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12th July 2015 – Sixth Sunday after Trinity – Lea Williams

Bible Readings: Amos 7. 7-15; Ephesians 1. 3.-14: Mark 6. 14-29.

May I speak in the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

What sells newspapers? Three things, says Bishop Tom Wright, and if they’re combined so much more the better:

First, Royalty: almost any story about a member of the Royal family will sell, not only in Britain or Norway or wherever it originated, but also around the rest of the world. Perhaps over the last week you may have seen an example of this, as I have: coverage of Princess Charlotte’s baptism at St Mary Magdalene Church in Sandringham. With much attention being given to the outfits that each of the British Royals wore, including the Duchesses’ cream number.

Second, Sex: Sex sells. There is nothing like a scandal, especially if it is to do with people in high places.
and Third, Religion: Although God has certainly slipped down the ratings of previous years, there are still unanswered questions out there, and someone who seems to be an authentic spokesperson for God is newsworthy.

So, put these three together – Royalty, Sex and Religion – you have an explosive package. Locate it within Galilee in the first century and it gives us this morning’s gospel reading – the story of Herod and John the Baptist.

Indeed, the story of the beheading of John the Baptist is hardly a text one would spontaneously choose for a sermon. However, as Ricky noted in this weeks ‘message’ – it is the ‘discipline of the lectionary’ to sometimes be faced with difficult or uncomfortable readings to wrestle with. But maybe, given recent world events, it is become very important to consider the role of the prophet and the potentially high cost of being truthful…
Herod must have been terrified. Here is a man who relied on treachery, questionable political moves and the power gained through wealth to achieve his great and cherished ambition: to have the Jewish people recognise him as their true king. Now it was all under threat and he is confronted by a nightmare.

News was circulating that something truly remarkable was afoot. Everyone was hearing rumours of a young prophet going about doing extraordinary things and speculating who this might be. Perhaps it was Elijah? In Jewish tradition it was he who would return to prepare for the final judgement – after all he hadn’t died but instead been swept up directly into heaven. Or could he be, ‘like one of the prophets of old’ – he certainly spoke of himself in this way…

Herod, however, had a more precise suggestion, which is all the more remarkable given subsequent events – ‘John, whom I’ve beheaded has been raised!’. Herod knew John was dead. he saw his head, albeit through a haze of drunkenness – but he saw the head.

Mark’s account of the sordid, shabby and shameful night – exactly the sort of story that creates headlines and everybody likes to hear (however much they pretend otherwise), is quoted to explain Herod’s confusion of emotions: guilt, both for John’s death and about his marriage; fear in the face of John’s righteousness. He is perplexed, struggling with a conflict of interests; grieved that he bowed down to pressure. Blinded by a twist of his guilty conscience, Herod is unable to see Jesus’ true identity. How very sad. How very tragic.

How often have we lost our heads – from ambition, lust, power, inebriation? Perhaps, because of what we’ve seen in our own lifetimes of the consequence of misused power, political greed and society’s belief that “it’s all about me,” we have to realise Herod has something to teach us…

But why did John cause such waves over Herod Antipas taking of his brother’s wife? Although King Herod was appointed by Rome, he was to be ruler of Galilee and therefore needed to be seen as one who kept the laws of the Torah. This act was immoral, against the law and set a bad example to the Jewish people. As I have mentioned, Herod following his father, had a great vision: to have the Jews recognise him as their true king – he was completing his father’s great project of rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem, a role that had been associated with royalty ever since Solomon had built the first temple a thousand years before.

John the Baptist though, was launching a very different kind of kingdom-movement. He promised a Coming One who was about to appear; and the baptism that he offered to those in the Jordan, for the forgiveness of sins was to upstage the very temple itself. John, keen to press his point, told his disciples that Herod’s lifestyle and aspirations were out of line with God’s. Would God’s anointed really behave in such a fashion – a Messiah marrying his brother’s wife?

