Reputation Gone Awry - Mark 6:14-29
Updated: Jul 12, 2021
One of my favorite movies is the Back to the Future series. In it, 17 year old Marty McFly (played by Michael J. Fox) travels in a time machine built by his friend Doc. Marty finds himself in all kinds of adventures going thirty years into past to 1955, thirty into the future to 2015, and finally to the Old West of 1885. There’s a subtheme in the movie that Marty can’t stand it whenever someone insults his courage. When someone calls him “chicken” he gets mad, and does whatever the person challenged him to do. This leads to all sorts of trouble, especially in the third movie in 1885 when an Old West outlaw calls him a coward and Marty gets so angry that he accepts a challenge to a duel, an Old West showdown where two men enter and only one walks out alive. It’s set to happen in a few days and Marty quickly realizes he shouldn’t have let his temper get to him. He should’ve just walked away and never let it bother him that someone disrespected his pride like that. But Marty’s instincts were to protect his reputation at all costs. Even if it might cost him his life.
King Herod also had a problem with pride and the need to protect his reputation, even if it meant killing an innocent man. In the reading we just heard, Mark tells us that King Herod actually admired John the Baptist and knew he was some sort of prophet. However, his wife Herodias hated John because he called them out for unlawful marriage. But it’s not Herodias’ vengefulness that’s at the center of this story, Herod’s sinful pride and need to protect his reputation are front and center here. King Herod put pride and reputation and what others thought above doing the right thing. His arrogance put him in the situation, and his pride forced him to follow through. So he gave the order for John the Baptist to be killed and had the prophet’s head delivered to his feast on a platter. The need to protect his pride, honor, and reputation led to this terrible sin.
The need for a healthy sense of pride and honor are part of the human condition. We want to feel good about ourselves. It’s actually a need for us, to be mentally healthy. Every child needs to grow up with some sense of pride in themselves or else it could lead to insecurities and self-esteem issues, and cause mental health or behavioral problems later in life. So it’s good to develop a healthy sense of pride in who we are. But there comes a point in childhood and adolescence when the need to feel endlessly good about ourselves becomes problematic. It leads to all kinds of dysfunction, overcompensation, and sin. This immature way of being is found in many full-grown adults, who have lots of power and influence; and it leads to war, violence, corruption, and all kinds of interpersonal and societal problems.
The Christian spiritual journey is about growing out of this immature way of being. It is a call to dig deep into ourselves. To be completely honest with ourselves. To learn to observe the selfish patterns we have and the ways we overcompensate for those basic needs of security, control, and self-esteem. The Christian spiritual journey is a call to let go of our demand that the world fulfill all those needs, and to grow up into the mature children of God we were created to be.
Obviously Herod never engaged in the spiritual journey. He may have been curious about John the Baptist, but he was far too committed to expanding his own ego, power, and ambitions to take seriously John’s call to transform his life. And Herod’s dismissal of God’s call through John led to the murder of this holy man.
Our dismissal of God’s call to transform probably doesn’t lead us to murder people. But there are real life consequences when we ignore Christ’s call. It’s not that our eternal salvation is in jeopardy; we know we are saved by God’s love and grace alone and not by any good deeds or spiritual growth that we do. But this life isn’t just about punching a ticket to heaven, it’s about growing into the reflections of the divine that God intends us to be. And if we’re like Herod and we refuse to take the call to transform seriously, we’ll find ourselves caught again and again in the same old patterns of sin and selfishness. We’ll continue to put ourselves first, whether it’s our pride and reputation, or our desire for wealth, pleasure, and popularity, or our need to be successful, powerful, and in control. We’ll spend most of our lives striving after one or another of these things, rather than seeking God. If we’re not consciously engaged with this inner work of prayerfully observing ourselves, we may be unknowingly infecting the rest of the world with our sin and selfishness—spreading negativity wherever we go and to whomever we meet. It’s our life’s purpose to grow more deeply aligned with the divine and to leave behind the old patterns of sin and selfishness that alienate us from God, ourselves, and others.
And so this week I invite us to pray for the Holy Spirit to guide us as we learn uncomfortable truths about ourselves. That we may recognize the ways we are like Herod and put our pride and reputation above things that really matter. Let us pray to have the mind of Christ, who emptied himself (Philippians 2:5-7). Let us pray for the humility and courage to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). Let us seek first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness (Matthew 6:33).
It takes a lot of trust in God to take this journey, and it takes a lot of discipline and commitment to continue digging deep no matter what we find down there. But when this journey seems daunting, remember that you are not alone. Christ himself is guiding you; he has walked the road himself and is our constant companion and guide. It is our calling as disciples of Christ, to follow in his path, and to engage in this important spiritual work. It is a journey of transformation. A journey of growing more fully into the image of God that we are.
At the end of the last Back to the Future movie, Marty has survived and is back in 1985. He’s driving his nice new truck with his girlfriend Jennifer and a tough classmate pulls up alongside him at a stoplight. He challenges Marty to a race, and when Marty declines he calls him chicken. Marty gets that same old look on his face, revs his engine, and acts like he’s ready to race. But when the light turns green, he stays put. And seconds later a car pulls out that he would’ve hit if he had been racing. Jennifer remembers something she witnessed 30 years in the future when Marty’s mom was explaining to her grandchildren the car accident that changed Marty’s life. But now, that car accident never happens. Because of the lessons Marty learned in his time travels, he didn’t let insults and attacks on his pride lead him into making bad decisions. Without realizing it Marty has created a new future for himself, full of possibilities and potential, because he was able to let go of the need to prove himself and defend his pride and reputation at all costs.
We may not have a time machine to use when we make mistakes or to teach us lessons about letting go of the need for reputation, pride, and proving ourselves to others. But we do have the transformative power of Christ, who joins us in our brokenness, redeems us, and invites us into transformation, healing, and new life.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In a second we’re going to hear a pretty gruesome story. It’s about how King Herod is at a banquet and watches his stepdaughter dance and is so impressed that he promises her anything she wants. She asks her mother what to say and she tells her to ask for John the Baptist’s head on a platter! [show JB’s head] Looks like John lost a little oxygen and went blue in the face before they executed him.
Now there’s some pretty gruesome stories in the Bible. Even a feast turns violent. But the very next story in Mark is a different kind of feast. It’s when Jesus feeds the 5,000. It’s a miracle where there’s barely any food, and yet all are fed [show food platter]. These two stories show us two very different kinds of feasts. One is Herod’s feast [lift JB’s head platter] and the other is Jesus’s feast [lift food platter].
The Bible is sometimes full of some pretty violent images and reports of terrible things. Scripture is brutally honest about the hardships of life. It doesn’t beat around the bush. You see, for most of human history people encountered threats of war and violence all the time. There’s still a lot of people who do today. But the point of all this violence in scripture isn’t just to remind people how hard life is. It’s to reveal that God’s way of doing things moves us beyond all that terror and violence. Because in Christ God enters into our suffering and transforms it. Through Jesus, God redeems and transforms this suffering world.
Violence and suffering are real, but we know that in Christ God redeems it, transforms us, and makes our world whole. [Life food platter] God offers us a different kind of platter. It may not be as big or as fancy as the one at Herod’s palace, but it’s contains nourishment for body and soul. Thanks be to God.