Changing Minds

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Changing Minds” Luke 3:1-6

Christmas is a beautiful and magical time of year in Saranac Lake.  On Friday evening, I was working in my home study when the windows began to vibrate with the thump and boom of over-amplified bass guitar.  The night sky pulsed with the bright flash of holiday lights.  Big wheels rolled up Park Avenue.  It was Santa, paying neighborhood children a visit pandemic-style, riding through the village streets in a convoy of fire engines.

After a forced hiatus, Sparkle Village returned to the Town Hall this year.  Our favorite crafters, like Martha, shared their one-of-a-kind hand-made wares with neighbors in search of that perfect holiday gift.  There were birch baskets and handknit sweaters, wooden toys and sweet jams, fragrant soaps and hand-poured candles.  This year, to mitigate the risk of sharing COVID along with our holiday cheer, immunization records were checked, masks were worn, and entrance was staggered.

Fortunately, some of our Christmas traditions seem naturally suited to pandemic life.  We can still admire the village Christmas tree on Berkeley Green while sipping a peppermint latte and grooving to Santa’s jukebox.  We can go for an evening stroll and check out our neighborhood Christmas lights.  We can take the kids to drop a donation in the red kettle while a masked bellringer wishes us, “Merry Christmas!”  Despite COVID-19, we are finding ways to enter the spirit of this special season.

For the majority of our neighbors, this is what preparing for Christmas is all about.  It’s Santa and shopping.  It’s seasonal music and decorations.  It’s gift making and gift giving.  I, for one, will freely admit that those are some of my favorite pursuits of the season.  After all, it is Saranac Lake, there’s a fresh snowfall, and it’s just so beautiful.  But John the Baptist always pays us a disruptive visit on the second Sunday of Advent to see if he can change our minds about what this time leading up to Christmas is all about.

Advent is a prophetic, preparatory season, so after Jesus’ apocalyptic message last week, it is only fitting that this week John the Baptist strides across the wild country surrounding the Jordan River, looking and sounding a lot like a Hebrew prophet.  John had heard a message from God Almighty, a word so significant and relevant that he felt compelled to preach it.  Drawn by his powerful preaching, crowds came from the cities and villages.  They flocked to the banks of the Jordan to hear John speak.

Luke calls our attention to the political and religious landscape of the day by naming seven of the most powerful and affluent men in John’s world.  Tiberius rose to the rank of emperor after military conquests in Pannonia, Dalmatia, and Germania and the mysterious deaths of those who were closer to the throne.  Annas and Caiphas were part of a priestly dynasty that would control the Temple until its destruction in the year 70.  Herod and Philip had followed in the footsteps of their father Herod the Great, living lavishly amid the poverty of the people they ruled.  Pilate, a military man like Tiberias, would govern Judea for ten years with a brute force that would eventually lead to his recall to Rome.  These men called the shots in the life of the Hebrew people with an earthly dominion that was brutal, costly, and oppressive.  That’s one heck-of-a context in which John shared the prophetic word of God.

We no longer contend with emperors and high priests or client kings and procurators, but we have our own less than desirable political, religious, and social realities that we contend with this Advent.  Don’t get us started on the gridlock, corruption, acrimony, and big money of partisan politics.  Don’t remind us about multi-million-dollar mega churches, high-flying televangelists, and miracle working faith-healers.  Don’t remind us about the rise of the “nones,” those neighbors, friends, and sometimes family members who say there is no God and scoff at our Christmas joy while putting up a Christmas tree, hanging stockings for Santa, exchanging gifts, and perhaps even coming to church on Christmas Eve.  How weary are we of twenty months of pandemic with shots and boosters, masks and hand sanitizer, social distance and unending variants?  Our world is not the same as John’s world, but we need God’s word to come to us, every bit as much as John’s listeners did.

And what a word it was.  John called his listeners to trust that God was still at work in a world dominated by petty despots.  God’s plan for the salvation of all people was unfolding in their midst.  A Messiah had come to usher in a holy and eternal Kingdom that would have no end.  Tiberias, Caiaphas, Herod, Philip, Pilate, all would one day be footnotes in the greatest story ever told, the story of a holy child, born in lowly circumstance, God Almighty, who would enter all those hard political, religious, and social realities to reveal to us an eternal love strong enough to break the powers of sin and death.  John called his listeners to be a part of that story, to join their purpose to God’s purpose with repentance that would prepare the way for that coming King.

