When Jesus Costs You Everything
What has it cost you to follow Jesus? Would you keep following him if it could ,,, or would … cost you everything?
Michael Nnadi was a Nigerian, whose face projected a nearly supernatural joy. Michael was one of 270 students studying at the Good Shepherd Seminary in Kaduna State. On the evening of January 8, 2020, his world was upended when an armed gang, disguised in military fatigues, breached the gate of the school. They snagged four seminarians, including Michael, and made their escape.
By the end of the month, three of the four boys had been freed, but not Michael. A few days later he was found dead, his body dumped on the side of a road, massacred by his kidnappers. Michael’s twin brother, Raphael, spoke to the Nigerian press the week he and his brother would have turned 19. He saluted the path of faith and service that his brother had selected. “Michael was so much committed and loved the things of God. … My consolation is that he did not die in vain, pursuing things of the world, but rather he died in the service to God, training for the [ministry].”
It remained a mystery why Michael had been killed while the others had been freed. The same negotiators had been working on behalf of all four abductees. Some Nigerians, as well as local and international authorities, thought that he may have been disposed of as a negotiating tool to increase the ransom for the others, but no one knew for sure – until April 30, 2020.
That’s the day the murderer, Mustapha Mohammed, was interviewed in prison by Nigeria’s newspaper. So why did Mustapha kill Michael? He openly and even brazenly told the press, “He did not allow me any peace; he just kept preaching to me his gospel. I did not like the confidence he displayed [in his faith], and I decided to send him to an early grave.”[i]
Let me ask you again: What has it cost you to follow Jesus? Would you keep following him if it could ,,, or would … cost you everything?
As we continue our journey together through Mark’s Gospel, we find things getting much more dangerous – deadly – for Jesus, his disciples, and his family. Jesus has sent his disciples out in pairs throughout the Galilean countryside with the power and authority to do everything he has been doing – healing the sick, casting out demons, and proclaiming his message that the Kingdom of God was present IN Jesus. So the message and power of Jesus kind of saturated the region known as Galilee, and news of the power and message of Jesus reached the highest reaches of power in the area. Turn with me to Mark 6:14-29. We’ll start with just verses 14-20.
The “Herod” we encounter here is Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great. Herod the Great ruled the entire kingdom of Judea under Rome’s authority. He was a puppet king, for sure. He wasn’t given his position by birth, or by military conquest. He was named ruler of the area by the Roman Senate, and his power came from Rome, from the Senate and from Caesar. He was required to keep the peace and make sure that Rome’s taxes were paid. Beyond that, he could deal with the issues related to his “realm” as he saw fit.
He was known for his massive building projects which he paid for by placing an extremely heavy tax burden on the Jews, above and beyond Rome’s taxes. And he was hated by the Jews. He was viewed as a collaborator with Rome, the occupying force under whose thumb they lived. He was hated for his harsh taxes. He was hated because his wife, Malthace, who was the mother of Herod Antipas, was a Samaritan. And Herod wasn’t a Jew at all. He was Idumean, born in Idumea, south of Judah. He was of Arab descent. It was said that he and his family converted to Judaism, but Herod’s faithfulness to Judaism was always suspect, given his choice of a Samaritan for a spouse, his bloody ruthlessness, and the fact that he received his position and authority from Rome. The titles he was first given were Roman titles – governor and then tetrarch. But he was finally given the title he coveted most – King, by the Roman Senate and Caesar Augustus. Herod, King of the Jews. Under Rome, of course, but he had the title he coveted.
And he defended that title vigorously. When he learned that the Jewish messiah had possibly been born in Bethlehem, he slaughtered all of the male infants and toddlers in and around Bethlehem, seeking to stamp out this messiah before he got started, because he knew that the title “King of the Jews” rightfully belonged to the Jewish messiah. He later killed two of his own sons, Alexander and Aristobulus, when he suspected they wanted his throne too soon. Note the non-Jewish names of his sons, by the way. When he heard about this, Caesar Augustus exclaimed, “I would rather be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son!” Who said that? Caesar Augustus, the most powerful man in the world.
When Herod finally died, his kingdom was divided among his sons (the ones who survived their childhood, anyway), and Herod Antipas was named tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, and it was Herod Antipas who had authority over Galilee when Jesus was in ministry there. This Herod wanted the same title, King, that his father had, but Rome never gave it to him. Caesar Augustus himself denied Herod’s request to receive the title “King,” while giving that same title to another regional ruler, Herod’s nephew Herod Agrippa.
