“Preparing the Way.”
Mark 6:14-29, July 11th, 2021
Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard
Read Statement of Faith
“Hear now this accounting from the gospel according to Mark, chapter six, verses fourteen thru twenty-six.”
14 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ 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.”
15 But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.”
16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
17 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.
18 For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”
19 And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20 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.
21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee.
22 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.”
23 And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.”
24 She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.”
25 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.”
26 The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her.
27 Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison.
29 When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
“Having heard this scripture which describes the death of John the Baptist, let us consider how this reflects on our actions in the Twenty-First Century.”
“Preparing the Way.”
Our morning scripture lesson is difficult to read and to hear. When I first chose it from our lectionary-based guide, which helps pastors like me choose a passage for Sunday worship, I had cut out the difficult sentences. Yet, this week as I got involved in putting together our reflection to help us contemplate the meaning of this passage, I realized that ignoring the atrocity which the writing speaks of – does not ease its burden! When beheadings by terrorists in our modern times shocked the nation and the world, we were naïve ‘perhaps’ to have thought that such brutality and cruelty was new to humankind. No, the scripture we listened to as our worship leader read it, does in fact portray the harsh reality of humankind’s darker side; the nature of which has not changed over the ages. This stark reminder is something you and I need to acknowledge, even as we worship the God of Mercy, who came to us in the form of Christ Jesus, to wipe away our sinfulness – if we but repent and ask for such forgiveness.
John the Baptist, like Jesus, the man from Nazareth, had committed no crime! Yet, he was arrested in put in prison simply because the powers in play, during that time-period, felt he was causing trouble by stirring up the people! What trouble could John the Baptist have caused!? Even as the prophet Isaiah spoke of “a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The ‘very’ Spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the Spirit of Wisdom and Understanding, the Spirit of Counsel and Might, the Spirit of Knowledge and the Fear of the Lord.” /Isaiah 11:1-2/ It was the prophet Isaiah, who first foretold the coming of the Messiah. And it was John the Baptist who was “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,” just as the prophet Isaiah had proclaimed he was to be! John was sent by God to ‘prepare the way’ for the Messiah, the long-awaited Savior. “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way!” /Isaiah 40:3/ Throughout the ages, leaders of nations and of military forces, they have often sent out their scouts and messengers to see and to communicate with their adversaries, only to have their messengers and scouts unjustly executed. Oftentimes, brutally executed, to send a message back that the new way of peace and justice would not and will not be accepted!
Our lesson today speaks of John’s imprisonment and execution. But only as a backdrop to the deeper story. Old King Herod believed, since he had executed the Baptist, that it was John who had been raised-up from the grave; however, it was Jesus who was stirring up the people. John the Baptizer had only prepared the way for the work and ministry of Jesus! Still others thought it was Elijah who had been raised up. Both Elijah and John had done their work as God had called them to. The Baptizer was the one that was and is given the most credit for preparing the way for the coming of the Messiah, in many ways. We, you, and I, we know of the ministry, the teachings and all the miracles which Jesus administered during his ministry; and we understand how such has altered the thinking and the base nature of millions! Such things, which Jesus taught and the things which he did, without a doubt, stirred up the crowds. In hindsight it is easy to see how John the Baptist was preparing the crowds for the true message that Jesus was bringing. He told the people to repent as the baptism he offered to the people was meant to be a cleansing of their sins. Yet, he told them that he only used water, Jesus with baptize them with the Holy Spirit!
