Rev. Dr. Steven Albertin
Editor’s Note: The following sermon was proclaimed “live” on the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (July 11, 2021), by Rev. Dr. Steven Albertin at St. Paul Lutheran Church, Seymour, Indiana. Dr. Albertin is a retired Lutheran pastor who lives in Zionsville, Indiana. The text on which the sermon is based is the Gospel reading appointed for that Sunday, Mark 6:14-29.
Recently I was driving down 96th Street, when I suddenly hit something. I heard a loud thump. What was that? I looked up in the rear-view mirror and saw a brown-and-white cat go limping off the road. I felt terrible. What had I done? That cat was probably some child’s pet. I stared in the rear-view mirror as I saw it crawl along the roadside. Should I go back and help it? I watched its movements in the rear-view mirror get slower and slower. Suddenly I heard a horn sound. I looked up through the windshield and saw that I had drifted off into the left lane with another car headed straight for me. I slammed on the brakes, jerked the wheel to the right, and just missed colliding with the oncoming car.
Whew! That was scary. What did I think I was doing? You can’t drive a car by looking through the rear-view mirror. You drive a car by looking through the windshield.
That near collision is an image of our lives. As we live our lives, we cannot help but look in the rear-view mirror. We cannot help looking back at a past that will not leave us alone. Our mistakes keep haunting us. An old song reminds us of the date we wish we never had. Seeing an old coach painfully reminds us of the big game we lost. An old building reminds us of a decision we cannot stop regretting. A friend scolds us for dwelling in the past. A counselor advises us, “Stop living your life through the rear-view mirror. Live your life by looking through the windshield.” However, such well-intended advice only makes us feel worse for not being able to leave the past behind.
In today’s Gospel reading, King Herod of Galilee suffers a similar affliction. Burdened with regret and haunted by guilt, he cannot flee the memory of John the Baptist and the accusations of his bloody past.
Herod was just another petty tyrant of the Roman Empire. He was one in a series of kings that Rome had used to manage the raucous and rowdy province of Galilee. This Herod was particularly despicable because he had divorced his first wife in order to marry the wife of his brother.
John the Baptist, in the tradition of Israel’s prophets, would not let this brazen abuse of power go unchallenged. He publicly condemns Herod and his wife. Herod could have killed this out-of-control prophet but didn’t. John fascinated him. Herod liked to listen to John. Even though John had zinged his conscience with criticism of his marriage, Herod admired him for daring to stand up to imperial power. Perhaps Herod was amused by John and his bohemian lifestyle, living in the desert, wearing garments of camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey.
However, his wife, Herodias, would not stand for it. She hated John. She wanted to kill him. She demanded and got her husband to put John in jail. There Herod thought he would be able to silence John and avoid killing him. Herod did not want to mess with this wild-eyed prophet and his God. However, Herod’s plan ended in one of the most lurid and gruesome stories of the New Testament.
Herod decided to give himself a birthday party. Determined to impress, he invited all the big shots of Galilee. The wine freely flowed. The food was lavish. The music was great. His daughter topped it all off by dancing. We don’t know what the dance was. It may have been a beautiful ballet or a torrid tango . Whatever the case, she so pleased Herod and all his guests that Herod, in a fit of royal generosity . . . or insanity . . . , offered to give her anything, up to half of his kingdom!
Her mother, Herodias, always plotting and scheming, was waiting for just such an opportunity. This was her chance to get back at John. She persuaded her daughter to demand . . . . the head of John the Baptist . . . on a platter.
Herod must have felt trapped. He was the king. He called the shots. He thought he had successfully put “The John Problem” behind him. But now, . . . . after this unexpected bump in the road . . ., he had to look in the rear-view mirror. What did he see? A birthday party filled with fawning subjects who expected him to keep his word, a daughter who had tricked him into keeping a promise he did not want to make, and John, a prophet who fascinated . . . and frightened him. What could he do? He had no choice but to save face and grant his daughter’s request. He beheaded John and gave his head to his daughter, who then gave it to her vindictive and grinning mother.
