Bearing the Heavy Things in Life Series – Part 2 of 8: The Clash of Two Worlds
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church
March 19th, 2017
Mark 6:14-29 (NIV)
It was nice that we can all get over our winter colds so we can enjoy the spring allergies, right? [laughter]
The truth will set you free. We know this, we have been told this. But oftentimes we are not told that for the truth to set you free it has to destroy the safe sweet way you live. So we are doing this series on the heavy things of life. Last week we started talking about things that weigh on us and drag us down; distractions really. Last week we talked about our words and how they reveal about us — in spite of our intentions — our interest in being of two minds. We really do want to be people faithful to the ways of God. But we also want to maintain our possessions and our acquisitions as a measure of our life. It really reveals our hypocrisy. Today the heavy thing I will be talking about is our loyalty in the world.
Actually, this is a fairly strong theme throughout the Bible. This is the theme of the story of David and Goliath; your loyalty in the world. Where do you run when you’re up against something big? For Saul and the armies of Israel, they ran to their swords; they got on the battlefield and they try to resolve it in a very predictable way. And it wasn’t going well. It was David who sought a surprise; he was able to fling a stone and change the course of history. Psalm 24 is the Psalm that is linked to this New Testament passage: The earth is the Lords and everything in it. Who may ascend into the presence of God on high? Who may stand in holy presence? And the Psalm answers it. One who has clean hands and pure heart, one who does not lift up his soul to an idol or swear by what is false.
Idol, we not talking here about a TV show. We are talking about the idolization of a nation with fear. And what we are willing to become and what we are willing to do to contain our fear. Isaiah talks about this tension between the ways of God and the ways of the world a lot. Perhaps the most clear is Isaiah 31: Woe to you who go down to Egypt forming alliances with military power houses because you are afraid. Your search for absolute security has led you out of the way of God. Isaiah is clear. Fear has become an idol for the nation and the nation is weaker for it.
If we jump now to Ephesians — Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus — Paul is coaxing the early church to actually live out the faith that they’ve been given. He says: do not live out of fear, live into the call that you have received. Be humble and gentle and patient. Put off falsehood and the attractiveness of lying. Speak truthfully to your neighbor. Do not let unwholesomeness come out of your mouth. Only say what is helpful for building up others. Rid yourself of bitterness, anger, rage, the desire to fight, slander, and malice. He said all of these things are functions of fear in us. And he goes on to say that the talk about the power that comes when we get out of the functions of fear in us and we get into the ways of God in us. He says: you no longer tossed back and forth by the waves. You are not blown here or there by every wind of teaching and cunning and crafty people with their deceitful scheming.
I begin with this introduction and some pieces of where it shows up in Scripture because I want you to see that our gospel lesson this morning does not standalone. It is actually a fairly significant theme throughout the biblical text; which is good because Mark’s gospel should not standalone. Mark has a powerful word. Mark is rather guff, he’s rather direct. And he seems to have a finger up whenever he is talking. I’m not holding up the right finger. [laughter] Mark is not interested in niceness. Mark is interested in actually practicing the faith we profess. Mark begins with the word gospel. The first sentence that he uses — he talks about proclaiming the gospel — which is a case of high theft. The Greek word gospel, the original word gospel, evangélio was used for things like imperial announcements or the birth of royalty or the ascension of an Emperor or a military victory on the battlefield in the name of the Emperor. Things that was important by stealing that word and using it. Mark is saying those things are not important at all, and they will fail, and they will come to an end. Let me tell you what is important and what will last forever. Mark announces what power looks like. Mark is pointing to the reign of God. And of course those who rule in this world are not real receptive, shall we say, this news is not well received.
The gospel is a frontal attack on worldly power. And you know as well as I do, the powers of the world do not roll over and take it. In fact what they do is what we see happening in our nation in about the last hundred years, they have co-opted the gospel and they reassert its meaning. In our culture religion, we can look at this and see it. The cultural church has made the gospel message to be about saving your soul. It is you choosing to say the right prayer and TA-DA you are IN! And that is the purpose of the church. Doesn’t matter what you do, doesn’t matter how you act, as long as you look good and sound good and you say you believe in Jesus; you are IN. That is what powerful people do to the Gospel to neuter it and make it useless. The Gospel of Mark will look at all of that and say you been fooled because that’s not what the gospel messages is about; not just in Mark, but Matthew, Luke and John. The other gospel writers though are writing to established churches. Mark is the first gospel writer and Mark is writing to people under siege. They really could be arrested for the choices. They really could be put on trial and executed. He’s trying to bring them to a decision about which reign they are going to honor, the kind of people that believe in the authority of kings and the power of the nation or people who believe in the reign of God and the ways of God.
