The New Covenant and The Gift of Self-Control

The Rev. Robert P. Travis ~ Pentecost 7th Sunday Sermon  – 8am and 9:30am Chapel of St. John the Divine, Saunderstown RI Revised Common Lectionary Proper 10 Year B 7/11/2021

Scripture Text: 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19, Psalm 24, Ephesians 1:3-14, Mark 6:14-29

Sermon Text:

Last week a lot of us probably had family gatherings.

Around the Independence Day holiday.

Have you ever noticed that family celebrations

Can often be times of our greatest struggle,

As well as the best of times for us?

For it’s at family celebrations that we often let our guard down, because we’re around those we think we can,

just be real with… and while that authenticity is important,

sometimes because of that, we forget the wisdom God gives us about how to treat others.

The biblical stories we have today

are extreme examples of this,

But we often learn from extremes.

Today’s gospel reading tells us such a story,

Of a birthday party,

That descended into the brutal killing of a holy man.

 

But before that we heard about King David celebrating bringing the Ark of God into the new capital city of his newly united Kingdom, and the dancing that accompanied that.

 

Both of these stories deal with the way people handle following God’s law, versus serving their own personal interests.

 

In the case of King David the very thing he is celebrating, dancing with all his might, is bringing the ark of God into his new capital city.

The ark represents God’s covenant with God’s people.

It contains the very tablets of the law that God gave to Moses, which show the standard that God wanted the chosen people to live by. In addition to bringing the physical presence of God into the capital city, this act indicates that the kingdom will follow God’s law.

 

But you may have noticed a little detail in that story, that Michal, the daughter of Saul, who from her window, observed King David dancing with all his might despised him in her heart. On the surface it seems that she despises David because he’s making a fool of himself in this celebration. But what’s really going on seems to be more her hatred resulting from David’s hypocrisy.

 

Because she sees David celebrating bringing the law of God into his capital city. Yet she remembers, that she loved him when they were first married. Everyone thinks of David marrying Bathsheba (also a complicated story) but Michal was David’s first wife. And when David was faced with the threat of being murdered by her father, Michal risked her own life to hide her then husband David, to get him safely out of the city. But after David left he never contacted her again. Instead he took other wives, while he was away, and her father married her off to another man who loved her. But after David returned as the successful King, even though he had ignored her for years, he claimed the right to have Michal return as his wife, taking her away from her husband, to add her to his other wives, claiming that he had paid a bride price for her. He did this not because he loved her, but because he wanted the political legitimacy that being married to the daughter of king Saul would give to him. So David celebrating the Law of God, seemed despicable to her, as really in her case he was interested in following God’s law if it suited his purpose and was more interested in his own political position then actually loving the wife who saved him.

 

In the Gospel story, Herod is King in Jerusalem, 1,000 years after King David. He isn’t even really a king with political power, but more of a Jewish figurehead, a puppet of the occupying Roman force. He has all but forgotten God’s law, and shows that all that’s left for him is his own standard of what’s right and wrong, and seeking the esteem of his friends.

 

The whole situation with John the Baptizer started,

in case you missed this little detail,

With John telling Herod it was against God’s law,

For him to have married his brother’s wife,

Presumably while his brother was still living.

John’s speaking the truth about God’s law,

made an enemy out of Herodias, Herod’s illicit wife,

Who clearly did not want to be told she was wrong.

John was the last prophet of God before Jesus,

And prophets often did this kind of thing,

Speaking truth to power, about the way the powerful weren’t following the law of God, and sometimes getting killed for it.

 

So Herodias had her heart set on having John killed,

But Herod wasn’t letting that happen because he

Respected John as a Holy and Righteous man. It wasn’t that he wanted to be holy and righteous himself, but he was curious about John.

Even though he didn’t understand John’s teachings

Presumably because he was so far from actually living as a faithful jewish person,

He still liked to listen to John.

But Herod’s respect for John,

and the protection that offered John found its limit,

And it was because of Herod’s own pride and rashness,

That John met his doom.

 

At Herod’s birthday party,

His daughter dances for him and his guests,

And it pleases Herod so much,

That he rashly promises to give her whatever she asks for.

He probably remembered stories of the ancient kings offering people half of their Kingdom when pleased with someone, and he wanted to show such lavish generosity, even though he didn’t really have a kingdom to offer.