It is little wonder that Herod, and particularly his wife Herodias, the woman at the centre of the scandal, were enraged. Although Herod liked to listen to John often, he was too weak to stop spiralling events – the party, the esteemed guests, the wine, the infamous erotic dance, and the tragic end. One day God, as we are told in our reading from Ephesians, will ‘gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and on earth’. The Kingdom of God will overcome those of the world. But until this time those who are called to be prophets of God, like Amos and John, are likely to suffer the anger of those who feel their power slipping away from them.

Mark, in telling this story wants to draw a parallel between John and Jesus and between Herod and Pilate – I wonder if you have noticed the similarities. For each innocently suffers at the hands of a hesitant, wavering political leader. Although wanting to pronounce freedom, both leaders are trapped by their circumstances and permit a violent death. In both stories disciples come, take the body and place it in a tomb.

Readers of Mark’s narrative already know that a conspiracy is underway to destroy Jesus. The fate of John gives them every reason to expect this to come to fruition. Perhaps there is even a hint of Jesus’ resurrection in the rumour voiced by Herod himself, that Jesus was John raised from the dead?

The story also serves another function. If you were here for last Sunday’s service or another that used the Revised Common Lectionary, you will have heard the portion of scripture immediately before that of John’s death – the sending out of the disciples to the surrounding villages. Next week we will hear their report to Jesus of the successful mission. Why, in the midst of a positive account of the disciples’ exorcisms, healings and preaching would Mark insert this description of a ‘righteous and holy man’, who provoked the political authorities by speaking the truth? Could he be drawing a parallel not only between Jesus and John but also John and the disciples? Perhaps in his mind he was thinking a little further, to the little communities of Christians, (perhaps in Rome) he knew wherever they were, facing persecution and hardship for their determination to stick with the kingdom-message, whatever the authorities may do?

Mark’s Gospel, much like the letters of St Paul, is amazingly realistic about the fortunes of those who follow Christ. For even when there is reason for optimism, political and even religious persecution is not far away. Believers in Christ should not be too surprised then when the declaration of God’s judgment and mercy is met with hostility.

[In a sense, John’s tragic end anticipates Jesus’ words spoken to the disciples later in the temple. They are warned about being dragged before governors and kings. They will be beaten in the synagogues for the sake of the gospel (Mark 13:9].

Although very few of us here will have been in danger of death as a result of telling the truth or for our faithful Christian witness. Christians in many parts of the world today still face torture and death for their faith – dying for one’s faith is certainly not a foreign concept in our world. This year alone, a number of Ethiopian and Coptic Christians, along with Muslims and journalists and other people have lost their lives at the hands of the radical Islamic terrorist group known as ISIS – the Islamic State. And in South Carolina, nine Christians at a Bible study were killed simply because of the colour of their skin after extending hospitality and an open door to a stranger. We don’t like to think of such events as the norm. However, Pope Francis, quoted in July 2014 stated that: “There are more witnesses, more martyrs in the Church today than there were in the first centuries.”

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, there is indeed a cost to discipleship. Perhaps bibles should have a safely warning pasted on the front cover: ‘Following the God you meet through these pages is usually dangerous!’

Would you protest and risk imprisonment? Would you take a stand on an issue that ran counter to popular opinion if you truly believe it is an issue of justice and love of neighbour? Will you speak on behalf of today’s voiceless? Or would you and will you instead sit in comfort, avoiding risk, eschewing conflict, and doing nothing to rock the proverbial boat?

I ask myself these questions sometimes. What would I be willing to risk? What can I afford to lose? Am I able to lose my life to save it?
John the Baptist, God’s Herald to the Coming Messiah, did exactly what he was supposed to do, and yet that did not bring him great fame, fortune and friends. John fulfilled his role by standing aside, making room for Jesus, and continuing to bear a faithful witness right up to his strange and tragic end.

So, may those who face persecution for their faith today take comfort, and may the rest of the Church worldwide be strengthened in our prayers for them, from wrestling with this strange story of Jesus, Herod and John. For the God who called and equipped John and Jesus, and who through them confronted Herod and by implication all other rulers, remains sovereign. For He accomplishes all things according to His will, and in the fullness of time gather all things in Christ. Things in heaven and things on earth (Eph 1:10).
Amen.