2000.jpg (1636 bytes)

July 16, 2000
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

| Sermon Archives - By Scripture |
| Sermon Archives - By Topic |
| Archive - Worship Resources |

| Full text Sermon |
| Discussion and Reflection on the Texts |
| Worship Helps |
world.jpg (9281 bytes)





from the Revised Common Lectionary

Amos 7:7-15 and
Psalm 85:8-13
Ephesians 1:3-14
Mark 6:14-29

[ Read the texts at the Vanderbilt Divinity On-Line Library ]
Use your back button to return

Barriers to Blessings

It was one of those bumper stickers that caught my eye.

"How much can I get away with and still go to heaven?"

When you think about this for a bit, it is simply a new twist on the old phrase about, "wanting your cake and eating it too."  Here are just a few of the attitudes I see in our world today.  [Present company excluded of course :-)  ]

  • "I want a relationship with God, but I want my sin too."

  • "I want all the blessings God gives, but I don't want the burden of responsibility."

  • "I want God to always be available to me, but I don't want to have to be always available to God."

  • "I want God's help, but I don't want God to tell me what to do."

In other words, for many people, God is like an insurance agent.  Most of us don't communicate with our insurance agents on a regular basis.  We don't have coffee with them or have them over for dinner.  Hardly anyone I know has vacationed with their insurance agent.

But -- when trouble strikes or disaster happens, we frantically wonder where we put our agent's phone number!

The problem is that this "insurance agent" approach to God blocks the blessings of God in our lives. There is no such thing as a "part time God" or a "God of convenience" in the bible. The gospel lesson today is a very powerful example of barriers to God's blessings in our lives.  It is an extreme example to be sure, but it does show what happens when something other than God dominates one's priorities.


The Blessings of God

Before we turn to the gospel text, let's take a look once again at the psalm for today which we used as our call to worship.  What an incredible group of promises collected together in a few short verses.

Translated into terms we can get hold of, these verses promise;  the peace of God for our lives, the wholeness of God for our living, there will be authentic love and faithfulness in our relationships and there will be a sense of peace because things are right.

Not only that, the text from Ephesians promises an everlasting relationship with Jesus Christ that can never be taken away from those who trust the Lord.

Now tell me -- who would not want these blessings?  Such a one would be possessed of an extremely negative personality and should seek treatment!

Of course we want the blessings of God, but this begs another question.  Why is there not more peace and love and righteousness in our world?

The amazing story of how John the Baptist was executed by order of Herod holds some clues.

Herod's Story

The Herod in our story is "Herod Antipas", son of Herod the Great.  Although he was sympathetic to the Jewish population, his household was thoroughly hellenized and the Jewish historian, Josephus tells of frequent revelry and drinking at Herod's home. [The Jewish War: 2.2.5]

Nevertheless, Herod had a kind of respect for the Jewish religion and a reverence for a holy man called John the Baptist. He liked listening to John's preaching, but the things John said left him somewhat mystified.

The crux of our gospel story takes place around the fact that Herod Antipas had married his brother Philip's wife.  John the Baptist publicly scolded Herod.  Herod himself tolerated John nevertheless, but his wife Herodias seethed with anger and was ready to strike when the opportunity came to have John executed.  The story says Herod "protected" John from harm -- probably meaning the harm that would otherwise have come to him from Herodias.

The daughter of Herodias does a dance for one of Herod's high society parties and the crowd is wowed.  The dance is more than likely very provocative and Herod is so delighted with the response of his guests that he makes an impetuous promise.  The promise provides Herodias with an opportunity to get rid of that wretched prophet her husband tolerated.

"Whatever you ask me," Herod exclaims, "Even half of my kingdom."

You might imagine that the wine must have been flowing freely for this impulsive offer to escape his lips.

Herodias'  vengeful spirit is absolutely toxic.  She sends her daughter back to Herod with a demand to have John the Baptist's head served up on a platter.  The holy man who plagued and publicly embarrassed Herodias with his preaching would now be publicly dishonored.

And the possibility of God's blessing in Herod's life departs permanently with the ensuing action.  It was one of the "fork in the road" moments in Herod's life and he chose the direction of expedience rather than the road of blessing. The voice of God which had come to Herod through John the Baptist was now lost in the din of the world's noisy celebration. If Herod had been thinking clearly he might have gone to John the Baptist himself to inquire further about the message which troubled him inside.  If he was not so affected by the pleasures of the present, he might have given more to the promises of the prophet.

"Repent and believe the good news!"

