Another two-parter today. First we’ll cover Mark 6:14-29 with its story of John the Baptist’s beheading. It started with people wondering about Jesus. Some thought he was a resurrected Old Testament prophet such as Elijah. Others (including the ruler Herod Antipas) thought that Jesus was the man he had recently beheaded—John the Baptist.
John was like most prophets in that he proclaimed God’s provocative message. John denounced Herod Antipas’ violation of Jewish law in that Herod had married Herodias, the legitimate wife of Herod’s still-living half-brother Philip. This soap opera was compounded in that Herodias was closely related to Herod and the resulting incest stank to high heaven. True to his family lineage, Herod Antipas was morally corrupt and he imprisoned John for calling out the evil. The women at the center of this maelstrom hated John but Herod was intrigued by John’s talk. So smitten by John’s message was Herod that he put John into protective custody so that Herodias couldn’t kill him.
The melodrama intensified when Herod Antipas held his birthday party. Herodias performed what was likely a striptease. Herod’s lust was so great during the spectacle that he lost what little good judgement he had and foolishly proclaimed that he would give Herodias anything she wanted. Despite some confusing references in the text about who was whom, the end result was that those who plotted against John won and his severed head was delivered on a platter.
What’s the moral of this lurid story? Perhaps some evil rulers like Herod Antipas are alive enough on the inside to hear the truth and feel some stirrings of interest (as Herod did when he inclined to John’s message). We are so challenged to not give-up on anyone since we can’t reliably judge another’s heart. A second lesson could be that ego-drunk rulers, both past and present, allow their lust to destroy them.
The second half of today’s message comes from Ephesians 1:3-14, where Paul writes about being chosen by God “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4b). This pre-chosen-ness is the idea of God having figured out history and everything else before it happens. God’s seeing of the future doesn’t make much sense from our perspective. As with most theology, there are monumental problems when we try to imprison God within a static, orthodox framework. If God knows and somehow controls everything then how can we be truly free? How do we reconcile what we think we know about God while asserting that each of us is also in control of who and what we are? The idea of predestination has always caused problems vis-à-vis free will. Yes, it is vexing to reconcile God’s plan for us while also claiming we have full responsibility for the choices we make.
Predestination critics assert that either we are free agents in the universe or not. No one can deny that we are buffeted by external physical and cultural forces as well as by internal forces such as genetics. To claim that God has either damned or saved people before they’ve been born will always arouse debate since it stretches our logic, reason, and imagination.
Does it matter how much energy we exert defending or attacking theological issues? Maybe we’re missing the greater point, which could be that what counts is energy. This suggests that controversy is good for us despite not arriving at a firm conclusion; we grow by trying and vying. The analogy is that our religious gymnastics are helpful in a way analogous with physical exercise. When we’re on that treadmill we are not obsessed with a destination because it’s the effort that counts. Our exercise doesn’t in itself get us to a new geographic location and yet we are not disappointed because we’ve burned calories and toned our muscles. Similarly, it’s not arriving at a firm theological answer that makes us healthier but rather the effort we expend in exercising our minds and faith. We might rightly conclude that truth is not a destination but a journey.
Here and elsewhere in Paul’s writings we need to focus on the positive, celebrating encouragement such as when Paul writes that “we have redemption . . . the forgiveness, according to the riches of his grace” (Ephesians 1:7). We’re also to emphasize “adoption as his children . . . according to the good pleasure of his will” (Ephesians 1:5). There’s more. Paul reminded us that we are “marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 1:13b). Yes, it is great to celebrate God’s love, mercy and grace. Our peace is not dependent upon arguments but our joy rises as we celebrate empowerment through the Holy Spirit.
Wow! Theological rhetoric is as hot as ever. Our challenge is not to get burned by over-heated emotions and attachments. The argument between free will and predestination will not be solved any more than it makes sense for someone to ask you where you’re going on that treadmill. Suffice to say that we derive reassurance when we are nourished by God’s love and truth. We are God’s children. We are redeemed and forgiven. We are energized and encouraged. –Reverend Larry Hoxey