July 15th, 2018, Sermon by Pastor Galen Zook
The opening lines of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities could be an apt description of the time of Jesus and King Herod.
Dickens, referring to the cities of London and Paris during the French Revolution, said,
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness… (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 1859)
Rather than a tale of two cities, Mark’s gospel account tells the tale of two kings, and two kingdoms.
Two Very Different Kingdoms
On the one hand, there’s the kingdom of King Herod, a king who is haunted by the memory of the righteous prophet that he so brutally murdered in an attempt to save face in front of his royal dinner guests when, being drunk with lust, intoxicated with power, and most likely inebriated with wine, he foolishly promised the daughter of his illegitimate wife that he would give her whatever she wanted (up to half of his kingdom) as a thanks offering in return for her provocative dance that so salaciously entertained him and his drunken friends.
As my college campus minister would say regarding this passage, what kind of dance warrants the offer of half of your kingdom?
On the other hand there is the kingdom of Jesus, a kingdom that is not of this world. Jesus, the king, spent his life and ministry travelling the first-century Palestinian countryside, healing people, sacrificially loving everyone and anyone (including the outcasts and the marginalized). He gave his life to transform other people’s lives. He put his own life in danger to proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven through word and deed, teaching people about God, showing us how to live, and ultimately gave his own life to reconcile us to God by dying on the cross.
These two kings are aware of one another, but their kingdoms exist on completely different planes. Jesus of course knows all about King Herod, since the righteous prophet that Herod executed had been his cousin, John the Baptist. (This Herod is the son of Herod the Great, who was so protective of his throne that he ordered the infanticide of all the baby boys in the village of Bethlehem upon hearing the mere rumor that a new king had been born there, causing Jesus’s family to flee to Egypt to avoid his jealous rage). King Herod is in actuality a puppet king, a vassal under the true authority of the Roman Emperor, with very little real authority of his own.
Herod has no idea that Jesus is the king his father had been so intent on eradicating. In fact, to Herod, Jesus does not appear to be a king at all. He has gathered no army, he has only a rather rag-tag group of followers, and he doesn’t even live in a house, let alone a palace. Herod does not consider him a rival for his throne. Herod assumes, along with many people of the day, that Jesus is a resurrected prophet from of old — perhaps even John the Baptist, the very same prophet that haunts his dreams.
Knowing about Jesus vs. Knowing Jesus
Mark tells us that Jesus’s name had become well known and that even King Herod has heard about Jesus. It is obvious from this statement that knowing about Jesus and knowing Jesus are not the same thing. While Herod knows Jesus’s name, Herod has never met Jesus. He has not had the sort of radical life-changing encounter with Jesus that so many others have had throughout the Gospel of Mark. The woman who had the issue of blood, the man who was plagued by a legion of demons, the 12-year-old girl that Jesus brought back to life, even the twelve disciples – each of these people were brought to Jesus, had an encounter with Jesus, and their lives were never the same. For some, like the disciples, transformation happened slowly over the course of years, as they listened to Jesus’s teachings and put his words in practice.
Herod, seems to have no interest in learning to know Jesus. If he does want to meet Jesus, he most likely wants to treat Jesus like a curiosity, an oddity, a source of entertainment in the same way he viewed John the Baptist and his own step-daughter. (In Luke’s Gospel account, when Herod is later given the opportunity to meet Jesus, he tries unsuccessfully to get Jesus to do a miracle-on-demand, and proceeds to mock him and disrespect him as a counterfeit king — see Luke 23:8-11).
And so, we have the tale of two very different kings, and very different Kingdoms. My question for us this morning is, which kingdom do you want to live in?
Which Kingdom Do you Want to Live In?
Herod’s kingdom, a kingdom marked by selfishness, self-gratification, and deceit, was very visible, but it was all a façade, and it eventually came crumbling down. Herod died a few years after Jesus died. The temple he built was destroyed in 70 A.D. Even the Roman empire itself came to an end, in the year 476 A.D. And yet we see Kings and kingdoms like Herod’s kingdom crop up all throughout history. And it’s not just kings and political rulers that are prone to selfishness, self-gratification, and deceit. All of us, if we’re honest, are prone to putting ourselves before others, looking out for our own interests at the expense of other people.
Jesus’s kingdom, on the other hand, is a kingdom of righteousness, love, and truth that will last forever. And, while we’re still waiting for Jesus’s kingdom to come in its fullness, in many ways it is already present, here and now. Even now we’re invited to make this Kingdom known, to make Jesus Lord and King of our lives. We’re invited to live according to His set of rules, to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
But we can’t do this on our own. We need the love, grace, mercy and forgiveness that Jesus offers. We need to do more than know about Jesus. We need a life-changing transformative encounter with Jesus. For some of us, this transformation may happen over the course of many years, as we get to know to know about Jesus, put his teachings into practice, and eventually we realize that we have come to know Jesus. For others the transformation may be more immediate, but we still learn to know Jesus more through studying the Bible, spending time in prayer, and listening for God’s voice. We get to know Jesus even further by serving others, taking risks and steps of faith, by putting ourselves in situations where we recognize our dependence upon God, and making Jesus the King of our lives.
Making Jesus Known
Which Kingdom do you want to live in? Which King do you want to rule over your life? Which story do you want to tell? The Kingdom of King Herod, the kingdom of self-gratification, selfishness and desire, that will eventually fall away, or the Kingdom of righteous, peace, and love that will last forever?
If you’re here this morning and you have been transformed by Jesus, then I want to invite you to help make Jesus known to others. As in the time of King Herod, many people in our society are confused about who Jesus is. I’ve heard it said that most people in our society acknowledge that there was a historical figure by the name of Jesus Christ who lived 2,000 years ago. Few doubt that he was born, that he lived, or that he died. But most people in our society feel that Jesus has absolutely no relevance to their lives.
For some, the name of Jesus may dredge up painful memories that they hold from childhood, perhaps having been hurt by someone who claimed the name of Christ. Others put Jesus in the general category of “religious historical figures,” and relegate him to the dusty volumes of academic libraries, to be dusted off and studied periodically by those who have a passing interest in theology or history. Still others think of Jesus as a myth, a nice story to tell children, but something that you eventually grow out of like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.
We are invited not just to help make Jesus more famous, but to help others encounter this Jesus that we have come to know. Let’s continue to grow in our knowledge and depth of experiences with Jesus, and then let’s let others know about the love and grace and forgiveness that Jesus offers. Let’s work together to make Jesus known – here in Hampden, in Baltimore, and around the world!