Repentance—metanoia—means to change your mind, to turn around, to be reoriented.  John called his listeners to change their minds about what power and authority looked like.  John summoned the crowds to turn away from the powers, principalities, and preoccupations of their world and to turn instead to God.  John longed for his neighbors to be reoriented, to prepare for the coming Messiah, who alone would be worthy of their ultimate allegiance and devotion.

Alan Culpepper, who served as dean of the McAfee School of Theology for more than twenty years, teaches that John the Baptist continues to remind us that God is at work to bring salvation to all people.  We can trust that John’s prophetic word is true, regardless of our challenging political climate, our daunting religious landscape, the economics of inequality, and the limited social circumstances forced upon us by COVID-19.  Each Christmas, we remember that God continues to enter our world and work in ways that bring healing, redemption, new beginnings, and a love that is stronger than death. 

That promise of God’s salvation calls for our repentance.  Amid the beauty and magic of these weeks, the music and decorations, Santa and shopping, gift-making and gift-giving, we return to God.  We change our minds about what is really important in this busy and overscheduled season.  We turn our lives around.  We make straight the behaviors that have gone crooked.  We smooth out the rough places where we have been captivated by political powers or we have been preoccupied with consumption, or we have lost sight of religious truth.  As John the Baptist preachers, we reevaluate our priorities and grant God the authority and reverence that God so richly deserves.

As the crowds sat on the banks of the Jordan and listened to John preach, their perspective shifted.  They worried less about the trifling despots of their world.  They remembered God’s long history of raising up heroes, toppling empires, and delivering faithful people.  They began to trust that God was still at work for their salvation and the redemption of all people.  Repentance came in the changing of minds, hearts, and priorities.  They returned to God.  Then, as an outward sign of that inward shift, they were baptized.  Afterward, as the people returned to their villages, their political and religious realities hadn’t changed one bit.  Tiberias remained the emperor, Caiaphas still held sway in the Temple, and Herod would continue to collect their taxes.  But John’s listeners felt freer, lighter, more hopeful.  God was at work.  The Messiah was coming.

As John’s prophetic word finds us this morning amid the beauty and magic of a Saranac Lake Christmas, may we, too, find that our perspective has shifted.  In the first year of the Biden presidency and the second year of the pandemic.  When Kathy Hochul was the first woman governor of New York, Clyde was marking his final year as mayor, and the Atlanta Braves shut out the Astros to win the World Series, the word of God comes to us.  God is still at work, my friends.  The Messiah comes with the promise of salvation for all people.  It’s a promise powerful enough to change our minds, turn us around, and reorient us in God.  May it be so.  Amen.

Resources:

R. Alan Culpepper.  “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.

David Lose. “Commentary on Luke 3:1-6” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 6, 2009.  Accessed online at workingpreaher.org.

Audrey West. “Commentary on Luke 3:1-6” in Preaching This Week, Dec. 5, 2021.  Accessed online at workingpreaher.org.

Kathy Beach-Verhey. “Homiletical Perspective on Luke 3:1-6” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Veli-Matti Karkkainen. “Theological Perspective on Luke 3:1-6” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.


Luke 3:1-6

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”


Photo by Vladislav Murashko on Pexels.com

The Message We Do Not Want to Hear

Sabbath Day Thoughts–Mark 6:14-29

Our nation has a long tradition of people who have spoken hard truths to those in power. In 1777, Midshipman Samuel Shaw and Third Lieutenant Richard Marven blew the whistle on the torture of British prisoners of war by Commodore Esek Hopkins, the commander-in-chief of the Continental Navy. Commodore Hopkins was well-connected. His brother was the Governor of Rhode Island and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. In response to their truth-telling, Shaw and Marven were dismissed from the Navy, jailed, and slapped with a criminal libel suit in the Rhode Island courts. When the Continental Congress learned of the injustice afoot in Rhode Island, they unanimously enacted America’s first whistleblower protection law on June 30, 1778. Shaw and Marven were exonerated and Commodore Hopkins was censured for misconduct.