We might look at that as we are not people under siege. We might look at that and say well we believe in both. And Mark would say no. And strange as it may sound, Mark is saying to people who are stressed by real threats to make a decision. Mark is saying, live your life differently because you believe God has final word and to live differently, even though it may cost you your life. You may die a hideous death by an animal in the Coliseum or by burning on the stake as a human torch or crucified. To know who you are and whose you are and to live accordingly will give you peace because you don’t have to be anxious about shifting political forces or sucking up to the powers that be trying to stay your pension. There is a resolution says Mark. Mark says there is a resolution of authority that comes to you with putting God’s ways first in your life.
So in the text we catch up in the sixth chapter of Mark. John has already spoken with resolution and the people responded with enthusiasm. Jesus has acted with resolution and the people marvel; he speaks as one who has authority. Demons have been cast out, the sick have been healed, and sin is shown to not be the problem that the religious hierarchy wanted it to be. This is how the gospel of Mark begins. These stories are beginning to accumulate around Jesus and John. And people really like the idea of people being healed as long as it doesn’t cost them anything. But right before this text there is some town folk who are not really excited about a healing that happened; a man who had demons. The man got healed. The demons got put into the pigs and the pigs ran off the cliff because it drove them nuts. And the folks who are not really thrilled about it are the pig owners. It cost somebody something when healing happens and it’s those folks and the religious folks at the temple who no longer have the same control over fearful people, who go clamoring for law enforcement telling a one-sided story that John and Jesus are up to no good. They started making trouble in the neighborhood.
Remember this, from the beginning the people who worked the hardest to have John and eventually Jesus arrested are good law-abiding decent people who in our text today have managed to make peace with a ruler who is not good, law abiding, or decent. That’s one problem in the text. The other problem is the sex. One question, what was her name, his one, the latest, the court sexy-er and dancer? What was her name, the latest wife? The one who was impressed the most by swaggering power speeches of the big man: asked me for anything you want and I will give it to you. What was her name? John made a mistake. John made the mistake of expecting a powerful man who had gotten away with indecency too many times to take simple decency seriously.
And the sexual attraction and the sexual drive and the urge of power got the better of the big man, Herod. What was her name, the latest one? Herodias was her name. But we don’t need to remember that. The image of John’s head on a platter is a corrective to our inclination as a church to believe that it’s all about our comfort. That our actions should always lead to our survival. We were comfortable people in a comfortable place sitting on comfortable chairs hearing a comfortable message. Mark is absolutely uncompromising. He is not inviting us to a social gathering for anyone interested in the philosophical discussion about world religions. Mark is not at all interested in making an easy piece between the vulgar culture and God Almighty. Mark is writing to urge his hearers to make a commitment, to join the company of faithful people who practice loyalty to God and it will probably cost them their lives. This text is a call to discipleship, a different kind of living that simply tells the truth, which simply has boundaries, that simply is decent. This is a stark contrast. I know we might look at that and say: that is the kind of life we live. This is a stark contrast.
Herod lives on. Herod lives on whenever the powerful are possessive and fearful and willing to do almost anything to maintain their power. Herod lives on anytime someone knows what is right and doesn’t do it. Herod lives on in folks who tremble because they’ve overstepped decency. Herod lives on anytime a leader seeks justice in their own terms. If there is no sense of a higher justice judging my justice then I’m not serving justice. I am serving tyranny that serves me. There are a couple of images in this text that Mark plants there to haunt us. The first image is a double. It’s John’s head on a platter and Herod trembling. John’s death has not given Herod’s security or peace that he wanted. And Herod’s trembling is notable. He thought his display of absolute power would help him feel powerful; it did the opposite. He flashes about powerfully only for a moment. He is a reactionary leader. He’s boasting big. He is right to be uneasy. His time will come. His days will end; his reign will be no more. Great imagery, right, thank you Mark, because Mark is pointing to the kingdom of God which has no end, which has real authority.
The second image that Mark offers for us in this text is the one of the dancing girl looking for attention and approval. We all have seen this girl a thousand times. Her name is Salome and her unknowing desire to please powerful men makes her simply an unfortunate tool in her mother’s treachery and in the deceit of Herod. In these texts and all of these images that Mark offers for us, he’s reminding us of the necessity that we have for a clear identity. Mark is saying the world is a dangerous place but only if you allow the world to tell you who you are. If you don’t know who you are, the world will give you a name and the world will give you a place and the world will move you in a direction right out on the dance floor; dance for us and entertain us, make us be pleased with you. If we are not part of something larger than ourselves, the world will devour us; the world will use us; the world will discard us.
The message of Mark is: be careful. The world is attractive and tempting. The world is fascinating. The great danger for all or us is the temptation of our souls toward what appears to be safe and secure because it’s powerful in worldly terms and popular and easy. Be careful anytime you hear the word easy because it usually marks the road to hell. And in this case it does the hell of becoming aware that you are a useless tool, a patsy. And Mark says: I don’t proclaim Hell, I proclaim an alternative, the kingdom of God, where you belong, where you know who’s you are and it tells you who you are. And it’s as simple as acting differently than the world. Who may ascend the hill of God? Who may stand in that holy place? Anyone with clean hands and a pure heart who does not lift up their soul to an idol or swear by what is false.