Within our darkest night | Sermon from July 15, 2018

Stop Talking!

Dana and I were having a pleasant conversation over coffee. Into the room ran Carter who, for some reason, had found our conversation offensive while playing with cars in the playroom. Stop talking! He yelled at us.

“That was very rude, Carter. It’s time out, please.” I replied. Carter looked at me, put his hands over his eyes like this, and said, “you can’t see me!”

Dana had to turn away from Carter to hide her laughter. I somehow maintained a straight face as I said I could see him and reiterated that it was time out. Carter dutifully went off to sit in the corner.

Carter is still developing what child psychologists call “object permanence.” Until sometime near the start of preschool, we think that if we can’t sense an object, it doesn’t exist. So Carter honestly thinks if he can’t see me, I can’t see him.

This morning, we may be tempted to hide, too.

Like Carter trying to evade time out, this is one of those texts we’d rather hide from. Biblical scholars call it a text of terror. We, too, may be tempted to cover our eyes in response to the text and say, “you can’t see me!” But, if we’re brave enough to engage with the text, as dark as it may be, we will discover a powerful light that will never fade.

As the community of Taize sings, “Within our darkest night, you kindle a fire that never dies away. Never dies away! Within our darkest night, you kindle a fire that never dies away, never dies away.”

Let’s read together Mark 6:14-29, the story of the murder of John the Baptizer.

Scripture

King Herod heard of it [the works of power being done by Jesus’s disciples and by himself], for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the Baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When the daughter of Herodias herself came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the Baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When the disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

Herod and Herodias’s sins stand stark before us.

There’s no getting around the graphic, terrible circumstances of the text. Herod, Herodias, and Salome, Herodias’s unnamed daughter, are purveyors of evil. Herodias is manipulative and has murderous intentions. She is also apparently the power behind the throne; at least, she wants to be, and so she’ll stoop to whatever levels necessary to secure that power. Herod, full name Herod Antipas, appears weak in the text, easily controlled, easily made fearful, lacking in power. He’s also a murderer, drunk, and lustful for his, yes, step-daughter. What power he has he uses impulsively, as seen in offering Salome whatever she asks, even up to “half of my kingdom” as he says in verse 23. Salome is willing, on her mother’s behalf it seems, to seduce her step-father, becoming the vehicle for her mother’s manipulative tactics. These are people full of evil intentions, who find sin useful, which ultimately leads Herod to kill the prophet of God, the forerunner for Jesus, John the Baptizer.

And it gets worse. The family tree bears out additional sin. Herod Antipas, Herodias, and Salome are all descendants of Herod the Great, the Herod famous from the birth story of Jesus. Herod the Great had seven sons by four wives and murdered three of those sons in a power-infused rage. And, adding to the family sin, these sons mostly married incestuously. For example, it was common in the family for a son to marry his brother’s daughter.

Which is the case in our story. While the family tree is very complicated, the end results are these: Herodias is not only Herod Antipas’s wife, but also his niece and sister-in-law. Salome is not only Herod Antipas’s step-daughter, but also his niece and sister-in-law. Salome is Herodias’s daughter and her sister-in-law. They are all related, and so we can add to the other sins the sin of incest. Not only that, but the law in Leviticus forbids a man to marry his brother’s wife. Herod has violated that law, which is what leads to John’s criticism of Herod. But Herodias, steadfast in her marriage, and Herod, weak and manipulated by Herodias, will not repent, will not confess to their sins, and so remain in the marriage, seeking for ways to silence John.

So, within the text as it stands, we have lust, drunkenness, manipulation, incest, unrighteousness, abuse of power, and murder. These sins strike us as terrible, considering that Herod has killed someone clearly sent by God. And they strike Herod as terrible, too, for the story is a flashback. After Herod learns about Jesus and his power, he makes the assumption that John has come back to haunt him. Jesus is, in Herod’s mind, the reincarnation of John, who has come to condemn him, on God’s behalf, for his drunken, lust-infused, murder; the result of his unrighteous and incestuous marriage.

These are terrible people. And we have to admit, this is pretty gross. Herod, Herodias, and Salome seem to lack in any redeeming characteristic. They’re willing to go to great ends, even to murder, in order to secure what they want. This is the height of corruption. This is the height of abuse of power. This is just a terrible story. The darkness is overwhelming.

But Herodias wasn’t always so starkly sinful. She married her first husband, Herod Philip, young, living in Palestine in Herod the Great’s palace. Upon Herod the Great’s death, Herod Philip was the oldest living son of Herod the Great. He thus traveled to see the emperor of Rome to ask to be made king in his father’s place. The emperor found Herod Philip insolent and insubordinate and, rather than making him king, banished him to Gaul, modern day France. That was about as far away from Palestine as you could get and still be in the Roman Empire. Herodias was given the option by the emperor of going back to Palestine. He decreed that she need not be banished as well. Rather than take this offer, she declared that she would stand by her man and go with him. And so the two of them went to Gaul. Herodias, earlier in life, was a strong, faithful, loving wife; an example of what each of us would hope to be if our spouse was facing a severe turn in life. Herodias demonstrates light in her earlier life, not just the darkness we know from the text.

Herod, too, isn’t all darkness; Mark makes that clear to us. Herod must have faith to believe in reincarnation, which was not that abnormal for a person of his time. Many believed that Elijah would be reincarnated and, in fact, many thought that John the Baptizer was Elijah brought back to life. Such a conviction requires faith and requires belief in the Old Testament prophets. Herod, Mark tells us, also “feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When [Herod] heard [John], he was greatly perplexed, yet he liked to listen to him.” In verse 20, Mark shows us that Herod has an element of religious devotion to him. He sees the light in John. He recognizes the holiness of the man. For quite a while, he will not follow through on Herodias’s murderous intentions because he fears, respects, and has a level of faith in John. Herod demonstrates light within his life, not just darkness.

There’s a mixture of light and darkness within these two characters. They are not simply evil incarnate. Once in their lives, they were more of light than darkness, seeking to do the right thing, devoted to their faith. Rather than simply always being evil, the darkness has gradually come to overtake them. Perhaps that began with Herod’s seduction of his step-brother’s wife, which is how Herodias and Herod came to be married. Maybe it began when John called out their sinful marriage and they began to feel the pangs of a guilty conscience. Maybe they’d always been running from the darkness because their family tree was steeped in incest and murder.

However it happened, they had not always been of more darkness than light. They showed good qualities. They had light that still lived within them. They made choices, and those choices were increasingly sinful to the point that their sins spiraled them into the mess we find here in this story. As Mark would have us understand it, their sinful choice to marry began a spiral that led, eventually, to John’s murder. The darkness in their lives gradually overtook the light in a pattern that is all too common to human nature.

So it is for us. Lest we judge Herod and Herodias too harshly, we, too, are a mixture of darkness and light, of sin and righteousness, of evil and good. We have the same capacity to make good and bad decisions that lead us, either, toward an upward spiral in righteousness or to a downward spiral of increased sinfulness. We can set ourselves on the same pattern as Herod and Herodias.

Such patterns begin innocuously enough. We tell a small lie about how wealthy we are. Later on, we’re having to keep up that lie so that the power and prestige built upon that lie remain intact. We choose to engage in an unethical business dealing. After a time, too much of our business is built upon that unethical deal to be able to go back without creating serious jeopardy. We tell our children lies about ourselves that, we hope, will never be discovered. That leads to the foundation of our relationship being built upon, at least in part, lies. Too much of that relationship eventually is built upon that sin for us to go back and confess it.

So what are we to do?

Is it any wonder that Herodias held a grudge against John, as verse 19 puts it. John calls out their sin, but think about how much of her life, and Herod’s life, too, is built upon their sinful marriage. She is interwoven into the power structure that Herod uses to rule as a puppet king. Her legitimacy as a queen is tied to the marriage. His standing would be diminished by becoming a divorced king. They have courtiers, a life together, power and privilege, and to repent of their marriage threatens to undo all of that. How could they realistically make that choice? They made one wrong decision, but then they kept making wrong decisions to support the initial sin. At this point, they’re trapped. They’ve made their bed and now they must lie in it.

Perhaps you can relate. I can think of times where I have made a mistake and then, in order to try and undo the mistake, I have sinned. In my first job after graduate school, I made such a mistake and then tried to hide it. Those choices to conceal my sin compounded to the point that, when my sin found me out, it was much worse than what it would have been if I’d come clean immediately.

We all have made those kinds of mistakes. We all have made wrong decisions. We all have felt trapped by making wrong choices, and then having to make additional wrong choices in order to stay afloat. We’ve all been in that boat.

But, unlike Herod and Herodias, that boat need not lead us to the depths of evil.

Herod and Herodias killed John because that’s where their choices led. They felt trapped: they had to keep making wrong choices in order to not have their marriage, and thus their lives and power, threatened. But what if they had repented? What if they had told John that he was right, that they had done something wrong. They had that power within them, even if their murderous and incestuous upbringing left them scarred and raised in sin. We know they had that choice because they have light within them: we see that in the text in Mark and in their backstories. They could have decided to repent.

Had they done so, they would not have committed murder. Should they have done so, the might have lost much, but they would have found themselves free. To be trapped by a bad decision is a reality: many of us have known or know today what that is. It’s a literal reality: we honestly feel trapped: trapped by an old lie, trapped by a bad decision, trapped by an illicit behavior, trapped by unethical choices, or trapped by any other sin that we have yet to confess and continue to defend. And the more we try to hide the sin, or justify the sin, or rationalize the sin, or support the sin; the more sin we commit, the more we find ourselves in darkness, and the more trapped we become.

But there’s hope, just as there was hope for Herod and Herodias. Their lives need not have turned out as they did because they had the same thing within them that we have today: light. We carry within us the light of Christ that offers mercy for our sins and grace to grant us freedom from the ways that sin has trapped us. We often speak of sin and being trapped by it in a high-minded way: our sins in general, our sinfulness as a human being, but sin is much more real than that. It’s real for us in the way it was for Herod and Herodias. It’s real in ways that most of us here today can remember or are, perhaps, currently experiencing. It’s real because we feel and know its consequences. We are acquainted with the terrible reality of the sins we’ve committed and the ways in which they have trapped us.

To be free, to find ourselves not trapped into a downward spiral of increasingly poor choices and worse decisions, to not find ourselves in the position of Herod and Herodias as they considered escalating their sins into murder, we must repent. That begins first by accepting the mercy that Christ offers to us: repenting to God by confessing our sins. Confession really is the best medicine for the soul. We suddenly find ourselves free when we stop lying to ourselves saying that our sinful act that’s trapped us doesn’t matter, that it wasn’t really sin, that it wasn’t really that bad, that it was somehow justified. When we stop rationalizing, when we stop hiding, when we come before God and admit to God that we’ve done wrong, our sin that’s been trapping us is suddenly gone and our repentance sets us free.

Herod and Herodias are tragic figures because their lives did not have to lead inevitably to murder. They could have repented. They could have lived different lives for they, like us, were a mixture of good and evil, light and darkness. The light offers freedom from whatever darkness you are experiencing this day. Choose to repent, tell God what you’ve done wrong, stop running from it and stop pretending it’s not there and stop justifying it. It’s real. The altar rail is open for you to come and repent here, in this holy place, before God, accepting the freedom that comes from God’s mercy.

For God forgives even people like Herod and Herodias; God forgives people even like you, because you, like Herod and Herodias, are fearfully and wonderfully made. You are of sacred worth to God. You are a child of God, brother and sister of Christ. You are beloved, even if your life looks similar to Herod’s life, even if you think you’ve committed sins as bad or worse than Herodias. The light of mercy is truly that: light. It’s freedom, it’s walking into the future unfraid, it’s knowing that you’re loved no matter what sins you’ve had to confess.

Stop running. Stop defending. Stop justifying. Stop rationalizing. Stop denying. Stop the downward spiral of sin that Herod and Herodias knew, that you perhaps know today. Confess, repent, and discover that the offer today for your life is freedom.

That’s the light in this dark text. That’s the good news of the gospel. That’s Jesus.

Within our darkest night, you kindle a fire that never dies away, never dies away. Within our darkest night, you kindle a fire that never dies away, never dies away.

Amen.

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