Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
July 11, 2021
Some birthdays I remember better than others. I remember some little toys and parties I had as a kid. I remember getting a driver’s license when I turned sixteen. On my eighteenth birthday I played the lotto and won five dollars; that was the last time I played the lotto so I figure I’m ahead.
Now that I’m older, birthdays come and go without much fuss. Maggie and Lydia usually buy me a new pair of socks. And I feel that’s how it should be with adults. We don’t really need to throw ourselves parties, do we? We don’t need more gifts. I mean, that’s what Herod does – he throws himself a birthday party, there are some party favors, and things get weird.
Like the opening of a Shakespearean tragedy, the Gospel of Mark drops us right into the middle of the birthday party Herod has thrown for himself. Mark assumes that we know what all is going on with the execution of John the Baptist, but I suppose that a little clarification could help.
First, the characters: John the Baptist. According to the Gospel of Luke, he’s a cousin of Jesus. John is a forerunner to Jesus. While his movement is similar to that of Jesus, it is slightly different. Not all their followers overlap. That being said, John is very much called in the mold of Old Testament prophets. He warns the people about God’s imminent judgment, he tells them to get their life together, and to stop sinning. And as we’ll see, he’ll say this to anybody, even big men with sharp swords.
Next, Herod. Now, this is the son of Herod the Great from when Jesus was born. Remember, Herod the Great is a villain. He tries to kill the baby Jesus by ordering all the baby boys in Bethlehem to be massacred. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. This Herod, Herod Antipas, is Jewish, but he has been propped up by the Roman empire. Herod Antipas oversees the region of Galilee. Herod was married, divorced, and then married his half-brother’s wife, Herodias. It’s like an episode of Jerry Springer. Herodias had a daughter from her previous marriage, also named Herodias. If you need to make some flash cards to get all this straight, go right ahead. She’s the one who dances at the birthday party. Those are the characters.
Now the plot: according to the Old Testament (Leviticus 18:16), the marriage of Herod and Herodias is unlawful. Not to mention a little weird. John the Baptist, being a prophet, is going around telling the people of Galilee that Herod’s marriage is wrong. Being a strong man ruler who is jealous of his power and reputation, Herod puts John the Baptist in jail. But like so many strong men rulers, Herod is also a coward. He doesn’t order John’s death until this gross scene in which he is pleased by the dancing of his own step-daughter at a birthday party he threw for himself. It’s all a little creepy. You get the picture.
But there’s more going on than meets the eye. Scratch the surface just a bit, and you step into this complicated conversation on right and wrong; on good laws and bad laws; on good government and bad government. Yes, the story is nauseating. But it’s a little snapshot into the world of Christian ethics.
First of all, someone is not automatically right just because they represent lawful authority. This can be a tough pill to swallow. Herod Antipas is a puppet who has power only because the Roman Empire put him there. We can imagine that Herod is much more concerned about pleasing his Roman masters than he is about serving his own people. Sure, Herod is, without challenge, the ruler of Galilee. But that doesn’t mean everything he does is good. Now, it’s obvious from human experience that lawful authority does not necessarily mean one is morally right. One only has to read the history of the twentieth century to know this. But we continue to struggle with these questions. What do we say about law enforcement officials who do bad things without saying that all law enforcement is bad? What do we say about clergy who commit abominable acts without decrying all members of the clergy? How do we hold elected officials accountable to their actions while also recognizing that they have been lawfully elected? And how do we talk about this without retreating into our all too predictable ideological trenches? And you thought this sermon was going to be about a birthday party.
On the other hand, we all need to recognize that just because something is a law doesn’t mean it’s good. There are bad laws. Some of our most celebrated American moments are when bad laws have been overturned – the Emancipation Proclamation, Brown v. the Board of Education. Today, it seems that we all think that if only our side will pass the right laws, then everything will be okay. But again, that’s missing the point. Because may I dare, what if the law your side passes turns out to be a bad law? Back to the story at hand. Yes, we think it’s strange that Herod divorces his own wife to marry his half-brother’s ex-wife; and we see in Leviticus that this is strictly against the law along with a whole list of other unlawful sexual acts. “Aha! There it is!” we say. “The laws say so!” Well, there are a lot of laws in Leviticus that we break all the time. “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I present to you my first piece of evidence, bacon wrapped shrimp.” I remember once seeing a guy with a tattoo that said, “Leviticus 19:28.” That’s the verse that says it’s against the law to have tattoos. I hope to be making a more general point – just because a law is a law doesn’t make it inherently moral. And just because something is a law doesn’t mean people are actually going to pay attention to it. This goes for each one of you who has ever broken the speed limit. Don’t tell me you haven’t, or you’d be breaking another law by lying to me.
We seem to be at this incoherent ideological crossroads right now. It’s either – never question authority and every law is righteous, or; every person in authority is a fraud and every law needs to be overturned. Of course, our position changes depending on who is in power.
So where do we go from here? What does this all have to do with your life with Jesus? Quite a bit, actually. It’s a shocking reminder that we could be wrong. Remember, that’s what John the Baptist preaches. It’s how Jesus starts his own ministry, “repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand” (paraphrase, Mark 1:14). Repent, turn around, say you’re sorry, live differently, think differently. Myself included, we are like Herod, we are all way too convinced that we are right. Not convinced enough to get our heads chopped off for it, usually only convinced enough to make some nasty comments on Facebook or talk bad about someone behind their back. What the Christian life demands of us is that we acknowledge our faults, repent of our sins, and open our hearts to God’s continual guidance.
Because at the end of the day, the final arbiter of truth is not any law. The true authority is not any person. No, the Lord God is the final word and has the final word. And that is where I hope to leave you today. With the bold reminder that God is our judge. Take this for the great gift that it is. You will not be judged based on the vacillating whims of earthly authorities. You will not be judged on your adherence to a law; good, bad, or imperfect though it may be. You will be judged by the gracious lover of our souls, Jesus Christ. When you have decisions to make; when you are confronted with situations that have no clear answers; follow the example of John the Baptist. Stake your lives, even your heads, on the goodness of God and nothing else. This is a present, given to us on a silver platter. The Lord God who loves us, who died for us, is the One who will judge us, and that is a good thing. Thanks be to God for this glorious gift.