"Faith When Life Is Senseless"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 7/16/2000
II Samuel 6:1-8; Mark 6:14-29
None of us is immune to hostile feelings that sweep over us. We, too, become disgusted when we read and hear how people treat each other. What is it about the human race that causes such hostility? Is it part of our genetics? Are we naturally hostile? At first it may seem so.
If we go back as far as archaeological evidence supports, we will find that even in early humanoids one group fought against another. Some evidence suggests that the entire Neanderthal group was wiped out by the new emerging Cro-Magnon race. "Why?" Was it all due to Darwin's theory of the survival of the fittest group? What was gained by not sharing hunting grounds and the enormous natural resources that were abundantly available in Europe during the Stone Age?
When written history began 8,000 years ago, conflict between people was a major theme. The Old Testament is filled with stories of rape, murder and destruction. Writers even brought God into the mix. For example, Samuel who was known to speak on behalf of God once said, "Go and attack the Amalekites and completely destroy everything they have. Don't leave anything alive; kill all the men, women, children and babies; the cattle, sheep, camels, and donkeys." (I Sam. 15:3f). Again, why?
Conflict seemed like a natural inclination by those in power. An example of this can also be found in Samuel. "The following spring, at the time of the year when kings usually go to war, David sent out Joab with his officers and the Israelite army; they defeated the Ammonites and besieged the city of Rabbath." (II Sam. 11:1). Again, why? Has war always been a major activity because the powerful could win, thus gaining resources, real estate and slaves?
Our lesson today contains the detailed account of the death of John the Baptist. Josephus, the great Hebrew historian, once wrote that the prophetic word of God had not been heard in Israel for over 400 years. It was John the Baptizer who broke that silence. John's preaching was welcomed by nearly everyone. He was willing to step forward and confront people on how far they had drifted from the values of a God-centered life. John feared no one.
On numerous occasions, John verbally attacked King Herod for the public spectacle of deliberately flaunting his power in the face of existing Hebrew Law. Herod had become smitten with his brother's wife, Herodias, so he married her. It made no difference that she was still married to Philip. This was a major crime committed by a ruler who lived as though he were above the Law.
Herod liked John. Listen to these words, "Herod was afraid of John because he knew that John was a good and holy man, and so he kept him safe. He liked to listen to him, even though he became greatly disturbed every time he heard him." Herod's wife, however, hated John.
We know well the story of how she finally had him silenced. It was Herod's birthday and Herodias planned a massive party where only the elite in Galilee were invited. The guest list included top government officials, the military chiefs and the leading citizens. Then after watching his stepdaughter dance, Herod was so pleased by her performance that he promised to give her anything she wanted. He said over and over again, "I swear that I will give you anything you ask, even as much as half my kingdom." Fueled by his conspicuous consumption of alcohol, Herod's arrogance and pride placed him in a perilous position.
Herod's wife was prepared to act on her plan to eliminate John. Herodias advised her daughter to ask for the head of John the Baptist. I'm sure after her daughter's request was made, there was total silence among the guests. Something that had been understood by all the guests as the flippant loose tongue of their King, suddenly took on an air of seriousness. The lesson goes on to say, ". . . he could not refuse her because of the vows he made in front of all his guests. So he sent off a guard at once with the orders to bring John's head."
Just think about this. The word of God had not been heard in Israel for over 400 years. And now the source of that word was killed. A wonderfully refreshing voice, calling people back to wholesome living patterns, was silenced because of a ridiculous promise made at a birthday party. What is our role when we are faced with such senselessness?
How was Jesus' affected by John's death? We do not know. Jesus never commented on his cousin's death. The Scriptures tell us, "When Jesus heard the news about John, he left there in a boat and went to a lonely place by himself." (Matt. 14:13) No doubt, Jesus had little choice but to accept John's death. Jesus was wise enough not to look for meaning in something so senseless.
What we do know is where John stood in Jesus' mind. John was an influential figure to Jesus. Jesus once said, "I assure you that John the Baptist is greater than anyone who has ever lived. But, the one who is least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than John." (Matt.11:11) His death may have focused Jesus enormously, inspiring him to continue preaching the same message -- "The Kingdom of God is at hand."
There is no shortage of stories in our newspapers that lift up what has been here since the Stone Age. I thought it was interesting that on the Sunday following our mission group's return from Juarez, Mexico, the lead story on the front page of the Washington Post was about the disappearance, rape and dismemberment of over 300 women who lived in Juarez.
How easy it might be for some people to conclude that, because of the danger, no person in their right mind should go there. That would make sense. Why go to a place where danger is known to exist? Why go to a place where some people engage in senseless acts of violence?
But before we answer those questions, we need to think about why John the Baptist felt inspired to preach in the first place. Think about what caused Jesus to come to the earth and walk among us. Why did Jesus commission disciples to go into all the world? Was it because the world is a safe place? Was it because the world was filled with light and peace? No, we go because the world needs light, hope, and a horizon toward which to walk.
So we go to Juarez anyway and we build houses. We play with the beautiful Mexican children and we laugh together. We struggle with the language barrier, yet somehow we communicate. And we leave a newly built house that says that love was here. Perhaps if we leave history's unfolding to God, our presence in Juarez will send ripples as on a pond, and for some people, the world will be more sane because people like us go to such places.
The prospect of senseless hostility is not going to go away. Nor can we expect God's intervention. This is not God's problem. It is our's. When children die from gun shot wounds from a rival gang, or from automobile accidents, people often factor God into the equation. We frequently hear people say, "We do not understand the mystery of God's will." God's will? I don't think so.
