Jul15SunThe Death of John the Baptist (Mark 6) July 15, 2018 Pastor Sebastian
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“Prophesying against power”
Grace and peace be unto you…
So today, in a lazy mid-Summer hot Sunday service,
we have the best, or perhaps worst,
story of sex and violence in the New Testament,
a story which has inspired artwork and artistic interpretations throughout the ages, from painters like Lucas Cranach to composers like Richard Strauss.
“The Dance that caused the prophet’s death”
A graphic depiction of excess, public criticism, jealousy, fascination and drunken mistakes.
(Who said the Bible was boring?)
Last week we heard of Jesus’ disciples going out like beggars into the community with only one tunic, no sandals, and relying on handouts.
In today’s text we hear of powerful people having opulent and expensive banquets, and misusing power and murdering on a whim.
What a contrast!
Today’s gospel is a “text of terror”, with adultery and executions,
not very nice, if you ask me,
and it reminds us that the Bible is not just a bunch of pleasant anecdotes about being nice to each other and going to church.
The passage is ominously titled: “The Death of John the Baptist”:
and you know where this is going: it’s going to be a tragedy.
The backstory here is
people trying to figure out who Jesus is:
how does he do what he does?
where is his power from?
Is what he says justified, or is he completely wrong?
The people had asked these questions as well about Jesus’ forerunner and cousin, John the Baptist.
As a true prophet, John called out the injustice and hypocrisy of those in power,
and called people to repent and turn back to the Lord.
John was divisive, and some people liked him (the poor and marginalized), and others hated him (the rich and powerful).
But there would be consequences to his prophetic speech.
When you speak out against powerful people, especially autocrats,
you’re liable to get hurt or killed. And this would be no different.
When you get mixed up in politics in a system where no criticism is tolerated (whether back then in Galilee, or as a journalist in Russia today), you disappear.
The plot is simple, as described in Mark’s Gospel: you probably all know it.
John the Baptist publicly criticized Herod (the ruler of Galilee)
for marrying Herodias, the wife of his brother,
(and this was an offence according to Jewish law)
Herodias (and Herod) didn’t really like that John publicly decried their relationship, so Herod threw him in jail.
Herodias wanted to kill John, but he was protected by Herod
(“knowing he was a righteous and holy man, grudging respect, perhaps)
Herod’s reaction to John the Baptist is quite conflicted:
at times angry and afraid,
he keeps him around, maybe listens to him occasionally,
with curious disdain and bafflement.
And then “the opportunity presented itself”:
A banquet, a huge feast, with reclining nobility,
the most important people of Galilee, lots of servants with platters dripping with exotic meats, delicacies and fruits beyond the purchase power of the average citizen, goblets and goblets of fine wines,
all amidst the backdrop of the poverty of the 99%,
the mass of landless peasants who had no power, and no privilege.
And then a pleasing dance, a striptease perhaps? by the daughter of Herodias.
And Herod promises her anything, even half the kingdom.
The girl requests, prompted by her mother, for the head of John the Baptist on a platter (quite a dramatic touch! and it begs the question: “what kind of banquet was this?”)
And John is beheaded, and Herodias gets her wish.
You can imagine the scene in your head.
And that’s how John the Baptist, outspoken critic of the political leader,
According to the Gospel of Mark
“the world is demon-infested”
pain and chaos are part of life.
Esp. in this text from Mark we see how
evil affects particularly the innocent and the weak!
Evil is found in the centres of power; both political and religious,
and a world is described “where injustice and brutal power prevail
and the strong lord it over the weak
with sex, money and power.”
You know, the Bible talks a lot about politics and power,
in a way that is relevant to what’s going on in the world today.
So many of today’s news stories are about power,
and the abuse of power over the weak:
in the stories of refugees,
and migrant workers,
or the marginalization of People of Colour,
or the disdain for non-gender conforming people, just to name a few.
And our text really sets up a contrast between the powerful and the powerless.
We have in one instance; John the Baptist, who wears camel’s hair clothing, eats wild honey, lives as homeless at the margins of society.
And then there is Herod Agrippa, living in indulgence and luxury,
the center of political power, with golden fixtures.
John the Baptist is a liability for Herod,
a threat, both personally and politically.
He’s dangerous but fascinating.
There are competing (alternate) narratives,
and divergent questions are being asked:
Is Herod wicked, or is John the Baptist a threat to national security?
Is John being anti-Galilean by criticizing the actions of his leader?
Or is he merely doing his prophetic job?
And whoever controls the narrative, the news cycle, controls the destiny.
And of course, the person wielding the power has the upper hand,
and can strike the fatal blow.
And so evil triumphs over good.
At least at first.
Greed and corruption win out, on the surface.
And there seem to be many stories of evil winning over good these days:
We were all shocked when news of the families separated at the US-Mexico border came to light, of young children held in detention centres, and children put on trial in asylum hearings without help or legal assistance.
We hear of the rising pre-fascist rhetoric of autocrats around the world,
callously demeaning certain groups as “infesting animals”.
Or the Philippine president promoting the massacre of 3 million quote unquote “drug users”, with extra-judicial killings on the rise of “drug users, petty criminals and street children."
Evil is found when complex issues are reduced to simplistic black-and-white problems.
Wickedness is evident for example, in the Australian policy of detainment of refugees in horrific conditions outside of their country, which has become a model for right-wing governments around the world.
Evil is found in policies that enrich stockholders at the expense of the working poor, and
-in the back-pedalling of the path of reconciliation with our indigenous brothers and sisters.
-and in our (own surprising) unwillingness to admit our own racism.
We live in a strange and worrying times where (esp. South of the Border) right is wrong and wrong is right,
where strongmen and dictators are praised and democratic leaders are disdained.
It disturbs me when leadership decisions seem to consist merely of repealing what predecessors have done,
and there is a turning back of the clock on hard-won advancements for groups that are not straight or white or male.
Can we preach about (or talk as Christians about) these current topics?
Dare we criticize other Christians who seemingly are taking the side of, or condoning, hurtful and evil behaviour?
May we raise our voices to prophecy against the abuse of power, and sin as we see it?
In short, we must.
We have a moral obligation to speak out and oppose sin and selfish desires, whether they are personal, political or societal.
We have an ethical obligation to help our neighbour and speak out for those in need.
We must combat misinformation parading as truth.
(And in particular I believe, St. Matthews has a particular responsibility, as it is to my knowledge, the only non-conservative evangelical mainline program on FaithFM.
It is interesting to note that our broadcast follows the socially conservative American organization “Focus on the Family” as well as the conservative American programme “In touch”…)
We Must speak prophetically as Christians,
and take John the Baptist as role model,
speaking truth to power
no matter the cost.
Our future as a hard-won society of justice, freedom and order is at stake
or as even Jon Stewart declared a few weeks ago:
(Jon Stewart guest appearance at the Late Show on June 28) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PYCPZrOkZx0&frags=pl%2Cwn)
we must “call cruelty and fear and divisiveness wrong, and not right” and by not yielding: we will prevail.
Let us continue to pray and work,
that Justice may flow like streams of sparkling water,
and that abuse of power and oppression of the underprivileged be called out and worked against.
This is our duty as followers of the one Lord who preached of the banquet where the poor, lame, and outcast are invited,
a place where neighbours are loved,
no matter their colour, gender or religion,
where wealth is shared so that all have enough.
and the disadvantaged and the poor have a place. Amen.