[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]
As a preacher, I have to tell you, I sometimes wish I could avoid some passages of Scripture. I’d rather not face our Gospel lesson for this morning, for example. But because I made a rule for myself, to always preach on the most difficult passage of Scripture appointed for a given day, I'm preaching on it. With its account of John the Baptizer’s execution, our lesson from Mark is so laced with evil that it’s disturbing.
But when I think of it, what I see in today’s Gospel lesson is a lot like what I see in life on Monday through Saturday. As wonderful as life is most of the time, there are things I’d rather not face. These are the evils—like the inhumane things that human beings sometimes do to one another—that, when you learn of them, make you wonder, “How could this have happened? How can people be so cruel or sadistic?”
And I’m not talking just about murders or holocausts. I’m thinking also of the everyday evils, the cutting, harsh ways in which we all can diverge from the clear will of God to love God and love neighbor: The husband or wife who ignores their spouse. The parent who discourages a child. The child who is disrespectful of the parent. The customer who berates the hapless clerk at the store. None of us want to be mistreated. Yet, often we can find ourselves subjecting others to the very disrespect or callous disregard that we hate to receive!
We all are sinners, of course. That’s the burden Jesus came to share with us, the weight He took on His own shoulders on the cross so that all who turn from sin and trust in Him will have life with God forever. As Christians, we’re called to do daily battle with our sin, which, if ignored, is a wall between God and us, between life and death. We’re called to keep grabbing the strong, outstretched hand of Jesus Christ so that the power of sin and death over our lives can be destroyed by God’s powerful grace and deathless love. That isn’t always as easy as it seems it should be.
Most of you have undoubtedly heard about the frog in the kettle. A frog haplessly plopped himself into a kettle full of water that set on a stove top. Shortly after he got there, someone turned on the burner underneath the kettle. The frog, being a cold-blooded critter, adaptable to the world around him, didn’t realize he was being boiled to death.
Only insane people set out to be evil. Yet, like the frog in the kettle, sometimes people who should know better, are capable of evil, of cruelty to others. We allow our kettles--our environments, the world and the people around us--to dictate how we will act and react in everyday life.
Herod Antipas was a man who should have known better than to fall into evil. He had been schooled in God’s will through a thorough knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures, what we know as the Old Testament. On top of that, Herod had good political reasons for avoiding evil: Though his family had no legitimate claim on the honor, they had for generations held themselves to be Israel’s royal family. It was so important to Herod Antipas to be seen as the “king of the Jews” that he had undertaken to build a new temple on Mount Zion, the same spot in Jerusalem where, a thousand years before, King Solomon had built the first temple. Both spiritual training and political common sense should have kept Herod from evil.
But our Gospel lesson for today tells us that Herod perpetrated a horrible evil: Ordering the execution of John the Baptizer, whose crime was speaking the Word of God.
How that happened, a story you know well, comprises most of the lesson. It comes in what the moviemakers would call a flashback. Herod gets reports about the miracle-working ministry of Jesus and is convinced that John has come back from the dead. We’re then told about the night Herod threw a birthday party for himself, how the daughter of his wife—the wife he had stolen from his brother, had danced for him, pleasing Herod a lot, how—probably a little more than drunk—Herod had promised the girl anything in exchange for the dance, how she had asked her mother what to ask for and was given the chilling reply, “The head of the prophet of God on a platter,” and how, in spite of what Herod knew to be right, he complied with the girl’s expressed wish.
It was an act of evil equal to anything you might hear about tonight on the Eleven O’Clock News. But unlike those news items, I believe that Mark’s flashback can help us to avoid falling into evil ourselves.
It does this by helping us to see that evil happens, first of all, when we want what we want more than what we want God wants. That was Herod’s problem. He wanted to be respected more than he wanted to honor God.
That can happen to us, too. Years ago, a man came to see me and explained how he bilked his company for thousands of dollars and got himself fired. I tried to understand how this otherwise upright man fell into this evil. “Did you tell yourself that the company was dishonest, so you could justify stealing from it?” I asked him. “No,” he told me. “I just knew what I wanted and saw stealing as the way to get it. I just forgot all about God.”
Evil also happens when we’re more concerned with how we appear than with who we are. Herod kept his vow to his wife's daughter because he didn’t want to seem like a welcher to his guests.
A pastor I worked with while I was in seminary taught me a valuable lesson. One week, he made a huge mistake, one that the congregation needn’t have known about, not a sin, but a failure to make a deadline which cost the church some money. The first thing that pastor did the following Sunday morning during the announcements was stand up and apologize. If that pastor had worried about appearances, he wouldn’t have said a word. But he was willing to admit his imperfections and gained credibility for it.
Evil happens when we ignore the Word of God. Herod, in spite of the judgment against his actions he could hear in John’s preaching, liked to listen to it. He knew that John’s words were from God. Yet, at his birthday party, he turned a deaf ear to God’s Word.
It’s pretty clear then, that to avoid evil, we need to keep God’s will foremost in our priorities, be more focused on our character than our status, and more attentive to God’s Word than we are to the push to selfishness that exists within us and around us.
But that still leaves us with a question: What’s in it for us?
At the end of our Gospel lesson, after all, Herod was still alive, still on his throne, and John’s body was taken away by his disciples for burial. Herod had caved into evil. John had remained faithful to God.
What’s in it for us when we resist evil?
Of course, there’s the obvious answer…and the true one. Those who faithfully seek to follow the God we know in Jesus Christ will, in spite of our sins and failings, spend eternity with God.
But there are more immediate rewards for those who commit themselves to keeping hold of Christ’s hand and resisting the temptation to sin. They’re mentioned in our lesson from Ephesians for today. We’re given, we’re told “every spiritual blessing.” Herod went to bed on the night he killed John the Baptizer knowing that he had killed an innocent, that he had done evil. That reality, I believe, haunted him and he felt utterly alone. (In fact, one of the words for sin in the New Testament Greek has the idea of being so turned in on oneself so far that one is alienated from God and everybody else. When we allow evil to control us, we are alone with our sins.)
Unlike Herod Antipas, John the Baptizer lived and died with the certainty that, even in the midst of things he couldn’t and didn’t fully understand, in resisting evil, in seeking to follow God faithfully, he had a Lord, a Friend, and an Advocate Who would never desert him, not even beyond the gates of death. The simple truth is that God is present for all who want God around.
She was dying and I visited her in the hospital. "Are you angry with God?" I asked her. "I was at first," she answered honestly. "But then I remembered that He's right here with me. Somehow that helped me."
It can help us too. It makes resisting evil worth it. Amen