But the moment is lost.  The decision is made.  Herod chooses that "wide road which leads to destruction."

"The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her.  Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John's head."  [vv.26-27]

John the Baptist looses his earthly life and gains the blessings of God.  Herod looses the voice of spiritual life and sinks further into the emptiness of self centeredness.


Breaking the Barriers to God's Blessing

Herod's story, though extreme, has clues for all of us.  The barriers to God's blessing in his life are reminiscent  of similar barriers we face in our lives.

  • Herod was interested in God, but wanted God at arm's length.

  • Herod respected religion, but did not want to become too involved.

  • Herod's life was so filled with the concerns of this world that he put aside the voice of God which had come to him in the prophet's voice.

  • Herod was more concerned about his relationships with other persons than he was about his relationship with God.

The gospel story makes it clear that Herod had a certain respect for John the Baptist and the message John brought touched him somewhere inside.  John's words attracted him and yet there was something within him that tugged at his spirit.

You can recognize the "behind the scenes" ministry of the Holy Spirit in the words from Mark 6:20, "When he (Herod) heard him (John the Baptist), he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him."

The key to Herod's life was his response to the voice of God.  In his case, that voice came from John the Baptist.  It can come to us in so many different forms.  It may come in the words of a sermon or the voice of a friend.  Perhaps a particularly beautiful sunrise or sunset will catch our attention and  stop us in our tracks -- even if for a moment or two when our spirit is awakened to the "something more" of life.  Occasionally it is even through some sad or even tragic event that comes as a harsh interruption in the routine ebb and flow of our routines -- a rude disruption of normal events that causes us to embrace our children more consciously the next time we see them.

Herod was interested in the message John had brought from God, but he did not become involved with the message.  There are two opportunities that jump out in the gospel lesson.

There is the opportunity Herod had to engage the message of God. I have to wonder if in the years succeeding John's execution, Herod did not wish he had taken the opportunity to talk with John about the inner stirrings that troubled him when John spoke.

The second opportunity comes when Herod makes his rash promise to the daughter of Herodias. "...an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee."

Choosing the wrong opportunity opens up opportunity for more wrong. Bad choices do not usually lead to good choices - but to more bad choices.  This is something we worry about with our children.  We want to have them make good choices so that their chance for making more good choices will be increased.

We can break the barriers to God's blessing in our own lives if we will follow a simple plan:

Listen for the voice of God. "Let me hear what God the Lord will speak..." the Psalmist begins our Psalm of the day with.  When God speaks, peace follows.

Decide to make your relationship with God the top priority of all your relationships.  The consequences of our top priorities will shape the character and quality of our lives, our families and our homes.

Keep your eyes on who you are in Christ.  The epistle for today says that we have already been blessed "with every spiritual blessing" in Christ.  We don't need to go looking for God's blessings, we already have those blessings if we keep our focus in the right place.

NO reward can ever take the place of the inheritance we have been promised in Christ.  No matter what benefits are promised by any opportunity - none will ever surpass what we already have. Herod had gained so much of what the world has to offer, he could give half of it away in a pompous gesture.

Opportunity Knocks

Each time we gather in worship, opportunity knocks once again.  The Holy Spirit comes whispering the words of scripture, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places..."

Herod missed the blessing of God in a huge bad choice.  You and I sometimes miss God's blessing in ways that do not seem so extreme.

And maybe that's more dangerous.  There's an old saying that "the devil is in the details."  It is in the details of our living where we are most vulnerable to making choices that get in the way of our relationship with God.

But here we are once again.

Gathered together as the family of Christ to receive the blessing of God and to re-center our lives in the one who gave up everything that we might lack nothing.


Discussion and Reflection on the Texts

Connections in the Text

God calls the prophet to speak, but the people frequently do not want to hear the message.  The kings of Israel wanted their prophets, but they wanted to control  the prophet's message.  Jeroboam wants Amos to leave the land and Herod silences John the Baptist in a careless, impulsive act. 

Yet, in spite of human resistance to the word of God, the impact of the "received" word is powerful. The Psalmist and the epistle point to the rich blessings which come to those who hear and receive the word of the Lord.

Amos 7: 7-15

Amos, comes on the scene in Israel when Uzziah ruled in Judah and Jeroboam in Israel.  It was a time of relative quiet.  Uzziah had subdued Judah's enemies and the external threat to Israel was not so severe.  There was a time of prosperity and yet, according to Amos, a time of great injustice and corruption in Israel's inner life. Amos comes to Israel as an "outsider."  He lived as a sheep herder about 12 miles south of Jerusalem, but God commissions him and sends him to Israel.

