January 19, 2020

Prepared for Opposition

Passage: Matthew 14:1-12

Prepared for Opposition
January 19, 2020
Rev. Fritz Nelson

Text: Matthew 14:1-12

John is not the first biblical prophet to find himself in trouble with the authorities. Elijah became ancient Israel’s most wanted after criticizing Queen Jezebel’s devotion to Baal, the Canaanite god of thunder. King Zedekiah threw Jeremiah in prison for treason after he prophesied against the king’s armies. King Nebuchadnezzar threw Daniel into the lion’s den for maintaining Jewish rituals and practice while serving in the palace. As for John? Why exactly does Herod Antipas throw John into prison? What was his crime? How does he go from one day peacefully preaching and baptizing along the Jordan River, to languishing in King Herod’s dungeon, to having his head delivered on a platter at a royal birthday party?

Although the gospels make John a secondary character to Jesus, in Jesus’ own day and age John the Baptist was as well known, if not better known, than Jesus. His message of renewal, repentance and a return to “old time religion” resonated among a population struggling economically and lacking political power. He also preached about a new kingdom. A kingdom ordained by God, free from corruption and grounded in spiritual integrity.

Herod Antipas, who ruled Judea, watched John closely but left him alone. After all Judea was a Jewish state, with a supposedly Jewish king. Being an observant Jew, preaching a return to the official, recognized religion, was not a crime. John doesn’t get arrested until his preaching hits a little too close to home.

The Herods, you see, were a little too incestuous for many observant Jew’s. They also named everyone Herod – so bear with me as we try to sort all this out. Herod Antipas – the Herod who had John the Baptist arrested and killed – was the son of Herod the Great – the Herod who tried to kill baby Jesus. Herod the Great had twelve wives and produced a ton of kids, who basically just married each other. So Herodias, the second wife of Herod Antipas, was the granddaughter of Herod the Great, which also made her Herod Antipas’ niece. Before she was married to Herod Antipas, Heroditias was married to a different uncle, Herod Philip. She ditched him to join a more powerful branch of the family. To create room in the palace for her, Herod Antipas divorced the daughter of a neighboring king, causing a very unpopular war between the two countries. Spiritually, morally, politically, the marriage between Herod Antipas and Heroditas was a bad idea, and John wasn’t afraid to say so. Herod Antipas throws John in prison to shut him up.

Everything’s fine until our faith calls us to go in directions our neighbors or government authorities find difficult or embarrassing or at times just plain different from how they were taught to think. Martin Luther King, Jr., now hailed as a 20th century prophet for his biblical vision of an equal and just society was trailed by the FBI, arrested numerous times and ultimately assassinated. He also was unwelcome in many pulpits, derided by many ministers and labeled unchristian for advocating against unjust, unbiblical law understood as proper by many followers of Jesus Christ.

John the Baptist was a Jew living in a supposedly Jewish nation. We are Christians living in a supposedly Christian nation. But just as John the Baptist ran into opposition by radically following the path of God, we too will encounter opposition if we radically follow the calling of Jesus Christ. What would our neighbors, or the city think if we turned our church into a day center for addicts or the seriously mentally ill? Or what if we turned our parking lot into a skate park? Or what if we simply invited the lonely neighbor nobody likes to the family thanksgiving? What if, to follow Christ, meant having to break the law?

It is illegal to help a person cross the US Mexico border. No More Deaths, a Presbyterian founded agency in Arizona knows this. No More Deaths provides food, water and medical care to migrants crossing the brutal Sonoran Desert. Scott Warren, a No More Deaths volunteer knew this when, in full view of border control agents, he checked on two migrants huddled in a No More Deaths shelter deep in the desert. As a follower of Jesus Christ, Scott Warren would later tell a judge, he was mandated to help his sisters and brothers crossing the desert. They were the poor, the hungry, the sick, the stranger. They were Jesus. Yes he knew the law, but to not help them put his salvation at risk.

I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest Christians are persecuted in our Christian nation. In fact when Christians are hauled before courts and councils in the United States they usually win. Scott Warren did. So did my friends at Bethany Presbyterian Church on Long Island when they opened their church to homeless day laborers camping in the woods nearby. So, ultimately did Martin Luther King, Jr. – although the fight for justice and equality continues.

In Matthew’s gospel John the Baptist’s dramatic, gruesome story provides a preview of Jesus’ own death, arrest and crucifixion. The same authorities who arrested John arrest Jesus. The same institutions and ideas put them on trial for their lives. And in both cases the powers and principalities, the authorities and institutions cannot stop God’s message of love, compassion, hope, renewal and restoration. John may die, but the one greater than him builds upon his legacy. Jesus may die but he rises again and empowers his church.

As disciples of Jesus Christ we should never be surprised when our commitment to the gospel leads us to go where our neighbors would rather we wouldn’t, to love those our neighbors would rather be invisible, to serve those society deems disposable. Are we willing to take the risk? Are we willing to face the ostracism, or the legal fees or the jail time? If we’re not, are we really committed to following Christ?