“The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (Psalm 24:1). Really? Since when? That sounds like pious claptrap. It seems pretty obvious to me that the earth belongs to the Herods, the IMF, the Israeli governments and the multinationals of this world, rather than to God! These are the people who get to play God with the lives of others.
The earth is not God’s!
It’s the ordinary people – and particularly the little people – who get sacrificed at the whims of these powerbrokers. And of course, what is often of paramount importance is that these people do not, under any circumstances, lose face! So better to go to war with Iraq than admit that intelligence about WMD is faulty. Better to try and justify Israel’s bombing the hell out of Gaza in a turkey shoot as part of the “war on terror” than totally unwarranted and disproportionate violence against an innocent civilian population. Better to give Herodias the head of a godly man on a plate than to have to back down from a drunken, stupid promise made in public.
I first looked at these texts for preaching during 2006 – a week when the Windermere Centre was full of Palestinian children from the West Bank towns. These are children who lived their lives as virtual prisoners, walled into their villages. They are children who literally spent half their young lives waiting at Israeli checkpoints. Most of them had lost a parent in the Intafada. They were traumatised and angry. Some of them were hungry, because food was scarce. All of them were refused travel permits at the last minute by the Israeli Intelligence Services – simply in order to harass, bully and intimidate them. As a result, they had to fly out of Jordan – but that meant that each ticket as cost $200 more (and $200 was worth a lot more in 2006 than it is today). And in the West Bank, where security-induced poverty and hunger is the daily reality, $200 will feed a family for two weeks. What I found most unforgivable, though, is that the light of childhood had been stolen from the eyes of these kids.
This means that the promises of the Kingdom hover on the edge of sounding like utopian pipe-dreams and dangerous fantasies that sap attention and energy from the struggle for a world in which peace and justice kiss. We can campaign and march, yet poverty is still a present reality rather than history. We can preach and protest, but the constant news is of John’s murder rather than Herod’s fall from power. Yet our texts this week make the audacious promise that it is God who will have the Last Word, and that this is a Word of Life and resurrection.
Jesus – the eschatological prophet of the Kingdom
Into the discipleship narrative whose second phase has just begun, Mark (apparently curiously) interjects the story of John the Baptist’s beheading. Yet Mark is quite deliberately structuring his story to focus on the opposition that Jesus’ mission provokes.
Note how Mark emphasises that the mission is Jesus’, not the apostles’ (v14). The apostles minister in Jesus’ name and power, and that fact is recognised. There is no confusion here: the apostles’ authority is a derived authority. It is Jesus who is recognised. We might ask questions about our own ministry and mission: does it make Jesus, the Church or ourselves most recognisable?
The recognition of Jesus provokes the question, “Who is this man?” His uniqueness is evident in the fact that people reach for the range of explanatory categories available (but which are inadequate): John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets (significantly one of the prophets of old – ie one of the prophets alive and ministering when Yahweh was doing something new and enormously significant). In other words, it is clear to the people that Jesus is no ordinary man of God. Mark is telling us something here about Jesus’ uniqueness: Jesus is like nothing that has gone before. What God is doing through Jesus is of a different order of magnitude and significance. These are eschatological categories – especially Elijah and a resurrected John the Baptist. Jesus’ mission, in other words, has to do with the end times – the consummation of God’s actions and promises. Jesus will have the disciples repeat the speculation in 8: 27ff, a conversation that provokes Peter’s declaration, “You are the Messiah!” (8:29) Here, though, the speculation that Jesus might be the resurrected John is the jumping off point for Mark to recount John’s murder.
The clash of the kingdoms
The important point to note here is the sense in which John’s fate prefigures Jesus’. John, like Jesus, is a “prophet without honour”. Like Jesus, John dies as an innocent man – a man whose sole crime has been to proclaim a truth about kingdoms and power and God that is unacceptably uncomfortable to the powerful. Like Jesus, John is a victim of injustice, and ostensibly of a ruler who knows what ought to be done and wants to do right but is ultimately too weak to do so.
Mark presents Herod as a weak, vain man. He is in hock to his wife’s whims. She is the power behind the throne. He fears his wife, but also fears John (v20). Like any weak man, Herod is aware of the sniggers behind his back, and the contempt in which he is held. He knows that he is tolerated and feted because of his position, but that he is neither respected nor loved. And so, more than anything else, he cannot afford to lose face. Thus, when his drunken, thoughtless promise to Herodias’ daughter blows up in his face, he cannot save John. However much he may fear John as godly and righteous, he fears ridicule more. He has John murdered – and spends the rest of his rule in terror that the dead John has returned to haunt him!
Mark is concerned here to show how casually people die at the hands of those in power. Life and death decisions are made on a whim, rather than for any remotely justifiable reason of state. Look how cavalierly Herod treats his kingdom – he promises up to half of it because of a salacious dance! If the tradition of the Dance of the Seven Veils is remotely close to reality, Mark presents us with a king who certainly doesn’t think with his brain!
Note, too, the inappropriateness of his promise: this is an oath that he solemnly swears. Mark’s point is that Herod chooses to swear about the wrong things! Solemn oaths – binding oaths – belong to the realm of state and faith. The whole picture is of a shallow, corrupt court.
The point, though, is that this is a picture of “the kingdoms”. Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God is not proclaimed in a vacuum. It is a contrast to this one! Mark uses Herod’s court to symbolise all kingdoms that are not God’s. We see with absolute clarity just why it is that Jesus’ message will provoke opposition. Jesus is not preaching reformation and repair – tinkering with bits and pieces of Herod’s kingdom. The Kingdom of God cannot be mapped on to Herod’s kingdom. The Kingdom of God is a kingdom where justice and peace kiss. It is a kingdom built on compassion, where the least is first so that there can be no possibility of people being used as instruments or cannon fodder or as a means to some (alleged) “greater good”. In a climate where we are told that “security” justifies killing and making war on the people – however trapped and helpless – we are confronted with Jesus who is murdered for “reasons of state security”.
The death of the Baptist: murder as political farce
While Mark uses farce and satire (this is not the historical reason for John’s death at the hand of Herod), he does so to make a sobering point. For all its corruption, sleaze and weakness, this is the seat of power. Herod is a man with the power of life and death. The realm of the political is one of the strongholds of the Strong Man in Mark. Mark’s gripe here is not with the weakness of Herod’s power, but its strength and success! Herod has power to kill John, as Pilate will to have Jesus. They represent serious, effective and deadly opposition to the Kingdom of God. Mark is engaged here in political farce and caricature, but the power that Herod represents is not cartoon violence! It is the same evil and deadly opposition that will be unleashed against Jesus – because Jesus’ message is heard by Herod as a threat to his kingdom! Never make the mistake of underestimating just how radically political Jesus’ message is. Those who think it is simply about private, inner spirituality that does not touch on the political, social and economic just don’t “get it”! As Desmond Tutu said, “I am puzzled about which bible people are reading when they say that politics and religion do not mix!” He’s right. If you don’t believe me, just ask Herod – or the Palestinians and Israelis!
The challenge of a different kingdom (2 Samuel 6: 1-5; 12b-19)
In this week’s reading from 2 Samuel, the ark comes to Jerusalem. This is an intensely politically loaded story. Within the David cycle, the elements of the Davidic covenant are falling into place: the Davidic monarchy, Jerusalem and the (prefigured) temple, with Yahweh’s enduring presence. Interestingly, the Lectionary bottles out of including one of the most disturbing passages in the Old Testament: the death of poor Uzzah, who reaches out his hand to steady the ark as it sways and threatens to topple from the cart, and invokes Yahweh’s anger and a death sentence for doing so! David’s anger mirrors our own. Yahweh here behaves more like the drunken Herod than the God whose Kingdom Jesus proclaims. Put it this way: I don’t fancy that sort of God in charge of the world, thank you very much! And neither does David, particularly – because he is quite sensibly reluctant to have the ark too close and “entrusts” this rather poisoned chalice into the care of Obed-edom the Gittite (who fortunately thrives as a result!).
Despite this chilling and disturbing narrative, the main point of the story is that the ark (and Yahweh) arrives eventually in Jerusalem. This is a story about God’s Kingdom. The Davidic kingdom prefigures and represents the Kingdom of God that Jesus will proclaim. For all its traditional trappings of power, empire, politics and military might, David’s kingdom is supposed to be different. He has been made king instead of Saul. Yahweh “repents” that Saul was ever made king, because Saul’s kingdom is not what Yahweh intends it to be. David represents a new start. And, as I have remarked before, Yahweh’s intentions are seen in what it is supposed to be and starts out being, and in the contrast between that and what went before it or what it becomes.
