Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Monday, July 13, 2015

Shark Week, Power, and John the Baptist

Grace to you and peace from God our father and from our Lord and savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Some days I wish that people were more like sharks. That’s right - last week was Shark Week. If you have cable or Direct TV, watch the Discovery Channel, have any social media accounts, or have a child between the ages of six and twelve, you probably know about Shark Week. For the rest of us, imagine an entire week dedicated to the beauty, power, terror, and general awesomeness of sharks, and we’re not just talking the great white, either. There are mini sharks, super-fast sharks, deep sea sharks, sharks with whip tails, even sharks that glow in the dark.

Sharks are awesome. But they are a particular kind of awesome that I for one would never EVER need to see up close. God created these awesome creatures with strength and speed and power and big teeth. We are in awe of them, and rightly so, because they possess a power that we can’t tame or control, or even fully understand most of the time. As I heard one person say – The ocean is the shark’s house. When the chicken comes into my house, I eat it. The same goes for YOU, when you dare to go in the SHARK’S HOUSE.

During this week, I learned that sharks have not changed all that much over the last few million years. And from this text, I learn that people have also not changed very much over since King Herod’s time. The difference us and sharks is that sharks don’t eat when they’re not hungry. They don’t use their strength and power to bully their way into dominance. They don’t use their massive and scary teeth to maim and kill in order to show their power. They do not make grand promises in order to impress people. They don’t commit murder to silence their enemies.

We perhaps could learn a thing or two from SHARKS about being more HUMANE.

So, what do sharks have anything to do with John the Baptist, anyway? …..Well, that’s a very good question! Shark week, John the Baptist, King Herod, and all the events of the last few weeks have really gotten me thinking… about power. What it is, what it does, who has it, and what we do with it.

Last week, in the adventures of Jesus according to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus went to his hometown. Thanks to their unbelief, it seemed like all Jesus’ power just got sucked right out of him. But when Jesus gave power to his disciples, and sent them out two by two, THEY were able to do what JESUS could not. They healed the sick and proclaimed the gospel of repentance in Jesus’ name.

This is GREAT! This is AWESOME! The disciples doing deeds of power in Jesus name, and they are getting RESULTS!!

But these results make the people in power very, very nervous.

Imagine an episode of House of Cards, if you have ever seen the show. Back room deals, closed-door discussions, people socially maneuvering, manipulating others and bending the truth in order to get what they want, using whatever means necessary.  The ENDS justify the MEANS, as long as in the END, you end up the one with the power.

And power always seems to be in such short supply.

John the Baptist, if you remember, is Jesus’ forerunner. At the very beginning of Mark, the words of the prophet Isaiah heralds his arrival…. “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the Way of the Lord!’.” Then – POOF- there he was! Proclaiming a baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins, basically a homeless man wearing camel skins and eating whatever he could find – bugs and honey. And he was a big hit with the people, baptizing left and right, making the powers-that-be very, very nervous. Especially with John’s tagline – The one who is coming after me is more powerful than I am. HE will baptize with the Holy Spirit!

And sure enough, after John – POOF! - Jesus came, healing women and children, casting out demons, calming storms and eating with all kinds of the unwashed masses. Jesus came in the form of a helpless baby and grew up in a blue collar, working poor household, born the wrong ethnicity and from the wrong side of the tracks.

Jesus came, showing the world a power that it had never seen up close before - a power that did not come from brute force, or intimidation, or violence, or injustice, or discrimination, or bullying, or manipulation. 

Jesus came to show once and for all the power of God is not the same as the power of human beings. That God’s kingdom is not the same as human kingdoms. That God’s rules are not the same as human rules.

It was all coming true, just as John had predicted.  And that make King Herod very nervous, indeed. Herod was already hanging onto his power by a thread. Herod thought he had already taken care of his little problem. And he thought he had seen the last of the preachers and the teachers and healers, who dare to disrupt his fragile status quo.

This traumatic little story is actually a flashback. John the Baptist has already been arrested and killed by Herod by the time Jesus had sent out his disciples last week. But John’s execution must have haunted Herod, which must be why Herod believed in the most absurd thing – that John whom he had killed must be alive again. And that thought frightened him to his very core.

Because John was SUPPOSED to be an example – an example of what happens to you when you speak truth to power. THIS (head chopping motion) is what happens to you when you call out the leaders, behaviors, and cherished institutions in this world, those that are built on racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, hate, fear, ignorance, and apathy. Most of the time, if you speak truth to power, you will not get a trophy or metal or pat on the back. You will not win any popularity contexts. You may not lose your head like John. But you might lose friends, lose face, be labeled as “easily offended” by your friends or family, or otherwise thrown under the bus. So the world gives us its wisdom, “when you are in the world’s house, speak out and you might get eaten.” So, “you better keep your head down, or you WILL lose IT.” ( Again, the head chop motion)

The power of the disciples did not come from this world, from King Herod or the Romans or any Caesar. And likewise, OUR power does not come from success or jobs or our kids’ accomplishments or putting on the best face of “having it all together.” OUR power comes from CHRIST. The one who also spoke truth to power, and showed the world power through God’s truth. This truth being, as Paul writes, that we were chosen and beloved by God, adopted as God’s children, sharing in the never-ending inheritance of Jesus. This inheritance of being forgiven of our sins, healed of our brokenness, and redeemed from clenched jaws of death.

The power of this world is built on fear and is gone in the blink of an eye. God’s power is built on love, and will last forever.

As it turns out, Herod was wrong about Jesus. John had not come back from the dead, as some thought. But at the same time, Herod was right about Jesus… just a little too soon. John would not rise again after his death. But Jesus did. That, I think, is the good news to be found in terrible story – OUR tombs may be full, places of death, contain our bodies – John’s tomb, my grandpa’s tomb, Pastor Bob Strohl’s tomb, all full. And someday my tomb and your tomb too – they will eventually be occupied as well, being used for their intended purpose. A place where the powers of the world defeat us, and death wins.
Jesus was laid in a tomb, too.

Jesus also spoke truth to power. And the powers-that-be came after him. They murdered him too, like John before him, in another terrible and humiliating way. They killed him, and his body was laid in a borrowed tomb.

But his tomb is empty.

And THAT is the power of God, and the promise of our inheritance. That in the end, love wins.

Thanks be to   God. Amen. 

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