The Jews hated Herod Antipas as much as they hated his father. He had a total disregard for Jewish sensitivities. He married Herodias, his brother’s wife, while his brother was still alive. She was both his sister-in-law and his niece. He talked her into marrying him, and sent his current wife away to do it. He also made an ancient cemetery, Tiberias, his capital city. Any Jews who moved there to be close to the center of power would perpetually be rendered ceremonially unclean because of that, and thus unable to participate in services in the synagogue. In reality, a synagogue wouldn’t be able to be built there because it had been a cemetery. Jews who traveled there for official business would be ceremonially unclean until they went through the cleansing rituals prescribed by the Old Testament law.
This is the man who, when news reached him about Jesus and his incredible, miraculous power, feared that he was dealing with John the Baptist resurrected. You see, Herod Antipas is the one who had John the Baptist beheaded. Shortly after he baptized Jesus, John went to Herod’s capital city and spoke out loudly against his marriage to Herodias, his niece and sister-in-law. And Herodias, not Herod, was incensed. SHE wanted John put to death, but Herod wouldn’t do it because he was strangely intrigued by John, even as he feared him because he was loved by the people.
Mark tells us that John “greatly perplexed” Herod, and yet Herod “heard him gladly.” There was something about John that drew Herod – his integrity, his willingness to risk life and limb to speak the truth, his connection to God. It’s almost like Herod had John in protective custody – safe from his wife in prison while also being able to listen to John speak, to talk with John, on his own.
Two kingdoms collide here – Herod’s kingdom of pleasure and power seeking, and the eternal, unrelenting truth and glory of the Kingdom of God. And two kingdoms cannot coexist in the same place. One must come under the authority of the other. John is speaking out as a citizen of the Kingdom of God, seeking to draw Herod to repentance. And Herod is intrigued. Not intrigued enough to actually do anything about it, but he IS intrigued. But he valued something more. His power. His wealth. His pleasure. His status. And when he came face to face with one who was willing to speak truth to him, to confront him with the glory and truth of the Kingdom of God, he was intrigued enough to listen, but not to act. Because he loved something else more.
You see, the Kingdom of God always challenges the kingdoms of this world. Regardless of the political and even religious persuasions of the people in power. It doesn’t matter whether the people in power are democrat or republican, whether they claim to follow Christ (and even do) or are atheist, the Kingdom of God always comes into conflict with the kingdoms of this world. When we place our faith in Jesus and begin to follow him, the flags that we fly over our own personal kingdom – the flags of power and prestige and pleasure and wealth, the flags of nations and states and businesses – they all come down. Jesus will share his throne with no one and with no other kingdom. It is HIS flag, and his flag alone, that flies over the hearts and minds and lives of his people. Our loyalty is to him and to no other.
That is why Jesus, in Luke 14:26, says “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” He isn’t telling us to literally hate our parents and siblings and lives. He’s telling us that there’s only one throne in our lives, and when he sits on it, there isn’t room for another. Thrones cannot be shared.
What kingdoms compete for the throne of your heart. I know the ones that compete for mine. I think they’re the ones that compete for the hearts of most followers of Jesus who live in America – pleasure and comfort. I don’t want to be uncomfortable. Not really. I like my warm house and comfortable bed. I like my fridge and pantry that are filled with food. I like my TV with tons of channels and more sports than I can watch (although I certainly try to watch them all). I like my recliner, my warm house, my full belly, and my comfy bed. I like being able to call things that most people in most cultures through most of history have just called survival, exercise. Riding my bike, walking, running, lifting heavy stuff – it isn’t life. It’s optional. It’s exercise. I like my relatively safe, comfy life.
What happens when Jesus being the lord of my life … disrupts that. To be fair, John was never really known for living a comfy life. Even by ancient standards, he was extreme. He lived in the wilderness, clothed himself in the skins of animals, and subsisted on plants and bugs and whatever. He was really, truly, an ascetic. God called him to be that and honestly, kind of wired him to be that way too, it would seem. But the people Mark wrote this gospel for – the Christ-followers in Rome several decades later – who knew comfort, but the standards of that day, and were having that comfort more and more threatened and disrupted BECAUSE they followed Jesus, to the point where their lives were in danger – they weren’t used to the life John lived any more than we are.
