‘John the Baptist beheaded’ was a sermon preached by Margery Spencer at St John with St Mark’s on 15th July 2018.
Royalty, Sex and Religion
What sells newspapers? What articles or pictures on the front pages will guarantee increased sales. Well firstly any article or picture about the royal family. It was always said that a picture of Princess Diana on the front page would increase circulation of any tabloid considerably.
Secondly, any sex scandal, preferably about someone in high places who features regularly in the news. We have seen many such scandals in newsprint in recent years.
Thirdly, religion. Although God has slipped down the ratings in recent years, people are still aware that there are unanswered questions out there. Someone who seems to be an authentic spokesperson for God is newsworthy. We saw that happen with Bishop Michael Curry at the recent Royal wedding. What a man, what a talk! I am sure that is not what the family were expecting but he certainly hit the headlines.
So if it is true that royalty, sex and religion sell newspapers then if there had been a tabloid newspaper in Galilee in the first century, the events we heard about in our Gospel reading would certainly have made the headlines. Even without a newspaper, stories about that birthday party would have spread rapidly throughout the region. It is a sordid, shabby and shameful tale.
Who do you think you are?
Why did it come about? Herod Antipas, one of the many sons of Herod the Great – (he was the one in power at the time of Jesus birth), went before this time to visit his half brother Herod Philip who lived in Rome. Whilst there he seduced Philip’s wife Herodias, persuaded her to leave Philip and married her.
In fact Herodias was the daughter of another of Herod Antipas’s half brothers so in fact she was the niece and the sister in law of Herod Antipas the man she married. She also had a daughter, Salome with Herod Philip who later married another of Herod the Great’s sons Philip the tetrach. Just imagine if the TV programme “Who do you think you are?” had tried to sort that lot out. It was not so much a family tree as a family railway junction with lines crossing all over the place from one generation to the next. I think it would be no exaggeration to call it a dysfunctional family. Incest, adultery, law breaking – in today’s world Social Services would have had a field day.
So how did John the Baptist come to be involved in this party? A Prophet, a man of God more likely to be found in the desert calling people to repentance than mixing with Royalty. Well he certainly wasn’t an invited guest. In fact he was residing in the dungeons of the castle of Machaerus where he had been imprisoned by Herod for speaking out against Herod’s marriage to his brother’s sister which broke the Jewish laws. Not a wise thing to do. Herodias wanted Herod to execute John but Herod was reluctant to do so. He recognised that John was a sincere man of God and although John had complained publicly about Herod and his activities Herod could not bring himself to kill John. So he had him thrown into the dungeons of the castle.
This angered Herodias and she hated John. She was determined to get rid of John and seized the opportunity at the birthday party. She encouraged her daughter, Salome, to dance in a highly provocative way before the gathered company and when Herod was pleased with this dancing he offered Salome anything she wanted – even up to half his kingdom. It is likely that he made this promise rashly and without thinking. Possibly he had even had too much to drink and the wine had loosened his tongue.
Handed on a plate
And Herodias seized the moment, telling her daughter to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a plate. And then Herod was in a real dilemma. He might suddenly have realised what his rash words had led to. But he had made that promise in front of a large gathering of courtiers and he could not afford to lose face. He feared the jeers, the laughter, the mockery of his friends. He feared that they would think him weak and so to save Herod’s face, John was beheaded. His life brought to an end because he had been bold enough to stand up and say publicly that the King was doing wrong, and also because of the vindictiveness of Herod’s wife. And of course this scene has been captured in many paintings especially by Caravaggio.
There was also an undercurrent to these events. Herod, following his father cherished a great ambition to have the Jews recognise him as their king. He was completing his Father’s great project of rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem demonstrating his wealth, his power and his influence. He was hoping to become the accepted leader of the Jews.
But John the Baptist preached of a different kind of kingdom from that desired by Herod. His baptism promising forgiveness of sins was effectively upstaging the temple itself. John’s promise of the one who was to come spoke of a figure very different from that of Herod. And as if to rub in the point John told his followers that Herod’s aspirations were out of line. No way could he be the expected messiah. Would God’s appointed really marry his brother’s wife? And all this came together at that fateful birthday party.
John was indeed a prophet forth-telling the news of God’s kingdom and in consequence suffering the anger of those in power, like Herod, who felt their influence slipping away. John knew that his actions and his words would find him few friends in the corridors of power yet he bravely stood his ground, speaking the truth regardless of the consequences. He preferred death to falsehood. A courageous man indeed.
And in our Old testament reading we hear of another man who was unafraid to challenge Kings and peoples. He told them that the ways in which they were behaving were not the ways of God. Amos was a shepherd, a farmer, not a member of the priestly families. But like John he was unafraid to speak out the message he received from God. He challenged the social corruption of the day and the oppression of the poor and helpless. Amos certainly upset priests in the kingdom of Jeroboam. He told them that prayers and sacrifices did not make up for bad deeds. That behaving justly was far more important that rituals. Amos claimed that ceremonial worship has no intrinsic value, and was a believer in economic justice. No wonder his words did not go down well with the King and he was advised to leave the country.
But banned from speaking his message Amos wrote it down, the first of the prophets to do so, and we find his words in the Book of Amos. Some of his phrases can be found in important speeches of our time. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech” contains the words “we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream” a straight take from Amos. Here was another man determined to speak the truth when others would silence him.
What about us?
So what do these two very different people have to say to us in 2018? They emphasise the need to speak out against actions, policies and attitudes which are opposed to the teaching of God. They tell us not to be afraid to stand firm in our faith even when it is challenged and questioned. I do not believe for one minute that any of us will have to challenge monarchs or be beheaded for making a stand or expelled from Walmersley. But we may have to face antagonism, criticism, mockery for our belief in Jesus. With John and Amos we have the examples before us of people who stood firm when challenged. People who kept the faith and spoke out for God.
Don’t be afraid
Their beliefs were obvious to all they came into contact with. I remember a few years ago a colleague of mine saw a Palm cross in my car and said in surprise “I didn’t know you were a Christian, Margery.” I was horrified and pulled up short. Had the way that I lived, the things that I said and the words I had spoken not shown my faith. Obviously not. I hope that has changed.
We may not have to challenge Kings but may we in the week to come not be afraid to let people know that we are followers of Christ by our words and our deeds.