The Beheading of John the Baptist

Sermon for Sunday 15th July 2012 (Mark 6.14-29 & Ephesians 1.3-14)

I so often begin a sermon by saying that the gospel of the day is one of my favourites. This is not one of those times. In fact, it’s pretty hard to find any good news in this gospel.

As a moral tale, one can read it politically: point out that corruption and sleaze are nothing new, but have always been there, and that when those in power try to save face rather than face up to their mistakes, there are often casualties. We may lament at this, and at how those who speak up and speak out so often seem to pay too high a price for their integrity.

But there is no good news in any of that, no gospel, merely confirmation of what our sometimes-cynical minds know represents some of the worst of humanity. If anything, this shows us how much we – just as the world in Herod and John’s day – need the gospel.

And that gospel had been the whole meaning of John’s life. He’d spent his adult years preaching essentially three things:

  • Repentance and forgiveness are real, and necessary, and they are for everyone
  • The kingdom of God is coming closer, and this a promise of hope and a threat of judgement
  • There is someone greater coming: Jesus the Messiah.

These three messages were John’s whole reason for being.

The last one, that Jesus was coming, had finally started to be fulfilled.  The story of John’s beheading is told by Mark between the account of Jesus sending out his twelve disciples to begin their ministry, and their return, full of stories of success. The baton has well and truly been passed on.  John’s role as the last great prophet has been accomplished, and his work is done.

But the other parts of John’s message are not yet finished. And Herod stands as the final person to whom John brings them, and with whom he tries to share them.

John brings Herod the gospel of repentance, the truth about sin and forgiveness.  John’s right, Herod should not have married Herodias, it broke the laws that were there for a reason. And if Herod didn’t like it being pointed out, Herodias liked it even less. But Herod, at least, seems interested and ambivalent enough to listen. Were there stirrings of guilt and a desire for change somewhere in his heart, that could, eventually have found expression in the way he lived his life?  We will never know. But undoubtedly John’s last act was to keep on preaching repentance to Herod, and keep offering him the chance of God’s forgiveness, the chance to make things right. John never gave up his calling to show Herod the reality of God’s mercy, even though in the end, no mercy was shown to him.

And John also spend his last days showing Herod what the kingdom of God was like. This, I think, must have been what really intrigued the king. It’s as if he caught a glimpse of a different way of doing things, of a different kind of power, or a different world order, and was both fascinated and frightened by it. No doubt Herod would have kept John around far longer to see more of this kingdom of God at work, had he not made that rash, wine-fuelled promise to Salome and offered her anything up to half his kingdom.

So Herod was faced with a choice. Save John, and keep alive the glimpse of another kind of kingdom, or sacrifice John to save his own kind of kingdom, his own political reputation. Herod fails the test, just as Pontius Pilate would fail his own test when Jesus showed him a glimpse of the kingdom later. Herod, like Pilate, chooses the values of his own kingdom over the glimpse of the kingdom of God, and rejects his own shot at receiving mercy by failing to show it to others.

There are so many pre-echoes in John’s story of the story of the passion of Jesus. Not only the corrupt leader who can’t seem to make the morally right and spiritually right choice, the condemnation on a whim – but above all the way in which both John and Jesus approach their deaths offering to those who are hurting them a glimpse of the kingdom and a chance at forgiveness.  Right up til the end.

Jesus and John lived their lives as a blessing from God to the world.  But God’s blessing was not always straightforward or painless. They brought life and truth and mercy, and these values are sometimes so much at odds with the ways of the world that they may seem impossible to accept.  Jesus and John showed how to make good choices even when bad choices were easier, and they showed integrity even when self-interest was easier. But above all they showed us that there is nothing that God would not do, no length to which he would not go, to keep on giving his people glimpses of the kingdom and offers of forgiveness.

If we want a glimpse of that today, then we need look no further than the epistle reading: Ephesians will go on to talk at length about how to lead a moral life and how to live as a Christian community, but all of that is in the context of what Paul puts at the start of the letter: God’s love for the world is eternal, his blessing is beyond our imagining.  If we can keep that vision alive in our own hearts, truly grasping that the kingdom of heaven is not something far off and unattainable, but as something that is bigger than any of us, too powerful to be held back even by the corruption of the world, and is our whole purpose for being since the creation of the world, then we, like John and like Jesus, may find the strength and inspiration never to give up our calling, offering with every breath we have a glimpse of God’s mercy and blessing and forgiveness – to those around us.

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