A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on July 15, 2012.
Psalm 85:8-13; Mark 6:14-29
Envision in your mind the following scene: King Herod is holding court as he sits on his throne. Subjects and minions seek audience with him to mine his wisdom and curry his favor. Some are merchants and they have been invited to Herod’s home to show him their wares. Herod is in the market for new clothing – perhaps a robe – or he’s been considering a new carriage in which he can travel his kingdom in the latest style. Kings have their little whimsies, after all, and Herod is always looking to spend his money on the latest thing to come down the pike. And make no mistake about it, Herod has a great deal of money.
And power, of course. They so often go together. Power is a relative thing, as we all know. While Herod does reign over his very own kingdom, when it comes to his very own home… well, that’s a different matter. Truth be told, in the Herod household, it’s mama who holds all the cards… mama and her spoiled little girl.
When it comes to issues of state, it is Herod who holds the power. Yet, on this day, it is obvious to all who are fortunate enough to have an audience with the king that Herod is troubled. His heart just doesn’t seem to be in it, and that isn’t like the king at all. What is troubling him? The answer to that question is revealed when Herod shoos all the merchants away and calls for his counselors. They stand before him, but not until after bowing in his presence. He is the king, after all.
“I’ve been hearing about this new prophet,” he says to his counselors, “and I am troubled. I’ve been told he has developed quite a following, that his disciples are going here and there and everywhere and they are doing amazing things. I fear they will become a problem, like the Baptist. People like that don’t like people like me. They tend to be subversive, while at the same time pointing their self-righteous finger at me, telling my people – my people! – that I’m immoral and unfit. I won’t have it, I tell you, I just won’t have it. I’ve found, as you well know, that the best way to kill the snake is to cut off its head, just as I did with the Baptist. But before I do that with this… this Jesus, I need to know who he is. What have you heard?”
“I believe, Sire, that he is indeed the baptizer come back to life. How else could anyone have such power as to heal the sick and exorcize demons if he were not raised from the dead?”
“No, no, your majesty, there is no such thing as one rising from the dead. He is merely a prophet.”
“‘Merely a prophet,’ you say? There is no such thing as ‘merely a prophet’ when it comes to the things this man and his disciples are doing. I too believe he is the reincarnation of one who has come before him, but it is not the Baptist. He is Elijah, returned from the dead.”
Herod sits on his throne, the furrow in his brow growing deeper and deeper as he ponders the responses of these men who have proved to be so capable to him over the years of his reign. He holds his hands in the air to silence them, then he turns his palms to the sky as if he is weighing their answers. They have served in Herod’s court long enough by now to know this is the time to be silent. To break the king’s concentration would not go well for them. They had indeed been in his service long enough to know his tendencies, and the one thing you don’t want to do before the king is to rile him. An angry Herod throws people in prison. An angry Herod cuts off peoples’ heads. It has been proven he has no power or influence when it comes to his wife and his step-daughter (a thought they definitely keep to themselves), but when Herod is holding court he is indeed the supreme king.
“I have taken your counsel into consideration,” Herod says to them, “and I have come to a conclusion. This man is indeed John, whom I had beheaded. He is risen from the dead.”
And that was that. If Herod said it, it was the gospel truth. That was the final answer. Jesus of Nazareth is really John the Baptist come from the grave.
And as we all know, it was a classic case of mistaken identity.
It isn’t surprising that Herod would come to the wrong conclusion. After all, he doesn’t exactly have a proven track record for making the right decision at the right time. That’s because he is a self-indulgent narcissist who does not think clearly when it comes to issues of pleasure. He was “a sinful self-indulgent man suffering from the effects of testosterone.”1 That’s the way my friend Jim Dant sees it. He had had an affair with his brother’s wife, resulting in their divorce. Now, that woman is his wife. It is obvious the two of them deserve each other because her cold-heartedness outweighs Herod’s weaknesses, of which there were many. In fact, Herod is a classic psychological case. In an attempt to mask over his failings, he throws his muscle around with those who are more than willing to bow down to him… his wife excluded, of course. Anything mama wants, mama gets. She holds the real power in the Herod household.
It was at a party Herod throws in his own honor that his step-daughter performs a provocative dance. When it is concluded, Herod is so mesmerized by it – and her – that he makes a promise to her that paints him into a corner from which he cannot escape. He tells her he will give her anything she asks for, up to half his kingdom. What he doesn’t know is that mama is whispering in her ear. The Baptist had had some ugly things to say about her and her behavior, and this was just the opening she was looking for. “Tell him,” she said to her daughter, “that you want the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” And before the party is over, the terrible deed is done.
And now, the Baptist has come back to haunt him. In reality, of course, it is not John who haunts him but his very own treachery. If Herod had had a true ethic, if Herod was the man he should have been, he would have stood up to his wife and not put himself in such a position. But this story reveals to us, if nothing else, that the world inhabited by John and Jesus was a dark and treacherous world. As is just as true of our world today, it was a time and place that desperately needed to be redeemed.
