Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless
2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19
The reading, as assigned, feels a little disorienting, in that there is a three-month break in the action between verse 5 and verse 12. The quizzical and tragic incident involving Uzzah — who was probably just doing what he thought was best — is omitted, as is the aforementioned 90-day hiatus of the ark in the house of Obed-edom, as David was “afraid of the Lord.”
But, once it became clear that the ark was a source of blessing and not of curse (as long as you kept your hands off of it,) David proceeds with the processional. And, I mean, proceed he does!
The former shepherd boy does the Holy City Hoedown, as it were, and his wife — Michal, Saul’s daughter — is ashamed of him. (Maybe she was still ticked off that David had won her in the Goliath contest…who knows?)
Whatever the source of her bitterness, it didn’t serve her well; she remains barren for the rest of her life, a symbol in Israel of the withdrawal of God’s blessing. (But you don’t get that part of the story in today’s reading, either — look to v. 23)
Worth noting: the blessing by David of God’s people took a very tangible form. He distributed food to every household. Might be a good reminder for us of just how the blessing of God is intended for every one of God’s people, everywhere.
A fitting psalm for the processional. Lift the gates, open the doors; the celebration is for the LORD, who is strong and mighty. As we learned from David’s earlier encounter with Goliath, “the battle is the Lord’s.”
To whom are we ultimately accountable for our lives? Against whom are we measured? Ever and always, it is God’s measurement (judgment) that counts. God’s will is the rule of life.
When we are quiet long enough to hear God speak, what we will often hear is God’s message of peace. Love, faithfulness, righteousness, and peace — these are “the good” that God desires to give.
We are, indeed, blessed with a number of “spiritual blessings” in Christ:
- we are chosen before the foundation of the world (God works way ahead of the curve!)
- we were destined to be adopted into God’s family
- grace is freely bestowed on us, as are redemption and forgiveness
- we have an inheritance (who wouldn’t like to get one of those?)
- we have heard the word of truth, the gospel of salvation, and we live for Christ’s glory
- we have been sealed by the Holy Spirit — a “down payment” of sorts on the life we will live forever with God
Some days, it just doesn’t pay to be a preacher!
John has famously and steadfastly proclaimed the message from God: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!” For Herod, that repentance involved not marrying his brother’s wife — but, he just couldn’t help himself!
While Herod is uncomfortable with John, he also respects him and is intrigued by him. But, with his blood all riled up after watching his niece/daughter dancing after dinner, Herod pretty much traps himself into killing a man he really wanted to protect.
Rather than let his pride suffer (not to mention the hell he would have to pay for refusing his wife,) Herod lops off John’s head and serves it up on a platter.
Oh, be careful little mouth what you say!
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
Recently I made a quick stop at a convenience store and parked at an awkward angle. When I came back to the car, a woman driving a UPS truck was pulling in behind me and asked, “Are you going forward or backing up?” I quickly figured out her problem – if I was pulling forward, it was safe for her to park behind me; if I was backing up, she needed to park somewhere else. Being a preacher I took her question far beyond its original, pragmatic meaning. “Am I,” I thought, “going forward or backing up in my life?” For the rest of the day I applied the question to myself and to my relationships and to my family and to my church. Am I going forward or backing up? Am I making progress or am I losing ground? Is my church making progress or backing up?
In our gospel lesson, King Herod has a dilemma about what to do with John the Baptist. He has more than a political decision to make here; the text reveals that he was struggling with a deep spiritual question, a question he only barely perceives or acknowledges, but one which was more important than any other question he would ever face. What would he do about John’s call to repentance and the coming Kingdom of God? Would he go forward or would he back up?
