Topic: Biblical Verse: Mark 6:14–6:29
Mark 6:14-29 “Reality Check!”
The more easy-going ambiance of the month of July can easily dull our sensitivities.
It becomes awfully temp-ting, therefore, to think that we can forget about the world
and its many problems. But then we flip on the TV for the “breaking news” at home
and abroad. And seldom, if ever, does this fail to bring us back into the “real” world
which is in fact not on vacation for the summer.
A “reality check” is my term for today’s Gospel, our cripture from Mark 6. I hope you listened closely to the reading of it. It’s a rather dark, even chilling, story dropped into the middle of an otherwise- sunny narrative about the life of Jesus. The story is called "The Beheading of John the Baptist.” It’s there, and it’s been put there, I believe, not only to jolt us out of our summer daydreams, but to sharpen our appreciation of the good news that God’s Son, Jesus Christ, brings to light, and to heighten our commitment to bring it to bear upon the world beyond ourselves in this day and time.
Maybe you know something about John the Baptist. Perhaps not! In any event, John was a contemporary of Jesus, his cousin, and a prophet who helped to prepare the way for Jesus’ ministry. As such, he functioned as a kind of “whistleblower.” John called attention to what was immoral and unjust in his society in order to bring people to their knees in repentance and to open their hearts to God’s promise of salvation who would be standing before their very eyes in Jesus.
Herod was among the high and mighty in the province of Galilee, the chief ruler apart from the Romans. He was corrupt, and his record included an adulterous relationship with the wife of his brother Philip. Herod ended up marrying the woman, and her name was Herodias. But John the Baptist, as he went about his “whistleblowing” campaign, did not give a “free pass” to anybody. He told Herod the truth about himself.
Herod, in turn, chose to publicly silence this prophet. He had John arrested, bound, and put in jail. But Herodias was not satisfied. She wanted a more permanent solution. She wanted John executed, and the opportunity did in fact present itself at Herod’s birthday party, when her daughter danced before all of the honored guests. It was dazzling enough for Herod to say to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” Her response, with the help of her mother, has a way of shocking us as much as it did Herod, when she asked for “the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”
I believe that “The Beheading of John the Baptist” is actually a universal story. The world in which we live is still filled with people like Herod, Herodias, and Salome. It’s the world that God should have condemned long ago. But instead, God has chosen to put his arms around this same world in love. Instead of leaving it to its own devices, God has chosen to enter and to redeem this same world through his Son, Jesus Christ.
Like his cousin John, Jesus would also be arrested and brought before a governor who dialogued with him about “truth.” Pontius Pilate mimicked Herod. He chose to act not out of “truth,” but out of his own best political interest. He allowed One who was even more “righteous and holy” than John to be executed. But unlike John’s beheading, Jesus’ death on the cross became the sacrifice that was a sufficient atonement for all of our sins. According to the first verses of our text, Herod feared that in the person of Jesus, John the Baptist had come back from the dead. But the Risen One, who would give the bright light of the hope a new day to our world, would in fact turn out to be Jesus himself.
One of the places that I see Jesus’ followers attempting to bring this same bright light of hope into the darkness of today’s world is in the work of an organization called Lutheran World Relief. We got started back in 1945 in the aftermath of World War II, where there were so many people on the European continent who were left homeless and on the brink of starvation because of all the bombing and devastation. Several of our Lutheran denominations at the time were moved enough by this need to come together to form LWR. Food, quilts, and clothing, as well as monetary donations, were collected in places like Kansas and Iowa, and sent overseas.
Following the success of this relief effort, Lutheran World Relief realized that there were plenty of other opportunities like this in our world to bring the bright light of hope to people in need. Hence, our work has expanded into 36 countries around the world. The map on the screen shows where we are currently at work. LWR still provides emergency relief to victims of natural disasters like typhoons and earthquakes. At present, much of the aid we provide is still being directed to Puerto Rico, devastated in so many ways by hurricanes. But development work has become an equally-important focus. We fund projects designed to produce lasting results, to give people who are living in abject poverty a “hand-up” rather than just a “hand-out.”
