The Kingdom of Herod vs the Kingdom of God

Preached on 15 July 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10, Year B, Thematic track

This morning, I want to dig around in the scriptures a bit and see if we can find a treasure.

Amos is one of my favorite prophets.  I like his use of language, the imagery it portrays, and his writing is relevant to today.  He could be writing about us.  Of course, when you consider what he says, that’s not necessarily a comforting thought.  He offers almost no hope in his prophecies.  Now we don’t often read from Amos and this passage is offered without context, chosen for its connection to our gospel reading today.

Amos lives and prophesies during the divided kingdom – that’s after King David and King Solomon when the kingdom is divided between Solomon’s sons. It’s not long before the fall of the northern kingdom, Israel, to Assyria.  That’s when the northern tribes are carted off to the rest of the world and don’t return.  But for now, they are enjoying a time of prosperity – at least for the wealthy, but it has come at the cost of the poor.   This economic injustice is a primary theme in Amos’ prophecies.

Amos is not a prophet by profession.  He is probably a man of means – a landowner who keeps flocks and orchards.  He humbly describes himself as a shepherd and a vinedresser, as if he’s little more than a hired hand.  He’s more likely the owner.  He lives in Judah, the southern kingdom.  But God calls him to go up north and prophesy there.

But talk about a downer!  He starts by railing about the surrounding nations; listing all their crimes and God’s punishment to be meted out.  Then he gets to the tribes of Israel and really lets them have it – a long list of offenses and no escape from God’s judgment.  They will be overrun by Assyria, their king will be killed and the people will be taken from the land.  God will not save them.

The book goes on to recount a series of visions of punishments, one of which we heard today.  Each vision is about God’s judgment; judgment about justice and mercy.  It is largely about the treatment of the poor.  Amos chastises the wealthy and powerful, condemning them for their overindulgence on every level while they abuse others.   “they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals — they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way” (Amos 2:7).  Hmm who made my sandals?  Can they afford sandals?

In the vision we heard today, in the NRSV translation, it is about a plumb line.  While that’s probably an inaccurate translation, Amos is using it as a symbol of God’s judgment for Israel’s failure to fulfill its moral obligations to God; a measure by which all will be judged.  God gives us a measure, a guide, and God holds us accountable.

Now, not surprisingly, the priest who has the king’s ear, is not too happy with Amos.  He challenges him and tells him to go back where he came from.  He’s not wanted here.

A story about a king who by all outward appearances is very successful, in conflict with an outsider, an immigrant; a prophet.  A story about a king who is so distracted by his abundance of blessings, that he ignores the source of that abundance, thinking he himself is the source.  A story about a king who is about to go down.

Now let’s hold that story up alongside the story of another king, another prophet.

Mark is all about the kingdom of God and what it’s like.  And he’s succinct, thrifty with words.  He gives just enough detail and no more.  He’s in a hurry to get his point across.  So far in this gospel, Jesus has been going around Galilee proclaiming God’s kingdom, explaining it in parables and metaphors.  At the same time he is embodying the inbreaking of that kingdom: healing, casting out demons, and such.

Today’s story is bookended by two significant stories.  Right before, Mark tells of the sending of the disciples, expanding Jesus’ mission and message.  Immediately following it, Mark tells of Jesus feeding 5,000 people, multiplying a few loaves and fish.

And in between, we find Mark telling the story of Herod and John the Baptist; another king, another prophet.  He draws out the telling in painstaking, gruesome detail.  Jesus isn’t even in the story.  IT’s told as a flashback, beginning with Herod’s fear that this Jesus he’s hearing about is actually John come back to life, and possibly more powerful and more threatening than before.

This story may be told as something of a parable.  In it we see a stark contrast to the kingdom of God Jesus has been teaching.  Herod’s is a very different kind of kingdom, the kind that happens when we go so very, very wrong.  Herod is drunk with power and yet insecure.  He has to continually assert his power, abusing people because he can, because he’s afraid of losing his power.

This contrast shows what happens when we trust in our own merit, our own knowledge and wisdom, amassing power, and then, without regard for anyone else, doing whatever it takes to hold onto it and amass more; more power, more wealth, more status while trampling on others, showing off, using other people as if they have no value except to serve our own purposes and then to be discarded or destroyed.

They then do whatever it takes to preserve their own lives and what they have and the evil progresses down the chain.  Trickle-down evil is real.

In each of these stories, we see Truth in conflict with Power.  Power doesn’t like to hear Truth and tries to challenge it, shut it up, destroy it.  But they do so at their own peril.  On the other hand, the prophet of Truth is also in peril.

Which will we choose?
The kingdom of Herod or the Kingdom of God?

A life of striving for wealth, status, and comfort; where your value is in your usefulness in enriching the king, or the person one rung up on the ladder?

Or a life of Truth, Justice, and Mercy where your value is in the truth that you are a child of God?

A birthday banquet where John’s head is presented on a silver platter?

Or the heavenly banquet where God offers God’s own self to nourish and nurture and strengthen us?  The banquet where all are welcome, all are fed.