Preached at Concord Presbyterian Church, July 12, 2015
Game of Thrones has nothing on the Bible, huh?
That might come as a surprise for some of us. But somehow it is always the stories of violence and betrayal and intrigue and hurt that capture our imaginations and inspire cult followings, and that has been true since even before ancient people began to write our stories down.
Now I don’t watch Game of Thrones myself, but I am a huge fan of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (with its focus on sexualized violence against women and children), Orange Is the New Black (set in a women’s prison), and The Walking Dead (about survivors of the zombie apocalypse).
So what’s that about?? Aren’t Christians, like, not supposed to read that kind of stuff?
Well, I guess someone should tell that to the writers of our scriptures. You’ve been reading recently from 1st and 2nd Samuel, which are as full of death and political maneuvering and exploitation and violence as any of the stories that grace our TV screens today; while in my church we’ve been following the gospel of Mark, with stories of sick and wounded and mourning people finding healing, while Jesus is thrown out of his home synagogue by the people he loves and then sends out his faithful disciples with nothing but the shirt on their backs and sandals on their feet.
They are not pretty or happy stories, but they feel like true stories. We would like our world to be a place where these things don’t happen – where there is nothing that drives us to be hateful to one another, where the inhumanity of our power structures does not trap us in destructive patterns, where we can trust the people around us not to betray us when times get hard. But that is not the world we live in, and stories that start and end with “love one another” just aren’t quite enough to help us make sense of a world where that feels like pie-in-the-sky dreaming.
* * *
So today, we get this bloody scene from the palace of the tetrarch Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. He is deeply conflicted, this almost-king, which we can see from the very beginning of the story when Herod hears of Jesus and immediately thinks that John the Baptist must have been raised from the dead and come back to terrorize him. He is afraid.
In a long flashback, Mark tells the story of John standing up against the bad behavior of Herod’s family, calling them to repentance from their immorality. Herod, Mark tells us, is greatly perplexed, but somehow he is drawn to John and “likes to listen to him.” But his new wife Herodias has a grudge against John, maybe just because he drew attention to her scandalous marriage, or maybe his preaching struck something deeper for her and she would rather have him killed than be faced with his call to repentance.
Herod throws John in jail to keep some peace, and for a while Herod can protect him from anything worse. But finally Herodias gets her way, by using their daughter to back Herod into a corner. Herod makes an extravagant promise, under the influence of the party and probably wanting to show off for his friends and officers: anything you ask me is yours!
The girl runs to ask her mother. We don’t know how old their daughter is in this scene, but she doesn’t seem quite ready for the world where she finds herself. In her innocence she becomes a pawn for her parents, and I can imagine her getting caught up in the excitement of trickery and intrigue, knowing that she is doing something important, adding an extra flourish when she asks for John’s head on a platter.
And then she gets what she asked for. Suddenly the game is not just a game, and I imagine the scene crashing to pieces around her as she takes the bloody head and feels its surprising weight in her hands.
* * *
Maybe one of the hardest things about this story is the question of how do we find our way in? Who in this story can we identify with to help us figure out what on earth we’re supposed to learn from this story?
First there’s John the Baptist. We know him, we’ve met him earlier in the gospel story, wearing animal skins and eating locusts, preaching repentance and foretelling God’s chosen one. He’s a striking figure and probably not someone that most of us would associate with, but he’s the only one in this scene who acts ethically and so maybe we want to side with him at this point.
He’s speaking truth even when it defies the ruler, but then his truth-telling goes and gets him executed! And how does that help us understand anything? Sometimes doing the right thing will get you killed?
Well, that’s certainly true, as we keep seeing over and over again. But that’s not a very satisfying end to the story.
So how about Herod? That’s a tough one. He’s obviously the bad guy, but then again, the story is more complicated than that. He’s got a little bit of power, but not a lot – his father’s kingdom was broken up into pieces among the brothers, and now Herod Jr. is a tetrarch, literally “ruler of a quarter,” and pretty conflicted about how to exercise his power.
We don’t want to see ourselves in Herod, but it might be useful for a moment. As our society again is starting to boil up with conflict about who’s got power and why, especially along lines of race, perhaps those of us who are white should take some particular time to consider where we fall in this story. Are we hearing God’s prophets call us to repentance for our past behavior? Is their message perplexing, but somehow compelling?
Do we hear God’s truth and mostly know what we probably should do, except when it would upset our family and friends too much?
At what point might our silence become fatal?
Or have we gotten ourselves caught up in something bigger than ourselves, and without even realizing it we become the ones who pull the trigger and end someone’s life?
Or, do we hear God’s prophets and turn away in protest? Like Herodias, have we stopped our ears when suddenly the message got too personal? When God’s truth means we ourselves might have to change something?
That’s not a very comfortable place either. But then, I’ve begun to suspect that God’s truth is rarely very comfortable.
* * *
There’s one other place we might find ourselves in this story: John’s faithful disciples who come to the prison when all has been said and done, to take the body of their dear truth-teller and bury it with care. They have stayed carefully out of the spotlight and off of the chopping block, but they heard God’s word being spoken and followed.
Some of them, I suspect, went on to follow Jesus, and maybe they were with the twelve or the seventy who were first sent out to proclaim the gospel. Mark places this flashback story right between the sending-out of the twelve and their return some weeks or months later, as if to say, this is the world into which we are sent. We who would follow in their footsteps are not sent just to tell happy stories to happy people; we are sent into a world of hurting and betrayed people to tell stories of impossible hope, of God’s goodness breaking into the most despairing situations, of even the most broken people finding wholeness.
The gospel we are sent to tell is a story of resurrection; the absurd faith that life really can come out of deep, smelly, bloody death.
It is a hope that is steeped in death, because our world is steeped in death if only we can open our eyes long enough to see it. The good news of Jesus of Nazareth, executed like John to keep the peace, is that resurrection can come – will come – even in those worst moments. Yes, sometimes the scariest stories are real. But God’s story is not done yet, and somehow God’s story will end with life, and peace, and wholeness.
In the meantime, our job is to make sure that we’re living that hope and not getting caught up on the side of death. The story of this world is too often a story of brokenness and betrayal, and too often we are swept up without realizing it – or maybe we do realize it and just aren’t ready to admit it.
There are many parts to play in this drama. We have a choice: we can fall in, out of habit, into the pattern of self-interest and greed and willful ignorance, or we can see what brings death in our world and make the choice to stand outside it. God’s prophets are outside the structures of power and dominance, and we are invited to follow.
That way will not be easy, probably, but that way lies God’s truth, God’s peace, and God’s hope. That way lies resurrection.
May we too find the real joy of following in God’s way.