A Tale of Two Kingdoms

Preached on 12 July 2015 at St. Luke’s Memorial Episcopal Church, Tacoma, WA
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10, Year B

That’s a rather grisly way to start the morning.
You may recall, Mark often interrupts a story with another one.  That’s what we have here.  This story about Herod is the interrupting story, the one in the middle.

Last week, we found Jesus in Galilee.  He was sending his disciples out in pairs to cast out demons, heal the sick and proclaim the kingdom of God.  Next week, we’ll hear about their return and the feeding of the multitude.

Meanwhile, back in Jerusalem, Herod, the Jewish ruler of Israel who is working on behalf of the emperor in Rome, he hears about what’s going on up in Galilee – the wondrous works Jesus is doing and how now his disciples are doing them too.  He’s perplexed, concerned, even fearful.  He thinks that it must be that John the Baptist has been raised from the dead.  And he has a flashback.

You see, John had challenged him, saying that he should not have married his brother’s wife – that he, Herod, needed to repent.  Now Herod didn’t like hearing that, but still, John intrigued him.  He didn’t want to do anything too extreme because he could see that John was holy and righteous.

But then he went and said something rash and foolish.  He got himself into a rather awkward position.  When he publicly offered to give his step-daughter anything and she asked for she asked for John’s head on a platter, he may have felt that his honor was at stake; that he had to do it.  But then again, he’s not an honorable man.  He is ruthless and politically savvy.  He is powerful and he knows it and flaunts it.  It is because of his power that he could have afforded to laugh her off even in front of his friends.  After all, he has just treated this young girl as a sexual object for the viewing pleasure of his guests.  But instead, he ordered it done.

Now he’s having an “Oh shoot” moment, if you know what I mean.
“What have I done?” he’s probably thinking?
What does this mean?

Mark offers this picture of kingdom –
Where a man with wealth and power has a man arrested because he doesn’t like what he says.  Then he casually has him killed at the whim of a young girl like a tip for a lap dance.  And not just killed but killed in a particularly gruesome manner and then put on grisly display to be scorned; all for the “entertainment” at his birthday party.

Mark paints that picture of the kingdom of the world and inserts it right in the middle of the story about Jesus and his disciples proclaiming the kingdom of God. They are not simply proclaiming it, but they are enacting it.  They are healing people and casting out demons.  Clearly, God is with them.

Next week, we’ll hear about Jesus feeding thousands of people; almost as an indictment of the empire.  With all its wealth and power, people are still hungry.

No wonder Herod is panicking.  He knows that his power is no match for God’s.

What strikes you about this?
About the stories in and of themselves?
What does each say about the other?
What do you get from them being told together?

A couple things stand out for me.

First, I notice the contrast between these two images of kingdom – and that they exist simultaneously.  God’s kingdom doesn’t depend on the destruction of Herod’s kingdom.  In fact it breaks into and challenges Herod’s kingdom.  The kingdom of God is at hand, as Jesus so often said.

Second, I notice the stark reality of danger in the story.  The story of the beheading of John draws our attention to the fact that the disciples are risking their very lives; not only because of their vulnerability, their dependence on the hospitality of others, but also because they live in a dangerous time and place.  Their works are a direct challenge to the authority, the power, the sovereignty of the ruling power; a ruler that has proven himself to be capricious and cruel.  Because they have come to his attention and he feels threatened, they are in danger.

And yet, despite the danger from the rulers; despite the danger of their vulnerability and dependence – still they go out and do the work Jesus has given them to do.  They not only proclaim the kingdom of God, they live it; they inhabit the kingdom and welcome others in.  They lead them across the border.

What dangers do we face?  Mark shows us an extreme picture of kingdom.  As we look at the world around us or listen to the evening news, it isn’t hard to find similar examples – particularly of the abuse of power and wealth by individuals, by corporations, even by nations.  We are less likely to notice, however, the less extreme but insidious signs of Herod-like kingdom.

The Good News is that the kingdom of God is at hand it exists alongside the kingdoms of worldly power and in fact is breaking through.
We don’t have to conquer the world in order to live in the kingdom of God. What signs of God’s kingdom do you see around us?

Have you ever known someone who just seems to live in the kingdom of God; someone about whom you think, I want whatever it is that they have.”

They proclaim the kingdom with their lives.

When I see how troubled our world is, it can be overwhelming.  But I find incredible hope in knowing that we don’t have to conquer every problem first. The kingdom of God is at hand.  Even now, it is breaking through.