As the story begins, Herod has begun to hear about the preaching and teaching and healing of Jesus. People are speculating as to who Jesus is. Herod leaps to a farfetched conclusion, one based on his own guilt and fear: he decides Jesus is John the Baptist, whom he beheaded, now reincarnated to haunt him. Herod had an affair with his brother’s wife Herodias. Herod and Herodias then divorced their respective spouses and got married. John was not hesitant in telling the king that he was a sinner bound for hell. Herodias was furious that a popular preacher was calling her an adulterer in public, so she pressured Herod to shut him up. Now, Herod could have killed John right away, but, but . . . something stopped him – fear and perplexity and the minute stirrings of the soul. “. . .for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him he was greatly perplexed, and yet he liked to listen to him.” (verse 20)
Herod was perplexed. He was confused. He couldn’t decide whether to go forward or back up. He knew what politics and self-protection dictated; and he was a consummate politician; and yet something kept him from doing the politically right thing. Something deep inside, be it religion or superstition, kept him from doing away with John. So he kept him in prison, locked away, kept John from interfering with his daily life, and yet, and yet, he liked to listen to him.
Is that perhaps the way some of us live our spiritual lives? Most days, in most ways, we follow the customs of our time, the dictates of the so-called real world, making decisions based on pragmatic necessity; keeping our religiosity locked away in a convenient spiritual prison, where we can listen to it when we have time and when it won’t cause us any trouble. That’s what happens when we try to live our lives by two contradictory and competing standards. Opera singer Luciano Pavarotti tells of taking voice lessons while also attending teachers college. At graduation, he said to his father, “What shall I do, be a singer or a teacher?” His father said, “Luciano, if you try to sit on two chairs, you will fall between them. For life, you must choose one chair.”
Amos used the symbol of the plumb line, a simple builder’s tool, a string with a weight at the end. Hold it to the top of the wall and it hangs straight down, showing you if your wall is built correctly.
Amos says that God’s word and God’s way are to be our plumb lines, that by which we measure our lives to see if we are straight and true. Herod’s problem is that he has too many plumb lines working. One is John’s preaching, a plumb line that judge’s Herod’s life and finds it wanting. Another is Herod’s wife, who is pressuring him to follow her will. Another is public opinion, another is the will of his political friends and another is the will of his political enemies. No wonder Herod is perplexed, his plumb lines are getting tangled, calling him in different directions. Herod can’t decide what to do, so he tries to get away with doing nothing.
Herod’s hand is forced when the plumb lines come together and he can no longer delay. There is a party, he drinks too much, then he makes a rash promise. His wife seizes her moment and demands the death of John; and there Herod sits, again perplexed and bothered. Will he do the right thing? Or will he cave in to the pressures of prestige and pride? In his struggle to sit between two chairs, Herod falls. In his choice between going forward into God’s Kingdom or falling back into his old ways, Herod chooses badly and calls for the head of John the Baptist. He has picked the wrong plumb line by which to measure his life.
In “the Robe,” a novel about early Christianity, Lloyd C. Douglas tells the story of what happened to Jesus’ robe, the one the soldiers gambled for at the foot of the cross. In the novel, it continually changes hands, and its owners are faced with a choice about how to respond to the story of the Robe, the story of the crucified Jewish peasant. One who responds is a Roman soldier named Marcellus. He hears the gospel story, he receives Christ into his life, he becomes a Christian. He writes his lover, Diana, back in Rome, telling her the story of the Robe, the story of Jesus. She writes back, “It’s a lovely story, we don’t have to do anything about it do we?
Diana, like King Herod before her, has hit upon the dilemma of hearing the Gospel. It is a beautiful, frightening, perplexing story, one people like to listen to. And if you listen carefully, you will realize that it is calling you to change, to become different. And most of us don’t want to. Like Diana, we cry out, “We don’t have to do anything about it, do we?”
Well, yes we do. We cannot sit on two chairs, for we will surely fall between them. We cannot live our lives by a variety of standards, we cannot measure ourselves by contradictory plumb lines, for they will surely get tangled, and our house of faith will fall. We cannot sit still in the parking lot of life; we must go forward or back up. We cannot keep God and Christ locked away in a private prison of our own devising, bringing them out to look at and listen to at our convenience. We must decide, we must do something about the story of Jesus.
Our calling today is to measure our lives by the plumb line of God’s love. That plumb line was established on the cross, where Jesus gave his life, his all, for us. Our calling is to conform our lives to his, to love with his love, to forgive with his grace, to move with Christ into the fulfillment of the Kingdom. So, I ask you, as I ask myself, “Are you going forward, or are you backing up?
Amen and amen.