Pentecost 6 (July 16, 2006)
King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some said, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” But others said, “He is Elijah.” And others said, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” For it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.
But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. For when Herodias’s daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests. And the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.” And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.” And she went out and said to her mother, “For what should I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist.” And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb. (ESV)
THE BLESSED OF THE LORD
Those who are blessed of the Lord should have privileged lives, safe and secure, sheltered and free of concern and worry, should they not? Is this not implied in the Second Lesson for today when Paul in almost unrestrained and unreserved fashion tells the Ephesians (and us) that “God and [the] Father of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . has blessed us . . . with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world. . . In him we have obtained an inheritance . . . so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also . . . were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” Surely such a blessing carries with it a special place in the heart of God, does it not?
Amos, Blessed of the Lord
Without attempting to argue with Paul, one wonders what Amos, the prophet of whom we hear in the First Lesson, might have to say to this! He was certainly chosen by God and he most assuredly claimed his inheritance as having been sealed in his circumcised body. Yet his life was hardly a privileged one, safe and secure, sheltered and free of concern and worry.
Quite the contrary, his place in life was a most difficult one at the time described in the First Lesson, fraught with danger and filled with tension. He has been called by God to confront the powers-that-prevailed in the northern kingdom (Israel), warning them of God’s impending judgment upon this presently very prosperous nation. Amos was from the southern kingdom (Judah}, and Amaziah, the high priest, tells him to go home and do his preaching there. “If you want to preach judgment and doom, go to where you come from and do it there, but do not do it here. You are not welcome here. Scram! Go away! We do not need you to give us the word of the Lord. If you insist on staying here, we promise you that very bad things will happen to you!”
Words to this effect were hurled at Amos and he, in effect, replied, “I am not part of a prophetic party and I have no vested interests in being a prophet, if you want to know the truth. I was contentedly going about my business of caring for my flocks and my orchards when the Lord took hold of me and gave me his word to bring to you. Do you think I like being a messenger of doom? Don’t you realize that I would rather be at home minding my own business and caring for my own interests if I had my own way about it? Trust me . . . the word I bring to you is an urgent word. You must heed it at your own peril. And I must speak it at my own peril, if need be, for it is the word of the Lord!”
Paul’s words to the Ephesians would perhaps have sounded quite hollow in the ears of Amos, whose life under God had been disturbed and disquieted terribly by a calling that he never dreamed of in his growing up years . . . or even in his more mature years as his business interests prospered and kept him occupied. He knew about “being blessed” and participating in the life of a “chosen people” who had an “inheritance,” such as those blessings of which Paul spoke. But instead of giving him a privileged place it gave him only a thorny and challenging place. Instead of giving him safety and security, it placed him in considerable peril. Instead of sheltering him and freeing him from concerns, it heightened his sense of being vulnerable to the seamy and insensitive side of life.
John the Baptizer, Blessed of the Lord!
John the Baptizer must have understood the prophet Amos quite well as he sat in his prison cell.
How would these words of blessing from Paul (penned only forty or so years later) have rung in his ears when he laid his head on the executioner’s block as a result of having listened closely to the word of the Lord – and then having spoken that word boldly to the ruling sovereign of his time?
Can you imagine what may have gone on in his mind as he heard the gaiety and merriment and laughing and joking that was echoing through the chambers just above his head? He must have been in the near vicinity, at any rate, since the demand for his head and the appearance of his head on a platter apparently took place within a very short space of time in the very presence of the audience entertained only minutes before by Heriodias’s daughter.
This one of whom Jesus had said, “I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John,” (Luke 7:28a) sits in a prison cell for speaking the word of the Lord while the one against whom that word of the Lord had been spoken is having a jolly good time at his birthday party! John’s mind may have gone back to those days in the wilderness when Jesus had come to be baptized by him in the river Jordan. He remembered his reluctance to do so, insisting that it was he who should be baptized by Jesus and not the other way around. Jesus had insisted, though, and John had baptized him. He remembered that the heavens had suddenly opened over the newly baptized as though a vision enveloped them with a word of affirmation accompanying it that this one upon whom a dove alighted was surely the divine Son. “You are my beloved Son,” the voice had said! (Mark 1:11)
He had harbored an expectation that Jesus would bring the judgment upon the world that it rightly deserved. John had himself preached about this, saying, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. . . Every tree . . . that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:7b-9) “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:16)
But John also remembered sending some of his followers to Jesus inquiring as to whether he was, indeed, the One to come (for he did not bring the fire and brimstone that John had clearly expected). Jesus had sent John’s inquirers back to him, telling them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” (Luke 7:22, 23) It was as though Jesus was reminding John that he (John) had, from the beginning, “appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4) “Do not forget that although the judgment on sins is harsh, there is also another word . . . a word that you, yourself, spoke to the people . . . the forgiveness of sins and all that goes with it. The blind receiving sight, the lame walking, the dead being raised, etc., are signs that a new life is now present marked by acts showing God’s mercy.”
