July 15th, 2012 “A Terrible Wonderful Faith” Rev. Heather Jepsen
2 Samuel 6 and Mark 6:14-29
Boy, what a lot of mess and drama we find in our readings this week. After last Sunday’s quiet discussion of service and the role of the deacon, this week’s readings seem to come out of left field. From the sudden death of Uzzah, to the revealing dance moves of king David, to the gruesome scene of John the Baptist’s head on a platter this Sunday’s readings are quite shocking. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone argued that subjects like we find in this week’s lectionary readings aren’t appropriate to discuss in church.
We will start with the Old Testament reading. David is ready to consolidate power in Jerusalem, the city of David, and an important part of that ceremony is bringing in the ark. The ark is placed on a cart, proper attire and ceremony are followed, and before long it’s on its way. That is of course until it crosses a threshing floor. The oxen stumble, the ark rattles and begins to fall, and like any caring Israelite, Uzzah automatically reaches out his hand to steady the ark.
Zap! He is dead on the spot. Talk about a party pooper. Everyone is in shock and David is angry and afraid. He’s not so sure he wants this ark around after all if accidents like that can happen. So David changes his mind about the ark. He leaves it in the home of a foreigner, Obed-edom the Gittite and heads back to Jerusalem without the great presence of God. For three months David takes a break and considers just how close he wants to be to God.
Of course, where God is there is blessing, and it doesn’t take long for the house of Obed-edom to show it. “Wait a minute,” David thinks, “that blessing should be mine!” So the ark is once again on the move. This time David rejoices with great abandon, dancing about in a linen ephod with such exuberance that he inadvertently flashes folks. Well, that won’t go over well with the wife back home.
David’s wife Michal is none too pleased with any of this. She is the daughter of Saul so perhaps she harbors a grudge against David for taking the place that once belonged to her father. Perhaps she is jealous of the way David is able to rejoice so freely before God. Perhaps she is simply embarrassed to be married to someone who has flashed most of the city. Either way, after the ceremony the two get into a fight. And it is a fight that appears unresolved as we are told Michal and David never had a child together.
As if that wasn’t enough drama and scandal for one Sunday, our reading is paired with an equally scandalous reading from Mark. Mark is writing about folks wondering who Jesus is, perhaps Elijah or John the Baptist back from the dead, when he seems to remember that he has yet to tell us how John the Baptist died. Mark then goes into a very detailed account of the death of John the Baptist. For the shortest gospel, Mark provides the longest account of the death of John the Baptist. His is a story clearly honed over many retellings around the camp fire.
According to Mark, Herod is the one who finally arrested John the prophet and troublemaker. The story gets messy right away when we find out that Herod had married his brother’s wife Herodias. The historian Josephus tells us that Herod began the affair when visiting his brother’s house. John of course speaks out against such a union. Herod may not be a practicing Jew but he is a Jew nonetheless and though he may love Herodias, a marriage to her is not appropriate.
Herod can’t have John out and about speaking against his rule and so he has him arrested and put in prison. But Herod is drawn to John, John interests him, and Mark tells us that Herod was perplexed by John but liked to listen to him preach. I can just imagine Herod sneaking away during the days to visit with John in prison.
But this cozy arrangement won’t last long. Herodias is most definitely not enamored with John and not interested at all in his teaching. Mark tells us that she had a grudge against John and wanted him dead. Have no doubt; she will strike at the first opportunity given.
Herod throws a party for friends and officers, basically the mucky mucks of Galilee, and entertainment is provided by Herodias’ daughter, Herod’s niece and step-daughter. Mark calls her Herodias as well but she is known in other sources as Salome. Like David, Salome dances her heart out, but unlike David her goal is not the glory of God. In art and story, Salome’s dance is often sexualized, a dance of the seven veils if you will.
Herod and his guests are impressed by Salome’s beauty and talent for seduction; and in a grand show Herod offers her anything she may request. Herod clearly is thinking of gifts of wealth as he offers her half his kingdom. Salome looks to her mother for advice and now Herodias sees her moment to strike. What better gift for the daughter of Herodias then the head of John the Baptist?
Herod is now in a bind. He has the option of standing up for what he knows is right and protecting the life of one he has grown fond of. But that choice comes at a cost, namely his pride as he would have to go back on his word in front of all those at his party. The choice to save John would probably also cost him his marriage. Herod goes with what is easy, not with what is right and consents with the request. John is killed and as artists throughout the centuries have depicted Salome returns to the dinner party presenting his head on a platter. This is definitely not a bedtime story.
What is a preacher to say on these texts? What can one say about such stories of broken hearts, violence, loss, and injustice? Well, that’s life I suppose.
Both of these stories serve to remind us that the Biblical narrative is as messy as our own lives are, if not messier. Humans were created full of passion and drama. It’s always been that way. We have strong feelings about things and we live our lives in grand gestures of love as well as hate. Our lives are dramas; they are stories, sometimes with happy endings, sometimes not.
The constant throughout the Biblical narrative and in our own lives today is the presence of God. It is a presence that I think we are simultaneously drawn to and repelled by. In the story of David, we find David drawn to and pushed away from the presence of God. David wants the ark in his presence and yet he fears its power; for good reason to, as he doesn’t want to end up like poor Uzzah. David’s motives are varied. Possession of the ark is possession of power, clearly a goal of David’s. And yet the ark’s power is one that cannot be controlled, a power to be feared. Although the ark brings blessing, it also brings conflict, for its arrival in Jerusalem signals the end of David’s marriage to Michal.
Like David, Herod is drawn to and repelled by the presence of God. John the Baptist is clearly one on whom the spirit of the Lord has descended. Herod is drawn to John, his power and his preaching. Herod finds him to be an interesting companion and likes having him near, kept in the confines of his prison. And yet Herod is at times repelled by John and the message he brings. No one wants to have their sins called out in the open, and John certainly isn’t helping Herod’s marriage any. Herod is both attracted to and put off by the spirit of the Lord that is in John. This ambiguity will lead to Herod’s willingness to put John to death.
I believe that like David and Herod we are simultaneously attracted to and afraid of a relationship with God. The presence of God will bring us power and blessing, it will bring us knowledge and strength, and it will bring us comfort and peace. The presence of God will also unsettle and disturb us, it will cost us dearly, and it will put us at risk. Like David, we want to have God’s promise of blessing in our life, but we don’t really want to acknowledge how powerful and scary and absolute God can be. Like Herod, we are drawn to the words of God’s grace and truth, but we don’t really want to hear about our sins and their consequences.
Deep in our hearts we are torn when it comes to God. Just how much will those blessings cost me, we want to know. Our fears are not comforted when we read the Biblical narrative, for those who give their all to God, like John the Baptist, and Jesus the Messiah, will lose everything, including their lives.
Although they are scary, and contain inappropriate material, these stories of David and Herod do have a place in the church. They remind us of the mess and drama of every life. Though the characters are different, your own messy life is not that different from your neighbors or even from mine. We are all in this mess together. And in the middle of our mess we are both drawn to and afraid of God. Such is the nature of the journey of faith. Sometimes we draw close, sometimes we turn away, but always we are in relationship. The word of comfort in these stories is that God does not change. Though we may come and go, God is always constant: waiting, loving, looking for us. Such is the nature of grace; such is the life of faith. Thanks be to God for this terrible, wonderful journey. Amen.(This sermon is a bit of a dark place to go and so was purposely paired with the hymn "You are Mine" as a message from God to the believer in fear. The chorus reads, Do not be afraid, I am with you. I have called you each by name, Come and follow me, I will bring you home; I love you and you are mine.")