Sermon preached on Sunday 12 July (Pentecost 7)
Amos 7:7-15; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29
The killing of John the Baptist has all the ingredients of a lurid B-movie. The exotic location, an Oriental potentate, obscure religion, sex and violence, and more than a hint of illicit desire. Indeed it has been made into some seedy entertainments at the cinema. Most draw at least partly on Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé, which I last saw in April in a student production here. It’s hard in a way then to return to the text and to discern its implications beyond the merely salacious. I mean – it’s no use preaching a sermon that you shouldn’t marry your brother’s wife, or promise anything to a step-daughter whom you desire. Mark has more in mind than a B-movie moral. So what I hope to do here is to explore the truly significant implications for Mark in the story he knew of the death of John the Baptist, and consider what it may still say to us now.
First of all, John’s death is of the last of the prophets. The Bible of course has many prophets – and a significant part of the Old Testament records their prophecies. If you open the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Quotations you’ll find the entry Prophecy – see Prediction, but in Biblical terms, prophecy is much more than prediction. It’s not really prophecy to predict who’ll win the Open a week today. Prophecy is often focussed on the present rather than the future, declaring what is wrong with the status quo, how those with power are abusing that responsibility. The prophet Amos spoke truth to power:
You have turned justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood. [6:11]
And for such truth-telling, Amos has brought forth opposition, and banishment. In today’s passage, he is told by the King’s priest Amaziah – “Go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there.”
John is in that tradition, a prophet who speaks the truth to powerful ears who fear the effect such truth will have on their authority. And Mark sees him as, in some ways, the last of that tradition, a prophet from God but a precursor to the coming of God himself. As we hear in the opening chapter, After John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled…”
As is already clear, scripture is under no illusion as to the nature of the world which prophets encounter. It is a world in which authority and sex are so distorted by greed, fear and weakness of will that countless people suffer from the effects. A world in which abuse, violence and grief become commonplace. And so John the Baptist is arrested, imprisoned and finally killed, yes for his faith, but also from a heady cocktail of distorted relations of power and desire. That world does not seems so distant from ours. Just on Friday, the funeral took place of a couple from Cumbernauld Jim and Anne McQuire, who were shot dead in the terrorist attack in Tunisia. Ordinary people are still caught up in others’ lust for power. And just last month, nine people at a prayer meeting at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, were killed in their church. It seems that goodness, prayerfulness, and a commitment to justice still bring forth hate and opposition and even murder.
A further implication is the parallels between John the Baptist and Jesus. This is brought out particularly in the framing device for the story. King Herod had heard of the ministry of Jesus, including miraculous healings. Who was this? Herod concludes it is John the Baptist raised from the dead, whom I beheaded. The gospel then gives a flashback to the story of John’s death to help explain Herod’s conviction. In other words, the story of John is placed in parallel to Jesus’: is Jesus the resurrected Baptist? Why would anyone think so? What do they have in common? Well, for Mark, the similarities are many and hugely significant – let’s tease them out.
As John spoke the inconvenient truth to Herod, so Jesus did to Pharisees, Herodians, chief priests and Pilate. Both were arrested, both bound, both held and heard by men (Herod and Pilate) who both feared yet were attracted by their words. As Salomé requested the death of John from Herod, so the crowd stirred up by the chief priests requested the death of Jesus from Pilate. Both acceded to these demands from weakness – Herod out of regard for his oath and his guests, Pilate wishing to satisfy the crowd. Both are brought to their death by soldiers following orders. And both are buried by their disciples.
Of John, When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
Of Jesus, Then Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb.
Of course, Mark knows that Herod is mistaken in thinking Jesus to be John risen from the dead. He begins his gospel with John baptizing Jesus in the River Jordan. But he almost relishes the irony of Herod believing in resurrection of a sort, or perhaps reincarnation – because for Mark, it is the resurrection of Jesus that reveals why Jesus was more than a prophet, how he was the Son of God, how the earthly power of Herod is overwhelmed by who God really is.
For, fundamentally, the stories of John the Baptist, and of Jesus, are about the character of God. God doesn’t stand back from this world of deceit and guilt, violence and sexual abuse, of pain and grief. Rather, the divine is present in the midst of this world, in John the Baptist who took God’s word into Herod’s prison-cell. God is present too, I would suggest, in countless places and times, when people of extraordinary and sometimes pretty ordinary courage, continue to act in truth, justice and compassion in the face of the world’s shabbiness and greed. God was present too, I believe, in the Emanuel Church in Charleston that evening. And I’m not the only one who thinks so – Barack Obama spoke at the funeral of the church’s pastor the Revd Clementa Pinckney about him as follows:
He embodied the idea that our Christian faith demands deeds and not just words, that the sweet hour of prayer actually lasts the whole week long, that to put our faith in action is more than just individual salvation, it’s about our collective salvation, that to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and house the homeless is not just a call for isolated charity but the imperative of a just society.
But if John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ lives and deaths were perfectly parallel, then Jesus would be the last of the prophets. The opposition to God’s message would have won; the distortions of love, desire and authority would be victorious; grief and pain would be eternal; God would be defeated, laid in the tomb. To be honest, it can feel that way, at times. But Mark’s story, good news from its first verse, leads to the tomb not only on the day of burial, and the Saturday after, but to the Sunday morning, when the women come, and they find it empty. The power of the Herods, the Pilates, the tyrants and torturers, the terrorists and the brutal dictatorships, the bullies and the greedy is not the last word. Love did not die there. Jesus was not the last prophet. He is the risen Lord.
And so what of us, now? We may not face the calling which John the Baptist heard and answered. But we live in a world in which human nature and society’s forces seem little changed. We are called, no less than John, to be in our world, living lives of truth, justice and compassion in the face of power, corruption and greed. We are called to stand for different relations of desire and power, without distortion and abuse. This may involve our reputation, our energy and our time, how we speak in public, how we treat each other. And we should be prepared for rejection. Christianity is no popularity contest. As Oscar Wilde said, though not in Salomé, If one tells the truth, one is sure, sooner or later, to be found out.
And we do this trusting in God who sent Amos, John the Baptist and others, who was in Christ Jesus, dead and buried, but who raised Jesus from the tomb.
And as we heard from Ephesians earlier, we set our hope on Christ, and live for the praise of his glory, we who have received the riches of his grace. Let me conclude with further words from President Obama’s eulogy. It talks of grace, of what following Christ, trusting in God, believing in resurrection life meant for those who died, and those who survived:
Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer would not see the grace surrounding the Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group, the light of love that shown as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle.
The alleged killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness. He couldn’t imagine that.
Steamy depictions of Salomé’s dance of the seven veils may be sexy, provocative, powerful – but as a work of imagination, they are far behind, far less imaginative, than a Christian life, trusting in Christ who was dead, buried and raised to life, and whose grace leads some to outrageous forgiveness.
The Revd Dr Donald MacEwan
Chaplain to the University of St Andrews