In his poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” T.S. Eliot created the ultimate symbol of powerlessness – the character J. Alfred Prufrock. Although the poem is over 50 years old, some of its famous lines have worked their way into the cultural discourse: “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” Prufrock says. “Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,/ I am no prophet – and here’s no great matter;/ I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,/ And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my cot, and snicker,/ And in short, I was afraid.”
Scripture, though, looks at power very differently. Scripture tells us that, by our own power, we cannot add an inch to our stature. Paul famously complained, “That good that I would do, I cannot.” Paul said that he could will himself to do what was right, but that sin made him powerless to do what was right. Last week’s lesson from 2 Corinthians revealed God’s answer to Paul’s request to remove the thorn from his side: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
Today’s Gospel lesson is another look at power and powerlessness. Mark tells the story of a tragic event that happened early in Jesus’ ministry. John and Jesus must have been very close. All four Gospels have John preaching in the wilderness, preparing the way for the Messiah; John baptized Jesus, thus getting Jesus’ ministry underway. Yet, very early in his ministry, Jesus hears the news of the political execution of John the Baptist.
It’s an old struggle, the one between power and truth. There’s the famous example of Aristotle who taught that men had more teeth than women. Aristotle, who was married, apparently never asked Mrs. Aristotle to open her mouth so he could count her teeth. Aristotle was so convinced that he was right that he never thought about checking to see if he was right or not. You might have thought that someone would have had the courage to correct Aristotle, but Aristotle was Aristotle and no one said a word. Not so John the Baptist. John wasn’t afraid of speaking the truth even to the powerful, even when there was more at stake than the number of teeth men and women had.
The text here is little confusing with names. The Herod in Mark’s text is Herod Antipas. He was a relative of Herod the Great who massacred the little children of Bethlehem, and also a relative of Herod Agrippa 1 who executed John’s brother James. The women’s names are confusing as well. Both mother and daughter are called Herodias, although the 1st century historian Josephus identifies the daughter as Salome. Herod Antipas had divorced his first wife in order to marry Herodias, who at the time was the wife of his brother, also called Herod. I guess when you’ve seen one Herod you’ve seen them all. What was so objectionable was not that the brother had married his brother’s wife, but the Herod had violated the Mosaic law prohibiting marriage to a brother’s wife while the brother was still alive.
Herod Antipas, who wields the power of the sovereign Roman State, silences John the Baptist a man driven by the power of the Word of God by having John beheaded. Herod Antipas is powerful enough, even in a drunken stupor, to have the prophet’s head served up on a platter because he is pleased by a young girl’s exotic dancing. He doesn’t want to lose face before his guests and out of regard for the oaths he took “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” So Herod the powerful does what he really doesn’t want to do.
This is power? Look more closely at the text and there is another message. John the Baptist challenged the State’s power. Perhaps the story of John the Baptist is told early in the Gospel of Mark to suggest that violence and suffering are part of the work and that continues, even after Easter. But the Herods of the world are minor footnotes to cosmic history while Easter continues.
There is also the courage of the disciples at the end of this story. In Jewish tradition, the sons of the father would have given an honorable burial, but John has no family because the disciples provided a burial tomb for him. That took courage to ask for the body of someone who had been executed by the state.
Jesus often found himself challenging and telling the truth to the powers of the world, and Jesus, like his cousin John, died at the hands of the State. But the message can’t be stopped. The story continues to be told. Contemporary disciples like us are instructed and encouraged by this story. Real power comes from subverting the old world, both in our own hearts and in society, and ringing in a new world. Every time you speak up against injustice, you bring the Kingdom a little closer. Every time you choose to love rather than hate, you bring the Kingdom a little closer. The power of the risen Christ is continuing to subvert the old world in you and create a new world through you.
This is the story of the father of a friend. A young mother of the Great Depression took her two -year old son to a Presbyterian orphanage because she could no longer care for him. This little boy grew up to be a very successful educator, a wonderful husband and father, joyful, intelligent and caring, despite his humble beginnings. Two years ago he suffered a debilitating stroke and now is bedridden in a nursing home. When people hear about this frail man, they make comments like: “If that ever happens to me, I hope someone will just shoot me!” But you know what? My friend says that her father tells her that he knows that God was looking out for him when he was born, and continues to look out for him still. My friend is learning about grace in the joy and courage of her father. Those who care for him witness this frail man’s reliance upon God. My friend says that her father continues to live his life. It’s a very different life than he lived before, but it is nonetheless a life with many blessings.
So where is the real power? It’s not ultimately in the power of this world, or in the power of disease and death. It’s in a loving God who continues to bring forth new worlds, even after death. The great promise that gathers the Christian community these many weeks after Easter is that nothing, no power on earth and certainly not death, has the final word. EVER. Believe that this is so. Amen.