Herod must have felt relieved. John was gone. John could no longer harass Herod. Perhaps now he could take his eyes off the rear-view mirror and move on with his life. But then again he hit something in the road. He heard that there was a prophet preaching repentance. He started to panic. Was this John the Baptist come back from the dead to haunt and harass him again? Is this John’s God coming to make him pay for his treachery? He looks in the rear-view mirror, terrified of what he might see.
Herod was never able to escape the haunting consequences of his past. He was never able to escape the fear that John’s God was going to get him. It was no way to live a life . . ., always looking over your shoulder, always glancing into the rear-view mirror when you ought to be looking out the windshield.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Herod eventually crashed. His illicit marriage to Herodias erupted in a war he could not win. Rome, disgusted with his leadership, exiled both him and his wife to a place no one knows. They died in obscurity, only to be remembered for this sordid tale of treachery and murder. God would not be mocked.
Does the story of Herod sound familiar? We may not be engaging in illicit affairs, marrying our brother’s wife, imprisoning our enemies, and chopping off the heads of those we don’t like. But like Herod, we think that we are in charge and can simply run away from our past and a God who holds us accountable. However, sooner or later, there will be that voice we hoped to never hear again. There will be some bump in the road that jars us out of our routine. Forced to look in the rear-view mirror, we will be reminded of skeletons we thought we could keep buried in the past.
In today’s First Reading that is exactly what the prophet Amos does. Like a bump in the road, he won’t let Israel drive any further down the road without looking in the rear-view mirror. Israel must recognize how far it has drifted from God’s ways. A mason uses a plumb line to center his bricks and build his wall straight and true. Israel is of off center. It is bent and crooked. Running over the poor and weak, ignoring the orphan and widow, padding the pockets of the rich, Israel was headed for a crash. A crooked wall cannot stand. Ignore the plumb line, erect a building where joints do not match, and it will fall. Within a century, Israel did crash and fall. Crushed by the mighty Assyrian empire, it was wiped off the face of the earth. God would not be mocked.
Amos’ warning should make us shudder as we live in a country not much different from eighth-century Israel. God holds up his plumb line and exposes how off center we are. We are a country burgeoning with wealth yet drowning in debt, with a growing underclass of the permanently poor. Riots last summer, a January insurrection, and murders in our cities expose a society where anger and violence are seething beneath the surface. Does the fate of Israel await us?
Sooner or later, with our eyes fixed on the rear-view mirror, we will get hit by the car we did not see coming. We will crash, surprised by an unforeseen illness, an unexpected “pink slip,” by a friend we thought we could trust but who stabs us in the back, by an unwanted lump in our body, by a phone call in the middle of the night, by the cemetery we thought we could avoid.
When Herod heard of Jesus’ disciples preaching, it was like a siren sounding. It was as if the alarm went off. Herod was afraid that John had come back from the dead to get him. When something triggers a guilt-ridden memory of the past in us, we too are afraid that we will get busted. We too fear being exposed and forced to pay. We too worry that God will not be mocked.
However, when Jesus shows up and the siren sounds, it sounds different. This is the siren of a 911 first-responder coming to rescue us and not the cop coming to arrest us. Jesus comes preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God. Even with a world strewn with the bloody mess Herod and his ilk have left behind, God will not give up.
Jesus will not leave dead dogs . . . or cats . . . lie. Jesus will not simply write off the past as if it never happened. Jesus digs up the past we want to forget, not to throw it in our face but to bear it and carry its bloody consequences for us, all the way to the cross and empty tomb. In exchange, Jesus gives us a platter . . . not with his “head,” but his body and blood . . . at His table. He gives us the new life and fresh start we crave.
Able to face the truth about the rubble of our past, we no longer have to silence the voices we fear. We no longer have to “cut off the heads” of those who have the dirt on us. We can tell the truth, confess our sins, and confidently move forward with our lives, trusting the green light God has given us in Jesus.
We can “drive safely,” no longer needing obsessively to look backward through the rear-view mirror. Now we can live our lives the way God meant them to be lived: looking forward through the windshield, into the future, unencumbered by the past, no longer expending our energy in covering up, paying back or getting even . . . but giving ourselves away for others, creating a new world and trusting the promise of the risen Christ.