Amos 7:7-15; Mark 6:14-29
6th Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s 11.07.2021
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Most readings in the gospels present us with the love and wonder of Christ, with the wisdom of his teaching or his awesome authority to do miracles or the compassion of his healing. But today’s reading is quite different. It confronts us with sordid scandal, with abuse of power, with human failing. It does not feel the most edifying of reads, and yet within it we can discover some truths that can both encourage and challenge us.
Firstly, a quick re-cap of the story: Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, and King of Galilee, had imprisoned John the Baptist for daring to criticise his marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodias. One evening, he is so entertained by his step-daughter’s dancing, he promises to give her anything as a reward. To which she replies, prompted by her mother, “the head of John the Baptist”. Fearing he will lose face in front of his courtiers, he orders John’s execution, and John’s head is duly brought in on a platter.
Its a gruesome and grisly story, one that has captured the imagination of artists and composers ever since. But it is a story that raises a number of questions for me. For those weeks, those months of imprisonment how must John have been feeling? What must have been going through his mind as he sat in a prison cell, day after day? There he had been preaching to hundreds, thousands, about getting ready for a new kingdom, a new future. The buzz of excitement, of anticipation, must have been palpable, and there he was, at the heart of it. When Jesus arrived, yes, he stepped back, but he was still seeing things first hand, he was still part of what was going on. Surely if Jesus was ushering in a new kingdom, he would be there to be part of it.
But instead he ends up in prison. We know from Luke’s gospel that John begins to have doubts, questions. He asks two of his followers to go and find out from Jesus: “Are you really the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” This is not the future John had envisaged. Sitting in a dank prison cell, cut off from the extraordinary things Jesus is doing.
Sometimes our futures are not what we had hoped either. I remember in a previous job, pouring months of my working life into a project I passionately believed in, and then there was a change of direction in the organisation and what had seemed central now became peripheral, forgotten. This was not what I had hoped for. There was disappointment, frustration, bitterness and anger. Some of you may be able to identify with that from your own work experiences.
For others there may be the disappointment of retirement not working out quite how you had hoped, plans derailed by poor health, or by caring for loved ones, or by bereavement. Having worked hard throughout life, feeling that one deserved better.
As the Psalmists show us, it is appropriate to bring those disappointments before God, to be honest about how they make us feel and think, to acknowledge the anger and the pain, the bitterness and the loss. And yet, like with John, not to give up hope. Not because if we remain faithful we are guaranteed for things to get better. That certainly wasn’t the case for John. But because there is a future that awaits us that will leave none of us disappointed, and that future of God’s kingdom, God’s love, is one we can still experience and receive a foretaste of, even now.
I wonder if you are in that place of disappointment at the moment. Bring that to God. Or maybe you know of others who are wrestling with disappointment or with a future very different from what they had hoped for. Today bring them before God in prayer. Ask how you may be of support to them.
A second thing I am struck by in this account is that Herod had numerous opportunities to change tack. It is sometimes easy when reading about a series of events in retrospect to see their endpoint as inevitable, that from the point that John spoke out against Herod’s marriage, his life was doomed. But the account does not read like that. Herod puts him in prison, but it is Herod who is afraid of John, not the other way round. Herod resists demands to put John to death, for he recognises in John someone who is righteous and holy. Indeed, he would call him from his prison cell to listen to him. Herod is attracted to John by the quality and virtue of his life, just as at the same time he is repelled by the truth of John’s words.
But John is not the only counsel Herod is receiving. His advisers, among them his wife, want him to get rid of John. After all, if Herod listens to John and ends his incestuous marriage, they will have lost their status and power. This is nothing new. These were the very arguments being had a 1000 years later in Anglo-Saxon England, power struggles as to who should be king or queen based on the legitimacy of royal marriages. And in a more modern form they are the arguments we have today in government. The sacking of Dominic Cummings last year was in effect a question of who has the ear of the Prime Minister, whose counsel would he receive.
It is a question for all of us – whose counsel do we choose to receive? Do we choose to receive the counsel that we want to hear or the counsel that we need to hear? Herod ultimately chose the easy route, with disastrous moral consequences for him and his reign. For our political leaders, at national and local level, all the way through to those making decisions about healthcare provision or student examination grades, or to our personal decisions about such things as to in what situations should we wear masks come the 19th July, we need to ask: whose counsel will we look to? will we be willing to make the difficult choices, choices that may be hard for us personally, but hold integrity? None of this is easy, but it is worth asking honestly about our choices: am I making this choice because it is easier or because it is right?
We need to pray and support one another to make right choices, and we need to pray for those in leadership in our communities, our workplaces, our government, to do so too. In praying for others we may find the humility and courage to do what John did: to speak truth to power with grace and love.
Whether we are contending with disappointment, or supporting others who are, or whether we are struggling to make right, but costly, choices, or can see others who are, let us bring those situations and those people before God. Let us invite him into our lives, that like John, we may ultimately know the hope of God’s kingdom, a kingdom not like Herod’s based on power and might, but the kingdom of Christ, based on love and grace.