July 12, 2015
William G. Carter
"When Herod heard John the Baptist, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him."
From time to time, our worship committee talks about ways to bring the scripture alive. We want people to engage with the scripture passages, and on occasion, we have even acted them out. But tell me: how would this Bible passage do as a chancel drama? What do you think?
Today’s text alternates between the dungeon and the banquet hall. It tells of an enticing dancer and an obedient executioner. There is a nasty king, with a terrible reputation for partying too much. There is an evil queen, possessed by jealousy and retribution. And in the center of it all, there is a preacher, a preacher that they have kept locked up.
For some people, it’s a good idea to keep the preacher locked up. Many preachers find it awkward to attend a king’s birthday party. Preachers often don’t do well around kings. They don’t own a tuxedo. They don’t know when to use the proper salad fork at state dinners. They are unaccustomed to spending time with the wealthy and the manipulative. And when the party cranks up, most preachers cannot dance.
It’s good to keep the preacher locked up, especially if his name is John the Baptist. He doesn’t do well in social circumstances. When people draw near to him, he yells at them and calls them names. John may take a lot of baths, but he still smells pretty bad. There are locust legs stuck between his teeth. See the fire in his eyes. Just as you and I excuse him from our Christmas preparations, the king thinks it is a good idea to keep him locked up and out of sight.
Originally it was his wife’s idea, his most recent wife. That was a story right out of the tabloids. According to one version of the story, King Herod Agrippa went to visit his half-brother Philip on the way to Rome. His eye fell up on Philip’s wife Herodias, so he decided to get rid of his own wife. Herodias decided to dump her husband. It was a scandal, but kings tend to do whatever they want. Herod Agrippa and Herodias got married, ignoring the fact she was his half-brother’s wife and also his niece. It was a twisted tale.
And John the Baptist began to yell. He stepped out of the Jordan River and started yelling at the palace. That desert preacher normally raised his voice at the scorpions and the sand lizards, but now he started yelling at the king. The king could hear the criticism. He still had a memory of Jewish faith somewhere in his family background. He was the kind of king who might import a rabbi for an occasional worship service, rather than trek into Jerusalem and go to the temple like the common people. Security concerns, you know.
So when John’s yelling got into one ear, and his wife saying “You’ve got to shut that guy up” in the other ear, King Herod send soldiers to bring in John and toss him into the dungeon. Sometimes it is best to keep the preacher locked up, especially if you are the king.
But that is when the story gets a little weird. Herod put John in the castle dungeon and he protected him. He knew John was “a righteous and holy man.” All the time, John kept preaching. What did he say? Well, we know how his favorite sermon goes: “Repent!” That is, “Come home to God.” But I am going to guess that John was also preaching a sermon on Leviticus 18, a passage where God says, “It is wrong to marry your brother’s wife” (18:6), especially if he’s still alive.
You could keep the preacher locked up, but you couldn’t shut his mouth – especially if he was speaking for God.
I think of the closing scene of a movie from a few years back called “The Apostle,” featuring Robert Duvall as a Pentecostal preacher. He is a wild man and does some wild things. He ends up in jail, right where he belongs. At the end of the film, as the closing credits roll, he is out with the chain gang of other prisoners. Under the watchful eye of prison guards, he is still preaching the Gospel. There is no shutting him down.
The apostle Paul had his own run-ins with the law. According to the New Testament, he was often in prison. He wrote to the Christians in Philippi (1:12) and said, “I want you to know that what happened to me has advanced the Gospel.” All the guards and prisoners knew he was there for the sake of Jesus. Nobody could keep him quiet when it came to the Gospel.
And Jesus himself – Jesus was a prisoner. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is arrested and taken before the religious authorities. They ask him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” He stares them down and says, “Yahweh – I am! And you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power” (14:62). They wanted him to be quiet, but he would not be quiet … even if they had him locked up.
This is an amazing story, you know. It keeps happening. The Catholic parish next door had a priest some years ago who has taken on mythical significance to the local clergy. It seems he received a lot of invitations for high school graduation parties. With this being the Abingtons, a lot of those parties served a great deal of alcohol, since alcohol is the drug of choice in our town. It troubled the priest, particularly since the parents were absent or hobnobbing out by the pool, while the teens were getting loaded.
So he stood one Sunday in June and addressed his congregation. “I love our kids,” he began, “but I have to say how troubled I am by the amount of drinking at these parties. Not only is it illegal, it’s completely out of hand. So if I am invited to a graduation party and alcohol is freely served to kids, I will leave. I cannot be part of that. I won’t make a spectacle of my departure, not is it my role to call the police, but I will leave.”
That year, the number of his invitations dropped from seventy-five to two. Nobody attended those two parties. He received outraged phone calls and anonymous hate mail, all asking, “Who do you think you are?” He said, “I think I am a minister of God’s Gospel,” he said.
So John the Baptist kept preaching, even the king had him locked up, even when the queen carried a grudge against him. John answered to a Higher Authority. He would not be silenced about the truth of God even if he suffered for it. And in the detail of the story that is both most curious and revealing, “Herod liked to listen to John preach.” Just imagine him creeping down the back stairwell, staying just out of sight, with John railing away against his sins and excesses. There was a power in the Word that John spoke. It appealed to something in the king’s soul.
What was it? A reminder that God is the true ruler over all the world’s rules? Was it what one theologian once called “a faint recollection of the Garden of Eden” – and he could remember when all the world was in communion with God? Could it be a dim memory of right and wrong, an innate sense of moral law, or a twinge of guilt that he had done something wrong, that he had done a lot of things that were wrong? The storyteller doesn’t specify, but I can believe him. “King Herod liked to hear John preach.” When people hear the Gospel of God, even for the first time, they can hear it for what it is.
Even Herodias, Herod’s new wife, could identify it - - and she had the freedom to decide that it wasn’t for her. If she took the preacher seriously, she could lose that nice place in the palace. She could lose the velvet curtains and the cushioned chairs. She could lose the protected distance between her and all the people in the kingdom who knew what she had done. She and her daughter could be thrown out of the palace and into the Dead Sea.
So she knows what she wants to do. When Herod and the boys are losing their minds at the big birthday bash that he threw for himself, she decides it’s time for John to lose his head. Her daughter dances for the crowd, and is offered whatever she wants by her stepfather. Asking her mother what that might be, Herodias decides to silence the preacher. She could have had half of Herod’s kingdom. Instead she chooses to silence the preacher.
But once again, there is another unusual detail to this story, and it’s the detail that prompts the telling of this whole story. King Herod has heard about Jesus, and how he, too, is preaching – and how Jesus is sending his followers out to preach. Everybody is trying to figure out who this Jesus is. Herod says, “It is John, whom I beheaded. John is raised from the dead.” That is an ironic statement for all kinds of reasons, especially for those of us who live after Easter. And it is a recognition that the same powers at work in John are also at work in Jesus.
What are these powers? They are the powers of God’s speech, the powers of God’s truthful declaration of life and how life is intended to be. “The voice of the Lord is powerful,” says the Psalmist (29:4). “The voice of the Lord is full of majesty.” And should God speak, there is no shutting down of the voice. Maybe like Herodias somebody may choose to rid ourselves of the messenger. Perhaps like Herod the listener does not have the depth of character to understand what is being said. But God is a God who speaks.
God says, “Let there be a planet Earth,” and it is so. God says, “Let my Word take flesh," and Jesus is born. And when that Word Incarnate is arrested, condemned, and pushed out of the world, God says, “Let the New Creation be born," and Jesus Christ is raised from the dead.
So there may be no more important work for us than to listen to what God might be saying. When Sunday rolls around, and the scriptures are opened in public, we listen for the Voice which Herod, Herodias, and Pontius Pilate could not silence. It is the Voice that gives life, the Voice that sets us free from the powers of human destruction, the Voice that purifies and redeems what God loves.
Throughout the ages, God’s Voice has been recorded in the scriptures, but God’s Voice is bigger than the scriptures. When one of God’s servants says, “Slaves, obey your masters,” it was an appropriate Word for that time and situation, but it must be held in tension to another time when God said to the slave masters, “Let my people go.” For God is greater than whatever our holiest human words can ever capture. Greater than the words on the page is the one true God, God of Gods, light of light. The Words of scripture are recorded in order that they will point beyond themselves to the God who is creating, judging, and redeeming life.
Through the dimness and bleary eyes, King Herod could sense this Power. Through a deep grudge and desire for revenge, Queen Herodias thought she could silence this Power. What both of them missed is God still speaks and calls all of his children into a holy and life-giving fellowship with the very Power that gives us birth.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.