In his vision, Amos sees God holding a plumb line in the midst of Israel.  The time of judgment has come.  The priest Amaziah goes to the king to say that Amos' message is troubling to the people and seditious against Jeroboam. 

The critical issue raised in Amos is the interaction between the word of the Lord and the people of God.  The messenger is called to be faithful to the message regardless of where the priorities of the people of God may lie.  Faithfulness to the message may bring about hostility toward the messenger.  Yet, to turn from the word for the sake of peace with the people means turning away from the Lord and the divine blessing.

Each of us would do well to look carefully at the tension in our own lives between Amos and Amaziah.

Mark 6: 14-29

The story of John the Baptist's execution is told in light of Herod's consternation over the growing popularity of Jesus' ministry. (This Herod is Antipas - the son of Herod the Great)  The beginning of the lesson deals with the identity of Jesus.  The theories range from, "Jesus is John the Baptist come back from the dead," while other thought him to be Elijah the forerunner of Messiah.  Still others thought him to be a prophet.  This issue of Jesus' identity is a strong factor throughout his ministry which is addressed in Mark 8:27-29 where Peter identifies Jesus as the Christ.

Mark breaks into the account of Jesus' growing ministry to tell the story of John's murder.  John the Baptist, like Amos does not shrink back from incurring the wrath of the authorities because he has been sent by God.

Herod has no one to blame but himself for falling into a trap.  He is a "real life" example of the terrible consequences that follow when we attempt to mold the word of the Lord according to our own desires. Herod discovered that the murder of John was not the end of the story at all.  With the ministry of Jesus, Herod's fear returned and the word of the Lord was not diminished, but rather became more powerful. 

Ephesians 1: 3-14

In this didactic beginning part of the letter to the Ephesians , the nature and privilege of Christian faith is expressed in language that resembles worship and prayer.  Among the wonderful blessings we have been given in Christ are these...

  • We are chosen in Christ...
  • Destined for adoption...
  • We have redemption through his blood...
  • The forgiveness of our trespasses...
  • We have obtained an inheritance...
  • We are marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit...

The passage is a glimpse of the eternal plan of God which has been revealed through the gospel and into which we gain entrance as those who are chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world.  The words are a prayerful, worshipful affirmation.  They do not settle an argument relative to free will or predestination as such, but only affirm that God's eternal plan has been to bless in Christ all those who are authentically the community of Christ.

The plan of God, the provisions of God and the people of God are all for the sole purpose of bringing praise to the glory of God.


 Worship Helps

A Call To Worship  (Psalm 85:8-13 responsively)

L:  Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.

P:  Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.

L:  Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.

P: Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.

ALL: The LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.

A Prayer of Confession

Almighty God, in Jesus Christ you have shattered the power of sin and death.  Yet, we confess that too often we cling to the ways the lead to death.  We are bound in our fears and centered on ourselves.  We have turned our hearts away from the needy and have been deaf to the cries of the poor.  Forgive us, O God of mercy, and help us to trust your power to change our wayward hearts.  Renew us and lead us to a new sense of  joy in Jesus Christ. Amen.

Assurance of Pardon

Friends, hear the words of the prophet, "...let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.  Let us turn to the Lord this day for newness of life in Jesus Christ.  Amen. 

A Prayer of Thanksgiving

O God of grace and glory, we turn our hearts in praise to you today,
for you have created us and have called us into fellowship with you.
Before our days were upon us, you knew us by name and the number of
our days was written in your book.  You have given us every blessing
and have set before us the ways of life and joy.

O holy God, you provide every grace that we might become your children
in thought word and deed.  You make it possible for us to walk in light and
love and liberty.  Without you we would be but lost children blowing about in
the wind as tumbleweed.  You word is light for our paths, guidance for our
steps and hope for our future. You are the anchor that holds us to a still place
in a stormy world.  Your voice is the calming presence in the windy turmoil
of our restless living.

We rejoice and give thanks this day for the joys of faith, family and spiritual
fellowship.  O merciful and gracious God, stir within this assembly today and
fill us with courage for the living of these days and hope for the dawning of all our tomorrows.

For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.

A Prayer of Dedication

Dear Lord of all living, we bring these gifts because we have been blessed
beyond measure in all things.  Our deepest hope is that by these gifts, you
will bless the lives of your children who have yet to know you as Lord of
all.   Amen