Price of Obedience

“And they were driving out many demons, anointing many sick people with olive oil, and healing them. King Herod heard of this, because Jesus’ name had become well known. Some said, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that’s why supernatural powers are at work in him.” But others said, “He’s Elijah.” Still others said, “He’s a prophet — like one of the prophets.” When Herod heard of it, he said, “John, the one I beheaded, has been raised! ” For Herod himself had given orders to arrest John and to chain him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife! ” So Herodias held a grudge against him and wanted to kill him. But she could not, because Herod was in awe of John and was protecting him, knowing he was a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard him he would be very disturbed, yet would hear him gladly. Now an opportune time came on his birthday, when Herod gave a banquet for his nobles, military commanders, and the leading men of Galilee. When Herodias’s own daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests. The king said to the girl, “Ask me whatever you want, and I’ll give it to you.” So he swore oaths to her: “Whatever you ask me I will give you, up to half my kingdom.” Then she went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for? ” “John the Baptist’s head! ” she said. Immediately she hurried to the king and said, “I want you to give me John the Baptist’s head on a platter — right now! ” Though the king was deeply distressed, because of his oaths and the guests he did not want to refuse her. The king immediately sent for an executioner and commanded him to bring John’s head. So he went and beheaded him in prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and removed his corpse and placed it in a tomb.” (Mark 6:13-29 HCSB)

Life seldom turns out as we expected. I think all of us can look back on certain aspects of our lives and ask the question, “What happened? That certainly didn’t turn out like I thought it would or expected.” I can remember when my wife and I were dating and first married and talking about children and how many we wanted for our family, we had a much higher number in mind – four, six or even more. We ended up with only three. I could point out that our thoughts changed dramatically after having our first child. We had some romantic notion of what it might be like and then reality came crashing in on us. It was much harder and more expensive than we could afford.

But our hopes, dreams and expectations about life reach much farther than just how many children we may or may not have. We often dream about where we might live or what career path we might pursue. I have always wanted to have a large acreage and to build a nice log house right in the middle of it. I had to compromise with four acres and a standard ranch style home in a corner of it. I also never expected to spend most of my life working at a Christian university as the head of technology, but I did. Now as my career and ministry begin to draw to a close and I prepare to celebrate another birthday and a year closer to retirement, I look back and wonder what kind of impact I’ve had? Have I been faithful to God’s call upon my life and will my life have any impact on the kingdom of God? Do you ever ask yourself that question?

Last week, we looked at what happened when Jesus sent out the twelve in pairs to preach the kingdom of God, exercise authority over unclean spirits and to heal the sick. Some believed, some didn’t and the Jesus prepared them for rejection and the specter of human failure. In this week’s focal passage the cost of obedience becomes crystal clear as Mark relates the story of John the Baptizer and his death. In some ways, Mark seems to be drawing a parallel in the people’s reception of John’s message and what that might look like for Jesus and His followers. In other words, things don’t exactly turn out like expected.

I included the final verse from last week’s story in this wee’s focal passage because I wanted to make certain you recognize that Mark is drawing attention to Jesus’ growing popularity among the common people and how King Herod takes notice of it. Word about Jesus preaching/teaching and miracles had made its way into Herod’s palace and even to the king’s own ears. Despots and tyrants may choose to ignore the murmurings of their people, but most rulers cannot and do not. In this instance, Herod hears the rumors about and stories surrounding Jesus and has an interesting reaction: “John, the one I beheaded, is risen!”

Remember the question we’ve been considering since that night in the boat (Mark 4:41)? Just who is this man that speaks and the wind and waves obey Him? Herod Antipas, the Roman ruler or governor (tetrarch, same term used for Pontius Pilate- so, technically speaking he’s not king) over Galilee, is listening to these stories and taking note of Jesus’ authority, power and growing popularity. Just who is this man? Where did He get such power? How can He speak with such authority? Now, He’s sending out emissaries to preach, teach, drive out unclean spirits and heal in His authority. Herod’s immediate response is to link Jesus to John the Baptizer – John must be back!

