The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s127g09 Sunday 15 12/7/09 St Barnabas Orange East
'John, whom I beheaded, has been raised' Mark 6.16
It would seem a particularly inauspicious gospel from which to preach - an unlikely place to find a piece of good news! Who would be a King, President, Prime Minister, (or Bishop)? At the mercy of powerful people with competing interests and often beholden to the frankly unscrupulous! While it is a fairly uninspiring passage of scripture, it serves to put the gospel into the real world, not some imaginary fantasyland.
Herod is interesting because he is so human. We are told he liked to listen to John the Baptist, so presumably John said other things to Herod, rather more encouraging than: 'It (is) not lawful for you to have your brother's wife'. Encouraging enough for Herod to recognise John's integrity and, initially at least, to protect him from those who would have him killed.
The outcome of his rash oath is lurid in detail, but it is not the only rash oath in the Bible. Jephthah offered to sacrifice the first person to come out of his house if the Lord granted him victory over the Ammonites. Sadly it was his only child, a daughter, who came out and he was bound by his oath. (Judges 11)
We bind ourselves by rules and regulations, some self imposed, some imposed by what we perceive as the dictates of our religion.
Herod lamented his action in having John beheaded, and was afflicted thereafter with the belief that Jesus had come in John's place to punish him. How frequently do we believe that God primarily acts to bring our sins to remembrance, to punish us for past actions? We (me too!) endlessly ruminate over the things we have done wrong, as if this is what God wants, perhaps even believing that by it we will obtain forgiveness. Needless to say this is hardly scriptural.
We afflict ourselves with these things. I have, and continue to do so. Why? Perhaps because we are our own worst enemies, myself as much as anyone else.
It is easy to read the bible and see condemnation rather than good news. It is easy to go to church, to give to charity, to do all sorts of good works, really the list is endless - and not find relief from this sort of unhealthy self-criticism. Some people, unfortunately, can make this into a spiritual discipline that everyone else has to undergo. This perpetual self-abnegation becomes a badge of orthodoxy: 'We do not presume to come to this thy table O Lord, trusting in our own righteousness' in the words of that peculiarly Anglican prayer.
Each and every time when someone in the Bible meets the Almighty or the Angel of the Lord (other than Mary :-), they fall flat on their faces and profess their sinfulness. And each and every time, the Lord lifts them to their feet and gives them a job to do. This is a paradigm for all time. It is distinctively human to stand on our own two feet rather than crawl on all fours. The other distinctively human thing is (we believe) to think and to reason. So God lifting others, and us, to our feet is for us to be fully human to stand rather than grovel before the Almighty and to think and reason, rather than simply to comply. And the job that we are given to do is nothing but to perpetuate the paradigm to lift others to their feet to allow others to be fully human and not to grovel before us, and to think and reason rather than comply with what we, or they, might think they have no option but to obey.
So the marks of the true gospel are encouragement and freedom. The marks of possession are discouragement and compulsion. Either can be self-imposed, or come from elsewhere. 'Fire and brimstone' preachers thrive on spreading discouragement and compulsion. I have heard some 'christians' talk about pre-evangelism, and what can this mean other than discouragement and compulsion? Much mental illness of a religious nature is all about discouragement and compulsion.
And it is in the nature of things that we can use others to enforce our own perceptions of truth on others. So we can use scriptures to marginalize and alienate others. We can deny personal responsibility by blaming god or the authors of scriptures. All forms of terrorism result.
But this is based on the premise that essentially God doesn't love people.
A while back a person quoted John 3.16 to me: 'God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.' when he actually was saying: 'God so hates the world that anyone who doesn't believe in his only Son will be everlastingly damned'. The person sees himself as believing in a loving God and that he has good news for others when of course the number of others he has good news for is limited indeed. He saw this as a loving statement, and where others fail, well you can't argue with scripture! The person has no appreciation that he is as much a terrorist as someone who plants landmines or is a suicide bomber.
It betrays an idea that we are more merciful than God, which is blasphemous in the extreme. I often refer to the parable of the unmerciful servant. The King freely forgives the servant the huge amount owed, but that servant refuses to forgive his debtor the trivial sum owed him. The paradigm is clear. God forgives it is humanity who refuses to do so. We do not forgive others from being different to us. We believe that God can't forgive women for the action of their ancestor Eve they are eternally marginalised. We believe that God can't forgive gay and lesbian persons they are unclean and eternally alienated.
It is fascinating that a religion of love is more clearly defined by who can't be included in our love. In a religion where the Holy Communion is central, that communion is more clearly defined by who is excluded.
Isn't it fascinating that Herod was the first person to believe in the resurrection of the dead? He believed that his sin was so serious that God would raise someone from the dead just to continue to punish him!
And I wonder if we don't think much the same. Psalm 139 says: 'Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. .. even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you. For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb. (vs 7, 12,13). Now with the resurrection, we cannot even enjoy intimacy without the disapproval of 'god'.
Herod, not unnaturally, was afflicted by the demons of regret just as we are. But this is not God's will for him nor is it God's will for us. Our faith is in a God who wants our happiness and happiness for all, that all people are to be fully human, to stand before the Almighty, and to think and reason. God is not the ever-present ogre, champing at the bit to rebuke us.
St Paul talks about love, and therefore about God in 1 Corinthians 13. To paraphrase verses 4 7: God is patient; God is kind; God is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. God does not insist on his (or her) own way; God is not irritable or resentful; God does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. God bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. This is the sort of God we believe in. If there was a way of life that was the God given way God wouldn't insist on it anyway. And God believes in us, as we are. God believes in humanity, just as humanity is. This is as far from the dark misgivings of Herod (and ourselves) as one can be. It was this sort of God that scandalized the orthodox enough to have Jesus killed, and so the resurrection is our guarantee that it is this sort of God who prevails.
I want to say that this is not just a New Testament perception. Psalm 30 ends with the words: 'You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you for ever.' (11,12)
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