Jul 15, 2018

“Troublesome Prophets” 7-15-18

Amos 7:7-15; Mark 6:14-29
8th Sunday after Pentecost
July 15, 2018

As Jesus and his disciples circulated through Galilee and the surrounding territories, many in the crowds—the general populace—formed the impression that he was a prophet, either a prophet returned from the dead or more generally, as Mark 6:15 reads, a prophet like one of the prophets.  The various popular reports eventually came to the attention of Herod Antipas, who was tetrarch of Galilee and Perea at the time of Christ.  The synoptic tradition records that even Herod formed an opinion about the activity of Jesus, deciding that in Jesus, John the baptizer, risen from the dead was at work.  This leads on in Matthew and Mark, to a digression of sorts that tells the story of the death of John the baptizer at the hand of Herod's executioner.

Herod's first wife was a Nabatean princess, so when Herod set her aside to marry Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, it outraged the Nabatean kingdom which bordered Herod's territory of Perea.  (Petra was the capital of Nabatea).   When John began to reprove Herod for this unlawful marriage, his preaching had implications that went far beyond ethics.  It would have also resonated with popular sentiment in Nabatean territory, thus aggravating the political threat to Herod's power in the region.  In fact, in 36 AD, 4-5 years after John's execution, the Nabatean king defeated Antipas in battle in retaliation for his mistreatment of his daughter.

For his preaching, Herod threw John into prison.  No doubt this was a strategy to mitigate the political threat but also protect John from the animus of Herodias.  But, Herodias' eventually found her opportunity to have John executed in prison.

It is not exactly clear from the text what Herod meant when he said that Jesus was John raised from the dead.   Perhaps he meant that the spirit of John had returned in the person and work of Jesus, in the sense of a personal indwelling.    More likely, though, he thought that the body of John had risen from the grave and that John the baptizer was traveling around under a new name, namely Jesus.    In the latter case, we would have to assume that Herod, and many others, were unaware of Jesus' existence prior to the time of John's execution. 

Now, it is important to observe that the name of Jesus, according to Mark (and also Luke—see 9:1-6), comes to Herod's attention as a result of the ministry of the twelve.  They went out, and in the name of Jesus, with authority given by him, preached and performed works of power.   Specifically, the twelve preached that people should repent, which was the theme of John's preaching at the Jordan.  No doubt Herod had heard of this same theme in his encounters with John.   In any case, Herod decides that a resurrected John the baptizer was the best explanation of this Jesus phenomenon.

Matthew ch. 14 agrees with Mark that Herod was convinced that Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead.   However, Luke's account makes it clear that the idea of a resurrected prophet was a popular explanation that Herod adopted, rather than one he theorized on his own.  Luke 9:7-8 says, "Now Herod the ruler heard about all that had taken place, and he was perplexed because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the ancient prophets had arisen."

It is worth noting that the popular opinions mentioned by Luke reference the "rising" of deceased prophets, either John or one of the ancient prophets, along with the "appearing" of Elijah.  Our text of Mark 6:15, presents another more general possibility—namely that Jesus was a prophet LIKE one of the ancient prophets.   Clearly though, the narratives witness the popular expectation that a great prophet would be raised prior to the coming of the kingdom.  Peter picks up on this in his sermon in Acts 3:22-26, which shows how the phrase "raise up"--in connection with the prophet like Moses—came to be associated with resurrection. 

We can be reminded in passing that the sending of the twelve anticipates the great commission.  Herod hears about Jesus through those who are sent.  This was always the plan of God, that the name of Jesus should become known through witnesses.

Herod's opinion of Jesus is, of course, related to his own personal history with John the baptizer.   Mark and Matthew use this reporting of popular opinions to relate the story of John's death.  In that sense, it is something of a digression in the narrative.  

The account of the death of John the baptizer is one of the most discouraging episodes, in my estimation, in all of scripture.  Every time I read it, it fills me with a measure of sadness.  It is, as several have pointed out, the first passion narrative in the gospels.   Like the second and greater narrative of the suffering of our Lord, it involves a terrible miscarriage of justice facilitated by weak rulers unwilling to follow their better instincts.  The second execution story ends, of course, with the triumph of Jesus' resurrection, the first of those to rise from the dead.   Despite its agony and violence and horror, we find ourselves able to sing of the wondrous cross.  But with John's death, there is no such sequel.

