Date: July 12, 2009
Texts: 2 Sam 6:1-5, 12b-19; Mk 6:14-29
Author: Isaac Villegas
Lord of life, lead us into your grace and truth. Give us eyes to see the truth about ourselves, and the grace to not run away from what we see, but receive your new life. Amen.
Sometimes the truth stinks. It’s not pleasant. That is the case for Herod Antipas. The truth is that he married his brother’s wife. Not only is that a very strange thing to do, it also goes against the Jewish law, and that means big trouble for Herod. That gives the people one more reason to question his leadership and power. The Jews won’t listen to a man they don’t respect as a faithful Jew.
Herod is a man out of control. Even though he has power, he is a puppet—at the whim of other powerful people, more concerned about public opinion than doing what’s right. That is not to say that he is completely without morals. Herod respects John the Baptist; Herod calls him a holy and righteous man. Even though John keeps on speaking the truth about Herod and Herodias’ illicit marriage, the text says that Herod protected John and liked to listen to him (Mk 6:20).
Now Herodias, Herod’s wife, that’s a different story. If Herod is a puppet, then Herodias is one of the puppeteers, pulling the strings from behind the curtain. She has power and wants to hold onto it no matter what. That’s probably why she left her first husband—Philip. He wasn’t that important, a minor ruler.
But Herod Antipas had a lot going for him. He was even scheming to get the Roman Empire to make him king over Palestine—a puppet king, of course, but a king nonetheless. And Herodias would become his queen. That is, as long as John the Baptist stopped stirring up trouble about her devious and unholy ways.
I think this story helps us talk about desire: what do we want and why. I doubt any of us are like Herodias—at least I hope not. She wants power and she’ll do anything she wants to get it. She has sex with whom she needs to; she uses her daughter’s seductive dance; and she kills John the Baptist—collateral damage on her way to becoming queen of the land.
Herodias shows us what unrestrained and self-serving power looks like—selfish power, determined power. Herod, on the other hand, shows us the weakness at the heart of the powerful. Like I said, he’s a puppet—even if a powerful one. He let’s his desires get the best of him. He is weak because he has no self-control. He is a victim of his own desires. He is impulsive; he wants whatever is put before him.
Herod’s stepdaughter offers him a seductive birthday dance. Herod’s desire becomes putty in her hands. He is his own victim; he has to have what he wants. That is why the powerful are weak. They have to have what they want—and they want everything. They are victims of their power to always have more, victims of their desire for pleasure and fulfillment, not matter what the cost.
What’s the problem for Herod and Herodias? Is it simply that they want things? Or that they want too much? Maybe it’s that their desires are quite selfish—one just wants power, the other desires the pleasure of a sensual dance. Whatever the case, the story gets us into the messy depths of the human heart; we have to talk about what we want and why.
Desire. We have to talk about desire, our desire. And when we talk about desire, about what we want and why we want it, we wrestle with the fundamentals of our humanity, of what it means to be human. We are “desiring machines.” That’s what Gilles Deleuze, my favorite philosopher these days, says about humans. We are bundles of desire, always in want—food, pleasure, drink, purpose, companionship, sleep, and the list goes on.
It’s not that desire is bad. It’s not wrong that we want things. Herod and Herodias are not wrong in their wanting. It can’t be wrong to desire things. That’s just what it means to be human—we are desiring machines. The trouble comes when we have to figure out if our desires are good or bad.
Christianity is a way of life that digs into our desires; we are people who wrestle with what we want and why. Our faith is all about learning how to want, how to desire. Christianity is ultimately about pleasure, about how to experience the joy of life that God offers as a gift.
David seems to know this joy and pleasure. When God’s presence enters Jerusalem, he rejoices in an ecstatic dance. “David danced before the Lord with all his might” (2 Sam 6:14). He abandons himself to his desire for God. He let’s go of all restraint. He wants God and doesn’t worry about what his dance might look like to others. He jumps around in his underwear in front of the ark, twirling and twisting, an expression of uncontrolled desire for God.
It’s not like we need to be more rational when it comes to desire. David definitely isn’t. In our two stories, Herodias is the rational one. She is in control. She knows what she wants and she goes for it, completely without emotion. Her desire is calculated, restrained, cold logic. Herod is the emotional one—completely at the whim of his desire, flighty, irrational.
David is also unrestrained and flighty, completely at the whim of his desire. But the difference between him and Herod is that David wants the right thing. He wants God. And he isn’t afraid of what everyone will think of his unrestrained joy and uncontrolled pleasure.
God is a God of freedom, and David dances freely in God’s presence—set free from the criticism of others and free from his own calculation. He does what he has to do: he worships God.
David experiences a kind of freedom that Herod and Herodias can never know. Herod is captive to his desire, his lust for pleasure that ends up harming John the Baptist. And that’s how it goes for misdirected desire, that’s how it goes with lust—we are controlled by a power that hurts us and all kinds of people; we become slaves and do what we don’t really want to do. Ultimately Herod is not free.
And the same goes for Herodias. Her desire for power controls the rest of her life. Lust for power blinds her. She can’t see what is really good for her, for her daughter, and for John the Baptist. Herodias is a slave to power; her life is under the control of lust. She is not free.
But David… David knows the freedom that comes with God. Worship is how David learns how to be free. For this moment, as he dances in the streets, he discovers the liberation of God, the freedom of the Spirit, the joy of union with God. All of this comes through worship. True freedom, liberated desire.
Now worship isn’t a magic spell that frees us once and for all from slavery to unhealthy desires. We can’t forget that David gives himself to the control of lust a few chapters later when he sleeps with Bathsheba and then kills her husband Uriah. Worship isn’t magical. Instead, it’s an education, a process of discovery, a lifetime of learning.
Worship is how we become friends with God. And friendship takes a lifetime. Good friends don’t happen overnight. It takes time to learn what makes someone happy and what kind of music she enjoys and her favorite food and what she does when she isn’t doing anything. Knowing someone takes a lifetime, a lifetime of attention and questions and listening and simply being together.
And the thing about a good friendship, a deep friendship, an intimate friendship, is that we begin to learn things about ourselves that we didn’t know before. A good friend can be a mirror—they show us who we are and who we can be. They help distinguish between our healthy desires and our harmful ones. They teach us how to want the things that are good for us.
And all of that is what God is. God is a friend who we come to know through worship—and not just know, as if this is all about an activity that happens in our heads. But also feel—feelings are also a way of knowing. Worship is how we feel our way into friendship with God. It involves all our senses, our emotions, the way we think, how we talk and listen, and how we greet one another. All of this is how we get to know God, how we befriend God in our midst.
The danger with talking about how important worship is for our lives is that we might think that worship only happens during this hour we spend together on Sundays. But that’s not right. What we do here on Sundays is only the beginning. Worship involves our whole lives. Every moment of our week is a chance to develop our friendship with God. We are offered God’s friendship around every corner, with everyone we meet. And our friendship with God slowly reforms our desires so we can begin to enjoy the goodness of God all around us, without enslaving ourselves to lust.
So, what does this look like in our lives? How does this friendship with God stuff look when it hits the ground? What does our daily worship feel like?
Well, maybe we should pay attention to what David does after his dance. Worship flows into a very specific activity. Let me read the last bit of the passage again:
“When David had finished offering the burnt offerings and the offerings of well-being, he blessed the people in the name of the Lord of hosts, and distributed food among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, to each a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins” (vv. 18-19).
For David, worship is dancing and feeding people. His desire for God has everything to do with the way humans desire food. That’s how we become friends of God—we worship and share. We become like David; we come to feel our way into God’s presence as we dance with joy and bless our neighbors and friends.