Old Testament Reading Amos 7:7-15
Epistle Reading: Ephesians 1:3-14
Gospel Reading: Mark 6:14-29
Sermon: “Faithful Obedience in the World of Politics”
We have two stories set before us this morning with a common theme. Speaking God’s truth to political power. It is a theme that always makes us uncomfortable, sometimes divides us and might even lead us to ask along with Pontius Pilate: “What is Truth” (John 18:38). So why risk it? Why not just preach on the wonderful blessings of God promised in the Ephesians passage that we studied a bit last Wednesday night?
Why? because I think that this is an important message for out time as well as for the time of Amos and John. Once again (perhaps always), the core values of Christianity are under attack from those willing to compromise with the powerful to achieve a measure of political power or security for themselves. For those wanting a nice, comforting sermon, you picked the wrong church this morning.
For those who stand up to power and say no, it has always been a dangerous thing. It was dangerous to Amos, fatal to John the Baptist and so it has been up to our modern times as well. One needs only remember such people as Thomas a Becket, Thomas More, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and our own Martin Luther King to illustrate the point. Those with political power never like to be reminded that they are responsible to authority and laws outside those of their times and their own country. Sometimes they don’t even like to be held accountable to those local ones either! Still, God seems always to have those few who are willing to say what must be said. God never, ever, leaves truth undefended.
Today is such a time in our country. A time when narrow self interest and corporate greed are being extolled as virtues. National pride is one thing, but nationalism that says “us first and those other people other people don’t count – they’re probably criminals or terrorists anyway” is contrary to the plain word of scripture. We watched with desperate hope while 12 kids were rescued with bravery and skill from a cave in Thailand while thousands of children are still separated from their desperate parents at our borders without much complaint.
We hear of tragedy after tragedy of gun violence and laws and regulations remain unchanged. Meanwhile laws and regulations meant to insure access to health care and protection from dangerous chemicals are being systematically dismantled in the name of corporate expediency. And in all of this, the so called Evangelical Christian Right is strangely silent just so long as they get their Supreme Court pick. This is sin and it’s ugly. It makes no difference to God what party is responsible or what lawyers argue in court – wrong is wrong and God judges such – particularly – those who know better.
Our own John Calvin was adamant that Christians belong in the public square and in public office. Oh, but isn’t there is supposed to be Jefferson’s “wall of separation” between Church and State we hear. That comment on the First Amendment to our Constitution comes from a letter of Jefferson ironically addressed to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut. How surprised Jefferson would be to learn that instead of freedom of religion, it has come to interpreted as freedom from religion in national affairs. Jefferson aside, God is not impressed with our legal maneuvering. It has had an unfortunate second effect in many. A wall can come to exist in our own minds. Here in church we think one way and out in the world we operate with a different set of rules and values. In here, we speak of love and justice, reconciliation and hospitality and the sovereign rule of God. While out there, too often, selfish interests apply and we place secular values over our faith values. No wonder the younger generations call us hypocrites and ignore what we say. They are simply watching what we do. We are meant to be salt and light and yet we go with the flow.
Our ultimate allegiance must be to God. And so our own nation is subject to the voice of those strange disquieting prophets. They sound so risky, so impractical, so politically naive and yet if we dare to listen, we might just hear the Word of God. So dear friends, these words we read are for us. They are not simply ancient tales. They reveal our God who cares deeply and loves eternally, and who also commands justice and righteousness and who is willing to reshape history to achieve it.
In the Old Testament reading, we meet Amos. Who is Amos? Nobody really. He shows up utterly without credentials except that God sent him. These verses and a few at the beginning. of the book, give the only answers we have. We know that he is from the little village of Tekoa just south of Bethlehem in Judah. He is a shepherd and a farmer of figs and he is very much out of place up north in Israel. It’s not even his own country, yet he dares to walk into the ancient sanctuary at Bethel and declare God’s coming judgement on the land and the king. Bethel was the place where Jacob had seen his vision of God. The Priest Amaziah was incensed. Imagine if somebody showed up here from out of town saying that God would shortly be tearing down 1st Presbyterian Church and the Court house and killing off the city officials as well. It wouldn’t go over well at all. Amaziah sends word to the king that a trouble maker is loose and tells Amos to get lost, and tellingly, never mentions God once.
In his message, Amos uses the image of a plumb line. It’s about the simplest and most error proof instrument of construction aids imaginable. The weight and the string always point straight down no matter what. It was an invaluable aid in building a wall straight and true. It also showed plainly if that wall were not longer as it should be. The word of God is like that. It is how society is to be built and it is the measure of whether or not it is still true. We are people made for justice and formed for faithful living – made so by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit. God’s word is not foreign to us, but as it differs from what we practice, it calls us back and shows us our errors.
