Caravaggio's Beheading of John the Baptist
2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19, Psalm 24, Ephesians 1:3-14, Mark 6:14-29
The Bible loves King David, but it also shows him for the shrewd politician he was, and how his most admirable actions were calculated to advance his ambitions. This is noticed by Queen Michal, his trophy wife, whose hand he had won from her father, King Saul. Her father’s political instincts were abysmal, and he was his own worst enemy, but he never tried to work the crowd, and he had not even wanted to be king. Her brother, Prince Jonathan, was never ambitious and calculating, but loyal and fearless and pure of heart, and really the best man in the whole cycle of David stories.
But they were dead and David had won and she can see what he’s up to. He’s bringing the Ark of the Covenant not back to its proper home in the Tabernacle up north in Shiloh, where the priests are assigned, but into his new fortress, and he plays the priest. He is God’s man, and now God belongs to him. How strange of God to allow some guy to so possess him. There is much to forgive in King David, and we forgive him much, because he had a great soul and was "every inch a king."
In the gospel story, Herod "plays the king" but is only a pretender. He is Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great. When his father died, the Romans ended the Kingdom of Judea and made it a province under a Roman governor (that would be Pontius Pilate), and they let Herod Antipas be the Roman ethnarch of Galilee. But he wants to be king like his father was, in Jerusalem. He wants to be anointed King of Israel, the messiah, the presumptive nominee of God, and the deputy of Caesar while he’s at it. He imitates the behavior of Caesar’s family: incestuous, lascivious, lavish, boastful, superstitious, and visibly religious. He does feel guilty about what happened to John the Baptist, so it would be nice he came back from the dead.
He doesn’t understand Jesus. He certainly doesn’t see him as a rival messiah. Jesus isn’t acting like a messiah, he’s acting like a prophet. Not like David but like Samuel. Like Elijah, like Elisha, not like King Jehoshaphat. Prophets can be trouble, but not as competition for the throne. And even when Jesus eventually does make messianic claims, neither Herod or Pontius Pilate are ever threatened by him. They kill him because it’s so easy, not because they’re in danger from him. By all the expectations, both in strategy and outcome, Jesus was a failed messiah.
And yet St. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, claimed that this dead guy, this loser among a tribe of self-defeating losers, living at the back end of the Empire, that this guy was the pivot and center and focus of universal history. We are so used to this claim that we don’t recognize how nuts it must have sounded at the time. It’s not just audacious, it’s so preposterous as to have been nonsensical. Of course we Christians have spent 2000 years making sense of it, or we think we have, but I have good friends for whom it makes no sense at all, and it remains preposterous.
“You think that this universe has a creator (of which there is no clear evidence nor any necessity for it being true) and that this creator picked one galaxy out of the millions of galaxies, and from this galaxy one star, and on this one planet one species, and then ignoring all the many tribes and nations of the species just this one tribe, and just this one guy, to carry some meaning to the universe? That the whole universe is ‘gathered up’ in him? And that this one Friday-to-Sunday weekend was some ‘fulness of time,’ of 13.8 billion years? What are the odds? What about other planets? Do you think our planet is the only one with life on it? Why would you want to think such preposterous things?”
Fair questions. People ask them not from malice or meanness. I find them challenging and hard to answer. Yes, it kind of is preposterous. The whole thing is actually absurd, as Kierkegaard points out in his little book Fear and Trembling. And then he claims that’s why it hangs on faith.
Of course, in St. Paul’s time they imagined a vastly smaller universe, and they didn’t imagine the planets as other worlds, which could bear life. But what the Greeks and Romans would have found preposterous was that the Jewish god was the only god, and that this god was omnipotent and could be everywhere and could know everything, even what you thought. And that the world they had so wonderfully analyzed in their great tradition of philosophy and poetry would have completely to be rethought and revisioned and reimagined and reclassified and recapitulated in terms of this failed Messiah guy, just because his followers claimed he had been raised, and that his rising had converted him from a failed Jewish Messiah to some victorious global Christ of God.
Why do we believe such things? Why then, and why now? Well, if it helps, at least the odds are no better for this universe being the way it is without God than with God. Scientists report that the mere existence of biological life presumes a fine tuning of the universe against which the odds are also unthinkably enormous. Just your bare existence today is preposterous.
And the enormity issue is perspectival: We measure the enormity of the universe in billions one way, and the incredibly tiny spaces within atoms in billionths the other way, and did you know that the median is actually about the size of the human body? As my son-in-law the artist says, “Why shouldn’t God be so big?”
But that’s just room for belief, not reason for belief. What you believe about this dead Messiah was his vision for what God should be like, if there is one, and what God should want, against all other explanations in power at the time, which vision of his was vindicated by his rising from the dead (on which it all hangs!).
You believe in this dead Messiah’s vision of the interplay of law and liberty and love, a vision his own religious leaders found too dangerous not to get rid of him, which vision God vindicated by raising him from the dead.
You believe in his vision of righteousness and justice and the interplay of truth and politics that the Romans found so preposterous they had to mock him with a humiliating death, but which vision God vindicated by raising him from the dead.
You believe his vision of what a kingdom could look like, which the combined authorities found too challenging not to take him out, but which vision God vindicated by raising him from the dead.
And you love his personal vision of what a leader and a servant should be like. He was the Son of David but with Jonathan’s character and purity of heart, and there’s nothing we have to forgive him of.
You believe this story because what it tells you about life itself, life on the planet. All that he spoke of confirms the purposefulness that you sense in ordinary organic life, that life wants to live, and he confirms that the mystery of life is meaningful, that the meaning that you sense in existence is not just your wishful thinking imposed upon some hard reality of ultimate randomness.
That a flower opens and a bee goes in,
and that crows run through their repertoire of different calls to each other across the lake as the morning lengthens,
and that this planet has developed a species that can learn to read its rocks and by means of its geological strata tell the planet’s story to itself,
and that all this abundant purpose-driving and meaning-making is going on all the time around us without us but also through us to include us, tells us that it is not necessarily delusional or wishful thinking to see meaning in the universe, and that indeed it is reasonable at least to hope it’s true that “meaning is the essence of existence.” (“De zin is het zijnde van het zijn,” H. Dooyeweerd.)
And that’s all what you get encouraged of when you believe that God raised this failed Messiah from the dead.
And that’s what inspires you to “live for the praise of his glory.” It’s not that God needs your praise nor even desires it. It’s that your appropriate humility leads you to wonder, and awe, and thus to deeper humility, and in that deeper humility to joy.
Yes, you are mixed. You want to live for yourself as much as for his glory. You are more like David than like Jonathan, and what you see can tempt you to the cynicism of Queen Michal. But you have also caught the vision of his salvation and his forgiveness,
and more, you notice his lavish grace that is widespread in the world, and you’ve got to sing of it,
and you reckon your world as blessing, and you want to thank someone for it,
and you testify that when you look at your own small share of the universe, it looks to you like your purpose and meaning has always been to live within the love of God.
Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.