July 15, 2018
Have you ever noticed that bad stuff always seems to happen just when you thought things were great? I’m a pretty optimistic person, but as I get older, I notice myself becoming wary whenever things start going well. I start “waiting for the other shoe to drop.” And I think I know exactly when I started this business of anticipating the worst whenever life was really good.
I remember driving to work one morning near the beginning of the school year, several years ago. My lesson plans were in order, my students were well-behaved, and the sun was shining as I drove under a canopy of trees on my way to school. I sang a song of praise and thanks to God for such a beautiful day, and for such a strong beginning to the school year.
I remembered a Robert Browning poem I learned as a child, and even though it was a beautiful fall day, the poem seemed to fit:
The year’s at the spring
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hillside’s dew-pearled;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn;
God’s in his heaven –
All’s right with the world!
I got to work and stopped in the teacher’s lounge for a cup of coffee. I noticed that someone had brought a TV into the lounge, and it was tuned to a news station. This was strange. But then I realized why.
There on the TV screen was the World Trade Center, in flames. Along with millions of others, I watched in horror as, first one and then the other of the twin towers tumbled. On September 11, 2001, our world changed, and would never be the same. It seemed that evil had taken over, and terror filled the news.
You may remember that Mr. Rogers was quoted often in the days that followed. He had said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” But even this encouragement sounded hollow, when hundreds of those helpers, the firefighters and police who responded first, were lost that day.
Churches saw a rise in worship attendance in the weeks that followed 9/11. People were asking, “Where is God in all of this?” It’s a good question to ask when evil seems to be winning.
We’re in the sixth chapter of Mark’s gospel this month, figuring out what it means to live like Jesus as his true disciples. We’ve seen Jesus cure a woman of her long-term hemorrhage on his way to raise a young girl from her deathbed, and we’ve seen his amazement at the disbelief he encounters in his own hometown of Nazareth. We’ve seen him send out his disciples without any baggage as they spread his message of repentance, and expand his ministry of healing and casting out demons.
Today’s passage is an interruption in the story. Remember that Mark likes to interject one story into another, and we often find God in these interruptions. So keep in mind that Jesus has just sent out the twelve. He has told them to depend on the hospitality of the people they will be serving, as they travel among the small villages of Galilee. Things are going well. “The lark’s on the wing.” But all that is about to change.
King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It 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 Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”
And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.
But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee.
When his daughter Herodias 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.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.”
She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”
The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her.
Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb. – Mark 6:14-29
Where is God in all of this? More specifically, where is Jesus? And how does this particular passage from Mark’s gospel teach us to live like him?
There are several unusual aspects in this story:
The narrative is well crafted and takes up quite a bit of space in the middle of this chapter – complete with a back story, a conflict, and its resolution. The characters are well developed, which is unusual for Mark – his “immediacy” doesn’t often spend much time in character development or story detail.
Perhaps most striking is that Jesus doesn’t make a personal appearance. This is the only one of two accounts in Mark where Jesus is not physically present. The other will take place in the high priest’s courtyard, where Peter will deny knowing Jesus. In that story, we know that Jesus is not very far away. He’s just inside the gate, being questioned by the high priest. In this story, Jesus is miles away, up in Galilee.
So, Herod – not Jesus – is the main character, because he is the one facing the big crisis in this story. He’s called a “king” but in fact he is only a tetrarch. Rome has given him jurisdiction over one fourth of his father’s territory. When he promises “up to half my kingdom” to his dancing daughter, it’s a promise he can’t really keep, because he doesn’t have authority to ‘give’ away a kingdom that isn’t really his.
Herod has a divided heart – he finds John compelling and he wants to listen to him, but he also wants to save face in front of his important guests. He isn’t ready to give up his sin. He hasn’t accepted God’s grace and forgiveness that is available through repentance. But he is drawn to John’s message. He can tell it is a message from God.
Herod is a prisoner of his own pride, and pride is really just a cover-up for insecurity. Asbury Seminary professor JD Walt writes that pride and humility “operate at the level of our identity. Pride is a telltale sign that a person struggles with shame at the core of their sense of self. … Shame prevents a person from valuing their own self, which means they must build an alternative sense of self they can value. … Pride is a way of protecting the false self.”
Where does pride hide in us? What false fronts do we put up, to shield ourselves from seeing our true selves when we look in the mirror? How do we protect this false view of ourselves, this view that places our value in something other than God’s deep, abiding love for us?
Like Herod, we all carry in us the capacity to do evil and the capacity to receive grace. Herod chooses evil, and John pays the price. When we reject grace in favor of our own desires, we are choosing evil, just as Herod did. And when we choose evil, someone else always suffers. Which brings us to Herodias.
Herodias reminds us of Jezebel from the OT. This is a truly evil woman who has rejected grace in all its forms. Mark tells us she holds a grudge against John the Baptizer, and she’s had murder in her heart for some time. She even manipulates her own daughter into participating in her schemes. Make no mistake. This is not a good and virtuous woman. She is sick with evil.
Where is Jesus in all this evil sickness?
When we look for the Helper, where do we find him in this story?
Remember that this passage begins with people trying to identify who Jesus is. Some say he is John the Baptizer or Elijah, come back from the dead. Others say he is like one of the Old Testament prophets. Jesus’ very identity is at stake here.
Herod latches onto the first option, John – even though everyone knows Jesus was already alive and preaching the Good News before John was killed. This brings Elijah to mind. Maybe John’s spirit is resting on Jesus, now that John is gone, just as Elijah’s spirit rested on his successor, Elisha.
Whichever name comes up, it’s clear that people recognize Jesus as a prophet, the voice of God calling people to repent. And this is why Herod is convinced that John has come back from the dead to haunt him.
This is where Jesus is: He’s hiding in plain sight. Jesus is there in the back of Herod’s mind, calling him to repentance just as John did. Jesus may be working in the background, but he is still at work, offering healing and forgiveness.
Because that’s who he is.
If we are serious about living like Jesus, people will question our identity, just as people tried to figure out who Jesus really was. The question is, will we present them with a true picture of people who have been humbled by God’s forgiveness and grace, or will we hide behind a shield of pride?
JD Walt writes, “Remember, pride, is all about [managing] one’s image, which is a way of covering up what is underneath it. Hypocrisy happens when the outer image tells a different story than the inner reality. And the worst kind of pride is religious pride.”
Too often, when people who are not Christians try to describe who we are, the label they use is not prophet. It’s hypocrite. Where is Jesus in that identity?
You see, we can easily fall victim to the same pride that was Herod’s doom, even when the image we present to the world looks holy and righteous. Unless our identity is grounded in who we really are as beloved and forgiven children of God, we can get caught in the sin of self-righteousness and hypocrisy.
Like Herod, we all carry in us the capacity to do evil and the capacity to receive grace. Every day, we must choose between an identity that is rooted in God’s loving forgiveness, and an identity that is rooted in our own hypocritical pride. Both options are hiding in plain sight.
Where is Jesus in your story? When evil seems to overtake you, and all you can see in the mirror is your own shame, can you see Jesus standing beside you, offering you forgiveness? How is Jesus gently calling you to repentance, there in the back of your mind? Where is Jesus hiding in plain sight as you go about your daily routine? How is he continuing to work in you, even when you don’t see it? How is Jesus, ever present with you, asking you to let go of your shield of pride that covers your false self, so you can find your identity in Christ alone?
 Of the 2,977 victims killed in the September 11 attacks, 412 were emergency workers in New York City who responded to the World Trade Center. This included:343 firefighters (including a chaplain and two paramedics) of the New York City Fire Department (FDNY); https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emergency_workers_killed_in_the_September_11_attacks