It must have been confusing for John, chained in his cell and listening to the merriment going on within his earshot. If Jesus would not confront Herod about his sinful interference with his brother Philip, stealing his wife away from him after divorcing his (Herod’s) own wife, then John felt that he must do so. He had made it a public scandal with his preaching and he had infuriated Herodias, the stolen wife . . . which had made her, in turn, determined to have John’s life. Herod, however, was slow about following her furious tirades. John had even been given hearings before Herod on occasion, and John sensed that Herod was reluctant about doing anything drastic even though John made clear that Herod’s sin was an outrage to God and to the citizenry over whom Herod held jurisdiction. Herod could not bring himself to do what Herodias most desperately wanted him to do, though, for he sensed that “he (John) was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe.” In fact, “when he heard him he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.” So John’s life was sustained by the slim thread of Herod’s reasonable concerns about just who John represented and how seriously to take his word.
With a suddenness that must have caught John off-guard a man appeared in his cell, ordered him to the executioner’s block, and beheaded him.
It apparently even caught Herod off-guard. But he was caught in a trap of his own making and Herodias snapped the trap tight. With an oath having been made in a public way to please Herodias’s daughter who had pleased those attending his birthday party, no honorable way of escape was available to him other than to stick to his oath. So Herod put an end to this strange parody and Herodias had John’s head.
John the Baptizer, Blessed of the Lord?
Would it not seem right for John to have been “God-Protected” at a time like this? After all, he was appointed by God for a task and he, like Amos, had been faithful in doing what had been asked of him. The world in the form of Herod, however, had the last word while God remained silent behind the scene. Why had Jesus, who had been clear about John being the greatest “among those born of women,” not intervened, called for John’s freedom, demanded a fair trial, created a way of miraculous escape? Just before this moment, according to Mark, Jesus had sent out the twelve and given them authority over unclean spirits, “proclaiming that people should repent. And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.” (Mark 6:12, 13) Although they exercised God’s mercy on many along their path, neither they nor Jesus raised a finger in behalf of John, chosen of God, who sat in his cell without a defender and entirely at the mercy of his accusers!
So where was Jesus, who fed five thousand with five loaves of bread and two fish in the narrative immediately following our text, when John needed him? He had mercy on five thousand while apparently ignoring the righteous John sitting in his cell. Where was God when John needed the protecting hand of him who blesses and chooses his own and gives an inheritance to them, sealing them with the promised Holy Spirit? Was John, “among the greatest of men,” not also an heir to such promises? But there he sat in prison, little dreaming of how soon he would part with his head.
The Strange Ambiguity of God’s Blessings on His Own
How can one speak of God’s blessing when prophets and the godly ones are scorned and beleaguered and killed? Does God really care about his own, or is godliness more a door to trouble and distress than it is to blessing? As Tevye says so poignantly in the musical Fiddler on the Roof when troubles beset him before and behind, “It is nice to be your chosen people, God . . . but couldn’t you choose somebody else for a while?”
King Herod was not unaware of the presence of Jesus as he dealt with John. The Gospel reading opens with this recognition: “King Herod heard of it [the great works of the twelve in the name of Jesus] for Jesus’ name had become known.” Various theories were abroad about how to understand or how to identify this strange teacher who had come from Nazareth, but Herod’s conscience was
working overtime when he became fully aware of Jesus’ ministry. “He said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.’” The story that is our text for today was imbedded in his mind and conscience, and he seemed sure that the time for his comeuppance had arrived.
But nothing of the sort happened. Things went on as usual. In fact, a strange reversal began to take place. The one whom Herod feared became more and more the hunted instead of the hunter. Confrontations with the religious authorities intensified even though on the popular level he was well received. The populace, however, did not have the last word and eventually the situation became so explosive that Jesus appeared before this same Herod in a last-ditch attempt on the part of Pontius Pilate to rid himself of this troublesome man named Jesus by seeking a “second opinion” from one who could have supported him in his judgment of Jesus’ innocence. Herod could find no more cause for death in him than Pilate could. But instead of making up for his miserable history of beheading John by pressing Jesus’ blamelessness and confirming his innocence to Pilate, Herod simply sent him back to what was certainly a death sentence, adding yet another stain to Herod’s much-stained record. The deck had been so stacked against Jesus by now that there was nothing to do but kill him.