It’s the reason that LWR concentrates its attention on small, local farmers like these in India. They are no longer the continuous victims of unpredictable weather patterns and unstable harvests because we have helped provide an irrigation system. We have also taught them to plant not one, but a variety of crops, including the peppers you see in the picture. As a result, these farmers and their village now have enough to eat and some income for other features of their life.
Why farmers? It’s because 40% of the global population today still depends upon farming as the largest source of jobs and income. Godfrey is one such farmer in the African country of Uganda. His family has been engaged in coffee farming for generations. But seldom have they earned enough income. An LWR project has not only given them a “hand-up” by teaching them better techniques for growing, harvesting, and processing their crop. We have transformed the life of this family in other ways. The children are now able to go to school. Another instance of the bright light of hope being brought into the midst of their darkness!
Another LWR development project involves the teenage members of cocoa farmer families in Guatemala. We have created a kind of future farmers of America group in that country, and in the picture, these teens are learning the art of grafting branches from healthy cacao trees on to lower-yielding trees. They now can now see that this leads to higher production and higher-quality beans, which results in better family income and self-sufficiency. Being part of this project also keeps these teenagers from migrating elsewhere, of to urban areas where they may experience more harm than good.
Most of us know that there is a serious refugee problem in today’s world. Depicted in this slide is a refugee family from war-torn Syria in a tented settlement in Lebanon. Here they are receiving aid in the form of LWR personal care and school kits as well as quilts produced by Lutherans across our country. But at the same time, Lutheran World Relief is sponsoring another project in Syria itself. It involves rebuilding bakeries, destroyed in the conflict there, in a couple of towns outside of Aleppo and supplying the ingredients for the loaves of bread they produce. Jesus fed 5,000 people for a day. Once fully operational, these bakeries will feed 80,000 people every day. Call it what you like. I see it as the bright light of hope being brought into very dark corner of our world today!
A “reality check” is a good term for the story that is our text for another reason. I don’t know what you see when you look at Herod in our text. But I see a person who was driven by guilt over his soiled family relationships with his own brother and wife. Guilt-ridden people are often dangerous people, and in Herod’s case, this is what prompted him to inflict the harm that he did upon John the Baptist. But above all, I see a person who clearly missed the spiritual opportunity of his lifetime. The world of Galilee was at Herod’s feet. But he had none of the peace or the purpose in life that God gives to people who know the loving embrace of Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
A 20th century John the Baptist named Martin Luther King put it this way: “Dark-ness does not drive out darkness. Only light can do that.” It’s why I wish to invite you to join thousands of other Lutherans in our country who have found ways to support our efforts to bring the bright light of hope to people who of living the deep darkness of human need. You can, of course, make a regular financial contribution to our work. You can become part of a group in this congregation that gathers materials and then comes together to assemble personal care and school kits. An opportunity to do this will in fact take place right after the 9:30 service in the Fellowship Hall.
Or you may want to begin purchasing LWR Farmers Market coffee. Thrive Farmers is the partner with whom we work in order to see to it that coffee farmers in Nicaragua with whom we are working get a fair price for the bean they grow. And through every pound you purchase, you not only help these farmers get out of poverty, but enable LWR to do more of this kind of development work. If you stop by our LWR exhibit table in the church lobby and fill out a contact card, you will also be eligible for several drawings of a bag of this Farmers Market coffee and cup.
Thank you for this opportunity to return to St. John’s congregation today on behalf of Lutheran World Relief, and for us all to experience a “reality check” on the basis of today’s Gospel text and to see for ourselves the opportunities we provide for you amid the darkness in this world, to let the light of hope, of which Jesus Christ is the source, shine a bit more brightly. Amen.
Dr. Jon Diefenthaler
July 15, 2018