Ok, heads up everyone – I have a question for you: When is a piece of wood like a king? When it is a ruler! Forgive me for that horrible joke. But after that reading, I thought we needed some levity! Did you notice that we’ve got a theme of royalty running through some of our readings today?
We start with an extremely joyous King David, leaping and ‘dancing before the Lord with all of his might’ as he escorts the ark of God into Jerusalem.
It’s a wild parade with music and dancing and much joy as the presence of this ark will make Jerusalem not only the political capital of the area but also the religious capital. God himself has come to Jerusalem. David’s wife is quite put out by the spectacle he is making of himself. But David is a king with a heart for God. After he prays, he blesses the people in the name of the Lord of hosts, and generously distributes meat, bread and raisins among the whole of Israel. Yum! As King David rejoices in the Lord, he feeds the hungry.
Psalm 24 praises the coming of the King of glory who blesses and rewards the people. This powerful Lord has made the earth and all that is in it, he founded the seas and the rivers of the deep. We are to lift up our heads, holding them high as we praise the King of hosts, the King of glory!
After all this joyous talk of kings, I need to pause before I approach King Herod. Let’s put this reading in perspective. Remember this is the gospel of Mark; Mark who is known for being abrupt and to the point, leaving out all extraneous details. Not in this story. This is the only story in Mark that doesn’t have Jesus at its center. This is the only story in the bible that is also told contemporaneously in secular writing, this time by Josephus, a Jewish historian of the time. Why, oh why, do we need this graphic story?
Our gospel reading is sandwiched by two very different stories about Jesus. Just before this, Jesus is sending out his followers to love and heal and preach his message. Just after this, Jesus and his followers find themselves preaching to a huge, hungry crowd of 5000 men. Jesus, our king, miraculously turns five loaves of bread and two fish into enough food to feed everyone so generously that they have leftovers!
Let’s take a hard look at this story about King Herod to understand why Mark needed to tell it here. First, Herod Antipas is the son of Herod the Great who tried to get baby Jesus killed. This Herod has imprisoned John the Baptist for condemning his marriage to Herodias, the divorced wife of his half brother Herod Philip. This marriage was against Mosaic Law and John wasn’t afraid to point that out. Herodias wants John killed to shut him up but Herod is afraid to do so, both because he is very popular and well known but also because Herod is quite fascinated by John, and afraid of his power. Herod is not a king like David with a heart for God. Quite the contrary.
King Herod has been hearing about Jesus and his followers and he wants to know just who this guy is. Some think that Jesus is a prophet, maybe even Elijah. Others think that maybe Jesus is John the Baptist, risen from the dead and full of his power. This is what Herod fears the most. Herod thinks back to the day when he ordered John killed.
He is having a birthday party for himself, an elaborate feast for the nobles, the high officers and the chief men of Galilee. All the big wigs are there, and I’m sure none of the poor were invited. After the feast, Herod’s daughter, Herodias dances. (If you thought her name was Salome, you would be right. That’s just not from the bible. It’s from the writing of Josephus.) It must have been an impressive dance, or maybe Herod is drunk because he is so pleased, he offers the girl whatever she wants, even half of his kingdom! She doesn’t know what to do so she runs outside and asks her mom for advice. Herodias, the mom, sees her chance to finally get John the Baptist silenced for good. Immediately, the silly girl runs in and demands John’s head on a platter. YUCK!
King Herod is not a strong man. He is not a king with a heart for God. He is a small man, who doesn’t want to appear weak before his company, so he orders his soldiers to carry out this request. Shortly thereafter, they return with John’s head on a platter. The girl gives it to her mother and John’s followers take his body and bury it.
John the Baptist was a prophet who spoke truth to power when he condemned Herod’s unlawful marriage. Herod was an arrogant king. Doesn’t this foreshadow what happens when Jesus speaks truth to power and is killed for it? Both John and Jesus were innocent of any crime, but the rulers of their day had them killed. Both of them were held in prison before their deaths. Herod was easily manipulated by Herodias and Pilate was manipulated by the chief priests. Herod didn’t want to kill John, Pilate didn’t want to kill Jesus but both of them were spineless and bowed to political pressure. These are rulers who are far from God.
Herod’s horrible banquet is immediately followed by the banquet where Jesus makes sure everyone is fed. Mark must want us to see the very stark
differences between these two scenes. Jesus is about the kingdom of God where all the hungry are fed. Herod is about his empire. The empire has replaced God for Herod.
The Rev. Amy Richter writes: “Right after Herod’s horrible feast, Jesus throws a dinner party. It’s the Feeding of the Five Thousand, and it’s completely different from Herod’s feast. There’s no guarded palace, just a beautiful open field where all are welcome. There’s no head table; everyone is a guest of honor. There’s no boasting, just thanksgiving. There’s no pompous vow-making and self-aggrandizement, just simple food, blessed, broken, and shared, and enough for all. No horrible silver platter of death, just twelve baskets full to the brimming with abundant life-giving bread and fish.” So, I ask you today, at which banquet would you rather dine?
We live in a secular world, a world of empire, a world that can seem far from the kingdom of God. It is up to each of us to make our own lives and our own homes places ruled by God. Leaders come and go but God remains. The kingdom of God is greater than any leader. When Bishop Curry was here, he reminded us that it is God who holds the whole world, and each of us, in his loving hands.
Our last hymn today is my favorite: Rejoice, the Lord is King. I love it because of the noisy drums but today I love it because we need to remember that it is our Lord who is king. Not the government, not Trump, our king is the Lord. So please, lift up your heart, lift up your voice; rejoice, again I say, rejoice! Amen.