But should we blame all this on Herod? I mean, he was simply a product of his time. There hadn’t been a prophet in the land for centuries. As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, referring to the prophets, “Those voices had been missing in Israel for a long time when John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness sounding like God’s own air raid siren.”2 It is little wonder that Herod was spooked by the prophet who held his feet to the fire and called him on the carpet for his adulterous behavior. People like Herod had become accustomed to pretty much getting away with whatever they wanted to do, without any repercussions. What he did was acceptable, as long as the Romans didn’t object, and why would they? They didn’t care about his personal life, how or whether he modeled appropriate ethical behavior. As long as he kept the people in check and collected the necessary taxes from them, Herod could do anything he wanted to do. Herod probably had looked upon the Baptist as nothing more than an irritant, one he had removed violently, until… until this Jesus came along and raised up his specter all over again.
What was he going to do? Well, we don’t know because Mark doesn’t tell us. Evidently, that isn’t his intent. He tells us about Herod and the killing of the Baptist as a story within a story. We begin with Jesus sending out his disciples two-by-two on a mission trip. He concludes with the disciples reporting back to Jesus of their experiences on the road. In between, we have this violent story about the killing of John and the treachery of Herod and his incestuous family.
What’s the point?
Maybe it has to do with encouragement. Encouragement? How could anybody be encouraged by this? It’s good for us to know, I think, that Mark is telling this story to a congregation experiencing persecution. The world in which Jesus lived and moved and brought his good news of the in-breaking kingdom was just as violent, if not more so, than the one in which his followers continue to live. There is nothing pristine nor easy about the world God came to redeem in his Son. The success of ministry, in which the blind are given their sight, the lame are made to walk, the poor receive good news, is fleshed out, not in a sterile laboratory but in the grit and dirt of real life.
Not unlike the world you and I inhabit. If you or I were writing the Gospel of Mark today, Herod might very well be replaced by Bashar Assad of Syria. Thursday, the newspaper reported a meeting between Assad and Kofi Annan, world statesman and former general secretary of the United Nations. Their discussion had to do with the formation of a transitional government that would include Assad’s opponents. There was hope that Assad was finally considering the possibility of stepping down. Then, did you see the headline in Friday’s paper, just one day later? “200 in village slain, Syria activists say.”
If you or I were writing the Gospel of Mark for today, instead of reporting on the beheading of a local preacher, we might very well be telling of what is going on in Syria. Little in our world has changed, it seems. But then again, the Gospel is not for a sanitized world, it is for a world desperately in need of redemption. And it is right smack dab into the face of violence and evil and raw power – whether that violence and evil and power is orchestrated at the hands of Herod or Assad – 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 and his spiritual brother Assad, doesn’t understand this and probably never will.
But Mark is saying that the Herods and Assads 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.
The question that remains to you and me is, do we have the eyes with which to see such grace when it comes to us? Or are we – like Herod – when it comes to Jesus, guilty of mistaken identity?
You see, I wish I could tell you that Jesus’ self-sacrificing and redeeming death on that Roman cross put an end to all the Herods and Assads of the world, but I obviously cannot. Evidently, and for whatever reason that is known only to God, God chooses to perform his acts of mercy in the small and almost imperceptible acts of grace that almost seem to take a microscope to see. In truth, it takes the eyes of faith.
If you were here Wednesday for Marlin Gennings’ memorial service, you witnessed such an act of grace, and my guess is you didn’t even know it. But if you happened to see a chubby, little dark-skinned five-year-old sitting – or maybe I should say squirming – in the family section, allow me to introduce you. His name is Will Cato. Will, and his older sister Belle, who spent the week in church camp at Petit Jean, have been adopted by Sue Cato-Gennings’ son Rock and his wife Liz. Rock, who is almost as old as I am, is a veterinarian in Blytheville. His children are grown and out of the nest. In other words, Liz and Rock are at a point in their life when they could easily sit back and enjoy the remainder of their days.
I don’t know all the particulars of how it happened, but when they found Belle and Will, they fell in love with them. They saw the conditions under which they were living, and said to one another that even if they couldn’t make a difference in the lives of everyone they met, they could possibly do that for these two small children. They have taken them into their homes and their hearts, and the Cato family has embraced them as their own. Listen to Will offer grace at the dinner table, and hear him pray in the name of Jesus, and your heart will find itself tumbling and turning in ways that make you feel warm all over. He can do that because he has come to know Jesus’ grace through his new parents.
That story won’t make the headlines, to be sure. All we often hear from the news has to do with the Herods and Assads of our world. But slowly, imperceptibly, somehow, in the mystery and patience of God, the grace and mercy that comes only from God is seeping through the microscopic cracks of our world to redeem people like you and me, and Will and Belle Cato.
The best and only thing we can do is pray to have the eyes with which to see it… and then to go and live it in the name of the One whose identity is so clearly known to us.
Lord, may you find us faithful in seeing the way you choose to work and live in our world, and then to share that grace in the name of Jesus… in whom we pray, Amen.
1Jim Dant, The Truth is Sensational Enough (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2007), p. 38.
2Barbara Brown Taylor, Seeds of Heaven (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), p. 10.