Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10B (Ordinary 15B), Sunday, July 15, 2012
Amos 7:7-15, Psalm 85:8-13, Ephesians 1:3-14, Mark 6: 14-29
Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, PA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
How many of you watched Dallas, when it was originally on? How many of you watch the new version they’re showing on TNT? It’s a story about greed and power, lust and double-crossing. It’s a story about flawed people, who get too caught up in their games and intrigues, even when they try to do the right thing. The original series is the third-longest-running prime-time television show in US history. After it ended, there were spinoffs, tie-ins, and re-runs. Last year, TNT decided to resurrect it. TNT’s version is not a re-make; instead, it starts up twenty years after the original ended, showing us what’s happened in the meantime, what’s stayed the same and what has changed.
And not much has changed. The names and faces are somewhat different, as the show focuses on the new generation who were only children in the old series. But the power games, the intrigues, the greed, the justifications, are all the same. Second verse, same as the first. It seems to be a good strategy, for the new show; after all, our love for drama and intrigues and flawed characters hasn’t changed much in the last twenty years. That’s not surprising; humans have been telling stories like that since there have been humans to tell stories. Sometimes we tack on morals: don’t you do that! Sometimes we just follow the action with baited breath to see what happens next.
I think it’s understandable. After all, the reason that stories like Dallas strike a chord is that, exaggerated and larger-than-life as it is, we recognize a little bit of ourselves in it. Complicated relationships, petty jealousies and rivalries, ignoring how our words and actions hurt those around us, compromising our ideals to reach our goals … all of it looks really familiar. Even more familiar are the justifications: it’s not really that bad, everyone else is doing it, who cares about them. We do it, too. Instead of acting out of love as God calls us to do, we act out of hate and jealousy and greed and fear, and when we try to do the right thing we are all too ready to compromise for the sake of getting things done. We do it in our personal lives, our political parties and leaders do it, and we even see that kind of behavior in church. So it should come as no surprise to see a story like that told in the Bible, as well.
Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, ruled part of the Jewish lands during the time of Jesus. He had married for political connections, but fell in love with Herodias, who was at the time married to Herod’s older brother who had been passed over in the line of succession. So Herod Antipas and Herodias divorced their spouses and married each other. Besides causing political problems with the family of Herod Antipas’ ex-wife, we can imagine what havoc and hurt it caused within the Herod family. Adultery, alienation of affection, divorce, families splintering as everyone takes sides. Everything played out on the public stage, private pain and shame made public. Throw in lingering hostilities from the way Herod the Great divided his titles and wealth, and it’s a recipe for a nasty situation, in which the ideals of family and marriage are made into caricatures.
Everybody knew the Herod family was acting badly, but given their political power few people were willing to say it out loud. John the Baptist did, and it cost him his life. John had been sent to call people to account, one of a long line of prophets and teachers called to tell the truth about sin, to break through the web of justifications people spin for themselves.
Amos, the prophet in our first lesson, was another. He lived centuries before John the Baptist, when Israel and Judah were independent kingdoms. In his time Israel was ruled by Jeroboam II. Now, as far as we know, Jeroboam’s personal life was less sinful than the Herod family. But he made up for it with political and economic sins. Under his reign, the rich and elite prospered by exploiting ordinary people and ignoring God’s laws. Several prophets, including Amos, were sent to call Jeroboam and his people back to justice, to right relationships with God and one another. God uses the metaphor of the plumb line to describe this. A plumb line is a weight on a string used by builders to judge whether a wall is level and straight. God used a symbolic plumb line to judge whether Israel’s actions were just—and found Israel wanting. In the same way, John held the actions of the Herod family up to a standard, and showed just how crooked it was.
The problem is, nobody likes to have their faults pointed out. Most people would rather cover up their sinfulness and make excuses than face the consequences of their actions and acknowledge they did the wrong thing. Unfortunately, that means that people who try and blow the whistle like John did sometimes get attacked. Covering up the sin means getting rid of the one who pointed it out, and so Herodias ordered John’s death. Herod Antipas knew it was wrong, but was more interested in saving face than in doing the right thing. And so John died, and was buried. Sin and death win. The end.
What a depressing story! John did the right thing, and got punished for it. John tried to get people to recognize the sinfulness of their lives, the brokenness and the pain and suffering they were causing themselves and others, and was killed because of it. It’s realistic—it happens all too often, throughout all of history—but it’s not the kind of story we want to believe. How often have we seen something like this happen in our own lives? People make bad, selfish, sinful choices, and other people get hurt because of it. Evil wins, and God’s call is ignored. Sinfulness and brokenness triumph. Herod Antipas and Herodias chose hate over love, greed over generosity, grudges over forgiveness, reputation over goodness, and fear over justice, and they got away with it. And John suffered and died because of their sins.
But notice where this story is told in Mark’s Gospel: chapter six, out of sixteen. This is not the end of the story. Rather, John’s death is just a part of a larger story. And that story is the story of Jesus Christ, God’s only son, who came to earth to save us from our sins. Christ came to redeem us from our sins, to bring salvation and hope and healing from all the brokenness in the world and in our lives. He did this by dying on the cross for our sake. Like John, Jesus died because of the sinfulness of others. Yet Jesus’ death is not the end of the story. Jesus died, but Jesus rose again from the grave. And it is through Jesus’ death and resurrection that we are healed, that our sins are forgiven and we become the people God calls us to be.
John the Baptist died, but his death was not the end of the story. In fact, it wasn’t even the end of John’s story. In baptism, we are tied to Christ’s death and resurrection. We are adopted as God’s children and share in God’s grace, and neither life nor death can separate us from the love of God. Even in death, the victory of the brokenness of the world is only temporary. Because in the end, love wins. In the end, God’s grace triumphs. When Christ comes again, there will be a new heaven and a new earth. All those who have died in Christ will be raised; John the Baptist will be raised, too. All the brokenness and sinfulness of the world will be healed and made clean. It won’t be like the new version Dallas, second verse, same as the first. It will be different—we will be different. “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet together; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven.”
Until then, we are sinners who live in a world of sinfulness and brokenness. Yet we are also saints who have tasted God’s love and grace. We are out of joint and crooked, yet we know God’s plumb line which calls us to justice. May we follow God’s call, and let God’s Holy Spirit fill us with justice and love.