Sixth Sunday after Trinity Mark 6:14-29 Ephesians 1:3-14
Nothing sells newspapers as much as stories of intrigue and conflict, especially if it combines royalty, sex and religion. We’ve got it all here, in Mark’s gospel, in the scandalous story of how John the Baptist lost his head to the whims of a would-be king and his political pride. To set it out for you: 1. Herod was technically appointed tetrarch – which meant he shared his authority, but he had even higher ambition, so he was popularly known as ‘king’. 2. He had taken his brother’s wife as his own, and John had criticised him publicly for it. 3. Herod was completing his father’s project of rebuilding the Temple in his ambition to be recognised by the Jews as their true king. King Solomon had built it, so there was the royal connection, although Herod never could nor would be king.
Nevertheless, ambition, lust, greed, pride, all make a lethal combination in court intrigue which costs John the Baptist his life. Herod didn’t really want to have John killed; he found him fascinating to the point that he also feared him, knowing that John was a righteous and holy man. That’s why, although Herod had John arrested and put into prison, he also protected him and liked to listen to him. But then there arrived the day of that fateful birthday party and Herod, making an drunken oath in front of all his guests, forced his own hand into having John executed. One could wonder why John had caused such upset in the royal household, and in particular to Herodias, Herod’s wife, that nothing but his death would satisfy. But then, taking the whole scenery into account, what with the ambitions and pride of both Herod and his wife, the offence becomes clear:
John had been launching another kingdom, not of this world, and that would overtake and tear down the kingdoms of the world. His baptism offered forgiveness after repentance and in fact upstaged the whole purpose of the Temple itself, whether it was rebuilt through a ‘royal’ claim or not. It’s ironic, perhaps, that Jesus himself, the One to whom John was pointing and who would finally make the only true claim to both royalty and divinity, would say things about the Temple and his own body that confirmed the Kingdom of God.
Whenever power is challenged, the way John challenged Herod’s, there’s the risk of repercussions. As we all know, those who have power, no matter how much or how little, tend to not want to lose any of it. And prophets who speak truth to power are seldom patted on the back by those at the receiving end of any criticism. In fact, as history has taught us, those who speak out as prophets of God’s Kingdom, mostly faced hardship and persecution for their trouble. The Church wishes to honour the martyrs, which means witnesses, who suffered deeply, but held on no matter what, even unto death. Most of all, people like John the Baptist, challenge us to live our lives in an honourable way. We don’t know what John’s final words were, when he was faced with his executioner. But we do know how he lived, and that in word and in action, he remained faithful to what was right and just in God’s eyes.
Stories of faith may not always look like a walk in the park and I can’t make this one look any nicer than it is. But Paul’s letter to the Ephesians says it well:
We are destined for adoption as God’s children through Jesus Christ; we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses and an inheritance into eternal life through faith, with the mark of the seal of the Holy Spirit. In other words: the hope of the Gospel of peace is ours, because of God’s love for us. That’s why, even in the midst of life’s traumas, the witness of a man like John the Baptist offers us encouragement and hope. In Jesus’ words: the Kingdom of God belongs to such as he. Amen.