 

The young girl, not knowing what to do,

And who would, I mean, know what to ask for,

When promised up to half of her father’s kingdom.

Goes to someone she trusts, her mother, for guidance,

To see what she should ask.

And Herodias, still brooding in her grudge against John,

Does not miss the chance to have her thirst for revenge

satisfied, even if it means abusing her parental responsibility by leading her own daughter, to ask for John to be beheaded.

 

I know you all heard what happened next.

So I want you to think for a moment,

How this might have played out, had Herod gone

About things differently.

What if Herod had not acted so rashly,

Trying to live up to some ideal he was not,

boasting of wealth and power he really didn’t have,

By promising his daughter a ridiculous gift?

What if he had not made such a vow to impress his friends?

What if Herod had simply thanked his daughter,

And paused, maybe later going and offering her a reward for her dance?

What if rather than just admiring John’s holiness,

Had decided to pursue a holier life himself?

Any of these would have saved John the Baptist’s life.

 

Sure, there are a lot of possibilities,

But the last one, of pursuing a holier life himself,

Might have given Herod the humility to say at any point,

 

“You know, I was wrong.

You can’t have John’s head dear,

That’s too much.”

 

I know I focused on Herod here,

But had they lived a holier life,

a life more in line with God’s Law,

Any of these people,

Herodias, or her daughter could have had the humility

To say, no, I won’t go there.

Or I was wrong.

 

That is what Paul is alluding to in his letter to the Ephesians. God’s law that David was so excited about, had not been followed even by David himself, and by the time of Herod it was all but forgotten by the Kings of Israel, but Jesus brought a new understanding of the Law of God, based on “redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.” This new covenant with God is marked by the “the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people.”

It is through the Holy Spirit that each of us are given the grace to restrain ourselves

even when faced with a boastful or rash deed

that we got ourselves into,

because we trust in the forgiveness

given to us already by Jesus!

 

In this day and age, when many people all around us have forgotten about God’s law, most seem to live only by their own standards.

People live by the sense that if they think it’s right, or it’s in their best interests

then their actions must be justified.

They feel, “if it makes me happy, it can’t be that bad.”

In this country people think that American freedom

means the freedom to do whatever you want,

without restraint.

But we, adopted as children of God are called to live a different way,

a way led by the grace of the Holy Spirit

to humility and love for the other,

constrained by this love,

and renewed by God’s forgiveness every time we fall short.

It is our relationship with God, through Jesus Christ,

That becomes the standard we live by.

 

I trust that none of you will ever get into a quandary,

where your pride or boasting results in having someone killed.

 

But how often do we find,

Especially at family events,

Like birthdays and holidays, and other gatherings,

When our guard is down,

That we react rashly?

And stop thinking of the values we hold?

To love our neighbors as ourselves,

Which of course applies to our family members most of all.

 

Sometimes we even justify

Our unloving treatment of our family and closest friends,

Because we feel we are right, or even righteous,

And so our feelings take priority over those of others,

Who, we think, must be wrong, if we are right.

I know I have fallen into that trap or temptation frequently.

Sometimes we justify our unloving behavior

By saying that we were just telling the truth,

After all, “they needed to hear that harsh word I said,

Because it was true.”

 

By God’s grace, if we’re open to receive it,

we will have the forbearance to not act rashly,

even when we’re with those we feel we can be most “real” with.

For the fruit of the Spirit is self-control.

 

When you are presented with the opportunity,

to do the right thing,

even when you have made a mistake,

and will suffer shame for the truth,

accept the shame,

rather than condemnation.

 

When your children or grandchildren,

or others who trust you

come to you seeking your honest advice,

pray for mercy and grace in that hour,

that you will say what will truly benefit them,

and leave your own interests behind.

 

And remember, rather than some laws on stone tablets, through Jesus it is the relationship with God

That is the source of our right living.

So stay close to God, through Jesus,

And you will find the self-control you need

To love those in your life.

 

Amen

The Rev. Robert P. Travis

Father Rob goes by Father so that he remembers his duty to the people of God whom he serves. He’s been ordained since 2006, serving in Florida and Tennessee and before that served as a youth minister in Long Island, NY. More details