I want to pick up on just one verse that illuminates the difference between Saul’s (“earthly”) kingdom and David’s (Yahweh’s) kingdom. In verse 16, Michal, David’s wife and Saul’s daughter, sees David “leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart”. A curious verse, yet immensely significant. What Michal sees is David dancing in a naked frenzy in the street (cf v20). She’s right – it is vulgar, shameful and embarrassing. Yet David’s response in the ensuing domestic is to state clearly: “It was before the Lord, who chose me in place of your father …” (v 21). Michal represents royalty. She knows how power works. She knows how it “ought to be done”. Kings don’t behave like that! Yet David does – because of his love for Yahweh! Here is a king who will not cling to the trappings of power. What a contrast between David and Herod! Herod clings to his dignity, but David is naked before God – naked and unashamed (now where have we heard that phrase before?)!
David does not behave like a “normal” king because his is not supposed to be a “normal” kingdom! Although he is the king, he reigns as Yahweh’s regent (note that he tells Michal he is to be a prince over Israel, “the people of the Lord” in v 21). Yahweh is king. And Israel is the people of Yahweh, not David’s people. David symbolises his joyful submission to Yahweh in his apparent abasement and refusal of royal robes. And Michal, who represents Saul’s kingdom and cannot understand it, can only despise him.
“Herod will not always have the last word!” (Ephesians 1: 3-14/Psalm 24)
For all the assertion of the difference between God’s Kingdom and “the principalities and powers that govern this world” (to use Paul’s phrase), reality faces us with the very real possibility that all the talk about the Kingdom is so much “pie in the sky”. Just as David’s kingdom will prove little different from any of its surrounding neighbours, so the promise of a significantly different world appears equally elusive. Where is the real challenge to Herod’s authority – or, more importantly, where is the power that can defeat Herod?
Paul is clear: we see it in Jesus. There are two promises in his opening verses to the Ephesians that are here to keep people going in times of persecution and in the face of apparent hopelessness. The first is that we are God’s children (v5) and therefore in God’s care. This is not just a piece of theology, fashioned in a vacuum. Paul is saying to people whose experience is that they are godforsaken and abandoned, “No, you’re not! You are God’s beloved children. God is with you. And God has not finished with you yet!” The notion of God “not having finished with us yet” is a counter to any sense that God might have grown careless about the children. Yes, we may well be God’s children, but what if God is the kind of parent who forgets to look out for the welfare of the children? What then? No, says Paul, God isn’t like that. God is at work, making us like Jesus. And remember: Jesus went through similar things. This is the fate of messiahs in this world. We are called to share in Jesus’ mission – and it may well be that we end up sharing Jesus’ fate. Sharing in Jesus’ fate, however, is evidence for Paul that we will share in his inheritance (v11). To be God’s children is to be cared for by God – even in the worst of circumstances.
Secondly, Paul reminds his readers that Jesus is the consummation of world history (v10). God has not abandoned this world to the Herods and the leaders of empire! It is “abandoned” to Jesus! The kingdom that Jesus proclaims will be the Last Word. Justice and peace will kiss – in the very places where, at present, there is only intractable death and despair.
And how is that different from wish-fulfilment and hopeless, rose-coloured dreaming or obscene optimism? Because God raised Jesus from the dead! There are 3 ways in which we see God’s power within the biblical narratives. The first is the power of creation. Yahweh creates out of nothing. The second is in the Exodus – the liberation of the slaves from Egypt. Yahweh’s power is to be seen in Pharaoh’s inability to prevent Yahweh’s liberation. This has its counterpart in the narrative of Yahweh’s care of Israel and Judah. It is the power celebrated in Psalm 24 – a psalm recited as the pilgrims entered the Temple. Verses 1 and 2 remind the faithful of Yahweh’s creative power. But Yahweh is celebrated as “the king of glory” – the Lord, strong and mighty in battle (vv 7-10). This is Yahweh enthroned – Yahweh, Lord of hosts.
But there is a third instance of God’s power, which is seen in the story of Jesus and supremely in the Passion narratives. This is the unthinkable God – the God who will voluntarily relinquish power and become subject to human will and human judgement. This is the God who will not crush sin, but be crushed by it – in order to effect a salvation that is greater even than the Exodus! This is what makes resurrection possible – resurrection, which is nothing less than re-creation. This is a power against which even death is powerless.
Yes, Herod has power. It is the power of gunships and heavy armour. It is remarkably efficient and effective at death-dealing. Herod will resist God’s kingdom. Herod will kill John and Jesus and all who challenge his power. Yet there is a power that cannot only challenge, but defeat Herod’s power: the power of resurrection. At the end of the day Herod can kill – but God raises people from the dead! Herod knows that – and fears Jesus as John brought back to life! Herod knows, even as he has John killed, that his power is only short-lived. There is an ultimate power that he cannot stand against. It is the power of Life; of Resurrection! May it be let loose soon!