Tolpuddle and Puddletown

Sunday 15th July 2018

Amos 7.7-15; Mark 6.14-29

 

What a gruesome story! Everyone’s enjoying a party, when the king – in his cups – offers to give his stepdaughter anything she wants. Manipulated by her mother, she requests the head of John the Baptist on a platter.

 

John, languishing in prison, is dispatched and his head, presumably still dripping in blood, is brought on a platter into the feast. The girl, who doesn’t really want it at all, passes it on to her mother. We don’t know what she does with it, but we are told that followers of John come and collect his body when they hear what has happened. The news clearly travelled fast, though we don’t know whether the disciples got the head as well as the body.

 

Here was a man, who had lived the life to which he had been called by God, facing a painful end. Why didn’t God stop it happening?

 

That’s something we will probably never know. Within the story there are clear tensions between the nature of the divine and of earthly powers. Herod makes a rash promise but then doesn’t want to lose face, and so goes through with keeping his vow.

 

Before this, he has been quite intrigued by John. We’re told back in chapter 1 of Mark’s Gospel that John is put into prison, though no details are given. Today’s reading elaborates a little, in explaining why Herodias is so anti-John, but it is likely that he is in prison more because the authorities fear he might start an uprising with his followers that would threaten their power, rather than just because he preached against Herod’s marriage.

 

Herod appears not to have had capital punishment in mind for John before this. He liked listening to the man, though he seemed perplexed and confused by what John was saying – perhaps because it was so different from what had gone before in his lifetime.

John was clearly following the line of the prophets with his messages about turning back to God; perhaps Herod had managed to ignore his Jewish tradition in the pursuit of power till he heard John speak.

 

We’re told he was deeply grieved at the girl’s request but carried on all the same.

 

The fact that, at the beginning of the story, Herod seems to think Jesus is John coming back to haunt him implies how troubled he is at what had had done.

 

Herod was a weak man, worried about his own status, but I think he knew deep down that what he did to John was not right. Why else would he have been grieved at what he had done?

 

Quite possibly he woke up the next morning with a hangover thinking, as many do today, “What have I done?” Much of the violence on our streets today is committed after large amounts of alcohol have been consumed.

 

In a book of commentaries on Mark’s Gospel, Mark Setzer writes this: “Some years ago Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a best-selling book entitled When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Despite the book’s title, most people mis-state the title as Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.

 

“John Claypool, who finished his storied career as a pastor and author teaching at Atlanta’s McAfee School of Theology, once spoke about a private conversation with Rabbi Kushner. Claypool asked Kushner why he did not title his book Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.

 

“’Because,’ the rabbi answered softly, ‘that book would have been three words long: “I don’t know.”’”[1]

 

Why did God allow John the Baptist to be murdered? We just don’t know. But it all comes back to the idea of free will.

Each of us is responsible for our own lives and the way in which we conduct them. And that is something that has been with us since the dawn of time, but it is also something that human beings have shied away from since time immemorial.

 

Adam and Eve – the archetypal story of trying to push the blame on someone else. Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent.

 

Herodias blamed John for his judgment on her second marriage, and yet she is the one who has broken the law by marrying her husband’s brother while her first husband was still alive.

 

There is a clear clash of values in this story of John the Baptist. We see a number of contrasts.

 

There is the wealth and opulence of a royal birthday party, compared with the diet of locusts and honey preferred by John.

 

There is the luxury of the palace and its feasting against the barrenness of John’s prison cell.

 

There is the immorality of Herod and Herodias against the righteousness of John.

 

And yet it appears that the wealth, the power, the immorality is what gets the upper hand rather than the righteousness of God.

 

It happens today too. There are lots of vulnerable people suffering at the hands of others in immoral ways: children being abused sexually, physically, emotionally; people being bought and sold as slaves to work as prostitutes or car-washers or cleaners; domestic violence of women against men as well as men against women; people stabbed to death after a bout of drinking; hatred and racism; bombs, bullets and so on.

 

None of these are the ways of God, who desires mercy and peace and justice.

 

At John’s birth, his father uttered words which we repeat in Morning Prayers each day: “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of all their sins. In the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."  

 

Why was a message of forgiveness so demanding and unpopular to those in power? Surely forgiveness is a good thing.

 

But what forgiveness does is make one aware of one’s failings. In receiving forgiveness, we have to acknowledge that we have done something wrong or not done something we should have done, and that can feel very threatening and painful.

 

If one manages to receive forgiveness, what comes about is a sense of freedom, release from the guilt that can bind us.

Who knows whether Herod was ever able to let go of what he did to John the Baptist. Hanging on to guilt and shame is the exact opposite of the Gospel message which the disciples took with them as we heard last week from the passage immediately before this one in Mark’s Gospel. It is the opposite of the message John himself took out. Forgiveness is meant to be good news, a freeing experience.

 

One of the difficulties for Christians today is working out what faithfulness looks like. There are some actions and beliefs that are universally considered wrong by any right-thinking people: murder, theft, abuse of children, rape, to give a few examples.

 

There are some things which Christians consider wrong but others see no harm in: for example swinging where people swap partners or join other couples for sexual activity, pornography, spiritualism.

 

But there are things too where Christians have very divided opinions: same-sex relationships, Brexit, corporal or capital punishment, pacifism, sex outside marriage.

 

This is where we have to struggle with theology. We won’t all end up with the same conclusion. And that’s hard, because our aim is to follow Christ.

 

The more we experience repentance and forgiveness, the more God will refine and purify us. But we may well be left this side of heaven with issues where we don’t all agree. What do we do in those cases?

 

Theology is not about having all the answers. Theology is about a journey and a transformation, a deepening of our relationship with God, a learning to live with the contradictions between God’s kingdom and our lives in this imperfect world.

 

God is sovereign but has limited the scope of that sovereignty so that we are beings who can choose how we live our lives.

Why? Because love is not something that bins others but frees them.

 

In the midst of everything, as we seek to make sense of our world, we are called to know the love of God, to be faithful to a God whose ways we will never fully understand and to accept that we are not the centre of our own universes.

 

Herod had an inkling that killing John was wrong. He had enjoyed listening to him, even without fully understanding. He ended up killing him because of his fear.

 

I wonder where we are less than godly because of fear. God gave John courage. God can give us courage.

 

Courage to know that the worst thing that can happen to us here on earth we will not face without God walking beside us.

 

Courage to know that the picture is always bigger than what we can see this side of the heavenly divide, and courage to live in a world where God’s kingdom is still to come in all its fullness, when everything shall be made clear:

now we see in a mirror dimly, then we shall see face to face; now we now in part, then we shall know fully even as we are fully known. Three things are eternal: faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love.[2]

 

[1] Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, edited by Cynthia Jarvis & Elizabeth Johnson (Westminster John Knox Press, 2014) p.176

[2] 1 Corinthians 13.12-13

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