The Word This Weekend – July 15, 2018
“Speaking Truth to Power”
The Rev. Dr. William L. Hurst
FLCS Senior Pastor
King Herod heard of [the disciples’ preaching,] for Jesus’ name had become well known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” (Mark 6:14-16)
This weekend we consider another well-known Gospel narrative -- the beheading of John the Baptist by Herod Antipas. And this grim yet colorful story gives us the chance to confront yet another dimension of Christian witness in our own day: speaking Truth to Power.
It appears that the death of John, who had announced the inauguration of Christ’s mission at the Jordan, was a memorable and stinging reality for the early Jesus Community. Although the four gospels treat John’s prophetic ministry somewhat differently, there are common threads that all four agree are touchpoints to John’s appearance and mission. He is viewed by each as a prophet, styled after the great prophetic traditions of the Hebrew Bible. He stands at the crossroads of Old Testament promises and New Testament fulfillment, often depicted as the new Elijah (“YHVH is God”), the long-expected forerunner of the Messianic Prophet/Priest/King, who would at last restore the glory and national integrity of Israel after a half millennium of occupation by various empires and overlords. To everyone’s surprise – including John himself – this Messiah’s mission would be far broader and deeper than that – a redemptive mission to restore peace and salvation to all flesh everywhere and for all time.
Yet there is another dimension to John’s ministry, one that stands in total solidarity with the prophets of old. For, it is not John’s proclamation of Christ that causes either his imprisonment or execution. No, John suffers cruel imprisonment in the Herodian dungeons, and his eventual beheading under the son of the Herod who had sought the life of the infant Christ, for one reason -- and one reason alone. He meets his prophet’s death by speaking truth to power.
Mark tells us that John’s relationship with Herod Antipas, a son of the infamous Herod of the infancy narratives, was as odd as any prophet/king pairing could have been. We are told that Herod actually enjoyed listening to him, railing against official impiety and arrogance, much as Israel’s prophets had always done. Because, my friends, that is a prophet’s job – to call out the powerful, those who hold the levers of justice and societal community, when they pull those levers at the expense and oppression of the poor and needy, or when they model personal and official behavior beneath the dignity of the mantle of leadership they have been accorded by the Almighty.
In Herod’s case, the prophet John publicly indicts him for adultery, for sexual sin – a crime as lurid and wicked as blasphemy or treason in that world – because Antipas had divorced his first wife, and then married his brother’s wife, Herodias. Apparently Herodias was particularly offended by John’s prophetic condemnations of Antipas’ actions, and the resulting designation of herself as an adulteress by having participated in such a filthy business. And that is what leads to John’s arrest, and the infamous tale of the daughter’s seamy dance before her father and his court, and the request, “Give me the head of John on a platter.”
Imagine that: a sex scandal in the halls of power, and a sovereign who turns a “thumbs down” to the bold prophet who dares call a sin a sin, with the declaration, “Off with his head!” Truly, there is nothing new under the sun.
If such a turgid and public scandal is nothing new in the ancient world, it’s also nothing new in our own. Modern history is littered with stories of principals and potentates who sully and stain their public record by reported dalliances and sins of the flesh, bringing their offices and their legacies into disrepute by a disregard for public morality and official misconduct. In my sixty years of life, there is scarcely any exception to the rather Herodian example of marital unfaithfulness and official abuse of power, whether in the bedroom or in the realm of policy or governance.
Such times call for prophets, for those who will speak truth to power, who will lift up the call to public dignity, public compassion, public service and public example. Sometimes I hear everyday Christians bemoaning their leaders for “going political” in the face of the events of the day – as if such speech somehow violates the covenant of pastor and people, or prophet and the public square.
So, for those who grimace when their leaders stand to decry injustice in the halls of power, or who sniff out the whiff of partisanship or favoritism at moments of public discontent or official abuse of power or ethics, let me share what guides my own approach to public gospel witness, of the solemn and commissioned call to speak truth from within the sanctuary and into the street:
- Preachers are entrusted with a pulpit, not a soap-box: Ignoring this fact is a principal error among pastors and preachers, and one that I try (perhaps unsuccessfully) to observe. There always needs to be a careful balance between faithfulness to the biblical text, appropriateness to the setting, and a recognition of our own power as ordained persons. My rule of thumb, and one that I try to teach my students, is that if we say it – especially with our stoles on -- people may hear it as God’s declaration and not merely our own.
- Preachers have to take their own personal temperature: The risk of allowing our personal upset or revulsion over what we may hear or see is ever present. Tempering our individual reactions to the images, positions or even policy implications of a societal moment is crucial for the faithful stewardship of the pulpit. In my case, I try to dig down deeper than the surface of what media outlets may communicate in the heat of a particular moment. Context is ever-important, and not allowing ourselves to vent our personal spleen in the midst of a controversy is a necessary hedge against becoming partisan, apart from that partisanship that is the Gospel’s prerogative, and its duty to express in season and out.
- “Prophetic” is a risky word for preachers: Sometimes the conviction that we are called to speak prophetically can open a door to statements that aren’t really prophetic at all, but only partisan or self-righteous. I’ve come to believe that my task as a preacher is to be an “equal opportunity offender” – that is, to ensure that there is a word of Law as well as Gospel for all those assembled – at least those who have “ears to hear,” whatever their politics or worldview. In the ordination service itself, these words are said to the candidate, and 26 years in this office haven’t blunted their force in my own ministry:
“Care for God’s people, bear their burdens, and do not betray their confidence. So discipline yourself in life and teaching that you preserve the truth, giving no occasion for false security or illusory hope.”
- And, finally, we must bear in mind the fullness of people’s personal consciences and “storms”: One of our tradition’s public prayers puts this so well, better than I could ever express it:
O God our defender, storms rage around and within us and cause us to be afraid. Rescue your people from despair, deliver your sons and daughters from fear, and preserve us in the faith of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
- This is the sort of pastoral discipline I have tried to apply to my own preaching ministry, and one that I attempt to teach to my students. Finally, it is the mantle any preacher must don, in my view, and one that I try to model and teach – imperfectly to be sure.
John’s prophetic mission led him to prison and to execution – a fate few of us will suffer in our own lives. More importantly, John’s witness to the gospel prefigures that of the One he came to introduce and announce. For it is Jesus himself whose words and actions will bring opposition and animus. It is his speaking of truth to power that will lead to his betrayal and arrest, his conviction and imprisonment, his bleak military torture and crucifixion, his salvific death and resurrection. John falls under more than the weight of an illicit and weak king; his death and entombment prefigures the path of the Christ he is called to point to and to serve. And the tomb that saves humankind is not that of the prophet John, but that of the prophet, priest and king he was made to call humanity to welcome and embrace – the Prophet Jesus, Friend to the World.
I hope to join with you at worship this weekend – whether here in our Torrance sanctuary, or wherever you may bow your head and heart to seek him anew. And may the Christ who heals our every ill, and in his resurrection raises the dead by grace through faith, meet us in the midst of Water, Word and Table. May we know him, and hear him, in all his fullness and truth – and, through him, be rededicated to knowing and loving each other as he would have us do. For that is the Truth, and the Power, that really and finally matters – for us, and for the entire human family.
With You in God’s Good Work,