Preached by Rev. George Yando on July 15, 2018.
Heed How You Hear
The whole of this morning’s Gospel lesson seems to be about John the Baptist. What is unusual is that it is a retrospective, a recollection and retelling of events in John’s life leading up to his death sentence issued by Herod.
While the story seems to be about John, I’d like for us to give it a second look and listen, a fresh hearing, because I’d like to suggest that it’s a story not so much about John as it is a story about us. While the story focuses on the dramatic, gory and tragic details of the beheading of John, I believe that Mark recalls the story for us as a way of explaining Herod’s reaction to what he had been hearing about Jesus. That’s the clue that today’s message for us might well be found in something our Lord himself once said and which Mark’s gospel account records in 4:24 “Pay attention to what you hear” or “Take heed how you hear.”
In other words, “be careful about how you respond to what you hear.” Use your head to listen or you may lose more than your life.
Let’s revisit the story from that perspective. And before we begin, let me offer you a spoiler alert, namely the conclusion I’m hoping you’ll take away from today’s message. If you take nothing else away from this morning’s service remember this: John may have lost his head, but he gained a kingdom. And unless we use our heads, we may lose the kingdom. But if, in the words of Paul to the Ephesians in this morning’s epistle reading, if we, “when we hear the words of truth, the gospel of our salvation, believe on this Christ Jesus, we will be marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit, the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption of God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.” (Ephesians 1: 13-14)
Now to the details. First of all, notice how the story is focused on “hearing.” Beginning in the first verse we read, v. 14: “King Herod heard about it . . . .” What did he hear? In the verses preceding this morning’s Gospel reading from Mark chapter 6, the author tells us how, after Jesus’ rejection by the people of his hometown, he sent his own disciples out on a mission like his own. It was this that Herod heard about, how the twelve disciples of Jesus were going about declaring that the Kingdom of God was near, and that people should repent, and that they were casting out demons and anointing with oil and curing many who were sick. That ‘s what Herod heard.
What’s more, others were hearing the reports as well. This passage goes on to say that “Jesus’ name had become known.” Now what’s important to notice is how these who heard reacted.
Some people simply discounted the power of Jesus, claiming instead that it was John raised from the dead, and this accounted for the powers at work in him. Others suggested that it was Elijah; still others thought he was one of the other of the ancient prophets returned to life from bygone years.
None of them perceived in Jesus, God-in-Christ. None of them recognized Jesus for who he was. Recall Matthew’s Gospel account recording Jesus as having said, “The reason I speak in parables is that seeing, they do not perceive; and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.”
There’s the rub, the nub of the problem even today. See it in Herod and in the way he listened to John, but didn’t really hear. Herodias, the wife of Philip, whom Herod had married, had a grudge against John and wanted him killed. But Herod, “knowing that John was a righteous and holy man, protected him.” Nevertheless and even though Herod perceived what kind of man John was, even though he listened to John, he didn’t really hear him, and he never really understood him.
Mark tells us, “When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he like to listen to him.” What he had heard from John was certainly more than John’s simple rebuking him because he had unlawfully married his brother’s wife. Recall the message that John had consistently proclaimed: from his first appearance in the wilderness he proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Mark 1: 4) And he announced the coming of Jesus who would, “baptize with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1: 8) John baptized Jesus and then later testified, “I saw the Spirit descending like a dove, and it remained on him.” And the Gospel writer John reports further on John the Baptist’s testimony: “I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” (John 1: 32-34) Later still, when John the Baptist saw Jesus walking by, John said to his own disciples, “Behold! The Lamb of God!” (John 1: 35)
If that has consistently been John’s message from the outset of his ministry, is it not safe to conclude that at some point, he would have said these things to Herod? And what of Herod? Mark tells us, “he liked to listen to him.” He may have liked listening to him but eventually he cut him off short. Before Herod could fully understand, he had one of his soldiers behead John. This John who believed and confessed his faith in the Son of God, and who understood Jesus’ words, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10: 28), this John went to his grave headless but then to heaven, while Herod, who liked to listen but was satisfied with being perplexed, went head-long to hell.
Now, having said that, let’s remember that this is about our remembering, about our hearing, about our listening, about our understanding. Or may I say, “your hearing, your listening, your understanding?” May I say to you, all you who consider yourselves to be average Christians, you who take your regular place in these pews Sunday after Sunday, may I say to you:
“Remember how easy it is to become accustomed to Christianity, such that you are no longer moved by John’s warning to flee from the wrath that is to come.”
