Reading(s): Mark 6:14-29. This sermon was given by Victoria at St Mark, Ampfield.
This week’s gospel is another one of those that as a preacher you’d quite like to hand over to someone else to do!
This is not how we usually hear the Gospel, usually we hear something about God’s love and forgiveness, something to cheer and uphold us. This week we just hear the rather harrowing story of the beheading of John the Baptist, what’s it all about?
So inspired by last week’s WFA when we heard the story of the Old Testament in 10 minutes – a good job by the way WFA team - you can still catch it online, I thought we’d look at some of the background to today’s gospel story…..
This week we see the world that was created by all those rulers and kings, all that intrigue and murder, and what those Old Testament prophets were warning us about. We see the culmination of the people of Israel, and let’s face it, it has gone horribly wrong……only a Messiah will be able to make this right…
We are in Galilee where Herod is Governor. The gospel calls him a ‘king’, but that is not quite accurate. The Roman Emperor, Augustus, sensibly, did not trust Herod with kingship so he made him one of a number of rulers in Israel – the tetrarchs - and confusingly they nearly all called themselves ‘Herod’.
Explaining this next bit is rather like one of those history lessons about the Wars of the Roses where you really feel you need diagrams and something to hold on to, but it is good to go deeper sometimes and not look in isolation at the story on the page.
The Herod we all know about is Herod the Great, the man who met the Wise Men and who tried to kill the infant Jesus. He was long dead by the time we get to this story about John the Baptist. Herod the Great was power hungry, violent and almost certainly a psychopath. He murdered his wife, his brother in law and three of his own sons. Despite his best efforts, some of his sons survived him: Archelaus was given Jerusalem. He was so violent and inept that the Romans deposed him and ruled the city themselves – that is why, when Jesus was crucified it was Pontius Pilate who gave the order.
Two other sons prospered: Philip was given territory in what is now Syria and Herod Antipas got Galilee and bits of what is now Jordan – this is our Herod of today’s reading. Now wait, there’s more…... Herod Antipas, Tetrarch in Galilee, married a foreign princess, but, then fell in love with his own niece, a woman called Herodias. He divorced the princess and set up house with Herodias, even though she was already married to his half-brother (I did tell you it was nasty). Herodias already had a daughter her name was Salome and, of course, just to make it really complicated, Salome was married to Philip the Tetrarch in Syria and Herod’s brother…..
This is a story of politics and power; there is sexual longing, violence and dynastic ambition. Sympathy and compassion have run for the hills. Herod Antipas' first wife did not take kindly to the divorce, and she refused to go quietly, there was a row, and John the Baptist, preaching out at the Jordan, took the story up taunting the adulterers in the royal palace. There is simmering resentment all around. And we still have to add into the mix, the fact that all these Herodians were foreigners. They were late converts to Judaism and the Jews hated them. In place of David and Solomon the Jews had, as the focus of national life, something alien and corrupt. The Herodians pandered to the Romans, they employed gentile troops, they kept their distance from Jews, and they lived like Greeks. If you need me to explain what living like a Greek means you should to speak to me later, but it would need to be after the nine o’clock watershed.
I am telling you all this because this is the narrative in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The good news is worked out within the politics of vice, violence and betrayal. The Tetrarch Archelaus celebrated his accession by killing 3,000 people in the Temple… inside the Jewish Temple. Herod Antipas created a new Jewish city and he called it Tiberias, that is he named it after the Roman Emperor the occupiers. What we have here, is a nation at odds with itself and its history. Religion was just as dangerous as everything else. Herod the Great, in a cynical bid for fame had rebuilt the Jewish Temple, and, as a consequence, the devout thought it was tainted.
The whole Jewish story had gone wrong, the Jewish kings were neither Jewish not kings, God’s dwelling place, the Temple, was desecrated and the Land that God had given the Jews was run by Romans and their puppets. Small wonder then, that false prophets announced the end of the world, the faithful retreated into ghettoes, and the Romans suspected everyone of sedition and tried to kill them. The Jews got very familiar with seeing people on crosses.
When you pick up the gospel think on these things. When you hear talk of kingdoms, when you read about the line of David, when you catch talk of saviours and Messiahs, of foreign landlords, of centurions, the Temple, priests and Pharisees it is all this that lies behind. When the gospel speaks of righteousness, justice and judgement it is against this canvas of corruption and violence and betrayal. The gospel is worked out in a world where power has corrupted.
Now, the gospel reading began ‘King Herod heard of it’, What he heard about was the fact that Jesus had just sent the twelve out at the beginning of the great mission. They are sent out just before this story about the death of John the Baptist and they come back just as it ends. The gospel says ‘They went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them’ Mark 6:12-13
The gospel is proclaimed to people fed up with stories of adultery and brutality, in a nation that is sick of its leaders and unsure of its identity, to people who do not know which religion to trust. Sound familiar?
The gospel is preached there in the world where power corrupts, then, and as John the Baptist dies, the gospel frankly does not change things very much. It is this that we need to understand, this that gives character to our faith.
The hope we have before us is fixed on the man who dies rather than power, and thinking we’re the only ones who have got it right, forcing our views. We proclaim the Christ who did not compromise, but never, never asserted or imposed. The gospel does not look for the transformation that comes from ambition or vision. The gospel looks for the transformation that begins in my heart and mind and in yours and works out from there gently but relentlessly. The gospel does not want to change society, or government; it wants to change you and me. It is not like anything else. Wherever power is concentrated Salome dances still – demanding action, begging favours, seeking privilege and the servants of the gospel will not prosper there. But the gospel looks for a deeper change, for a different commitment, for the responsibilities of love.
Our world is not dissimilar to the world of these first disciples, it is full of horror and pain of Governors looking for power and status, even Christians looking only for bums on seats, but only if your bum isn’t gay, or old, or divorced, or longs for the eucharist. But by building a community of love first in our own lives, and then by living by the example of Jesus, we may not change the world, but we can change the lives of those around us, and if we all do that obviously like a wave of compassion it will spread and ….well yes, we can change the world!