When I was 18, I spent my first summer away from home. For six weeks in between my senior year of high school and my freshman year of college, I participated in the Young Adult Leadership Development program at a Quaker retreat center called Pendle Hill, just outside Philadelphia.
There were about a dozen of us in the program. I was the youngest. We ranged in age from just out of high school to recent college grads. As you might expect, some of us got along better than others. I had a few other YALDers (as we called ourselves) that I felt closer to, and there were some of my cohort that I never felt very connected with.
There was one guy in particular, by the name of Jonah, who I never really clicked with. It seemed like we never even had a chance. If I was on this side of the room, he would always end up on the other side. It seemed like he retreated from me whenever I tried to get close. When I would start talking, he would get quiet.
The YALD program lasted six weeks. Six weeks felt like forever for this 18-year-old Micah, his first summer away from home, but in retrospect was just the blink of an eye. Towards the end of our time together, relationships began to sort themselves out. Romantic tension that existed between a few of us resolved itself, one way or another. We had our fights, and by the time we were getting ready to pack up and head home, we were feeling more bonded than ever.
In those last few days of the YALD program, Jonah finally opened up to me. He told me that he had been holding me at arms’ length for the whole summer. He apologized for it, and he explained why it had happened.
It turns out that Jonah had been physically abused by his older brother. That older brother’s name was Micah. That older brother had red hair.
When Jonah had met me, he had seen the marks of his brother on my body and in my name. He had been so traumatized by a person with my characteristics, he instinctively wanted nothing to do with me. Even though he knew that, rationally, it wasn’t fair, he couldn’t shake the association. He feared me like he feared his brother.
We human beings take a lot of short cuts in our thinking. We do this in order to stay sane, to prevent ourselves from wasting a whole lot of energy and second guessing things that should be obvious. For example, whenever I approach an upright rectangle with a knob on it, I assume that it’s a door. When I see a concrete sidewalk, I feel free to walk on it. I tend to stay off of the asphalt roads meant for cars.
Things work out better for me this way. By taking all of these mental shortcuts, by following all of these routines and categories that our culture has established, I’m less likely to get hurt and more likely to get where I’m going quickly.
But every useful habit has a shadow side, and our tendency to plug things into preexisting categories is no exception.
I remember one time, I visited the Netherlands and was exploring the city of Arnhem. It was a great town. It was very different from anywhere I had ever been before, but it was also really accessible. The locals were very welcoming, and their English skills were very strong, which helped, since my Dutch was nonexistent!
I think I probably got lulled into a false sense of familiarity by Dutch hospitality – I felt very comfortable. But things are different in the Netherlands. I found this out when I began walking on a path that, to me, looking like a nice, broad nature trail that ran beside the road. I wasn’t on that path ten seconds before there were bicycles whizzing past me, angry cyclists ringing their bells in warning.
It turns out, in the Netherlands they have special roads just for bicycles. I had never seen anything like that before, and I totally misread the situation. My mistake could have easily landed me – and others – in the hospital.
A similar sort of thing happened to the people of 1st-century Roman Palestine. When Jesus showed up and started making waves, everyone was trying to make sense of it in terms and categories that they could easily understand. Some said that Jesus was the promised messiah, the one who would restore the kingdom of David and kick the Romans out of Judea once and for all. Others speculated that he was a prophet, like those men and women they read about in the Bible, who served as God’s witnesses to Israel.
Still others connected Jesus directly to particular prophets. Jesus’ message of repentance, his powerful teaching, and his healing work among the poor and marginalized called to mind the ministry of John the Baptist. Or perhaps Elijah.
Who was this Jesus? What was his identity, and how did he fit into the religious and political drama unfolding in this little Roman province on the edge of the empire?
King Herod was sure he knew. Jesus was John the Baptizer raised from the dead!
Herod recognized the marks of John’s ministry in Jesus. The call to repentance. The message of good news to the poor. The subversive call to economic redistribution and reconciliation in an economy of love where the sick found healing. All of these things reeked of the Baptizer’s ministry!
Herod feared Jesus, just like he feared John. Herod had killed the Baptizer, but now here he was again, back in action, healing the sick and casting out demons.
John was a righteous and holy man, but Herod had imprisoned him in order to silence him. Eventually, out of cowardice and vanity, he had executed a man that he knew was a prophet of God.
Herod’s injustice and immorality was exposed by John the Baptizer’s life and death, and Jesus’ ministry put his sin right back in the spotlight. Herod wasn’t going to wait for Jesus to start directly criticizing him; he already knew the man he was dealing with. This man was John, raised from the dead!
In a certain sense, of course, Herod was mistaken. Jesus was not the reincarnation of John the Baptizer. Just as John himself had predicted for those who had ears to hear, Jesus was the one who came after John – the one whom John was unworthy to untie the thong of his sandals. The one who would baptize the people, not with water, but with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
Just like me on my dangerous run-in on the bicycle road in the Netherlands, Herod had no idea what he was dealing with. He just stuck Jesus into a box that he thought he already understood. By identifying him as John the Baptizer, he tried to gain some sense of control over the situation. At least that way, he felt like he knew what he was dealing with.
In another sense, though, Herod was right on target. Jesus was indeed carrying forward the ministry of John. That’s probably why he asked John to immerse him into the waters of the Jordan immediately before his immersion into the Holy Spirit that came down like a dove from a shredded heaven. Jesus took up the mantle of John. He received the marks of the prophets. By all rights, he was a prophet – and more.
When Herod saw these prophetic marks on Jesus, he knew exactly who he was dealing with. Just like every true prophet, he knew that Jesus could not be bribed or co-opted. He would either have to kill Jesus, or he would have to respond to the prophetic word that Jesus brought him. Neither one sounded like a good option, I’m sure. But Herod already had a demonstrated track record of murdering prophets.
The marks of the prophets didn’t end with John, or with Jesus. Just as Jesus was immersed into the ministry of John by the waters of the Jordan, all of us who follow Jesus are immersed into his ministry by the power of the Holy Spirit. Each one of us is called to be a prophetic witness to the fallenness of our society. Together as the church, we are called to bear the consequences of our society’s often violent response to the prophetic voice.
The powers that be saw the prophetic marks in Martin Luther King Jr. They recognized him for what and whose he was. That’s why they had to kill him, just like so many other prophets. Just like Jesus.
The marks of John and Jesus were present in the life of Archbishop Oscar Romero, an unlikely prophet who found the courage to stand up to the obscene violence of the military junta that ruled his native El Salvador. And at the same time, he refused to embrace the gospel of revolutionary violence being purveyed by the Marxist guerrillas. A man like Romero, so profoundly shaped by the prophetic word of God, can elicit only two responses: repentance, or aggression. It’s no accident that he was assassinated while celebrating mass in San Salvador.
This cycle of prophetic witness and violent resistance to the will of God continues today. Do we have eyes to see the marks of the prophetic in the Black Lives Matter movement? It’s no accident that we are seeing an intensification of the slaughter of our brothers and sisters in the African American church. It all fits the pattern of how the powers respond when the followers of the slaughtered lamb take up their cross and follow Jesus.
The question for those of us here today is this: Are we going to be Herod, or will we be the disciples of the prophetic movement of God? Are we prepared to be the prophetic voice – beaten, imprisoned, murdered? Or are our hearts too heartened, our spirits too fearful, our discipleship too weak to stand against the powers and principalities that fight the prophets through denial, ignorance, fear, and acquiescence to violence?
None of this was ever about Herod. As twisted by evil as he was, Herod wasn’t an inhuman monster. Despite the murderous path he chose, he was born a helpless baby, just like you and me. He had hopes and dreams, lost love, and a creative imagination, just like we all do. He wasn’t evil incarnate.
But despite his human potential for truth, love, and relationship with God, Herod’s life was in the clutches of the powers and principalities of his age. He gave himself over to the spiritual forces of hierarchy and terror. He fit right in to the Roman system of domination. He bore all the marks of a petty king. He embraced the Roman elite culture as his model in everything. His life was thoroughly captured by the powers.
John wasn’t a special class of person, either. He had all the weaknesses and sinful tendencies that you and I have. But he opened himself to the power of God, the Holy Spirit that overcomes the powers of the world. And that power set his life on a trajectory that led to direct confrontation with Herod’s unjust dictatorship.
John’s fight with Herod wasn’t personal. It wasn’t about his righteousness or Herod’s evil character. The dispute between these two men was about the struggle between the powers of domination and fear, and the power of God to restore life and redeem society. John chose to cooperate with the Holy Spirit. Herod chose his imperial power games – terror, oppression, domination.
We’re in this same struggle today. We’re not in a fight with that cloth flag that, until Friday, was hanging over South Carolina’s capitol building. But we are in a spiritual war with the powers of slavery, Jim Crow, and white supremacy that flag represents. The dark spiritual powers of racism are alive and at work in our culture, regardless of which flags fly where.
Our fight isn’t with murderers like Dylan Roof, politicians who pass racist voter ID laws, or police officers who brutalize the very people they are sworn to protect. We’re in a spiritual war with the demonic ideology and racist worldview that grips our country so tightly that many of us are not even able to perceive it.
What does it mean to undertake this spiritual warfare as the people of God? What does it mean for us to stand with the prophets, to bear the marks of Jesus, John, and Elijah – of Martin King, Oscar Romero, and Clementa Pinckney?
For many of us, it’s going to require that we realize that our perceptions have been wrong for a very long time. For generations. We’ve been standing on that bicycle path, refusing to hear the ringing of the warning bells, paying no mind to the whizzing of cyclists who barrel past us at break-neck speed. For so long, we’ve insisted that we’re standing on a sidewalk, and that we have every right to be on this sidewalk. We’ve allowed our illusions to get in the way of justice for far too long.
It’s time to get off the bike path of self-righteousness and move over to the sidewalk of humility. It’s time to recognize our nation for what it really is: a society that is struggling deeply in a spiritual battle with the demons of centuries of race-based slavery, followed by generations of Jim Crow. As the people of God, we have a responsibility in Christ to listen deeply to our brothers and sisters whose lives and families have borne the marks of this warfare for so long.
I would like to invite us into a time of waiting worship, in which we can wait together on the Holy Spirit to show us how we can break out of our usual way of viewing the world and begin to see with the eyes of the prophets.