While it is certainly possible, given our lack of knowledge regarding Herod’s specific religious and cultural beliefs, he could consider Jesus to be the reincarnation or resurrection of John. However, I think it is more likely that he considers Jesus to possess the same spirit, same attitude and same actions and reactions towards him that John possessed. Thus, “Good grief, John is back! How can that be? I had him beheaded.” Herod thought he had gotten rid of John and now Jesus is beginning to sound and act a lot like him. Oh great. What next?

I think it is important to note, John had specifically stated that someone more powerful would be coming after him or following him. Someone so great and powerful that John was unworthy of even untying His sandal strap. Someone who would not baptize with water but would baptize people in the Holy Spirit of God! (see Mark 1:7-8) Mark points out that the people were also unsure as to Jesus identity, “He’s John raised from the dead. Others said, “He’s Elijah.” And still others said, “He’s a prophet – like the prophets of old.” But, who is He? Listen to the closing words of the Christian Old Testament:

“For indeed, the day is coming, burning like a furnace, when all the arrogant and everyone who commits wickedness will become stubble. The coming day will consume them,” says the Lord of Hosts, “not leaving them root or branches. But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings, and you will go out and playfully jump like calves from the stall. You will trample the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day I am preparing,” says the Lord of Hosts. “Remember the instruction of Moses My servant, the statutes and ordinances I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. Look, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome Day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers. Otherwise, I will come and strike the land with a curse.” (Malachi 4:1-6 HCSB)

The Old Testament ends with the promise that God isn’t finished. Things aren’t going to be left like they are. God is moving, He is acting in response to the wickedness and evil that exists in our world. He won’t remain silent forever. Judgment is coming against the injustice and evil that permeates our existence. That’s who John said would come, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The one who can redeem us from the curse of sin and save us from the wrath and judgment of God.

Mark continues by giving us the background for Herod’s concerns, “When Herod heard of it (Jesus’ preaching and miracles and sending out His disciples to do the same), he said, “John, the one I beheaded has been raised!” Mark then recounts in vivid detail the events leading up to and including John’s execution. I really don’t want to spend a lot of time on those details but will highlight a few and comment on them.

First, John has drawn everyone’s attention to the glaring disobedience of Herod to God’s law regarding marriage and sexual sin. Herod had divorced his first wife in order to marry Herodias. However, the issue was not the divorce, per se, but the fact that he had married his brother’s wife. The Old Testament law specifically prohibited a man from taking and marrying his brother’s wife unless the brother had died without children. Not only was the brother still alive, but he had a child with her – Salome, the girl who dances at Herod’s birthday party. By the way, not only was Herodias previously married to Herod’s half brother she was also related to him by blood, she was his niece. Oh yeah, this family is all messed up.

John uses this blatant disregard for God’s law by Herod Antipas as a way of calling all of Israel to repentance. It wasn’t that John saw Herod’s sin as the most egregious sin of his day, but that it was being flaunted by one Israel’s rulers in blatant opposition to God’s Word. It was as if Herod was saying, “It doesn’t matter who God is, what He wants or what He expects and demands because I’m the king!” He’s thumbing his nose at God. You can’t expect Israel to bow in humble repentance and submission before God and be blessed by Him when her rulers choose to ignore Him and parade their sins around in public.

Now, I want to be careful here and make sure I make this next point very, very clear. In the past, I would have drawn a direct parallel from my previous statements and related them to America. However, that would be a mistake. There are no such promises to American in scripture. Before you go quoting II Chronicles 7 or other verses, just remember that God’s promises are to His people, Israel. While it is possible to apply these promises to the church, as the fulfillment and continuation of the people of God and the true children of Abraham by faith in Jesus, the same is NOT true of America. You are not a child of God or a disciple of Jesus Christ by virtue of your country of birth or subsequent citizenship in America. We may have called America a Christian nation in the past, but that was simply due to the cultural acceptance of Christian virtues and values and the acceptance and importance of the Church in American culture.