Shades of John! The authorities are again so backed into a corner that they must miscarry justice in the interests of misbegotten demands by those who are determined to destroy that which God ordained. God certainly sends his people into perilous places! Amos. John. Jesus.
Paul, Blessed of the Lord
And Paul, who wrote the words of our Second Lesson! When Paul speaks of our “chosenness,” our “inheritance,” our “blessings,” he is not particularly thinking of protection and security and freedom from worry. He, himself, considers himself richly blessed . . . and yet he tells of his own troubles and rejections: “Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned,” and so on. (2 Cor. 11:24 ff.) He certainly was not telling the Ephesians that their blessing under God made them invulnerable to sufferings and rejection. Quite the opposite, he was speaking of the responsibilities that were laid upon them as God’s chosen ones to faithfully live a godly life in the midst of an ungodly world, to faithfully set forth the way of salvation before those who were lost, to faithfully bear the presence of Christ who had chosen them to people who may reject and kill them in turn. . . walking in the shadow of Paul who found his blessedness to be the source of a responsibility toward God far greater than he would ever have thought possible before Christ claimed him.
If tradition is correct, we might note that Paul himself suffered the death of a martyr, a victim of Roman persecution. His blessedness placed him in the same perils endured by Amos, John, and multitudes of others who claimed God’s blessedness in Christ.
The Blessing of God Shadows the Lives of All His Beloved
God’s blessing, after all, lies in a strange “reversal” that we call “salvation.” God works behind the scene in order to do what is necessary for the welfare of the world in the very moment the world seems to have its own way. Just how that all worked out in the case of John the Baptizer is not clear. (The “afternote” following John’s beheading, “When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb,” is striking. They simply “laid his body in a tomb”!) It was, however, the “forenote” of the death of Jesus which most certainly is very clearly a great “reversal.” The very will of God was revealed in this apparent defeat of his will . . . a will so filled with love that he would give his own Son in behalf of the world! The “repentance and forgiveness of sins” that John proclaimed came to its fullest revelation in this One whom he had baptized at the river Jordan. Herod presided, in a sense, at the death of both, little realizing that he, who boasted of his power, was being overcome by those over whom he had pronounced a verdict of death.
The End of It All -- We Are the Blessed of the Lord
Was it really Herod, though . . . or Pilate . . . or religious authorities . . . or misbegotten power-hungry people of whatever sort who gave the death sentence to Jesus? Was it not really us, the ones who stand before God helpless in our guilt, unable to defend our waywardness in any fashion, who made necessary the sentence of death over this Jesus? It was for us that he was “stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted . . . wounded for our transgressions,” the one on whom “the Lord laid the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:4-6)
How often we all feel as “God-forsaken” as John must have felt during the bitter struggles of this life. How often we feel that our lives are lived meaninglessly with little other than drudgery interrupted on occasion ever so briefly by a moment of joy. How often we wonder where God is as we bumble along through life. How often we feel imprisoned in a cell of inconsequential existence . . . like a John the Baptizer wondering what happened while he / we was / are trying his / our best to serve God.
And then, suddenly, like a flash of hope, the Crucified One appears in resurrection moments, assuring us that he who calls us, who chooses us, who guarantees us an inheritance, is near at hand. He who was despised for our sake lifts us up in his arms and carries us as on the wings of an eagle and restores hope and faith and even expectations because he who promised is as good as his word . . . as good as his Word made flesh whose body and blood feed us at the table and with whose death and resurrection we have been joined in our baptism. We are the blessed of the Lord! How all that works out in our lives we do not really understand for the most part. What it looks like when it appears is frequently hidden from our eyes. It is not really given us to ever know all this with clarity in this life.
This we do know, however . . . the “end to which” our lives are lived is continually being worked out “behind the scenes” by him who chose us and gives us the inheritance! He only asks that we live responsibly as those who are confident of him who has called us to this inheritance as co-heirs with him whose suffering, death and resurrection is the seal of our blessedness! The real and most important guarantee is this: He will be faithful to us without fail!
“I tell you,” Jesus said, “among those born of women none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he!” (Luke 7:28) We are those who are “least in the kingdom of God” . . . people who have, however, heard and seen the One from whom “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” (Luke 7:22, 23)
Offended? Never! We honor and praise him, for it is he who is our hope and our salvation! We are the blessed of the Lord!
Hubert Beck, Retired Lutheran Pastor