What is the takeaway from this lesson? What can we gleen from these words of scripture and use in our lives today? This is what we need to focus on, these points of importance, which will give us clarity for our own faith journeys today? There are three points we need to review further. One is of course the harsh reality of human suffering at the hands of others. Secondly, the need to confess our humanness as needed, asking God through Christ Jesus, to forgive our sinfulness. And most importantly to identify and clarify what it is which God still calls upon us to ‘prepare’ during our earthly, mortal, journeys. Surely, we were each given many gifts which we are called upon to use ‘to influence’ the course of events within our own circles of interactions. There are many ways we can make a difference – when we ask God to guide and direct our actions. The combination of these three points, will bring to clearer focus many aspects of our personal and corporate faith journeys. Seeing things for what they truly are – is crucial of course. Acknowledging our part in the way things are is important to do – before our efforts can be effective. Realizing that it is expected, by our Creator, that we do prepare, ourselves and others, to be a part of the future solution envisioned by God.
As we consider these ramifications, let us consider that all of us have equal rights as the children of God; and this includes our right to be wrong minded about how we treat others. Thankfully, a great many of us have grown in the ‘light’ of God’s grace. Yet, we must accept the base reality that humankind is mortal, thus we are subject to our fear of the unknown, especially our own death. Steaming from this reality – is our nature. Human nature does not seem to have shifted since ancient biblical times. Meaning that we as a species still crave power and control over others, to fill the void that our fear creates within us. It is that simple, even though everyone who hears my interpretation will want to expand on all that I have not said. So be it.
As we move through our lesson, let us be reassured that vast numbers of our neighbors, throughout the world, crave something better; and great strides have been taken to turn the tide of that harsh and oftentimes unforgiving reality of our human nature. World religions and chosen religious leaders, such as we have in Christianity and in other world religions, we seek much the same. We all are seeking to instill a level of hope for the future of the people we work with. We teach and seek to pass on things like compassion, and kindness, forgiveness through grace, and mercy, thereby giving people something to be hopeful of. The truth is we all stive for a better social system in which to live and bring up the next generations of our children and grandchildren. No matter our creed, color or race, the majority of parents, grandparents and families want a better place for those they love. None of us want the cruelty of our darker human side to overtake the good which the vast majority of humankind strive for. Yes, we express our understanding of who and in what style and within what rules we ought to live. However, our social and ethnic differences do not need to cause us to be separated by unnecessary biases and blind prejudices. If we but embrace the love that permeates from us all to draw us together on common concerns and issues, we shall be preparing for a better tomorrow!
There have been a great many great leaders throughout history who have fought for the rights of others. And there are many such leaders still at work, even within our own society. We need to focus on our understanding of God’s work being done within the day-to-day world in which we do live. We as Christians need to focus on our understanding of God’s love and our interpretations of the teachings of Christ as contained in the gospels – to help guide our efforts. Whether we are progressive and broadminded Liberals or more traditional conservatives, whether we are leaning on the sides of moderates or cautious fundamentalism, we are all still, God’s children, moving through life with the same human traits as our brothers and sisters around the world! We have vastly different approaches to similar issues throughout the world. But our methods, our tools and skills, and the technologies we use are quite different. The saying is true: we speak different languages and embrace various customs of our individual heritages, yet we all want the same things, even if we each express them differently.
The question left for us to grapple with is the same in which John the Baptist wrestled and struggled with. How do we prepare for our part of the world order in which we live? Do we allow our fears of our mortality to play a major role in how we use the gifts of our humanness? Or do we pay heed to all that the God of Love, kindness, and mercy, which Jesus portrayed, and the New Testament proclaimed for us to use, as a guide? It is quite evident that the ‘vast majority’ of humankind has the capability to be part of the positive forward movement of humanity, even though there is still a strong presence of the harsh cruel side of our ancient human nature still lurking throughout the world. The king Herod’s still thrive and live within our society and the world. Fear and hatred still influence and cause harsh aspects of our human nature to ‘too frequently’ disrupt the social order of things; here in our beloved United States of America, and throughout the world we live within. In conclusion, let us give thanks for the men and the women such as John the Baptist, who strived to prepare the way for the likes of the man Jesus, the Carpenter, from Nazareth. Let us do our best to ‘prepare the way’ for those who shall follow in our footsteps as well.