July 12, 2015

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19
Mark 6:14-29

“Playing Politics”

On a first reading, it seems like the connection between the Old and New Testament readings this morning is the theme of dancing. We had David dancing the ark of the covenant into the City of David, followed by some scolding from his wife for making a spectacle of himself. And then we had Herod’s daughter dancing for the entertainment of her father and his guests, followed by an unfortunate turn of events resulting in the beheading of John the Baptist.

Besides the very fact of the dancing, the stories seem otherwise unrelated. The first one is about victory, about giving the glory to God, and about praising God without reserve in song, and dance, and sacrifices of thanksgiving. The Gospel story is about lavish parties, and young women dancing for the pleasure of old men. It’s about violence and murder, cowardice and injustice. It’s about the sacrifice of an innocent person so that a weak king can save face.

Some commentators have pointed out that both kings are playing politics. David is a wise politician, and while the people think well of him, his wife Michal accuses him of false humility. David claims to be dancing for the glory of God, but she suspects that he is putting on a spectacle for his own glory instead.

Is the procession really about praise and thanksgiving to God for victory? Or is it a subtle way for David to associate himself with the great victorious God, and really raise his reputation among the people?

He ends the procession with a feast for everyone. Does he really just want to help and feed the people? Or is it a political move to keep them happy and supportive of his kingship?

It’s hard to know for sure. Maybe David didn’t really even know himself. Was he truly worshipping God with abandon, or was he playing politics?

King Herod would have had to try much harder in order to receive the approval and affection of the people of his day. As a puppet king, put in place by the Romans, Herod would have been seen as an enemy or a traitor, not as a ruler who was in any way “for the people” like King David had been. And this particular story certainly doesn’t help his reputation at all!

Interestingly, Herod was somewhat fascinated by John the Baptist. We are told that he liked to listen to John, even though he didn’t really understand what John was preaching about.

John, of course, was a man who “told it like it is.” He told sinners to repent because the Kingdom of God was at hand, and he told them what they needed to do in order to change.

In Herod’s case, John told him that he needed to get out of his illegal marriage to his brother’s wife. And John was not shy to say something about what was so obviously wrong.

Unfortunately, Herod’s wife Herodias was pretty upset about John’s rebuke, and she was out to get him. Herod arrested John and kept him in prison, but that wasn’t enough for Herodias. She wanted him dead.

I wonder if Herod was drunk on the night he promised his dancing daughter “anything she asked… up to half his kingdom.” He certainly didn’t think through the possible consequences of such a promise!

And it seems to me that a stronger, more confident king would have just said, ‘No, I won’t kill a man for you! I just meant you could have some money. Don’t be ridiculous! Have some gold.”

Herod clearly didn’t want to kill John the Baptist. We read that he was “deeply grieved,” but since he had promised, and because his guests heard him promise, he ordered that John be beheaded.

Once again, it’s hard to tell how much Herod is playing politics here. Does he really care so little for human life and for justice? Or is he like any politician who is so unpopular with the people that he’s desperate not to do anything to lose their respect even more?

The contrast in the story is, of course, John the Baptist himself. Even though John doesn’t appear in this story at all, (except when his head is presented on a platter) we remember what he was like… A strange prophet out in the wilderness, living simply, eating meagrely, and preaching boldly about the coming of the Kingdom of God.

John was not afraid of the consequences of what he was saying, even when he was boldly telling everyone that they were sinners. I think he was more afraid of the consequences of not telling them.

Unlike the kings, the prophet was not playing politics. He wasn’t even in the political realm. Instead, people went out to him in the wilderness, and he warned them to turn their lives around before it was too late.

As the first chapter of John’s Gospel puts it, John the Baptist was just a man sent by God to testify to the light that was coming into the world – Christ Jesus, the Lord. He was an ordinary person, like any one of us, but his life and his untimely death do become a foreshadowing of the life and death of Jesus a few years later.

Jesus also was innocent.
Jesus also was arrested.
Jesus also was given up by a powerful ruler who chose to wash his hands of the whole thing.
Jesus also was mocked, disrespected, and violently killed.

Unlike David or Herod, neither John nor Jesus played politics. They didn’t rally supporters or try to please the crowds to become popular. They didn’t manipulate people, or compromise their values in order to accomplish their goals.

They honestly preached and taught what God gave them to say, and they didn’t get caught up in worrying about how the people might respond. And yes, they both got killed.

If we seek to follow their way in our own lives today… If we try to live, and work, and relate to other people in ways that are honest, and authentic, and true… we will not be guaranteed either honour or success.

Our reward will not be immediate. But we must trust that what John and then Jesus told us is true… that the Kingdom of God is at hand. And we will be a part of its coming when we live according to kingdom ways even in this in-between time.

Today, as we gather to offer God our worship and praise, we are also invited to remember Jesus in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Like John’s story, his is a story that should upset and horrify us, just as we are troubled and deeply grieved when we hear of horrible crimes against innocent people today.

But as we celebrate this holy meal, we will also remember the way Jesus freely offered his life and his death for us, so that we might know the fullness of God’s love for us.

We will remember not only the injustice of his death, but also the victory of God over death. We will remember his resurrection, and the promise of everlasting life for all who follow his way.

We will remember that through the Spirit’s presence in our lives, our communities, and our world, goodness and righteousness, justice and peace will one day overcome all that is evil in the world.

May God help us to follow Christ with courage, honestly, and integrity, giving glory to God in our worship and in our lives of service. Amen.