When tragedy strikes in our lives, our own grieving prevents us from remembering that God, too, lost a son. And what may be harder for us to understand is that God could have prevented the crucifixion of Jesus. But a very important thing happened after Jesus' death. God responded by turning the other cheek. It was as if God was saying, "It was all worth it if humanity can understand that vengeance is mine, and I will never use it because I am love." The sad part of that truth is that we will never find or understand God until we embody such loving energy as well.
Today the world's people crave justice. Years ago rebellion swept the college campuses during the Viet-Nam War. The cry went out everywhere to bring home our troops. There were protests outside of the White House on a nightly basis. We lost 58,000 Americans in that war. People still talk about how unjust that war was.
How many of us realize that we lose that many Americans every seven weeks due to their use of tobacco products? According to the American Lung Association, very seven weeks 58,000 Americans die! Yet there have been few cries for justice until the recent 146 billion dollar judgment brought against many of the key players in the tobacco industry. Does such a dollar amount satisfy anything? Does such justice undo the destruction to human life or bring back loved ones?
How is darkness overcome? It is overcome when a shaft of light pierces it. Darkness ends when we take another message into the world. We need to stand for something more than justice. We need to stand for light in the midst of darkness. We need to say to ourselves, "Helping to rid darkness from our world is the main reason for my being born."
One day a man happened to meet Billy Graham. When he learned that he was in the presence of the distinguished spiritual leader, he began to mention all the discouraging events happening in the world. Dr. Graham listened patiently as the man described his impressions of a world that has not progressed or advanced very much. He concluded by saying, "Quite honestly, Dr. Graham, it's enough to make a man lose his religion."
Billy Graham is no stranger to the darkness of this world. In fact, the state of the world is what has motivated him through the years to do what he does. He responded to the man with these words, "It seems to me that the world's problems are enough to make a man use his religion."
Those are good words. When senseless events take place all around us, we often say "Why?" That is not a helpful question. Senseless events are a given in this world. And this is not an overly pessimistic world view. We cannot expect what has been with us since the Stone Age to disappear simply because Jesus preached about what would happen if we replaced fear with love. But we can chip away at it. We can live differently because, quite frankly, that is the way God made us. We are not genetically flawed. If that were the case, we could not love at all. And Jesus would have never said, "Follow me," if such were an impossibility.
Always there are going to be people who will take what is not theirs, who will use terror as a way of gaining attention for their cause, who will drink and drive, who will create computer viruses to show others their "brilliance," or who will use their power to gain something they believe they want or need. People have engaged in these and numerous other activities for thousands of years. Our question should not be "Why," but rather "Who do we want to be when such things occur?"
We can look at the senseless murder of John the Baptist. Or, we can look at another senseless murder that took place two years later where justice was equally absent. From the cross, Jesus had time to love a thief. From the cross, he made arrangements for the care of his mother. From the cross, he showed love for those who had done this to him. From the cross he said, "It is finished"—as if to say, "My job is done. If the rest of you will only follow me, the world will be healed." He believed that!
When we follow him, there will be no more crosses, no more muggings and rapes, and no more tragedies that adversely effect the lives of so many people. Once we learn that love is a one way street that leads to Jesus' kingdom, there will be no more senselessness. Have we gotten that message? This message has little to do with the practice of any religion. It has to do with common sense! It has to do with the survival of all of us!
Each of us must take that step the next time we are offended, the next time we feel violated, the next time we are harassed, the next time someone is rude to us, the next time no one wants to listen to our story, or the next time we lose something very precious to us. Who is it that we want to be when the world so desperately cries out for light, hope, and a renewed sense that a new day is dawning? Jesus left us with a heritage that can hasten that day. The question is, are we passing it on?
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
We thank you, God, that life unfolds as it does. There are moments when our fears tell us we have failed. There are times when we have felt betrayed. We have engaged in experiences that have produced guilt. Yet, how wonderful our faith is during such moments. Failures have often led to opened doors, revealing opportunities beyond your dreams. Betrayals have led to empty tombs. And guilt has often guided us to recommit ourselves to values of substance. We thank you for the many times our trust in you has helped us regain our vision and hope. We thank you for how life's reversals have contributed to the quality of our character. We thank you for your healing presence in all that we do. May the close of each day bring us peace from knowing that your will is being accomplished. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Eternal and ever faithful God, we come into our place of worship often expecting miracles—often hoping for some word from you, or some insight that will lead us to resolve some issue that appears beyond our reach. How difficult it is to realize that Israel experienced 400 years of history when no one heard your voice.
Our society has spoiled us. On nearly every level we can find instant gratification for our fondest desires. We forget that a relationship with you is not one that can be founded on instant answers to prayer, but on learning how to trust you during challenging times as well as moments when life is a perfect delight. How well we remember the words of your Son, "Not my will, but thine be done"—yet, we confess how difficult it is to live with such trust.
So this morning we come, not only to find stillness for our hectic lives, but also to find direction for how we might better serve others. May we find ourselves by losing ourselves in friendships. May we find our wealth by silencing our need for things. May we discover peace of mind by helping another to find their way. And may we count it a rich blessing to have the privilege of honoring you by how we live. You gave us life, O God, and since we have come from the greatest source of light, may our little spark join with others so that your Church might be a haven of healing, health and acceptance for everyone. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .