Sunday, July 12, 2009

Dancing with the devil

Whenever people tell me that the Bible has nothing to say about politics, or about affairs of state – I am reminded about how and why John the Baptist died. In that small event, immortalized in amazing art and drama we have what my mother would say was – a dance with the devil.

Now I’m not a great believer in the devil - It’s hard enough to believe in God such that God can make a real difference in my life. There is simply no room in my theology or my relationship with God to introduce a nasty figment of other people’s imagination. But I know what my mother means. it’s a wonderful shorthand way of saying – be careful what you ask for, you will surely get it – or Pride comes before a fall – or more importantly – pride and grace make awkward dancing partners.

Pride - Politics and religion – that was the start of Herod’s undoing. Not because religion and politics they don’t mix – they do, but because human pride has a bad habit of overturning the good that they can do. For Herod separating religion and politics simply wasn’t an option. The ruler of Israel could not disown the faith of the one true God, it was what gave him his right to rule, even if the Romans thought that he was their man in Jerusalem. No, Herod needed the priests, and the people, to hold on to his position. Herod was, above all – a Jew. So with that in mind, let’s take another look at the story of that infamous dance.

John the Baptist had been arrested by King Herod because John kept reminding Herod that even the King was not above the Torah. “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” So said the Law, so said God, and so speaks the prophet. Herod had married his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias – whilst Philip was still alive. In other words his wife was an adulteress and hence an improper companion for the King.

It would be easier to understand what happened to John if that was all that there was to it. If the story was simply about an angry man upset that his wife was being publically named and shamed as an adulteress… But the gospel is seldom that simple to understand and, as usual, there is more to this story than meets the eye. We are told that in spite of his ranting and railing, Herod actually liked to listen to John, He believed that John was a holy man. Scripture even records that Herod tried to protect John. Perhaps, in Herod’s mind, locking John away was one way of removing him from the harm that his wife could do to him. After all – hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

So even if the king found what John had to say about his marriage offensive, it was certainly not bad enough to warrant killing him. Herod was afraid of John and was loathe to harm him.

But life has a funny way of pressuring us to do things we would not normally do.

Herod’s story is a story about a man who caved in to social peer pressure. It serves as a poignant open question to us all. ‘What can we learn from this deplorable moment in the life of a King, a moment when the King danced with the devil, and couldn’t say no?

Can it help us to reflect on the way in which we ourselves give in to pressure from our peers, find ourselves caught in a trap of our own making – and lack the courage and the confidence to call a halt – to say NO when we need to – to stand against the crowd – even if we were the instigator of the situation? To stand with God, not with our pride when the two are brought into conflict by our stupidity, or our passion..

There is a real mystery in the way that God works. We believe in providence not fate, by which we mean that God is in our decision making process. But at the most crucial moments in our life– we tend to forget to include God in our deliberations. When key personal decisions have to be made, when puzzling problems present or ethical dilemmas torment, we tend to look, not to Scripture or to God, but to the strength of our own reason and the force of our own emotions.

There is another way – we can seek God’s help in moments of crisis, God has provided the means of grace that we need and prayer is only a part of the answer.

We can, of course, as the hymn says, “take it to the Lord in prayer”, but MORE is needed if we really expect God to be a part of our every day choices. Paul tells us that we should pray without ceasing, and he is right. But that doesn’t mean we are to plead without ending. It doesn’t mean beg, beg and beg again or PUSH God – ie Pray Until Something Happens. Jesus stressed that all we need to do is ask, knock, seek – and we will find. We need to live a life that expects to find God’s answers to the questions that we ask, not because we are begging, but because we KNOW that God opens every door for us, often before we even have time to knock.

What is needed is not just prayer – but presence. We need the presence of God in our lives every day, every minute of every day, and every second of every minute.

God’s ways may remain a mystery to us, and that is as it should be, we cannot hope to comprehend the mind of God. God’s presence however can and must be real to us, and be the greatest, most important influence upon us.

We need to be so closely linked to God through the means of grace that God can powerfully affect our decision making. We need to be real followers of Jesus, not just admirers of his teachings.

Making Christian Decisions is not about asking one another what would Jesus Do, it is about living as a Christian such that we can ask Jesus – ‘What are you asking me to do with you?‘ To use an old saying it’s about letting the cross be the only weight that bears down on our deliberations.

