Sermon for Proper 10, Year B: Game of Pwns

I don’t think that John realized what a hornet’s nest he’d stepped in when he rebuked Herod Antipas for marrying Herodias, his brother Herod Philip’s wife. Herod Antipas divorced his own wife and Herodias divorced Herod Philip so they could be together. According to the Torah, this was not permissible. John’s admonition was based on a Talmudic law spelled out in Leviticus twice:

Leviticus 18:16

Do not have sexual relations with your brother’s wife; that would dishonor your brother.

Leviticus 20:21

If a man marries his brother’s wife, it is an act of impurity; he has dishonored his brother. They will be childless.

Herodias and Herod Antipas reacted…………. poorly. In a stunning display of “I’LL SHOW HIM!,” John was arrested and jailed. Speaking truth to power did not go well for him because Herod Antipas and Herodias had way more power than John did and used it to satisfy their own egos that the grudge was HANDLED (did you hear Olivia Pope’s voice in the word HANDLED? I did.).

After John is put in jail, it’s Herod Antipas’ birthday. Herodias (also called Salome) does some very seductive dancing that I am sure had every man in the room standing at attention (wink, wink; nudge, nudge). It brings Herod Antipas to his knees, he is so taken with her, so he says that he will give Herodias anything she wants. Anything…. up to and including half of his kingdom. HALF OF HIS KINGDOM. Salome doesn’t know what she wants, and goes to consult her mother.

When I read this Scripture, the first thing I thought was, “oh good. Now the mother is involved. This is not going to end well.” She’s so angry with John that she doesn’t just want him jailed, she wants him dead. The pericope does not record how Salome feels about this, because the story is rushed in the classic Markan way- immediately. However, it does include Herod Antipas’ feelings. He was troubled greatly over Herodias’ request because when John preached, Herod Antipas liked to listen. I do not believe that they were friends, exactly, but Herod knew what kind of mind the world was losing, and he did not want that blood on his hands.

And now we arrive at the heart of the matter. If Herod Antipas liked John and his preaching style, why did he agree to Herodias’ request? There are so many things he could have said, like “I promised to give you a gift, not commit a crime.” Or how about “I was wrong to say I would give you anything you wanted. The deal is off.” John the Baptist was murdered because Herod Antipas did not have enough courage to back out. In the immortal words of Limp Bizkit, “his mouth wrote a check his ass couldn’t cash.” He was caught between a rock and a hard place, because he didn’t want to look weak…. and yet, saving John the Baptist would have made him even stronger, because he could have stood up to his wife, and he didn’t. He sent a soldier with orders to bring John’s head back on a platter. I cannot even imagine Herod Antipas’ face when he saw it…. and what did Herodias want with the platter, anyway? Why such a cruel and unusual punishment? Did she put it on the table next to the fried chicken? That part of the story isn’t revealed, but the anger and malice toward John the Baptist shows clearly.

I don’t think that Herod Antipas realized that his wife and her mother were that devious. How could he have imagined that when he offered his wife a gift that it would turn into all hell breaking loose? John’s death led to Herod’s first wife’s father attacking his army in retalliation, and both the Jews and the Romans were furious. Herod Antipas and Herodias were thrown out, sent away for the rest of their lives because of what they had done.

Herod knew that his conscience wasn’t right, which is why I believe he wanted so much for Jesus to be the reincarnation of John, that somehow the world would get back everything it lost when he ordered John’s murder.

The question we have to ask ourselves if we’re going to be like Herod Antipas, or are we going to be like John? When Herod Antipas was faced with a situation that required real backbone, he emotionally crumpled and gave in to peer pressure. John, on the other hand, was not afraid to call out those in power that were not being lawful. I am sure that he did not realize that there would be enough malice aforethought to get him killed, but at the same time, he had the cojones to say something in the first place, which was brave in and of itself.

There’s a little bit of Herod Antipas and a little bit of John in all of us, because the answer to every situation is “it depends.” Moreover, we have the ability to choose between them at will. We all have the strength to be John in those moments, but giving in to peer pressure is so much easier. It’s the path of least resistance. The story is strikingly similar to Pontius Pilate, who didn’t think that Jesus deserved to be crucified and bent to peer pressure, anyway. The comfort in all of this is that we are not alone. People have been struggling to choose courage over the path of least resistance for thousands of years. Why should we be any different?

Our choices may not include dancing girls and murder, but the ones we make are important to us. In each one, we have to say to ourselves, “who am I?” Is this a battle worth fighting? How do you know when it is?

This is the power of prayer. Right here. The whole ball of wax. Those questions we all face, to be courageous or not, are the ones we sit with until the answer comes. Oneness with the power of the universe comes in the quiet. The answers come from your still, small voice if you are willing to listen. Praying is often uneasy, because feelings spill out of you that maybe you’re not ready to handle. You want to run from them in a Herod Antipas kind of way….. but if you sit long enough and get used to really digging into those emotions, the answer will come. You will arrive in the fullness of yourself, because all of the sudden you’ll be able to direct your emotions rather than reacting to them. Knowing what is right and wrong will come easier to you, and you will discover emotional strength you never knew you had.

Prayer is submission, asking for guidance instead of trying to handle everything on your own…. in a sense. You’ll wrestle with both sides of your mind as the discernment process begins…. and slowly, clarity will reveal itself.

It will be the courage to be John in the world, to stand up for what you believe without shrinking into your smallest place, the one that says, “oh, ok….. whatever they want is fine” even when it is CLEARLY. NOT.

Our psalm addresses this strength, saying that listening to Christ, the Mediator and Advocate, will make truth spring up from the earth. You will feel it happen. You’ll have the courage of John more and more often, because you are not leading people with ego but submission. People will be attracted to your peace, because you won’t get rattled at hard decisions. You will go into your closet and pray, asking God what to do, and emerge renewed in your faith in yourself.

It is a steep climb from being Herold to being John. When in your life have you watched things happen that you clearly knew were wrong and yet went along with them, anyway?

  • Does it happen in your work?
  • Does it happen in your family
  • Does it happen in your marriage?

What would your conscience look like if you sat still and prayed for 20 solid minutes? Have you ever given yourself that gift of silence? Have you given yourself that slow, measured way of working through every aspect of a problem, knot by knot?

Obviously, John did. He had the courage to stand up for what was right, because he trusted himself enough to do so. It cost him his life, and at the same time, I believe that Herod Antipas suffered as well. Is it better to stand up for what you believe, or to feel guilty because you didn’t?

It all comes down to how you handle fear. It is your choice to stand up for what you believe or not… and the power of prayer is what will propel you toward courage…. but only if you let it.

Amen.

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