Sunday, July 15, 2012

"Cash & Prizes" Or "Come & Die"?

“I serve a funky little Lutheran congregation, a liturgical and sacramental emerging church. Someone recently asked, "Do you think the church you planted will, you know, get really big?"
I smiled broadly, looking up at the sky and then back at my friend. "Um," I said, "" She looked at me, shocked at my seemingly low self-esteem. "There's just not a huge market for the message 'Jesus bids you come and die'," I explained. "People don't exactly line up around the block for that. But 'Jesus wants to make you rich!' seems to be doing really well right now."
It's easy enough to understand the attraction. On some level we all want to be victorious, successful and wealthy. So if someone is willing to tell me that Jesus happens to also want that for us, well, sign me up! That's good news.
Except that it isn't. It's not good news, just tempting news. Jesus knew that.
He knew how tempted people would be to hop on the Superman-miracle-worker-healer-rock-star bandwagon. This is why in Mark Jesus keeps instructing people not to tell anyone about the healings and miracles—because there is no way to know what this God/man is about based only on miracles. We only see who he is when we look upon the cross. The problem is that we'll choose the miracles every time.
This is perhaps why the Gospel writer puts the John the Baptist story here, totally out of time and place. The disciples are riding high on the power of Jesus' healings, teachings and miracles, and it is in this state that Jesus sends them out. In last week's Gospel lesson, he tells them to do their work in poverty and to expect rejection. Just in case we don't get it yet—in case we think that this thing is about our own glorification—we are now told of John the Baptist. Lest we think that this whole following-Jesus thing is about glory and not the cross, we are faced this week with the stark contrast between Herod's glory, wealth and power and John's suffering, poverty and weakness.
It just isn't about cash and prizes. It's about a suffering God who offers us life and salvation, a God who bids us come and die. Is there a line around the block yet? “

(From Blogging Toward Sunday - "Good, unpopular news",  July 06, 2009, by Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor serving House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver. )
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Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great and Malthace, and along with his full brother Archelaus and his half-brother Philip, was educated in Rome.  Antipas wasn’t Herod's first choice of heir; only later did Herod revise his will. During his fatal illness in 4 BC, Herod had yet another change of heart about the succession: making the elder brother Archelaus king of Judea, Idumea and Samaria, while Antipas would rule Galilee and Perea with the lesser title of tetrarch. Philip would receive what is now the Golan Heights, southern Syria, Trachonitis and Hauran.  Since the plans had to be ratified by Augustus, the three heirs travelled to Rome to make their claims. In the end, Augustus confirmed Archelaus as ethnarch rather than king, and Antipas as tetrarch.
Early in his reign, Antipas had married the daughter of King Aretas IV of Nabatea. While staying in Rome with his half-brother Herod Philip, he fell in love with his host's wife Herodias, granddaughter of Herod the Great and Mariamne I. Antipas and Herodias agreed to divorce their previous spouses in order to marry each other. Relations between Antipas and King Aretas understandably soured and in time preparations began for war.
Today’s Gospel reading (Mark 6:14-29) exposes the kind of human values which are opposed to the way of God’s reign.  It begins with Herod Antipas in a state of fear and anxiety: Jesus’ fame had begun to spread, with reports about demons being cast out and of others cured after he anointed them.  Rumors were flying that John the Baptizer had returned from the dead.  There were other speculations that Jesus was a prophet, in the style of the great Jeremiah or Ezekiel.  Herod’s paranoia kicks into overdrive as he whispers to himself, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” 
Verses 17-29 are a flashback to the time when John, the wildman desert preacher, had begun a ministry of preaching and baptism by the Jordan River, which marked the western edge of Antipas' territory of Perea. John had pushed the envelope too far by publicly castigating the tetrarch for his unlawful bedding down of Herodias, former wife of Herod’s brother, Philip. That was cause enough for Antipas to imprison John in Machaerus. The Jewish writer Josephus also suspects that John's public influence, and later that of Jesus, made Antipas fearful of rebellion.  

