St. John's, Centreville
July 15, 2018
Proper 10 B
God of new beginnings, meet us where we are on our journey, imperfect as we are, and use us in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The story about the death of John the Baptist that we have just read is filled with gory details and a whole range of emotions - greed, fear, selfishness, revenge, perplexity, sadness. If it weren't so gut-wrenching, we might laugh it off as a good soap opera.
One question to ask when we read a story like this is "why". Why is this story included in the gospels? A similar story is in Matthew's gospel and just a brief mention is in Luke's gospel. Why is it important for us to read this gruesome story about the beheading of John the Baptist? What relevance could it possibly have for us some 2000 years later?
I think some of the answers lie in what was going on at the time. John the Baptist's mission is to prepare the way for Jesus. He makes the path ready. But as we know with Jesus and the disciples, John's road is not an easy one. He tells it like it is, which is bound to upset some of the people listening to him.
One of those people was Herodias. She had been married to Philip, Herod's brother, and was now married to Herod. In those days, it was against the law of the land to marry your brother's wife while the brother was still living. So John the Baptist confronted Herod about this which really set Herodias off. She didn't like John the Baptist and she especially didn't like him telling Herod that they shouldn't have married. So Herod has John arrested and puts him in prison to appease his wife.
But what is interesting to note is that Herod saw John as a holy and righteous man. He liked listening to John preach and he even at some point protected him. Herod saw something in John and his teaching that touched something inside him, something that moved him. But it wasn't enough to overcome the conflict between Herod and Herodias about John.
Now comes the kicker, the moment of choice. Herod throws a big birthday bash for himself and invites all the leaders and important people he knows. As part of the entertainment, the daughter of Herodias comes out to dance. Often times, parties like this went on for days and we can imagine that Herod may be pretty well inebriated because he does something that doesn't make sense. He offers to give the daughter anything she wants, even up to half of his kingdom. We don't know how old the daughter is, but she is young enough not to be able to make a decision for herself. We can imagine she might ask for her own horse, or the latest music video, or a new outfit. That might be appropriate things for a young girl to ask for. But she doesn't. She runs to ask her mother what she should ask for from King Herod. Because of her hatred of John the Baptist and her wanting revenge, she asks for him to be beheaded.
That is something that Herod had not counted on. He obviously didn't think this offer through. So now he has a choice to make. Does he honor the oath that he made in front of his friends and other important people and kill John whom he considers to be a holy and righteous man? Or does he ignore what the crowd might think of him and let John the Baptist live and continue to preach? It all comes down to this - does he please God or man?
The end of the story tells us that he would rather save face with his friends and the important people in the room and kill an innocent man, then go back on his oath. So he has John the Baptist killed to please his wife and uphold his word. His public image is more important to him than saving the life of a holy and righteous man. I wonder what sort of conversation Herod and Herodias had on the way back to the palace that night.
So what does this story have to say to us today? First of all, it says that one's choices are important. When we are called to make a decision, do we put God first, or ourselves; what God wants or what we want; our public image or what is right?
Sometimes it's hard to distinguish what God wants versus what we want. How do we know? How do we decide? Prayer. Pray for God's guidance, God's strength, God's direction. Pray for the Holy Spirit to dwell within us and guide us. Come together for worship, to praise our holy and life-giving God, to ask that God's will may be done in all things. Talk with other members of our community of faith and ask them to pray. We come together for corporate worship to help and support one another along this Christian journey. We need to be there for each other.
Being in communion with God and with one another is about transformation. It's about changing the direction of our lives to become servants of the living God. It's about changing ourselves and perhaps those around us to find a new way of living that points to God and God's glory at all times and in all places. It's about showing others that transformation is possible, that hope is possible, that love is possible, even in the worst of times.
The Rev. Ed Bacon, rector at All Saints Church in Pasadena, California, a very large Episcopal church, says the mission of the church is not just to grow the membership. "Sure," he says, "we like to see big numbers. But what really makes our hearts beat faster is transformed people transforming the world. Membership isn't our business. Turning the human race into the human family is."
Turning the human race into the human family. We saw that evidenced these past two weeks with the rescue of the 12 boys and their soccer coach from the flooded cave in Thailand. Rescue groups, including over 100 expert divers, came from all over the world to rescue these children, this small part of the human family. They worked night and day, exhausting themselves, carting equipment, diving through the dangerous flood waters of the cave - not for fame or glory but to rescue these children. The human family coming together to serve. And the result was a miracle as all the children and the coach were rescued. And adding to that miracle was the fact that one of the boys in that cave spoke four different languages and was able to help translate to the boys what the divers were telling them to do. Miracles abound when we turn the human race into the human family.
Herod chose to save face for himself rather than to spare the life of a prophet, a holy and righteous man. May we look at the decisions we make and ask if we are serving God and the human family, or serving ourselves. Amen.