“Perplexed, Yet Intrigued”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
July 15, 2018
This is what God showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb-line, with a plumb-line in hand. And the Lord said to me, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A plumb-line.’ Then the Lord said,
‘See, I am setting a plumb-line
in the midst of my people Israel;
I will never again pass them by;
the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,
and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.’
Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, ‘Amos has conspired against you in the very centre of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said,
“Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
and Israel must go into exile
away from his land.” ’
And Amaziah said to Amos, ‘O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.’
King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some weresaying, ‘John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.’ But others said, ‘It is Elijah.’ And others said, ‘It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.’ But when Herod heard of it, he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.’
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. For John had been telling Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 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. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 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.’ And he solemnly swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.’ She went out and said to her mother, ‘What should I ask for?’ She replied, ‘The head of John the baptizer.’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.’ The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
This is kind of a grizzly story! Herod, the ruler of Galilee, had divorced his first wife and married his brother’s ex wife while his brother was still alive and well – not kosher back then – and John the Baptist has called him out on it, fulfilling the traditional prophet’s role of speaking truth to power. As commenter D. Mark Davis puts it, prophets like John the Baptist and Amos in our Hebrew Bible reading are often the only ones willing to point out that the Emperor has no clothes on – that the leaders of the land are doing something morally or religiously inappropriate. There’s a reason the chief priest tells Amos to get out of Dodge – he was telling uncomfortable, unflattering truths about the king in the very seat of power, and the land was “unable to bear his words.”
Unsurprisingly, John the Baptist’s words are similarly unsettling for Herod’s wife, who stands to lose a lot if Herod listens to him and divorces her. She wants John the Baptist dead. But interestingly, John’s condemnation doesn’t seem to anger Herod himself, even though he’s the one being condemned!
Instead, scripture says Herod was “perplexed” yet “liked to listen” to John.
Perplexed, but liked to listen to him. Perplexed, yet intrigued.
Have you ever felt that way about Jesus??
Think about some of the things Jesus says:
“Sell all your belongings and give the proceeds to the poor.”
“Blessed are those that mourn.”
“You should forgive not 7 times but 77 times.”
“Love your enemies!”
“Don’t worry about tomorrow.”
“The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.”
“If you give up your life you will save it.”
These are confusing statements, to say the least. Nobody really thinks it’s smart to sell all your belongings, or to give no thought to the bills due tomorrow. Most of us would agree that mourning and grief are states you don’t want to find yourself in, not moments of blessing. Rapper Kendrick Lamar reminds us that the conventional wisdom is not to forgive 77 times (essentially “infinity times” in ancient Palestine), but rather “you forgive, you forget, but you never let it go.” Love your enemies? Check out how we respond to ISIS or to the political party opposite our own. We’re even quick to attack and unfriend people we don’t agree with on Facebook! If it was understood that the first shall be last, no one would care about GPAs or promotions or winning sporting events. And as for giving up our lives to save them, we love our lives enough that we create stand-your-ground laws to enshrine our right to defend our own lives, even to the point of killing others.
Jesus’ sayings, which build on and echo what both John the Baptist and Amos preached, take what we’ve come to accept as the way the world works and turn it on its head. They’re definitely perplexing, to say the least!
And yet we show up here every week, and we read scripture, and we sing music and study books about this Jesus guy.
Despite how crazy or confusing or perplexing his statements are, the truth is, we, like Herod with John the Baptist, like to listen to Jesus. We’re drawn in by his topsy-turvy way of looking at things, probably because we suspect there’s something really novel, something really vital and life-giving, wrapped up in his counterintuitive perspective.
Scripture doesn’t tell us what exactly Herod heard as he listened to this perplexing, intriguing, John the Baptist character. But we do know what John was preaching, in general, out in the wilderness, and we know that his movement paved the way for and inspired Jesus’ followers.
John preached repentance, or turning around and going the other way when you’re going down the wrong path. And he preached a kind of love that was lived out in concrete action towards those around us, particularly as it relates to the extra we have and the necessities others lack.
And in Matthew and Luke, we get a taste of just how forceful John’s pronouncements could be: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon? Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives…. The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire.”