Herodias didn’t take kindly at all to John’s criticism.  Zara’s comment in 17th century William Congreve’s play, The Mourning Bride, was never more true: “Heav'n has no rage, like love to hatred turn'd, nor hell a fury, like a woman scorn'd.”  Herodias was seething, and looking for every opportunity to have this religious meddler executed.  
The major obstacle in Herodias’ way was Antipas’ fear: fear of the Baptizer, coupled with Antipas’ curious unexplainable respect.  John fascinated him; he could sense that John was righteous and holy, and so he protected him by keeping him safely locked in the prison.  John also frustrated Antipas, though he was drawn to what John had to say.
When people live as Antipas and his family and and friends did, as we sometimes do, in fear and with irresponsible disregard for the deeper, more basic needs of the spirit, they oftentimes tripthemselves up through serendipity circumstances.  Once caught up in them, people often act in unpredictable ways, with dire consequences.  
Antipas, celebrating his birthday, gives a lavish banquet to which he invites all the big-wigs of Galilee: courtiers, officers, leaders, anyone who was anybody.  The wine, of course, flows freely.  Usually table wine was diluted with water: two to four parts to one part of wine.  A stronger mixture was half and half, and if immediate drunkenness was preferred, wine was served straight.  People ate, reclining on couches, with food served from a table in the middle of the room, brought by slaves who attended to one’s every need.  After dinner more wine was served, whether for political, philosophical, or social discussion, or to accompany games or entertainment by dancers.  Female companionship might be provided by the Greek equivalent of geishas: hetairai, as they were called.  One commentator notes: “Again, the percentage of the wine had something to do with the intimacy of the entertainment.
We don’t know who instigated it, although my bet is on Herodias, but Herodias’ daughter, Salome, was chosen as the evening’s designated dancer, probably and sadly a young girl not much older than the 12 year old daughter of Jairus in the Gospel two weeks ago.  To have an aristocratic daughter dance before a roomful of men flies in the face of many cultural standards of that day.  Mark modestly observes: “...she pleased Herod and his guests...”.  Indeed, she must have, because Antipas, no doubt well into his “cups” by now, makes a vainglorious and irresponsible promise in order to impress his colleagues: he’ll give Salome anything she wants, anything at all: even up to half of his kingdom!  The girl, almost surely prompted ahead of time by Herodias, checks with her mother and asks “What should I ask for?”  To which Herodias, probably with a vindictive sneer, spits out “The head of John the Baptizer.”  Mark says that the girl “immediately... rushed back” to Antipas and relayed her wish: John’s head, adding a further detail: “at once...on a platter”.  John the Baptizer is to become a sort of final course for the meal.  Mark’s image is one of fear, hatred, depravity and lack of control run utterly amok: in individuals, including a child; in families; and in Antipas’ political domain.  
Antipas is stunned, then sobered, then, realizing the full impact of what has taken place, is grieved.  The repentance which is called for seems simply impossible to such a culture’s self-absorbed, corrupt and prideful will.  Mark says, “...out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her...”  He immediately sends a soldier with the order to bring John’s head.  And it was done, on a platter, “and [he] gave it to the girl.  Then the girl gave it to her mother.”   Such is the corrosive, destructive power of systemic, familial, cultural, and political sin.  
Placed as it is between Jesus’ sending his disciples out in humble ministry with a call to repentance, and his receiving them back, gathered around him, telling all that they’d done and taught, this passage provides a reminder of the resistance which awaits those who would embrace the foolishness of the cross.
