Good morning! I wanted to drop the transcript of my sermon from a few weeks ago here for you, if you’re curious. This is the transcript of the sermon, not an academic paper, so I’m not footnoting sources. If you are intrigued or think I got something messed up, please dig in and enjoy the exercise!
Third Sunday After Epiphany, January 22, 2017
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Norwood Parish
Good evening. I come before you in the name of the God of Promises, the God of Plans and the God Who Works in events and times in ways we may or may see.
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.
You know that prologue, don’t you? Yes, Shakespeare’s introduction to the death-marked love of Romeo and Juliet. Oh, there are and have been and will be love stories innumerable, but Shakespeare knew how to weave a good story, didn’t he? Their love is all the more tragic and memorable these hundreds of years later in part because of their families enduring, destructive hatred. Two households.
But why do I begin my sermon with a passage from Shakespeare? Yes, we as Episcopalians are part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, but there’s got to be better justification than just some English-centrism on my part… it’s because of that Gospel passage we read in Matthew 4. You might think I’m going to preach about fishing for people, but we’ll save that for another day. That’s the easy sermon; I want to talk about John’s imprisonment.
Let’s hear that passage again from Matthew 4…
12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
15 “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region
and shadow of death light has dawned.”
17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them.
22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
When I saw this passage as the Gospel for today I immediately asked myself, “Who imprisoned John? It seems I recall it was Herod, but which Herod?” There are several Herods active in the New Testament times and stories, and I decided to dig in and be reminded who was this Herod who imprisoned John.
The first Herod we meet in the Gospels is Herod the Great. You remember him, he ordered the death of the innocent children of Bethlehem, recorded in Matthew 2, in response to his fear that a King had been born to rival his throne. Matthew is our only surviving account of this mass murder. The Jewish historian Josephus does not mention it, but he gives us enough of Herod the Great’s story to know that this is completely in line with his character and cruelty. His murders include, by Josephus’ account, three of his own sons, a mother-in-law and his second wife. Wow.
But it was in fact Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great, who ruled a quarter of his late father’s kingdom, who imprisoned John the Baptizer in Matthew 4. We get more of that story in Matthew 14, the story of both John’s imprisonment and his death. You see John had publicly chastised Herod Antipas for taking Herodias, his brother’s wife, as his wife; that got John put in prison. But later when the daughter of Herodias, Herod’s new wife, so enchanted him with a seductive dance, he promised her any wish would be fulfilled. At her mother’s prompting she requested John’s head on a platter. Wow. By the way, it is also this Herod Antipas who participates in the trial of Jesus as recorded in Luke’s Gospel.
Shakespeare is not the only one who can tell a wild story. This is all in the background of our Gospel passage. I got more curious… the story of Jesus and the story of the Herods seem so intertwined and mingled. Where then did this Herod the Great and his son Antipas come from? So I dug some more. Herod the Great was of Idumean and Edomite descent. That makes him a local boy. His dynasty replaced a Hasmonean Dynasty, one with far more Greek in influence and flavor, with his own having a bit of local flavor. The Edomite people had mostly converted to Judaism during the Hasmonean reign.
Digging this deep got me thinking of a famous Edomite, Doeg. Do you recall his story in the chronicle of 1 Samuel? He was a sworn enemy of David, who would be King, into whose royal line Jesus would later be born. Doeg was such a thorn in David’s side that Psalm 52 is specifically written in response to Doeg’s deceit against him. This is Herod the Great’s family line through the Edomites. And now here is Jesus, and his cousin John, hunted by Herod the Great and later facing Herod Antipas in trials and imprisonment and death. The royal line of David and, the royal line of Herod. Maybe not exactly the same, but “Two households, both alike in dignity / From ancient grudge break to new mutiny / Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.” Cool, huh?
We seem to be caught in a larger story than just another day in Judea and Galilee. Herod Antipas had a son, Herod Agrippa, whose death is recorded in Acts 12. Herod Agrippa’s son, Agrippa II would be the last of the Herodian Dynasty.
The history and story of these two families has intrigued me, for sure. But what stands out for me as well is the other story… the story in the background on what God is doing. Back in our passage when these two family lines collide again and John is imprisoned, Jesus returns to Galilee and begins his ministry, teaching and calling those people to God. Matthew tells us that this move is in direct response to what had been said generations before by Isaiah, “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”
Let’s read that reference from Isaiah 9…
“But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined.”
This is one of Matthew’s specialties… naming the many things written to foreshadow Christ. His Gospel is full of such references and connections.
I suppose that even while studying and tracing the family of Herod the Great for this sermon, I’m still no where near grasping all the intrigue. There are many rulers in that Herodian dynasty, male and female by the way, that we haven’t named and whose stories we don’t know or speak much of today. But this line of David, this other King, the Christ who is called Jesus, his story we know. His story we tell and tell and tell again. Because unlike so many of Shakespeare’s masterfully written works and plays, there’s Light at the end of this King’s story.
Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Shakespeare, and most often his tragedies are my favorites: Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Titus Andronicus. But when we return to real life, to the stage on which we make our play, I’m so glad that God is working. I’m so glad that God is making light to shine. I’m so glad that God makes promises and is faithful to see them happen.
May we not forget, in the face of any danger, threat or fear, whatever nations or families or powers rage, that we like Christ continue in the work to which God has called us, and we stand in the story of God. Amen.