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Lectionary 15B    
Grace Lutheran Church    
Lakeland, FL      
July 11, 2021

Amos 7:7-15
Psalm 85:8-13
Ephesians 1:3-14 
Mark 6:-29

Grace to you and peace from God and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Please pray with me. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in our sight O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

On occasion, folks have asked me the steps that I go through to prepare a sermon. The entire process of preparing, writing and delivering a sermon is bathed in prayer. I read the text in my Bibles and look at any written annotations I have made there over the years. I turn to commentaries from my bookshelf and some online as well. Sometimes I will read the story in children’s Bibles because there is a simplicity there that may help shape the message of grace to be found there. And, I go back through my sermon file from earlier times that I have preached on this text.

Well, on this particular gospel reading – I had virtually no notes in my bibles. This story is not in any children’s bible I have. And, of the hundreds of sermons that I have preached in my ministry, there is not one that was based on this text. Yes, if this story were rated by the Motion Picture Association of America, I am certain it would be rated R.

Let’s first take a look at the cast of characters, some of whom may not be very familiar to us. First is “King Herod.” Well, he was not a king – that title is more tongue in cheek than he would have liked. But let there be no mistake – he craved power and influence. His actual name is Herod Antipas. He was the son of Herod the Great who, like his son, was a puppet king for Rome. Herod the Great was in power when Jesus was born and it was he who ordered the slaughter of the innocents of Bethlehem out of jealousy over the Wise Men’s talk of a new King of the Jews. Researching the family tree of this family is a difficult undertaking. He was married five times and had no shortage of off-spring.

Herod Antipas, who is the Herod in this story, was born to the third wife of Herod the Great. His half-brother, Herod II, was born to the second wife.  Herod Antipas was married twice. He had taken a liking to his half-brother’s wife and divorced his first wife so that he could marry his sister-in-law, Herodias, of whom we hear in this story.  It was this turn of events that prompted John the Baptist to tell Herod Antipas that this was wrong. And his second wife, Herodias, his former sister-in-law, became quite angry with John, and had her husband, Herod Antipas, arrest John and have him imprisoned.

Okay, now then let’s look at what is happening in this story. Herod Antipas, who identifies as “King Herod,” was going to throw a big bash for his birthday. He invited all the movers and shakers. Anyone who was anybody was there. This wasn’t a drop-in open house. It was a banquet with all the finest  -- food, drink, décor. And then came the entertainment. And, it is here that the R-rating begins. 

Herodias, the wife of King Herod and his former sister-in-law, had a daughter from another marriage. This daughter was King Herod’s step-daughter. She is often called Salome. Historians and biblical scholars have concluded that she was in her teens. And the dance that she danced… well, shall we say that she was not a cute little girl in a tutu. The dance was seductive and provocative. And it pleased King Herod’s guests. And as King Herod basked in the approval of his guests, he spoke rashly to the girl and promised her anything she would ask for, even up to half of his kingdom. The girl went to her mother, Herodias for advice. “What should I ask for?” And her mother, the wife and former sister-in-law of King Herod, answered quickly – the head of John the Baptist.

And the king was perplexed because he knew John to be holy and righteous and he had taken steps to keep John safe. But he had to save face and make good on his promise to his step-daughter. To fail to do so would bring immense shame and dishonor to him.  And so he ordered an executioner to go to John, behead him, and bring the head on a platter to the King at the birthday party. As one scholar put it, John’s head on the platter was the last dish served at the birthday banquet.

R-rated. Horrifying. Terrifying. Foretelling the passion of Jesus. In the scriptures, there are other stories that provoke similar reactions in us – the story of Hagar who Abraham took to bear his first son, Ishmael, and then turned her out of their household and camp, to fend for herself. And there are others that I won’t detail here. The question through all of these is – what are we to take from them? Is there good news to be found? How do we find it? Come Holy Spirit.

In today’s gospel there are a couple of pieces of grace that merit our attention. First, in verse 20: Herod knew that John was a righteous and holy man and he had kept him safe and when he had heard what John had to say to him, he was filled with guilt yet he couldn’t stay away. John kept pulling at his heart. John the Baptist was a prophet, anointed by God for speaking the good news of repentance and forgiveness. And Herod was touched by that. A relationship in which grace was interwoven.

And then fast forward to the end of the reading – after the disciples of John the Baptist heard of his death, they came and claimed his body, his bruised and dismembered body, and tenderly placed it in a tomb. Final acts of grace and a great love based upon the love and grace of God.

But we must look at the in-between time here – the time before the murder of John the Baptist and after Herod had heard and reacted to the honesty of John’s words about his divorce, his lust, his taking his sister-in-law as his wife. At that in-between time, there was the birthday banquet, self-indulgent guests, rash promises, and a terrible decision to be made. Does he lose face in the presence of his guests by sparing John’s life? Or does he save face by acceding to his wife’s request, having John executed and partaking in a garish display of power? We have all been there at times in our lives. Facing a decision -- times of choosing faithfulness and the loving way or the way that satisfies our immediate desires and whims. Times of meeting the needs of others or looking to our own. Times of selfishly proclaiming “Me first. The rest of you get in line.” 

In that in-between time, in that decision-making time, we turn to a verse that we studied in our Wednesday bible study this week. Hear this from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth that was struggling with faithfulness to Christ or sliding back to pagan ways. Paul writes: “God is faithful and will not let you be tempted beyond your ability but with the temptation God will provide the way of escape.”

Sometimes the temptation involves something very big and sometimes it involves something much smaller that may not even be noticed by others. Yet, we know. Sometimes we have chosen wisely. Sometimes we have not. And here is yet another moment of grace – the lavish and abundant gift of God’s forgiveness.

Would you please stand as we confess our sins in the presence of God and one another.

God of all mercy and consolation, come to the help of your people, turning us from our sin to live for you alone.  Give us the power of your Holy Spirit that we may confess our sin, receive your forgiveness, and grow into the fullness of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.    

Most merciful God,    
we confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.  We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.  We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.  For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name.  Amen.

In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for us, and for his sake God forgives us all our sins.  As a called and ordained minister of the church of Christ, and by his authority, I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Thanks be to God.