Sadly we are all too often more concerned with not upsetting others, than we are with not upsetting God.

As a result we are more commonly swayed by what society says than what our memory of the Gospel tells us and so our decisions are based on external, economic, political and social pressures. It’s as though we believe God to be incapable of contributing to the debate, somehow inaccessible to reason with, and unconcerned about what troubles us. This, in spite of the fact that the only times God cannot help us are when we aren’t prepared to meet with God.

Lloyd J. Ogilve, in his book Life Without Limits, tells the story of a minister who in the space of one week heard the following comments from various people: A woman said, "I'm under tremendous pressure from my son these days. I can't seem to satisfy him, however hard I work. He really puts me under pressure." A young man said, "My parents have fantastic goals for me to take over the family business. It's not what I want to do, but their pressure is unbearable."

A college woman said, "I'm being pressured by my boyfriend to live with him before we are married. You know...sort of try it see if we are right for each other." A husband said, "My wife is never satisfied. Whatever I do, however much I make, it's never enough. Life with her is like living in a pressure cooker with the lid fastened down and the heat on high." A secretary said, pointing to her phone, "That little black thing is driving me silly. At the other end of the line are people who make impossible demands and think they are the only people alive."

A middle-aged wife said, "My husband thinks my faith is silly. When I feel his resistance to Christ, I wonder if I'm wrong and confused. As a result, I've developed two lives; one with him and one when I'm with my Christian friends."

An elderly woman said, "My sister thinks she has all the answers about the faith and tries to convince me of her point of view. I feel pressured to become her brand of Christian, but I keep thinking if it means being like her, I don't want it at all. When she calls, I just put the phone on my shoulder and let her rant on while I do other things. A half-hour later, she's still on the line blasting away, but I still feel pressure." A young minister at conference said, "I hardly know who I am any more. There are so many points of view in my congregation, I can't please them all. Everyone wants to capture me for his camp and get me to shape the church around his convictions. The pressure makes me want to leave the ministry."

All of these persons have one thing in common. They are being pressured by other people. We all, at one time or another, experience people-pressure. The question is how will it effect our judgment? That is the question Herod faced. After making an oath to a pretty young girl that she could have up to half of his kingdom, she surprised him and asked for the head of the Baptist. The King knew it was wrong, but he couldn’t bring himself to refuse her. What if he had simply said NO.

Lest we think too harshly of Herod, we need to realize that few, if any of us, have the sort of courage needed to publicly back down from a statement we have made or just admit that we were wrong. We see it in the reluctance of our politicians to apologize, in the failure of the Army to properly prosecute those involved in the death of Baha Mousa whilst in British custody in Iraq. We see it too in our own reluctance to stand apart from the crowd – even when we know that what is being asked for is the life or soul, the peace or welcome of a brother or sister in Christ.

Can’t you just hear the dancers demanding - bring me the heads of all the Blacks in the Church, - those with the mark of Cain – and all the daughters of Sinful Eve – behead the prophets who proclaim that God’s love is for all instead of for us.

Transpose Herod’s story to today - and dare to ask - how many heads are served up on silver platters because we lack the courage to say NO when we are confronted with the truth about our blatant injustice, discrimination and critique?

How many lives are wasted because we dance with the devil – wanting the respect and admiration of our friends more than the respect and love of God?

Standing up for human rights – for the conviction that all are equal in the eyes of God, daring to name institutional racism as the sin at the heart of the Church, pointing out that more female ministers feel abused and patronized by our Church than affirmed in their faith by it – owning up to the hypocrisy which welcomes homosexual Christians but wont bless their unions - these things will not win anyone friends – but the alternative is caving in to peer pressure and being complicit by our silence.

Herod’s actions can serve as a warning to us – for we too often end up doing what we know to be wrong, because we believe we are bound by decisions which we made, not under the guidance of God, but under pressure from others often from our desire to please others. Know now - Christ sets us free from such bondage. Hear the amazing words of Grace – God loves us – every one of us, including the Christians the racists, bigots, murderous, and adulterers - even when we get it so disastrously wrong.

More than that - God stays with us, and continues to try and make the better way, the way of truth and life, known to us. It is not always easy to discern, but it is never completely hidden from us, for it is made known to us in Christ – in love and in grace. God calls us to dance to a different tune

Can you hear it?

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