Perhaps the most notorious whistleblower of the twentieth century was Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst with RAND Corporation. In 1971, Ellsberg and colleague Anthony Russo leaked a top-secret study—the Pentagon Papers. The study revealed a web of deception and misinformation about the war in Vietnam. The Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations had lied to Congress and the American people about the viability and success of the war effort. Ellsberg was charged with espionage. He would likely have been convicted if Nixon conspirators G. Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt—The Whitehouse Plumbers—hadn’t burgled Ellsberg’s workplace, illegally tapped his phones, and plotted to have him dosed with LSD. When their efforts to quash Ellsberg’s truth telling were uncovered, the case against Ellsberg was dismissed.

Employees who speak hard truths in the workplace also face harassment and persecution. In 2010, Everett Stern was working as an anti-money laundering compliance officer with HSBC when he blew the whistle. Stern uncovered a massive, multi-national, money-laundering network at HSBC tied to terrorist groups in the Middle East. Stern sent numerous alerts to his supervisor about the problem, but his boss quashed every effort to stop the illegal wire transfers. Out of options, Stern made contact with the FBI and CIA. As the government noose tightened, Stern lost his job in October 2011. Blacklisted by the financial industry, Stern couldn’t find work. He resorted to waiting tables at PF Chang’s before eventually launching his own business in fraud detection. HSBC paid the federal government $1.92 billion in fines but never faced criminal prosecution for their actions.

John the Baptist knew all about the danger of speaking truth to power. As our reading from Mark’s gospel began, John was imprisoned at Machaerus, Herod Antipas’s mountaintop fortress and retreat. John was the only man in Israel with the chutzpah to call out Herod on his illicit marriage to Herodias. Herodias was Herod’s niece, the daughter of his brother Aristobulous, who had been murdered by their father Herod the Great. Herodias was also already married to his brother, Herod Philip I, who was very much alive and living as an ex-patriate in Rome. The incestuous and illicit union of Herod and Herodias was proscribed by the Torah. Leviticus eighteen and twenty expressly condemned their marriage. But not one priest, not one scribe, not one rabbi in Israel would confront the king about his sin. Everyone at Herod’s Feast knew that the king’s conduct was scandalous, an affront to the Torah, a sin against God, and an embarrassment to the nation.

They left it to John the Baptist, who was known for his blunt and fiery speech, to deliver the message that neither Herod nor Herodias wanted to hear. The Baptizer blew the whistle. He exposed the whole sordid scandal. His condemnation set tongues a-wagging and invited questions and scrutiny. As a result, John found himself a permanent guest of the king, confined to the dungeon at Machaerus, where he continued to denounce Herod and call for the king’s repentance. The king listened to the Baptizer with mixed fascination and fear.

Every message John preached from his prison cell was an opportunity for change. Herod could return to righteousness. He could make the choice for a holier life. Herod knew his guilt, and so did Herodias. As a woman in a deeply patriarchal world, John’s truth telling could lead to her banishment or execution. Rather than renounce her illegal marriage and return to her rightful husband, Herodias waited for the opportune moment when the whistleblower could be silenced, once and for all.

Being a whistleblower is risky business. We may not ever expose military misconduct or the abuse of Presidential power or corporate fraud and profiteering, but we all face moments when our moral sensibility tells us that something doesn’t smell right. Something is wrong. We know that if we remain silent, we will be complicit. Refusing to speak up, to say, “Stop. No.” is really a “Yes” because we have allowed wrong to go unchallenged. We know that if we speak out, there will be painful consequences for our lives: job loss, broken relationships, angry arguments, malicious gossip, outright rejection. Speaking the truth can be the hardest thing we ever do.

Although we may know the ethical challenge of being the whistleblower, we also know the shock and shame of having the whistle blown on us. We have heard hard truths that have confronted us with our bad behavior and sin. Our John the Baptist may have been the father who told us to swallow our pride, straighten up, and go home to the wife and kids. Our John the Baptist may have been the friends who confronted us about our addiction and insisted that we seek professional help. Our John the Baptist may have been the boss who noticed that we were cutting ethical corners and gave us the “Come to Jesus” speech. Our John the Baptist may have been the professor who caught us plagiarizing a paper and made us face the academic consequences for stealing someone else’s work.

