Let us pray: Lord, may my words honor your desire to teach us how to love people we assume are nothing like us. Show us who we are and who we can become, by your grace. Amen.
A running series of episodes about Jesus, has been temporarily interrupted. Suddenly we are watching, “Keeping up with the Herodians,” a cruel royal clan whom God allowed to establish a dynasty. Jesus doesn’t even make a cameo appearance.
Bible stories paint contrasts by characterizing the roles people play. John the Baptist is the saintly protagonist who suffers martyrdom. Herod, like Pilate plays the role of an authority “whose hands are tied” by the system. They come out pretty unscathed for the role they play in killing whom God has sent. In contrast, Herodias is portrayed as jealous and mean-spirited. Her means of self-preservation is deemed villainous. Who knows if she really manipulated her way from one king to another or was merely a trophy being passed between two brothers?
We selectively validate information that reinforces our worldview. Script writers, talk-show hosts, producers and pundits know what we want…to feel superior. How else can you explain twenty seasons of “The Maury Show” and others that do nothing but point to people’s weaknesses? The media feeds our self esteem and invites us to view the suffering of others as entertainment. Our habits cause us to read a Bible story like this and condemn certain characters without thought.
Herodias wasn’t just a malicious control freak, she was vulnerable. If John convinced Herod to cast her away, she and her daughter would be out on the street. Her grandfather, Herod the (not so) Great had murdered her dad and brother when she was eight. She married and bore her uncle a daughter, fell in love in her mid-forties and wanted to remarry. Being emotionally scarred, divorced or wanting to hurt the people who threaten us describes a good many people.
Many people erroneously equate material goods, success and status with God’s favor. We work hard to gain approval and respect. Like Herod and celebrities of our time, we want to preserve a good reputation in spite of the foolish actions and utterances we, our relatives or associates might make that embarrass us. The enemy is always looking for ways to use self-consciousness to drive bad behavior, to create fear of losing any privilege.
God knows our individual struggles, what we hope to achieve in our lifetime and what we hope to avoid. God has compassion when we strive for success. God knows we need some kind of security. But it’s not enough that God knows, we need to exchange our stories with each other, like God shares stories about the disciples, John the Baptist and the Herodians, with us. Private self-absorption with our life stories fools us into thinking we have succeeded or fallen on account of our own merit or fault.
So how does this stuff overlap with how God works in awful circumstances? Biblical heroes like Joseph, Daniel and John found that imprisonment gave them the courage and opportunity to fulfill their callings. Their self-consciousness was rooted in their godly role rather than their circumstances. We know that John the Baptist was definitely more conscious of who he was rather than how he appeared. He did not model confidence based on wearing animal hides, having a wild hairstyle and a belly full of grasshoppers. His confidence to completely be himself went all the way back to one moment, when John became consciousness of Jesus in the womb of his aunt.
That’s when our courage and confidence begin, when the Holy Spirit awakens our consciousness of Jesus, when we discover our real identity as adopted sons and daughters of God through the merits of Christ. Self-consciousness that leads to guilt is always meant to turn us toward God so God’s forgiveness can show us who we were created to be, ourselves.
The Bible helps us find parts of ourselves in every character and relate to every person’s sin as if it were our own. The beauty of the gospel is that we is assured that Jesus died to forgive every person’s sin. Sins we are not even conscious of, ones we project onto others, the ones we have yet to commit. Although we wonder how it can be true, God is always at work in every circumstance and in every life, even in the lives of so called “bad apples”.
Herod was given multiple chances to repent and receive revelation. God provided him with good counsel on personal and religious affairs through John. God even sent Jesus to him in person as one last opportunity. He received a more compassionate heart than that of Herod the (not so) Great, his father. For Herodias, his wife, God provided security and status after she became an orphan. God made her feel like a queen, not once, but twice, and gave her a beautiful daughter who fulfilled her dreams. God gave Salome the gift of beauty and the skill to conform to the expectations of her culture. God loved her as God loves every adolescent striving for acceptance and struggling to make big decisions.
When you first heard Jesus promise eternal life and the kingdom of God, did your ears perk up with excited anticipation like Herodias? God shares the life stories of biblical characters to show us that we too, are important characters who contribute to telling God’s story. Our decisions, not just theirs, affect how God’s kingdom is realized on earth. When we make connections in real life with characters through empathy and compassion or listen to their stories, everybody gains something.
By listening with empathy and compassion, we learn that God shares his kingdom regardless of whether a person demonstrates pleasing behavior or not. God’s offer is even more generous and foolish than Herod’s because we can offer nothing to tempt, entice or entertain God to soften his judgement.
In contrast to every earthly gesture, God’s kingdom was not offered during a moment of generosity. And it wasn’t just offered, it’s been given. God was not under the influence of wine or beholden to his constituents that caused him to be temporarily swayed into accommodating our requests. Neither was God following an impromptu plan of self-preservation.
Just the opposite. The plan of salvation was pure sacrifice, the gift was decided before the party even started, before the first human had an actual birth day. The offer of God’s own self and kingdom is continuous. It comes to us during worship, communion and throughout our lives. We, as characters in the story, don’t need to devise a plot or make a move to seize a rare opportunity. The potential for a happy ending was strictly written by God and gained through Christ’s effort. And Jesus really is in every scene and episode of your life, without interruption. Amen.