John, the greatest of the prophets, spoke truly when he said of Jesus, "He must increase, I must decrease."  He died as a political prisoner, no doubt waiting and praying hoping for his release.  He died after manifestly wrestling in prison with the possibility that his mission had been mistaken, having sent word to Jesus asking whether Jesus was the One to come, or whether they should be looking for another.  Jesus replied by reminding John of the signs of the new creation promised by Isaiah.  As a prisoner of the Herodians, who in so many ways styled themselves after the Romans, I'm sure John knew that his existence was very tenuous and that, given the slightest opening, Herodias would have him dispatched.  But, I often wonder, when the executioner (speculator in Greek and Latin) appeared to take him away, whether John was given any explanation.  I wonder if John knew before he died that it was because of Herod wanting to save face about rash promises to his step-daughter (and niece) for performing a lascivious dance in honor of his birthday.  I wonder whether knowing would have been worse than not knowing.  Perhaps the executioner did not know and made something up.  The evangelists do not tell us.  They just tell the story and leave us to stew over it, to ask, What about this darkness, what about this evil?  They leave us with a reminder that at least some prophets of God prove troublesome and often meet with this sort of ending.

Amos was sent in the early 8th century to announce judgment against the house of Jeroboam 2 and exile for the northern Kingdom of Israel.  His message breaks in during a period of extended stability and prosperity for both Israelite kingdoms.  But it is also an era of injustice, with the wealthy elite at the top enjoying life on the backs of the poorest of the poor.  Just as John the baptizer would proclaim God's no to Herod centuries later, Amos announced the Lord's No to Jeroboam 2 in the heart of his dominion.  Amaziah the priest challenged Amos as overstepping his place and tells him to take his message elsewhere—to leave and never come back. To which Amos replies, "I'm not a professional prophet; I'm just a farmer-stockman.  The one reason I'm here is that the Lord sent me."  This is the way of the Lord's prophets.  They can be troublesome and certainly in scripture--to abuse a phrase--"a royal pain."   They are the bearers of God's NO!; yet they are the ones who also bring the hope of the Lord putting things right and see his salvation on the final horizon of history.  

I would like to return in closing to my earlier comment that in the sending of the twelve there is an anticipation of the sending of the church into the world to bear witness.  In a little book which he published over 40 years ago called Reason within the Bounds of Religion, Nicholas Wolterstorff sketched a view of Christian commitment which I believe every church can profitably take to heart.  Wolterstorff says that as Christ-followers, Christians are constituted a band of disciples who in their following of Christ make certain things decisively ultimate—namely they are witnesses, agents and evidences (or signs) of the kingdom of God, of God putting things right in a lost and broken world.  They witness to what has been accomplished through Christ's death and resurrection.   In the ways that are available to them, they work to see the kingdom realized in the world.  And, in their life together as a disciple band they give the world a glimpse of what the new creation will look like. 

The first of our commitments is to bear witness to the kingdom.   This witness is not the publishing of an idea or philosophy but the announcement of what God has done in history, in the person of his Son, to overcome the powers of sin and darkness and establish a new order of things.  This witness is "news"--good news.  As such, it creates room for and invites faith as the response.   Though the efficacy of the witness rests in the work of the Holy Spirit, the credibility of those who bear witness is of paramount importance.  Our English word witness is related to the word martyr, reminding us that a faithful witness is one who is willing to stake her life on the truth of the testimony.   John the baptizer was a witness in this ultimate sense.  He sealed his testimony with his life.   The martyr speaks what he has seen and heard and ultimately calls on God as the final witness to the truth. 

Costly witness makes a deep impact on people.  Prior to coming to our church, my very first pastor had been a missionary in Manchuria in China.  When the Japanese occupied Manchuria in WW2, he was able to get his family out, but he stayed behind to serve his churches.   He was soon imprisoned and endured physical and psychological torture for holding steadfastly to his Christian faith.  His suffering strengthened the faith of his fellow Christians in China.  The scars of his suffering made a deep impact on the members of our little congregation.   He was well educated and a gifted Bible teacher.  But, knowing what he had suffered for the testimony of Jesus gave great weight to his proclamation of the Gospel. 

The troublesome prophets who called on rulers to do what was just and right often came to an end in which God's justice appeared to drop from sight.  Where does this leave us?  Certainly, without easy answers.   Ultimately, though, we turn to their vision of where God is taking things.  Another John sees a heavenly city built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets--a city where the visions of the prophets find their perfect, everlasting realization.  So, while the hiddenness of God's justice and wisdom at times leaves us with only questions, we are not left without comfort.

Comfort was the starting point for learning theology in Europe at the time of the Protestant Reformation, a time in history when suffering and death were never far from anyone's door.  The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) famously opens with the question about "my only comfort in life and in death."   We, however, live comparatively comfortable lives and "our only comfort" is not always a burning question for us.   But, the Bible's troublesome prophets remind us that this world is not one in which we are to grow comfortable.  Even if we are not struggling personally at the moment, many Christian brothers and sisters are.   The prophets would want us to get involved, to keep praying "How Long, O Lord," and to bear witness that the last word of victory has been spoken in Christ. 

Karl Barth, in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism characterized comfort as a provisional, but timely help that enables us to pluck up courage, be of good cheer and get on with the business of living.  I suspect Amos and John the baptizer would want God's people to do the same!


Pastor Paul Copeland
Faith Presbyterian Church
West Lafayette, IN 47906