Now the story in Mark has the same basic message, but the particulars are different. John the Baptizer had been in prison for some time – ever since he had taken Herod Antipas to task for divorcing his first wife so that he could marry his brother Phillip’s wife Herodias. There are a lot of Herods in the New Testament. You can look them up in any good Bible dictionary. This was a son of Herod the Great by a Samaritan wife named Malthace, and full brother of Archelaus. Technically, Herod Antipas was not a “king,” but rather the Roman appointed governor of Galilee and Perea. He was from a royal family and many Galileans probably experienced him as if he were a king locally and he was very ambitious.
For political reasons, Antipas had originally married the daughter of the powerful Nabatean king Aretas IV (mentioned in 2Co 11:32). As the Historian Josephus tells it Herod Antipas tried to win Herodias, though she was married to Antipas’s half brother Philip. When he wanted to marry Herodias, his brother’s wife, however, Herodias insisted that she would not marry a polygamist, so Antipas determined to divorce the Nabatean princess. She fled to her father, and the resulting feud stirred political trouble for Antipas; many of his Perean subjects were ethnically Nabatean, with loyalties to their people. Eventually, after the events narrated here, Aretas IV vanquished Herod Antipas in battle, and Antipas’s own people attributed his loss to divine judgment for Herod’s wicked execution of John the Baptist.
If this sounds like a soap opera, it is. It also seems that even though Herod Antipas had John arrested, he still had respect for him, even listened to him on occasions and protected him. God gave Herod had a real chance at repentance and true knowledge of God. The scene Mark describes has been the subject of many interpretations – paintings, operas and of course movies. Herodias’s daughter Salome was probably between 12 to 14 years old, and perhaps already betrothed or married to Philip the tetrarch, when she was called on to dance. These parties often featured sensuous dancing, but typically members of the royal family were not called on to participate. The Herodian family, however, was known for such excesses.
Herodias sees her chance at revenge for John’s embarrassing challenge when a likely drunken Antipas promises the young girl a reward of anything she wanted – up to half of his kingdom. Ironically, since he was only a Roman appointee, he lacked authority to give away any of his kingdom. Herod was trapped between the shame of breaking a public promise and a crime he could easily get away with – murder, so naturally he chose murder. But it never set well with him, he knew better and his conscience hurt him. So when Jesus begins to make a public impression on the crowds, Herod seems to have superstitiously assumed he was really John the Baptist come back from the dead.
Mark wrote such a brief gospel – why does he give the most expansive account here? What is it that Mark wants us to hear and to know? … It seems certain that part of the answer is that we are to understand the state of the government that could lead to the crucifixion of our Savior. It was the same short sighted urge to yield to pressure that trapped both Herod and Pilate. It was also the result of the same jealousy and politically focused attitude of the religious officials of both the time of Amos and of Jesus. Those ancient worlds filled with corruption, lust, greed and the relentless pursuit of power are not just some distant memory, are they? Those same forces are still at work today as powerfully as ever – likely ever more so by the incessant media bombardment we live under.
Still at work too is the unsettling prophetic power of the Word of God. God has no more abandoned us now, than when he sent his prophets and his “only begotten Son”, our Lord. We are still called to live lives faithful to the Gospel over and above the sins and corruption of our age. In this country, we have a special responsibility to enter the public discourse with our faith and our integrity intact – to engage and to participate and the speak the truth of God. Know this however – this way of living out our faith has never been safe or easy. It will often get you targeted by “both sides”. We dare not slide into the easy trap of identity politics where we blindly accept anything that “our side” spews out into the air and automatically demonize anything from “those people”. This is a rampant disease of our time, and it is sin.
We were created in the image of God, though that image is marred by the fall and our sins. We are children of God – redeemed by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. That is our true identity and we must accept no other. I urge you to not let any other label claim you. Libertarian, Republican, Democrat, Independent, Liberal, Conservative these increasingly confusing labels must be the recipients our Christian values and never, ever the source of them. To do less is to fall into idolatry of culture and nation and to forget who’s we are. Our help comes from the Lord and none other.
We are entrusted with the gospel of Jesus Christ. The same power that turned the world upside down in the first centuries after a Christ is still here. We have a story to tell and a Savior to show to the world. But we must be fully integrated and not divided into secular and religious modes of behavior. We must lead and speak and vote as authentic, thoughtful followers of Jesus.