You can imagine that Herod, a wealthy, powerful ruler propped up by the Roman governor, who had already killed a bunch of potential claimants to the throne (and who would later hand Jesus over to Pilate to be crucified) would have been quite perplexed indeed by John’s admonition to give away what he didn’t actually need and to change his ways to stop harming others.
Something whispered to him that John’s words held the promise of something much deeper, much more real and honest and powerfully abundant than his current state of affairs.
Several years ago, long before I met him, Chris was at the Christian camp where he worked in New Hampshire when Shane Claiborne came to visit. Shane Claiborne is a radical evangelical Christian who combines a deep love of Jesus with a deep love of his fellow human beings, particularly his poor and oppressed fellow human beings. Shane lives out his sense of solidarity with others in an intentional community in Philadelphia, where members pool their resources and hold their doors open to anyone who needs a friend, or, in John’s words, an extra coat. They do crazy, perplexing things like take care of each others’ medical expenses by donating whenever a community member is in poor health, or inviting their impoverished neighbors in for lobster dinner, or going to Wall Street and throwing dollar bills to every passerby, particularly beggars asking for money, as a demonstration of how God really wants us to treat money. Shane himself does crazy, perplexing things like travel to Iraq in the midst of war or to Palestine in the midst of an occupation in order to be with his brothers and sisters who are suffering.
Well, listening to Shane talk about the Simple Way, his community of solidarity and sharing, Chris was intrigued. He was also a bit perplexed – how was he going to make a living if he just up and moved to Philadelphia to hang out with a bunch of communalist hippies? Or even if he went for just a week or two, how was he going to make up the money he’d miss from continuing to work at camp? He was a college student, after all, and a college degree was the way to ensure you got a decent job.
In other words, there was a lot of conventional wisdom and common sense standing in the way of Chris going to hang out with and learn from Shane and the other members of the Simple Way.
I think Herod was in the same boat. The scripture continues that Herodias, Herod’s wife, was not pleased by John meddling in her affairs – she was sitting pretty as the wife of the regional ruler, after all, and if he was calling their marriage immoral and Herod was listening, Herodias stood to lose a lot. So when their daughter pleased Herod and his buddies by entertaining them with a particularly graceful dance routine, Herod (rather thoughtlessly, in retrospect) promised her whatever she wanted and Herodias told her daughter to ask for John the Baptist’s head. I bet as soon as his daughter rushed back into the royal chamber and relayed Herodias’ request, Herod wished he had never opened his mouth, because in those days your reputation, your honor, and even your standing as a ruler and a real man required you never to go back on an oath, no matter how foolishly or hastily made. So there was Herod, with the conventional wisdom of his day – to keep his oath no matter what – standing in the way of his continued relationship with John the Baptist and even his potential repentance.
How often are we perplexed but intrigued by Jesus’ words, yet find ourselves held fast in the grip of “the way the world works”? How often do we feel ourselves pulled by the potent possibility of how drastically and beautifully our lives might change if we really could love our enemies, or forgive 77 times, or give up our anxiety about tomorrow – but the powerful anchors of stability, security, sense, and convention pull us back from the brink? How often do we come to church and listen to a sermon and glimpse a glimmer of how different we might be if we dared to embrace Jesus’ words, only for the exhilarating sense of “what if” to fade by the time we finish coffee hour?
The power of what’s safe, what’s accepted, what’s normal and reassuring is not to be underestimated.
Chris never did go to visit Shane at the Simple Way, and it’s one of his great regrets. How might his life had been different if he’d had a chance to live out his faith in such an immediate, embodied way? I bet Herod, looking back over his choices in lonely exile at the end of his life, deeply regretted having John the Baptist beheaded. How might his life have been different if he’d been able to break his oath and embrace John’s teachings instead of conceding to the values of his peers?
I’d like to invite you to reflect for a moment on one of Jesus’ sayings that perplexes, yet intrigues you. What’s something Jesus has said that has caught your attention, sparked your imagination – but that common sense and convention has stopped you from embracing? Take a moment to share with your neighbor.
What if? What if we listened to Jesus’ words anew and decided to take the plunge on just one thing he taught and to live as though Jesus’ topsy-turvy way of seeing things might actually be the thing that frees us, the thing that makes life worth living?
May it be so. Amen.