But that’s not quite the end of the story.  The evangelist Luke later tells us that a group of Pharisees warned Jesus that, because of the stir he was making among the polticial powers that be,  Antipas was plotting his death also.  By this time Jesus would have had a pretty good idea of the character of Antipas and his family.  Not one given to name-calling, Jesus denounces the tetrarch with a kind of surprising reference: "that fox", and declares that he, Jesus, will not fall victim to such a plot because "it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem".  Luke also credits Antipas with a role in Jesus' eventual trial in Jerusalem. He says that Pilate, on learning that Jesus was a Galilean and therefore under Herod Antipas' jurisdiction, sent him to Antipas, who was also in Jerusalem at the time. Initially, Antipas was pleased to see Jesus.  Always one ready for the spectacular and the outrageous, he hoped to satisfy his lust for novelty by seeing Jesus perform a miracle. Jesus, however, remains silent in the face of questioning, and Antipas mocks him and sends him back to Pilate, improving, according to Luke, relations between Pilate and Antipas despite their earlier enmity.
About three years after Jesus died, in 36 CE, the conflict with Aretas of Nabatea, caused by Antipas' divorce and the rulers' disagreement over territory, developed into open war. Antipas' army suffered a devastating defeat, and Antipas was forced to appeal to Emperor Tiberius for help. Antipas eventually fell from power due to the Emperor Caligula and to Antipas’ own nephew, Agrippa, brother of Herodias. Agrippa fell into debt and despite his connections with the imperial family, Herodias persuaded Antipas to provide for him. But the two men quarrelled and Agrippa departed and was later imprisoned because of an indiscreet political comment. When his friend Caligula finally became emperor in 37 CE, he not only released Agrippa, but granted him rule of Philip's former tetrarchy, slightly extended, with the title of king.
Jealous at Agrippa's success, according to the historian, Josephus, Herodias persuaded Antipas to ask Caligula for the title of king for himself. It all backfired, however, when Agrippa brought charges against Antipas to the emperor, Caligula, in the summer of 39 AD, seized Antipas' money and territory, giving them to Agrippa, while he exiled Antipas.  Herodias joined her husband in exile, where Antipas died. Among the followers of Jesus and members of the early Christian movement mentioned in the New Testament are Joanna, the wife of one of Antipas' stewards, and Manaen, a "foster-brother" or "companion" of Antipas.  Presumably, these were sources for early Christian knowledge of Antipas and his court. 
If we’re to take anything away from this rather lengthy portrayal of Herod Antipas and those surrounding him, it might be the dramatic contrast between him and them, and John the Baptizer and Jesus of Nazareth and their followers.  In the words of Nadia Bolz-Weber above, “There’ s just not a huge market for the message ‘Jesus bids you come and die’...” -- an echo of Jesus’ words: “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me...For those who lose their life for my sake will find it...”, or as  Paul says in 1 Corinthians: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” 
In today’s first reading (Amos 7:7-15) the herdsman/dresser of sycamore trees, called by God to prophesy, sees the vision of the plumb line by which God’s measures Israel. God sends Amos to warn them of the coming disaster because of their complacency and self-indulgence, similar to Herod Antipas’ behavior. The irate priest of Bethel, Amaziah, reports Amos to the king, and warns to go back to Judah; his message is unwelcome. But Amos stays the course and continues to speak the uncomfortable truth.  
St. Paul outlines Christ’s life-giving power in the Epistle (Ephesians 1:3-14): Jesus’ followers are “blessed”, in the midst of and despite opposition, persecution, even death, by those who would deny the cost of discipleship. He assures the Ephesians and us that we’re given every imaginable spiritual blessing: chosen in Christ, adopted into God’s family, redeemed through Jesus’ blood, forgiven our sins, lavished with grace upon grace.  To those, who like John the Baptizer and Amos, are courageous enough to stand up for what is right and just and holy, God-in-Christ gives wisdom, insight, and understanding into “the mystery of [God’s] will”, visibly in Jesus’ words and actions, and interiorly in our hearts through “an inheritance”,  the “seal of the promised Holy Spirit” of Love. It’s this Spirit which gives us hope to endure beyond the cross as we turn all our effort toward living “for the praise of his glory.

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