On Choosing Our Prophets and Prophecies
July 11, 2021
Psalm 85: 8-13
Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts. Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land. Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase. Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.
Mark 6: 14-29
King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’s 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 his daughter Herodias 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 his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
Today’s sermon is titled On Choosing Our Prophets and Prophecies. Last week my youngest children turned 13 and for the most part, I welcome the fact that they are growing up even though I am, less and less, able to manipulate them into doing what I want when I want. They are growing more and more able to manipulate me, truth be told. Still, I welcome the changes…well… most of them. There is one phrase that gets thrown around a lot these days and it can start a disagreement more quickly than just about anything. The phrase is the following two words: “You said…” Technically this is a sentence; it has a subject and a verb. But this two word sentence is just the start.
“You said you would take me to town!” (Did I?) “You said I could have a sleepover!” (Did I?) “You said I could buy whatever I want with my own money!” (I most certainly did not!) I do not react well to being told what I said because it so seldom reflects what I remember saying.
Neuroscientists agree that we hear what we want to hear. Psychologists warn us about confirmation bias, our overwhelmingly strong tendency to pick and choose the information that confirms what we already believe to be true. In this age of disinformation, with so many false prophets expounding over their alternative facts, choosing our prophets and prophecies can shape our entire reality. Choosing our prophets and prophecies can determine who we see as friend and who we see as foe. Choosing our prophets and prophecies can even determine how we respond to the threat of a global pandemic. Choosing our prophets and prophecies can be a matter of life and death.
This is nothing new, Friends. Our Judaeo-Christian tradition is shaped in large part by the messages of the First Testament prophets, beginning with Abraham nearly 4000 years ago. And for the past 4000 years prophets have over and over again faced the same resistance in the hearts of humankind. There are just some things we don’t want to hear, ever.
In the case of Herod, he did not want to hear who he was allowed to marry and who he was not. When John the Baptist publicly criticized his choice to set aside his first wife, daughter of the King of Arabia, and take instead the wife of his brother, Herod threw John into prison. The King of Arabia did not take too kindly to the disgrace of his daughter; he declared war and decimated Herod’s army. From then on, the Hebrew people blamed the defeat on Herod’s indiscretion and his disregard of the prophet’s words of warning.
The scriptures tell us that 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.” Herod’s protection of John ended abruptly when his head was offered to fulfill a silly promise but Herod’s guilty suspicions would not be so easily silenced.
When stories of Jesus began to spread throughout the land, Herod was convinced by his own paranoia that John’s spirit was working through Jesus to foment unrest among the Hebrew people. If Jesus really was the messiah, Herod’s days were numbered. The people were flocking to see and hear Jesus as stories spread far and wide. A woman touched Jesus’s garment and was instantly healed. The daughter of the priest was mourned as dead and Jesus took her hand and brought her back to the land of the living. Then Herod heard what may be the most frightening news of all. Jesus had given his disciples the power to heal the sick and they were traveling far and wide to bring the message of hope and healing (Mark 6).
Herod struggles to answer the question of who is Jesus that he can empower others with the ability to heal. Is he the fulfillment of the prophecy that the prophet Elijah would return? Is he under the influence of John the Baptist, also considered a beloved prophet? No one has the answer, but in their attempt to define who and what Jesus is, they fail to be able to really see what Jesus represents.
It is human tendency to attempt to sort people into categories. This is how we maintain the illusion of order in our world, I suspect. We do the same thing with the big issues of our times, things like immigration regulation, racial equality, policing reform, gun laws, access to abortion, and climate change. This is nothing new, either.
There are two commentaries I regularly consult in my research for the sermons. One was written in the early 50s and the other series was published in the 90s. The New Interpreter’s Bible, written in the 50s, offers the following statement about our tendency to sort and label and categorize and the myopia that can result from such practices: “In minds that work like sorting machines, everything that looks even faintly liberal is tossed into the large pigeonhole labeled “Communist.” Every untraditional expression of the American heritage of democracy goes speedily into the box labeled “radical.” The beauty of it is the economy of mental operation. The curse of it is that one never really sees anything as it is.”
Through his fear and insecurity and guilt, Herod could not see Jesus for who he really was. The question for us, then, is, “Can we?” Can we see that Jesus offers liberation from whatever is separating us from the love that is God? Do we dare to trust in a prophet that instructs us to love one another as God has loved us (John 13:34)? Can we accept a prophet’s teaching to not only love those who love us, but to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5: 43-48); can we be so gracious? Can we learn from this prophet how to forgive others and how to ask for forgiveness for ourselves (Matthew 6:14) so that we truly are free? Believing in such a prophet would surely turn the world upside down. Friends, I think that was Jesus’s intent.
In closing, I pray that as followers of Christ we put forth the extra effort required to see people for who they are, not who we think they are. I pray we put forth the extra effort to discern the truth from among the partisan newspeak. I pray that we look to the prophets and prophecies that promote healing, forgiveness, goodness, kindness, love and compassion. So be it. Amen.
Gracious God, source of balance, draw us in by your Spirit of peace, your Spirit of love and your unconditional acceptance. For when we feel accepted, loved, and at peace, our fullness can overflow into the lives of others and we can function as your body, hands that can spread your goodness through a hand-written note, or a gift of money or goods for a charity. In our fullness, our words are not self-serving and self-aggrandizing, in our fullness, our words become messages of encouragement and edification as you speak through us. In our fullness, our minds can think beyond ourselves and offer mental energy to the plethora of issues that plague our larger world family. Help us, Lord, to care for ourselves in healthy ways that fill us, whatever those ways may be. We thank you for the gift of our bodies, our minds, and our spirits. In ways we are suffering, guide us to access strength greater than our own. When we sense distance from you, remind us that you are only a prayer away, as Jesus reminds us with this, the Lord’s prayer…Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I leave you with these words from Second Thessalonians, chapter 3: “May the Lord of Peace himself give you everlasting peace in every place.”