Sermon – God Lives
I often run into passages that prove in interpreting a biblical text, one should look not only at the passage itself, but also at where the passage is found, at the way the author has sewn the text into the larger context.
For example, Jesus’ parable of the one lost sheep is found in both Luke and Matthew. In Luke, the parable appears in the middle of a conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees and scribes, who are all in a snit about his ministry to sinners.
When Matthew gets hold of the story, though, Jesus isn’t arguing with the religious leaders at all. He’s teaching his disciples. In Luke, the story is a defense of Jesus’ ministry to outcasts, but in Matthew it’s a lesson on pastoral care to the “little ones.”
Friends – Context is everything. all of which makes perfectly good sense until one runs into a passage like this morning’s gospel: Mark’s story of the death of John the Baptizer.
It seems so out of place, so disjointed from its context. You see, what is going on in Mark 6 is that Jesus has just sent the Twelve out to do the work of the kingdom
to preach, to heal, and to cast out demons.
Verses 6b to 7 says that
“then he went among the villages teaching.
He called the twelve and began to send then out
two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.”
Later, in Verse 30 it says
“The apostles gathered around Jesus,
and told him all that they had done and taught”
So the disciples returned to tell Jesus stories of their ministry – deeds of wonder and experiences of grace.
But in between we get our story: the seemingly out-of-place, slightly erotic, quite gruesome account of how King Herod, after he had blown out the candles on his birthday cake, snuffed out the life of John the Baptist.
The question that raises, of course, is, “What’s a bad story like that doing in a nice place like this?”
Perhaps it’s just an interlude…a literary way of killing a little time.
When I was a boy, the church I attended would elect officers by passing around the offering plates to collect paper ballots from the members. Then a few of the officers would take the ballots to a back room and count them.
While we were waiting for them to return with the election results, the minister would lead us in the singing of a few hymns. It did not matter which hymns we sang – any would do – we were just killing a little time waiting.
So maybe Mark is doing the same thing. Maybe Mark is saying, “Well, there go the disciples to do ministry. They’ll be back after a while, so, while we’re waiting, how about a story? Ever hear the one about the day Herod beheaded John the Baptist…?”
Well – I don’t think so. Mark is not nearly so clumsy a literary artist as that. Mark knew exactly what he was doing, and, indeed, when Mark sandwiches the story of John’s death in between the sending and returning of missionaries, the two stories have everything in the world to do with each other – everything in the world.
Mark wants us to know that when the disciples go out to do the work of the kingdom, when the church rises up to be the church, then the world rises up to be the world.
So, the disciples go out to preach the gospel…well, good. But don’t forget, John the Baptist preached the kingdom, too, and the world snuffed him out. So, the disciples go out to cast out demons and to heal… well, good. But don’t forget, John the Baptist sought to heal the demons that raged in King Herod, and it cost him his life.
Mark wants us to know that when the church rises up to be the church, the world rises up to be the world.
Now all of this may sound a bit strange to us, because this is not our experience.
When we do the work of the church, the world rises up to call us blessed.
When we preach the gospel, the world invites us to join the Kiwanis and the Rotary. When we reach out to heal, the world puts us on the hospital board.
All of this Mark would understand, I think.
According to Mark, at first Herod did not want to harm John, he just wanted to domesticate him. Herod was perplexed by John, but as long as he could keep him in chains, Herod heard John gladly. But when push came to shove, Herod was just as sorry as he could be, but John had to go.
When the church rises up to be the church, the world rises up to be the world.
Listen to these words from a sermon, a sermon like the one that many of us could have heard in our church any given Sunday:
“In the gospel of Christ…one must not love oneself so
much as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life
that history demands of us…The experiences of a new
earth must not weaken but rather stimulate our
concern for this earth…May we give ourselves like
Christ, not for self, but to give justice and peace to our people.”
Pretty innocuous, right?
It’s just a sermon; just the church going about its business of being the church, right? The only thing is, I left out part of it. The part I left out is that right after the preacher said, “May we give ourselves like Christ, not for self, but to give justice and peace to our people,” — A shot rang out in the sanctuary and the preacher,
Archbishop Romero of El Salvador, was dead.
Mark wants us to know: when the church rises up to be the church, the world rises up to be the world.
But Mark wants us to know something else as well. If Mark wants us to learn the hard truth that when the church rises up to be the church, the world rises up to be the world, he also wants us to know that, when the world rises up to be the world,
Jesus Christ rises from the dead.
In fact, Mark tells us that, when Herod found out about the church being the church, he slapped his forehead and exclaimed something like, “I thought I had that nailed down, but Somebody’s been raised from the dead!”
Mark wants us to know that you cannot nail down Jesus. When the world is being the world, Jesus Christ is being Lord. As Luther put it in the great hymn:
“the body they may kill/God’s truth abideth still/ his kingdom is forever…”
So friends go out this day to be the church. Don’t take two coats, a bag of money, an insurance policy, or anything else you think may protect you as you do God’s work in the world. Nothing can spare you from the evil intent of the Herods of this world.
So take only the gospel and your confident faith that, when all is said and done, all the Herods in the world will say, “Somebody has been raised from the dead.
The power we thought was nailed down is loose again in the world.”
In 1998 at Knox College, I spoke with one of the church leaders who was resisting oppression in North Korea. He had recently been released from a Korean prison
where he had served a lengthy term as a political prisoner. What was his crime?
Preaching and teaching the kingdom of God. He told me that the conditions in the prison were so grim that he began to lose hope. Day after day, he found his faith ebbing away.
He stopped studying the Bible, he stopped praying, and he stopped hoping and believing.
Every few weeks, the government would march him back into a courtroom to give him the opportunity to renounce his political and theological views.
Finally, after months of deprivation, he had decided to give in – to recant.
When they brought him into court, he was surprised to see his wife and several members of his church sitting in the gallery. He had not seen her for months, and the tears welled up in his eyes.
The judge told him to stand up and called on him to renounce his “traitorous” views. He stood wearily, ready to recant, when suddenly he heard his wife and his Christian friends saying with one voice, “God is alive! God is alive!”
It was all they were able to say, for quickly they were removed from the court. But it was enough. He sat down without betraying his faith, renewed in his confidence that God is, indeed, alive.
When the church rises up to be the church, be assured that the world rises up to be the world. But when the world rises up to be the world, Jesus Christ is risen from the dead…and God is alive! God is alive!