July 15, 2018, Being Risk Takers – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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I find the story of John’s beheading one of the saddest stories in the New Testament. It is also one of the most dramatic, full of hatred and sex and wild partying and revenge. The one thing you might not have picked up in reading Mark’s account of this tragic story, though, is that it portrays Herod as what you might call a believer.
As the story begins word is spreading like wildfire about the exploits of Jesus’ twelve disciples. He had sent them out in Mark chapter 5, equipped with nothing but his authority and a walking stick. They went from town to town, calling people to turn their hearts to God, casting out demons, and healing the sick. Everybody was talking about it. And word reached the palace of King Herod.
We think of Herod as an evil king, and he was. We know from historical records that he was an arrogant and cruel and violent man. But when he heard the rumors of the miraculous works of Jesus’ disciples, he didn’t do what you’d expect from an evil king. He didn’t send soldiers out to stop people spreading the rumors, he didn’t grind his teeth and refuse to listen to them, he didn’t deny that all the wonders people were talking about were true. Not at all; when he heard of these miraculous works, first of all, he believed that they were real. And second, he understood at once that the power behind these works came from God. And his first thought was that John the Baptist, the man he had murdered, had been raised from the dead, and had come back to haunt him.
Because Herod was most certainly a believer. King Herod knew, he truly believed, that John was a man sent from God, that he was a holy and righteous man. Mark tells us that Herod had even tried to protect John. And there was something in Herod, wicked ruler that he was, there was something in him that loved the righteousness in John; Mark says that when John spoke, Herod “heard him gladly”.
Herod eagerly listened to the teachings of John – even though John’s preaching tended to be very confrontational – even very personally confrontational when it came to Herod’s choice of a wife – that’s why she hated him so much. But King Herod believed that John was a man of God, holy and righteous. Herod had knowledge, he had some real understanding, he had something in his heart that was drawn to the holiness and righteousness he saw in John. He was a believer. But the story reveals that he was not a man of faith. And there is a difference.
Because throughout the gospels, over and over again, faith is revealed in action. Living faith is not found in the theology we learn or the Bible verses we memorize (though those are good things). Faith isn’t revealed in the rules we follow. Faith is revealed in our moments of choice, in the risks we take. We read about a woman of great faith a couple of weeks ago, the woman who had been suffering from a flow of blood for twelve years. She defied the law that required her to keep away from everyone in her uncleanness. She defied the traditions that expected women to be quiet and submissive. She risked being trampled to death by the crowds who were swarming around Jesus. She risked everything to reach out and take hold of his garment. That was faith. And she was healed.
And there is the story we all know about Peter, who was out on the sea in the middle of the night and saw Jesus walking across the water on the waves. He was terrified along with all the others, thinking that they were seeing some kind of a ghost. But then he stepped out, literally, in faith. He risked being drowned in the waves or battered against the side of the boat. At the very least, he risked looking like a complete fool. Eyes on Jesus, he got out of the boat. That was faith. For a moment, he walked on the water.
And in the story of Herod and John the Baptist, Herod faced a moment of choice. He sat in his banquet hall, a little drunk with wine and food and the beauty of this dancing girl and the glory of his own power and wealth, and all of a sudden he had to choose between all of those things – and the life of John. And instead of faith, what was revealed in Herod was fear. He still believed, but he was afraid. He was afraid to admit that he, the great king, had spoken rashly. He was afraid to look like a fool in front of all his guests. He was afraid, I am sure, to appear weak in the eyes of his cunning, ruthless wife. It was a choice between faith and fear. And fear won. And Herod immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head.
And Mark tells us that Herod was exceedingly sorry. Sadness seems like kind of a weak emotion for a person who has just condemned a holy, righteous man to death. But this is a sad story. It’s sad for John’s grieving disciples, who come to carry away his headless body. It’s sad for John, who is so unjustly and brutally murdered. But it is probably saddest of all for Herod, because despite all that he knew and understood, in the moment of choice he gave in to his fears. Herod’s sadness reminds me of the rich young ruler who came to Jesus wanting to know the way to heaven. He already understood how to live righteously, following the commandments. He was truly a good person. But then Jesus gave him one thing more to do. He told him to go and sell all that he had, and to come and follow him. And the young man couldn’t bring himself to risk letting go of his wealth He couldn’t do it, and he went away sad, Matthew tells us, because his possessions were very great. It is in those moments of risk, of choice, that faith is revealed – or fear. And fear is a very sad thing to live with.
In the Disney movie Aladdin, there is a scene where Aladdin and Princess Jasmine are escaping from the evil Grand Vizier, Jaffar, and his goons. I haven’t seen the movie for years, but as I remember it, Aladdin and Jasmine are on the roof of the palace, and Aladdin leaps to safety onto a friendly magic carpet. Jasmine is left standing on the edge of the palace roof. Aladdin reaches out his hand to her, and in his classic line he says, “Do you trust me?” Obviously, that’s a cartoon, and not a great source of theological insight. But it is a pretty useful picture of the moments that reveal our faith, those moments when we have to make a choice, when we have to risk anything from looking like a fool to losing everything we care about. And in those moments God’s question to us is, “Do you trust me?”
The great good news is that faith is not a one-time, win-or-lose proposition, like the final answer on Jeopardy. Jesus told us that faith is like a seed, a tiny seed that grows. Those moments of choice, all through our lives, are like the growth of a plant. First the sprout has to burst the hard shell of the seed, and then the little roots spread downwards, and then the first seed leaves break up out of the soil, and then the plants begins to reach up and out. One moment at a time, one risk at a time, one act of trust at a time, our faith grows. We don’t always make the right choice. Sometimes we choose fear; sometimes the risk feels too great. But God never stops reaching out his hand.
One of the most encouraging things about the New Testament is that it shows us how faith grew and blossomed in the lives of the disciples through the stories of the gospels and on into the history of the early Church. It’s not a smooth and steady process, far from it. They all started out pretty fearful. Peter had his first flash of faith walking on the water, but then it dissolved quickly and wetly into fear, and he almost drowned. Later on, he stepped out brilliantly in faith when he understood a vision God gave him on the rooftop about clean and unclean animals. On that occasion, he courageously defied law and tradition, he risked being condemned by his fellow Jews, and he went in faith to the home of the gentile Cornelius. But then he floundered all over again when some teachers from a really legalistic faction of the Church convinced him that gentiles could only belong to the Church if they became Jews first. Big splash, down he went again. He wouldn’t even eat with his gentile brothers and sisters until Paul came to set him straight. But we know that in the end Peter was a faithful servant to the Church and that he died as a martyr, willingly giving up his life for Christ. Faith had the victory, not fear.
But faith isn’t something good Christians sign like a contract, or wear like a badge, or commit to memory. It isn’t just something we know, or believe, or even understand. Faith is revealed in our choices and it grows us by moments, forwards and then maybe a little backwards, up and down. And every choice in our lives is an opportunity to trust God – because he is always bigger than the thing we are afraid of.