July 11, 2021 “When the Good News Ain’t So Good”
“When the Good News Ain’t So Good”
“Count your blessings, not your problems. Count your own blessings, not someone else’s. Remember that jealousy is when you count someone else’s blessings instead of your own.” ― Roy T. Bennett
“Reflect upon your present blessings — of which every man has many — not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.” ― Charles Dickens
“Don’t count your blessings, let your blessings count! Enjoy Life!”
― Bernard Kelvin Clive,
All right, picture this if you will. Let’s say that you’ve experienced some kind of a medical situation which prompted you to go to a doctor who examined you from top to bottom, took vials of blood for testing, and then ran you through a CAT Scan and MRI. A week or so later, you get the phone call to come in for a “consultation.” Now there’s no way that anyone can walk into that doctor’s office without a care in the world. It is nerve-racking knowing there might be something going on- something wrong- but you don’t have any idea what that something might be. You’ve looked up your symptoms online, but that was no help unless you consider ramped up anxiety to be helpful. You’ve asked around – discretely, of course – but it turns out that no one knows a whole lot more than you do, which is next to nothing. So finally, there you are in the doctor’s office about to get some real answers. You’ve been running all the best case scenarios and the worst case scenarios through your mind for over a week, and that’s what makes this moment unique – not special, but unique. It’s a unique moment when a part of you wants desperately to cling to hope: hope that the tests will come back negative or at least say that what you have is treatable and everything is going to be fine. But the other half of you is dreading the worst and it is all you can do to keep that knot in your stomach from pulling tighter and tighter. It’s not a pleasant feeling being torn in two like that.
Anyway, let’s say that in this imaginary situation you are finally sitting in the doctor’s office and after the preliminary chit-chat, the doctor leans over and says something that I imagine doctors are trained not to say to their patients: “I’ve got some good news, and I’ve got some bad news.” At this point, you are faced with a bit of a dilemma: do you take the good news first hoping that it might make the bad news not so bad? Or do you ask for the bad news right up front just to get it over with. Like I said, doctors usually won’t give you this choice. They will tell you what the tests indicated and then tell you what kind of treatment they have to offer. Bad news first, then the good. But in real life, I have a sneaking hunch that when given the choice, we’ll go for the good news first most every time.
Which brings us, in a rather convoluted way, to our lovely story from the Gospel of Mark. I have to say that I hesitated to preach on this gospel passage today. It’s dark, it’s ugly, and for those of us who are inspired by John the Baptist, it is story we’d just as soon skip. If you’re going to preach, then you have to preach the good news – that’s what I was always taught. The problem is, where are we going to find a message of good news in this despicable man who had a bit too much to drink and shot off his mouth; and for that, John the Baptist died a horrible death in prison, alone? I was determined to find it, and it seemed to me that the best place to start is with Herod himself.
Now first off, let’s remember that there were a whole mess of Herods in those days. The King Herod that Mark refers to in today’s text was Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great.
What’s more, this Antipas guy wasn’t a real king; he was known as a tetrarch, which was like being the governor. He was commissioned to keep the peace in that portion of the Roman Empire made up of Galilee and east of the Jordan River in what is now the country of Jordan. So Herod Antipas wasn’t much of a big deal, really. What he was, was ambitious.
Herod Antipas was a politician, plain and simple. And he was kind of a cad. Upon falling in love with his brother’s wife, they made plans to marry after he divorced his wife. But his wife got wind of the plan and went running home to her father who then declared war on Antipas’s territory and on and on it goes – this story of betrayal and power grubbing and deceit. But there’s no good news in that. No, the good news can be found, I believe, if we dig a little deeper.
When John the Baptist criticized Herod for taking his brother’s wife, he stated that such an act was against Jewish law, which it was. But what should a Roman care about that, right? So we can assume that John was arrested just to shut him up. But a good Herod type character would have found a way to shut him up for good – but not Antipas. In fact, it seemed that he almost liked the prophet John. (vs 19) So Herodias had it in for John. She wanted to kill him, but she couldn’t. 20 This was because Herod respected John. He regarded him as a righteous and holy person, so he protected him. John’s words greatly confused Herod, yet he enjoyed listening to him. He enjoyed listening to him. If we dig deeper we’ll discover that Herod Antipas did many kind acts for the Jewish nation. He rebuilt temples and he refused to place images on the coins which would have violated Jewish beliefs on idolatry. In many ways, the cruelty of Herod Antipas was tempered by a sense of grace that comes from God alone. And as sketchy as that may seem, it is good news.
When Herod heard of this Jesus of Nazarene he believed that he must be John the Baptist come back from the dead. Any member of the Herod clan worth his salt would have sent soldiers to arrest this trouble maker before things got out of hand, but Antipas did not. And in the final days before Jesus was crucified, Pilate made a desperate plea to the tetrarch of Galilee to make a decision as to what should be done to the one who some claim to be the Messiah. The tetrarch refused, leaving the decision entirely up to Pilate and we all know all that turned out. My point is that when God uses people in positions of power, it’s not always pretty, but it is necessary. Jesus told his disciples time and again that he would arrested and killed in Jerusalem and on the 3rd day, rise from the dead. Nothing was going to change that; nothing was going to stop that. I can’t help but think that God’s hand was at work on the heart of Herod Antipas through it all.
The good news of God’s Kingdom isn’t always sunshine and rainbows. The prophet Jeremiah tells us, (Jer 29:11) “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” I have to wonder about poor old Antipas. The battle with his ex-father in law didn’t end well. He suffered one setback after another until he got caught up in a scandal and was exiled along with Herodias. I just have to wonder that when God touched his heart through John the Baptist, what a shame that his heritage and his position of power kept him from ever rising to that call. Herod Antipas played a part in the blood of the new covenant; he played a part in the blood of Christ poured out for the forgiveness of sins. When the good news ain’t so good, step back and look at the big picture. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Amen & Shalom