Should we impact our world, our nation, our culture and our neighbors with the Gospel of Jesus and through our obedience to His Word? ABSOLUTELY! We can and we must! That’s the essence of who we are as Christ followers. Just be careful about applying God’s promises to Israel and His church to America. They don’t always fit and are often inappropriate, misleading and divisive. The people of God are from every nation, every people, every tribe and every tongue and to apply God’s promises directly to our nation is to misapply His Word and cause division among His people, the Church.

Notice, Herod was in awe of John and protected him from Herodias’ wrath “knowing he was a righteous and holy man.” When Herod would hear John preach he would be very disturbed, yet would hear him gladly. There’s a big difference between knowing what you ought to do and actually doing it. Herod seemed to be reacting out of guilt and knowledge of God’s Word towards John, but was unwilling to alter his life choices. He knew John was a messenger of God and that John was right, but he was unwilling to change. I think there are many in our culture who act and react like Herod. They recognize and may even respect and protect God’s messengers, but they refuse obedience to God’s Word and commands. They cling to their sin even as they acknowledge belief in a holy God and recognition of His Word and commandments.

Here’s my fear… that we often do the same in the church. We know God, we acknowledge the truth of His Word and the authority of Jesus but we refuse to confess our sin and turn away from it. Oh church, don’t ignore what happens next. Herod had a party celebrating his birthday and Herodias’ own daughter came in and danced in a way that was pleasing to Herod and his guests. In response, he swore to give her whatever she wanted up to half of his kingdom. She conferred with her mother and responded, “Give me John the Baptist’s head on a platter, right now!” The man who had held onto a tiny sliver of respectability by protecting the righteous and holy John was now compromising on his last remaining virtue because of a moment of carnal pleasure. He didn’t want to give in but because of how it would make him look in front of his guests, he gave her what she wanted. She danced and he compromised his character. Sounds like what’s happening in this dance so many Christians and the church is having with “conservative political politics”, right now. Be careful, they might give you a little bit of a show but don’t compromise your character.

Finally, I want to address what I believe is at the very heart of Mark’s story. Being obedient to God’s will may cost you more than you expected. Mark has told us that Jesus was rejected in His hometown and His disciples faced rejection as He sent them out in pairs to preach, teach, drive out unclean spirits and heal the sick. Now, we find out that John the Baptist loses his life for the sake of the kingdom. What are we left to think? That following God and being obedient to Him and His kingdom may put us on a collision path with an unexpected and untimely death.

So, the benefits of obedience might turn out to include some unexpected costs? Yes. For those of you who’ve been paying attention, this should not really come as a surprise. It not only permeates Jesus’ teaching and preaching, it could be described as being at the very heart of it. It is not at the heart of the gospel message we often preach, but it should be. Here’s just a small sampling of the places Jesus references it: Matt. 5:10-12; Matt. 10:16-25; Matt. 10:37-39; Matt. 16:24-28; Matt. 19:28-30; Matt. 20:20-28; Matt. 21:33-44; Matt. 24:9-10; Mk. 8:34-38; Mk. 9:33-37; Mk. 9:45-49; Mk. 10:23-31; Mk. 10:35-45; Mk. 13:9-13.

“Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will find it. What will it benefit a man if he gains the whole world yet loses his life? Or what will a man give in exchange for his life?” (Matthew 16:24-26 HCSB)

What’s my point? Jesus calls us to be fully aware of and to embrace the cost of following Him. (See Lk. 14:25-35) He says that if you found a treasure in a field you’d go and sell everything you had to purchase that field and possess that treasure. We must view discipleship and obedience to Jesus in light of these admonitions. Following Jesus and being obedient to Him may cost us dearly. It might even cost us our livelihood and our lives, but it will be worth everything we’ve given up and everything we’ve sacrificed.

It is time to turn loose of the dream you’ve had of following Jesus and to embrace the reality of life as a disciple. A life of discipline and obedience. A life of sacrifice and service. A life of saying no to self and yes to God’s Spirit. A life of loving God, first and foremost, and then loving others as much as you love yourself. It might not turn out the way you expected, but it will turn out the way you want.

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