SERMON FOR 11th JULY 2021.
Amos 7: 7-15; Mark 6: 14-29
I wonder how many of you have ever taken a ‘selfie?’ There was a craze a few years back for having ‘selfie-sticks’ to enable yourself to take a ‘selfie’ at arm’s length. It’s a strange phenomenon that an increasing number of people seem more interested in taking pictures of themselves than of others – perhaps exacerbated in these last months when we’ve been on our own for a lot more of the time. But people do seem to be more self-obsessed these days.
Of the two principal figures in today’s account of the death of John the Baptist, I think we can confidently say that John would never have taken a selfie had phone cameras been around in the first century, but Herod would have taken many selfies and would surely have had a selfie-stick.
I don’t mean to be flippant, because we are talking about Herod Antipas, a ruthless man. He was one of the sons of Herod the Great, whom Matthew records as slaughtering the baby boys at Bethlehem after the birth of Jesus. Herod Antipas was tetrarch over about a third of his father’s territory – Galilee and Perea. Mark tells us that he had taken his brother Philip’s wife; it was probably a political move as well as a romance. He was a duplicitous character. He had some respect for John the Baptist, and, it is believed, had visited him in prison. This was the same Herod who, according to the passion narratives, had wanted to see Jesus for a long time, when Jesus was sent to him by Pontius Pilate.
I’m sure we all know people who are receptive to the Christian message, or to any message about morality or fairness or honesty, but who are also heavily influenced by people pulling them in another direction.
So it was with Herod. A rash promise to the daughter of his mistress, and he is faced with a decision to test his moral fibre to the uttermost: to kill John, whom he respected, and please his mistress and her daughter; or to refuse the outrageous request. Which of us has not been persuaded to do something against our better instincts because we feared losing face?
By contrast, consider John’s devotion to justice, and his insistence on simple living and honesty. He preached mainly to the poor, but was not afraid to challenge the rich and powerful, even at the risk of death. Herod, as we heard, liked to hear what John had to say, but, like many of the world’s powerful or unjust, was too afraid to let go of power. So John paid the price, as so many people have, so that rulers may stay in power and unjust governments remain unchallenged. But John’s integrity remained intact.
Unfortunately, the act of beheading is not such an unknown method of execution to us as, I expect, it was when most of us heard today’s passage when we were much younger. But it remains just as horrific, as do many of the methods of execution humans have devised for taking another human’s life. We live in a violent world. Thankfully, we see little of it here, though gang or drug-related shootings and knifings are all too frequent in most of our big cities. But we can’t escape the reports of gratuitous violence, ethnic cleansing, or the massacre of innocent people that have taken place in every decade of our lives.
Such was also the world in which Jesus and John the Baptist lived. There are some strong parallels between the lives and deaths of John and Jesus. Herod’s recognition of John as ‘a righteous and holy man’ anticipates Pilate’s insistence on Jesus’ innocence. Both Herod and Pilate yield to pressure; and there is a foreshadowing of Good Friday in the reference to John’s disciples seeing to his burial.
In the Old Testament reading we heard of another religious figure who challenged the injustices and wickedness of his time. The prophet Amos preached eight centuries before John and Jesus. This was at a time when the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel were divided. Amos lived in the south, in Judah, but was called by the Lord to prophesy in the north. He didn’t just have a swipe at the country’s leaders, but spoke out against everyone who oppressed the poor – including those who took advantage of debtors, or perverted the course of justice, or dealt deceitfully on the Sabbath. Pay Day loan sharks would have been right in his sights. The people of the north at that time seemed to have lost all sense of right and wrong. They turned their dishonesty into a religious celebration, thinking that their prosperity must be a sign of God’s pleasure, and they went on placating him with sacrifices.
Amos felt compelled to speak out against all these injustices. And the response was the same as so many whistle-blowers have received over the centuries. Amaziah, the priest at the shrine of Bethel, ordered Amos out of the country. “Go and prophecy somewhere else, but not here.” As with Herod and John, it wasn’t that Amaziah completely disregarded the message Amos brought because it wasn’t relevant, but because it was all too relevant. Amaziah told King Jeroboam, “The land is not able to bear all his words.” It was too near the knuckle. Amos used the image of the builder’s plumb-line: God measuring up the behaviour of the society of the day with his own standards. Today we might use a spirit level, but the purpose would be the same – to acknowledge that there is a clear marker : not one that we have put in place, but that God has.
Amos was told to go and take his uncomfortable message somewhere else, and not to prophesy at the king’s sanctuary – the temple of the kingdom. It is, I suppose, part of human nature to turn a deaf ear to home truths that make us feel uncomfortable, and few of us like to hear criticism about our lives, particularly if deep down we know that some of the criticism is justified. But as Christians we are called to follow and speak the truth – the truth about ourselves and our lives; the truth about the world and its ways, and the truth about God and the way he desires the world to be.
It’s sometimes almost unbearable to read a daily newspaper as we read of new atrocities by a terrorist group, or about the everyday lives of people who live under tyranny in places like North Korea, Myanmar, or of the existence people have in the war-torn states of the Middle East, or even of the plight of some people in our own country whose lives have been diminished by family breakdown, gang-crime, drugs or abuse.
But I believe we are called on to face these things and to react with understanding and compassion. Jesus’ coming was all about the establishing of his kingdom of justice, peace and love. What have I done this week to help that kingdom grow, or have I been too pre-occupied with my own concerns and agendas to stop and think how I might witness to the love of Jesus and advance his kingdom? And even if I can’t single-handedly change the complicated structures of the world which allow injustice or violence or greed, are there not small things I can do to improve the lot of other people around me? Can I add my voice to those who oppose the forces of wickedness in the world; those who are whistle-blowers against injustices and greed, or against the victimisation or manipulation of the weak by the unscrupulous? Can I financially support any charities or action groups which seek to work against the wickedness and greed of the world, or help victims of such evils?
And if I cannot do even that, can I make it my task to know and grieve about these things and pray about them, and to ask how the plumb-line or spirit level would settle if it was lined up to measure my life?
I leave you with a prayer from a compendium entitled War Prayers, from 1940. O God, who by thy Son Jesus Christ hast setup on earth a kingdom of holiness, to measure its strength against all others; Make faith to prevail over fear, and righteousness over force, and truth over the lie, and love and concord over all things, through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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