You’d be forgiven today if you thought this was the Holy Gospel according to the Game of Thrones.
Where in the world did this story come from? It serves as a good reminder that the Bible is full of stories of flawed and broken people. And whenever you have flawed and broken people, and give them power, there is a pretty high chance that violence is going to break out from time to time.
All the time really. There is so much blood and gore in the Bible that it would make an HBO series blush. But we don’t often talk about that side of the Bible in church. Certainly not during Sunday worship. Oh, sure we talk about the crucifixion a few times. But that has become so familiar, so ritualistic that it doesn’t really phase us to hear about it. Maybe that’s why Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ was such a cultural event a decade ago, because for all its excesses, it brought the grimness back in the story.
This story, the story of John the Baptist and Herod, it’s got it all: forbidden marriage, betrayal and manipulation, feasting and decadence, lost heads. It’s this over-the-top vision of power at its absolute worst. It’s inspired books and movies and plays and even an opera that ends with the girl serenading John’s head as the partygoers look on in horror.
But why relive it today? I know that there are a whole lot of things you’d rather be talking about than a beheading on this warm summer day. I think part of the reason we’re hearing this story is that it reminds us of the fate of the prophet. It reminds us that following in the footsteps of Jesus is not always an easy thing to do. And when you speak Truth (with a capital “T”) to power, the power is going to do everything (and I mean everything) it can to silence you.
John is speaking Truth, a truth that Herod and his crew don’t want to hear. He’s challenging the corrupt morality of the family. He’s speaking out about their decadence and their disregard for God’s will. And he’s pointing towards one that Herod knows is more powerful, a prophet—a messenger of God—the likes of which hasn’t been seen in Israel in decades.
Prophets speak the truth. They’re not fortune tellers or soothsayers. Rather, they warn us of a future (or even a present) that is coming if we leave God behind. If we forget about justice and mercy. They are the plumb line that Amos speaks of in our first lesson, they’re the guide, ensuring that we are on the straight path and the reference for how fall off the mark we are.
But this is not an easy job. It’s not a desirable job. Maybe that’s why prophets are always trying to dodge God’s call. Amos says, “Hey, man, I’m no prophet. I’m just this guy who herds sheep. Don’t, don’t bring me into this.” Yet God is insistent.
We don’t know much about John’s call to be a prophet, how it all went down, but I have to imagine that he had his doubts sitting in that prison, awaiting his fate. He must have known that his end would not be pretty. And in that end, we start to see the shadow of a certain cross, the greater fate that awaits Jesus not too long after that.
Where are our prophets today? Where are the people who are speaking God’s truth to power in the midst of danger…to the Herod’s of this world. There are the easy ones to name: the great Christian martyrs of our age—Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. There are the brave Christian men and women who are facing their own beheadings at the hands of ISIS in Syria and Libya.
But beyond that, I think that we see prophets every day. All of you, all of us, are called by God to be courageous in the face of fear and persecution, to call out the corruption of the powerful.
This week, we are sending a group of 11 young people and three adults to Detroit to gather with tens of thousands of other young Lutherans. And, while this may not seem like something particularly prophetic, it’s actually something quite radical.
Detroit is a city that has suffered a lot over the past fifty years. It is the posterchild of failed policies and politics. Large portions of the city are falling apart, abandoned, simply unlivable. The choice to hold the Youth Gathering in Detroit was met with a lot of raised eyebrows to say the least. Why in the world would we want to send our kids there?!
But that is precisely why we are going. You see, the prophet goes where no one else wants to go, where no one else is willing to go—the court of Herod, the broken cities, the place of the Cross—and there, in those forsaken places, they proclaim God’s truth and love and mercy.
Our kids will join thousands of others, and many, many residents of Detroit who are there all the time…and together they will proclaim that God has not forgotten this city, God has not forgotten us, new life is always springing up. And indeed it has. Because for all our sterotypes of a decaying city, there is a lot of resurrection going on in Detroit. And for the folks going to the Youth Gathering, their job will be to point to it, to remind us of it, just like John the Baptist did with Jesus.
God’s power will be at work in them.
And I hope that our youth will return to us, able to see a little bit of God’s truth here in Mount Holly. I hope that they will present us with difficult questions about what’s going on here, I hope that they will help us to see our own failures and shortcomings, and I hope that they will remind us that God is at work here to.
In Detroit, in Mt. Holly, anywhere they go, I hope that they proclaim community, proclaim story, proclaim justice. And I hope that we all will be able to follow their example.
When Herod heard of Jesus, he thought that it was John raised from the dead, coming back to haunt him, to take his revenge. Instead, it was the one even more powerful, the one who would have the ultimate victory, the one would crush the power of Herod and Caesar and all the empty rulers of this world. John was struck down, but his message, Jesus’ message became more powerful than Herod could possibly imagine. The message of hope and love always lives on.