Understand that we all are surrounded by evil and that our wills remain weak and constantly challenged because of our flawed natures. Are we really all that far removed from the people of Mark’s day who regarded this Jesus as little more than, “one of the prophets?” Are some people even today not doing any better than Herod at really understanding?
Friends: this is about your hearing. As earnestly as I am able, I say to any of you who are on the periphery of this congregation, on the fringes of faith, those who like to listen on the occasional Sunday but are content to remain puzzled by much of the gospel: Do not let John’s message today fall short of your understanding. Let Herod be a lesson, a reminder, a warning. Confused but not convinced, he let a foolish promise destroy him. One cannot be saved even by a great deal of listening unless it is followed by read hearing, real understanding. Herod cut John off short and Herod in turn died short of believing.
The apostle Paul met a similar fate, after being treated in much the same way as was John, and finally his testimony was cut short, just as was John’s. The writer of the book of Acts tells us that when Paul was arrested and testified before the Roman governor Felix, “concerning faith in Christ Jesus,” and about “justice, self-control and the coming judgment,” Felix cut him short with the words, “Go away for the present, [and] when I have the opportunity, I will send for you.” Acts recalls further for us that “Felix used to send for Paul very often and conversed with him.” But he left him in prison. (Acts 24: 24-27) A person cannot be saved even by a great deal of listening and so, to any of you who have been delaying your decision about Jesus Christ, as earnestly as I can, I say to you, “Do not sell our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ short.” A person cannot be saved by listening alone, even by a great deal of listening.
The writer of Acts goes on to tell us that Paul remained in prison under Festus became the next governor. He ordered Paul to be brought before his tribunal and invited King Agrippa and Bernice to sit in.
When Paul defended himself and testified “that the Messiah must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles,” (Acts 26: 23), Felix cut him short, saying in effect, “Are you out of your mind, Paul!” And Paul turned to Agrippa and asked, “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you believe.” But then Agrippa cut Paul short saying, “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?” (Acts 26: 27-28)
But remember, this is about us, about you. So let me ask you: You who have only been listening and are perplexed: Are you quickly becoming persuaded, or are you sitting fast? You who are making excuses and delaying your believing: hear, listen and understand what Paul said to Agrippa: “Whether quickly or not, I pray to God that not only you but also all who are listening to me today might become such as I am.”
And this is what Paul was. He confessed, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”
And this is what Paul became: “But for that very reason, I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.” (1 Timothy 1: 15-16)
And this is what those Ephesians were, those to whom Paul wrote in the lesson that was our epistle reading this morning, “When you heard the words of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, you were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit – the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people.” (Ephesians 1; 13-14)
So let me ask you: is this not what all of us, in our highest desiring, want to become? All of us who have perceived in Jesus Christ the power and the love of the Son of God, do we not long to be – fully and completely – beloved children of God? You who, like the twelve, have been following faithfully, do you not with the Ephesians say, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing . . . just as He chose us in Christ . . . to be holy and blameless before Him in love?” (Ephesians 1: 1-4) ? All of you, to whom again today God “has made known the mystery of His will according to His good pleasure . . . set forth in Christ” (Ephesians 1: 9), do you not feel the Spirit’s urging to perceive, to hear, to understand, to receive Him as Your Saviour, not only in your head but in your heart?
When Paul was beheaded in Rome for Jesus’ gospel and testimony, the Christians in Rome buried Paul’s body. They continued as faithful followers even though Paul did not rise from the dead. And when John’s disciples heard about theirteacher’s death, “they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.” But they believed John and followed the One who he had declared to the Lamb of God, even though John himself did not rise from the dead. Then when Jesus breathed His last upon the cross, and after a centurion declared, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mark 15: 39) Joseph of Arimathea and others of Jesus’ friends took His body down from the cross, wrapped it in linen and laid it in a tomb.” (Mark 15: 46)
These others continued in the way because Jesus did, in fact, rise from the dead! From the third day onwards, Joseph and others like you and I have believed the message of the angels, “He is not here, He is risen!” On the third day, they perceived Him when He appeared in their midst and declared, “Behold! It is I myself!” And they listened when he explained, “It was necessary that the Messiah should suffer and rise from the dead that repentance and forgiveness of sins be proclaimed to all!” And they understood when they recalled having gathered around a table with Him and hearing Him say, “Take, eat, drink, this is my body – my blood – given for you!” They, and you, and I have perceived, listened, heard, understood. If Herod, though perplexed, was afraid because he thought John might be raised from the dead, how much more do we – we who are wise to salvation and know our Lord is risen from the dead and has gone before us to glory – how much more should each one of us say, each day, “Just as I am, O Lamb of God, I come, I come!”