We all know John. We have all had people in our lives who have cared enough to invite us to change, to be our better selves, to repent and begin again. Sometimes, we use the power at our disposal to silence them. We disconnect from the relationship. We tell them they are crazy. We deny we have a problem. We resort to threats and insults. Occasionally, we listen to them. Our lives take a new trajectory that isn’t easy, but it is right.

Herodias’s opportune moment came as her husband hosted a banquet to curry favor with his nobles, military commanders, and leading men of Galilee. The table was decked with delicacies. The wine flowed in abundance. The disturbing passion of the evening reached its crescendo as the daughter danced for her father’s pleasure. As Herod promised half his kingdom in reward for his daughter’s performance, Herodias knew she would get exactly what she wanted: John the Baptist’s head on a platter. When the tragic request is made to kill John, there is a graced moment, the king could have challenged his wife and risen to his better nature. He could have acknowledged his wrong and saved John’s life. But the moment passed and John’s fate was sealed in gory fashion.

When the Flemish artist Peter Paul Reubens painted “Herod’s Feast” in the 1600s, he did so with bold color and sensuous detail. Reubens portrayed Herod’s daughter in a scarlet silken dress, bosom bulging, coquettishly lifting the cover on a silver platter bearing the bloodied head of John. A smirking Heodias, at the king’s side, plies a fork with her pinky finger lifted in elegant fashion, ready to poke John’s lifeless head or perhaps serve him up to her husband. Herod looks on, eyes bulging in horror, hands clenching the table cloth in guilt and remorse, barely holding it together. All around them, the party continues, guests feasting and drinking and gossiping, as if the death of the whistleblower were a foregone conclusion.

It’s a terrible story. It’s hard to hear that Herod would sooner take an innocent man’s life than admit his sin and make a change. We are appalled to think that a mother would manipulate her husband and her daughter to bring about a murder. John’s death anticipates the cross and the death of the innocent Jesus at the hands of a weak Pontius Pilate and an angry mob. When this passage pops up in the lectionary cycle, preachers are tempted to give it a pass. But it is a story worth attending to. John’s end questions our moral character. Will we stand up for truth, or will we fail to blow the whistle and live in guilty silence? John’s demise also ultimately confronts us with our own whistleblowers. We have all walked in Herod’s sandals. We have not always risen to our better natures when forced to listen to the message that we do not want to hear. We read of Herod’s Feast and John’s death, and we know our aversion to the hard truths and our reluctance to change, even when it is the right and holy thing to do.

Our John the Baptist blows the whistle. There is a graced moment – the potential for change and growth. Will we become our better selves, or will the prophet lose their head?


Questions to ponder (leave a comment) . . .

When have you been a whistleblower?

Who has been your personal John the Baptist?

How have hard truths prompted you to change?


Peter Paul Reubens, “The Feast of Herod,” accessed online at https://www.peterpaulrubens.net/the-feast-of-herod.jsp

Resources:
Black, Matthew. “The US passed the first whistleblower law in 1777” in History 101, Feb. 14, 2020. Accessed online at https://www.history101.com/the-us-passed-the-first-whistle-blower-law-in-history-in-1777/.
Mullins, Lisa. “50 Years Ago, Daniel Ellsberg — Who Leaked The Pentagon Papers — Surrendered At Boston Federal Court” in WBUR News, June 28, 2021. Accessed online at https://www.wbur.org/news/2021/06/28/on-this-day-daniel-ellsberg-pentagon-papers-surrender-boston-federal-court
Mollenkamp, Carrick and Brett Wolf. “Special Report: HSBC’s money-laundering crackdown riddled with lapses” in Reuters, July 30, 2012. Accessed online at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-hsbc-compliance-delaware-idUSBRE86C18H20120714
Hall, Douglas John. “Theological Perspective on Mark 6:14-29” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
Yust, Karen Marie. “Pastoral Perspective on Mark 6:14-29” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
Bryant, Robert A. “Exegetical Perspective on Mark 6:14-29” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.