To be honest, even John himself wondered how much more he would be asked to sacrifice for Jesus. Even wilderness hardened John was eventually pushed to his breaking point. In Luke 7, John, imprisoned by Herod and languishing in prison, sent 2 of his own disciples to ask Jesus if he was really the Messiah. Why? Because he expected what anyone reading this for the first time would expect – that eventually Jesus, the promised messiah AND HIS COUSIN, would come and miraculously rescue him as he rode to Herod’s capital, with the army he had raised up as the messiah, to depose Herod before heading down to Jerusalem. That’s what the messiah was supposed to do, right. John’s own faith wavered as he sat in Herod’s prison.
Luke tells us that “John, calling two of his disciples to him, sent them to the Lord, saying, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And when the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you, saying, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’” In that hour he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Lk 7:19-23).
Do you hear what Jesus says … and what he doesn’t? I am fulfilling all of the signs the Old Testament prophets said the messiah would fulfill. The blind see. The lame walk. The lepers are healed. The deaf hear. The dead are raised. The poor hear the good news. And no, John, I am not coming to rescue you. Wow.
And so John sits in prison. For two years. Like Gregg often says, when I complain about the pains of getting older, “It goes on like that for a while, and then it gets worse.” Look at Mark 6:21-29. Remember, Herod’s niece sister-in-law wife hated John, because he spoke out against Herod’s marriage to her. Herod was, after all, a step up in power and prestige from his brother. She wanted John dead, but Herod feared the people, and the people loved John. But John’s teaching could also lead to an uprising against him, so he threw John in prison. Didn’t shut John up at all, but now only Herod could hear him, and John was safe from his wife. Until.
Until Herod threw a party for his birthday. We’d call it a stag party. Men only. Parties like this were common enough among the elite, and throwing parties like this for the elite was one of the ways Herod held onto his power. Food everywhere, alcohol flowing freely, and women dancers. So Herodias sent her daughter Salome, by Philip (so she was also Herod’s niece), in to dance in an erotic and sensuous way, and her dance pleased Herod. So he offered her whatever she wanted. He didn’t have the authority to give her half his kingdom. Everyone there knew it. That was up to Rome. He was exaggerating to make a point – ask for what you want Salome. She didn’t know what to ask for, so Herodias fed it to her – the head of John the Baptist. And that’s what she got – his head on a platter.
John’s willingness to speak out for God, to remain faithful to God, to not turn a blind eye, bought him two years in prison and then a beheading. Herod didn’t want to do it. He was grieved. Herodias had outmaneuvered him. He’d made a promise in front of every important person in his kingdom. What was he going to do? Follow through and have John beheaded, or lose the respect of the important people there because he didn’t follow through? And John’s head wound up on a platter. What we forget is that in that moment, John took his last breath in this life, and his next in the fullness of the Kingdom of God for which he had so long labored and longed.
What has it cost you to follow Jesus? Would you keep following him if it could ,,, or would … cost you everything?
In the film Of Gods and Men, director Xavier Beauvois tells the true story of a small group of mostly French monks living in Algeria during a time of civil unrest. These monks live a life of quiet fidelity dedicated to prayer and work in the rural part of the country near a small village. As part of their work, the monks run a small health clinic and also provide necessary physical supplies like clothing and shoes to the people in the village.
Early in the film, word reaches the monks that a group of Muslim radicals is on the move and will soon be in the town adjacent to the monastery. The monks will be in danger as soon as the radicals take the town. However, they are given a choice. Because the radicals have not yet arrived, there is time for the monks to leave the monastery and move to a more secure place.
In a pivotal scene, the monks speak with the members of the village, most of whom are Muslim, about the decision. One monk says that they are all like birds on the branch of a tree, uncertain whether or not to fly away or stay. A woman from the village corrects him. “You are the tree. We are the birds. If you leave, we will lose our footing.”
The monks make the brave decision to stay. The monks were later kidnapped and beheaded; their bodies were never found.[ii]
What has it cost you to follow Jesus? Would you keep following him if it could ,,, or would … cost you everything? Even in America, no … ESPECIALLY in America, we need to be confronted with that question. Let us pray.
[i] Rabbi Abraham Cooper & Rev. Johnnie Moore, “The Mass Murder of Nigerian Christians,” The Tablet (11-20-20)
[ii] Katelyn Beaty, “Of Gods and Men,” Christianity Today (2-25-11)