paint that will soon adorn them. That grace will be revealed in the telling of stories to children in Helena, and in the swimming lessons and all the efforts that will be given to show the love of Jesus. That grace will be seen in the ministry of our youth as they give witness of their faith to the people of Appalachia. Herod does not know this, nor does he see it, but the kingdom of heaven makes note of it, let me tell you.
There’s a sense in which you and I ourselves are living in a story within a story. We haven’t reached the final word of grace… not yet. That final word has yet to be written. But in the meantime, we are to be like the disciples who go out and minister in Christ’s name… with a hammer or paint brush in our hand, with just a smile or an encouraging word for those who so desperately need it. There is no guarantee that we won’t be confronted by our present-day Herods. The only assurance – but it is assurance enough – is that God will be with us every step of the way.
Which leads to an obvious question… Who said following Jesus, doing the work of the church, and being the presence of Christ, was going to be easy? If easy was the goal, the church would never have been born in the first place. Easy has nothing to do with the gospel. The gospel is fed by faithfulness, and only those who walk with Christ understand that.
None of us knows what the future holds. But we can be assured of this: Jesus walks with us. You don’t need a magic mirror or a deck of cards to know that. You only need to have the faith that no matter what the journey brings, Christ will be there. And somehow that’s enough, isn’t it?
Lord, walk with us as you did the Twelve so long ago. Reveal to us, not what the future may hold, but what grace is present to us now… grace that we might share with others. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.