Sermon - 12th July 2015
Herod and John: responding to fear
Scripture - Psalm 66, Mark 6:14-29
[An audio version (mp3) of this sermon is available via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
I’m sure that most of you will have heard of Malala Yousafzai, the courageous young woman who was gunned down in October 2012 for speaking out against Taliban rule in north-west Pakistan. Not only did this inspirational campaigner for female education refuse to be cowed into silence by her oppressors but she went on to receive the Nobel Peace Prize at the tender age of 17, making her the youngest ever recipient of this prestigious award.
The level of tyranny and intimidation she experienced would have been enough to overwhelm the vast majority of people, but rather than buckling under the pressure, she is quoted as saying:
"I say I am stronger than fear. I am stronger than violence...I am stronger than every kind of thing that stops me from getting an education."
In the same way that Malala felt compelled to speak out against the wrongs of her society, in today’s Bible passage we encounter another inspirational figure who was utterly determined to speak the truth to those in power regardless of the consequences.
That person is – of course – John the Baptist.
Now John would have had very good reason to be afraid after upsetting the governor of Galilee and his family. Although this particular Herod was not the one who had ordered the slaughter of all the baby boys in and around Bethlehem just after the birth of Jesus, he did come from the same family.In fact it was his father, Herod the Great, who had been responsible for that – a ruler so merciless that he even had one of his spouses and three of his own sons put to deathbecause he thought they posed a threat to his throne. In other words, the family had a reputation for cruelty, tyranny and immorality. Indeed, the Herod of our story, Herod Antipas, did not seem to have very many moral scruples either, for he had taken a fancy to his half-brother’s wife while on a visit to Rome and decided that he would divorce his existing wife and marry her instead. To top it all, his new wife, Herodias, also happened to be his niece, making it an incestuous relationship. It was the nature of this relationship and how it had come about that John objected to and that was why he felt the necessity to speak out and why he ended up in prison.
Given what we know about Herod and his tyrannical family, John should have been quaking in his boots and yet from the passage it is clear that Herod is the one who is afraid. In verse 20, we read that “Herod feared John” and later on we see how a fear of embarrassment motivates Herod to give in to his step-daughter’s murderous request for John’s head on a plate. When faced with the prospect of being shown up in front of his high-profile dinner guests, he buckles. By contrast, John seems undeterred in his criticism of Herod and there is no hint of any backtracking on his part.
The situation is the precise opposite of what we would expect. But why?
Well firstly, we know that Herod did not entirely understand what John stood for because Mark tells us that he was greatly puzzled by him. As LGBT folk and as Christians, I think we can relate to this. For example, I am sure there have been times in your own lives when people have responded to your gender identity, your sexuality or your faith with fear, simply because they could not get their heads around it properly. So it was with Herod and John. Herod could see that there was something different about John and he recognised him as a righteous and holy man, but he could not grasp the true significance of John’s ministry and what he had to say. Consequently, he responds with fear and he tries to keep John under strict control.
The second reason whythe fear roles are reversed could have something to do with what is going on behind the scenes. This is hinted at towards the end of the gospel reading. On learning of John’s execution, his disciples immediately show up to collect his body. Even though John has been imprisoned all this time, he has had a committed group of friends and followers waiting in the wings.They have obviously been keeping a close eye on him the entire time andeven after his death, they are still described as his disciples, which means that they have in no way forgotten about or abandoned him. Rather, it is safe to assume that they have been praying for him intently and I am certain that these prayers will have helped sustain him in his suffering.
Compared to this, what support does Herod have? Aside from the fact that he is married to someone with a highly vindictive streak, we also know that he has decided to throw a big party for the big wigs of Galilee in an attempt to impress them. Perhaps he is trying to show off his power and authority because he knows deep down that it has been granted to him by the Roman Empire on a highly conditional basis and if he fails to live up to expectations it could all be taken away from him again in the blink of an eye. It looks to me as though Herod is in a very lonely place and I wonder how many of his dinner guests he could count as true friends. Without a loving community around him and no genuine support, it is hardly surprising that he is so afraid.
Thirdly, we know that John, as a righteous and holy man, would have haddeep convictions and deep roots. No doubt he would have been familiar with the Psalm we listened to earlier in which the psalmist reminds us of God’s awesome power and the fact that there is no authority on earth that can ultimately stand against our Lord. Like the Psalmist, John’s primary allegiance is to God rather than humans and I believe that it is his firm hope in God and his knowledge of God’s unwavering love that enable him to withstand the tyranny of Herod.
Unfortunately, there are still many tyrants in our world and they would like nothing better than for us to be dragged into their web of fear.
But whether we have suffered at the hands of a school bully, a malicious colleague, a homophobic society or a government official, there is a great deal that we can draw on in this passage to prevent us from succumbing to the fear that they want to instil in us.
Perhaps one way of taking back some of the power that they wield over us is to realise that they are often deeply afraid themselves. In the same way that Herod did not understand John, they do not know how to make sense of us and their insecurity causes them to hit out.
At times, it may seem as though they hold all the cards, but ultimately their power is temporary and provisional. So let us not allow them to cripple or silence us.
Instead, we can remind ourselves of the inner freedom that comes from being firmly rooted in God. Psalm 66 speaks of “prison”, “burdens” and having to pass through “fire and water” yet it also witnesses to God’s constant faithfulness and unfailing love. For John, there was no happy ending in this life, but on an eternal level we have to believe that justice will be done and that God will bring John and all other victims of tyranny into that promised place of abundance.
Another very important point to remember in our times of trouble is that we, like John, are not alone. When I first came out as gay, I was utterly terrified because of all the negative messages I had internalised but this faith community – of which you are a part – played a major role in enabling me to face and overcome my fears. By encouraging, supporting and praying for one another we can make a real difference in each other’s lives.
Sadly, Herod did not listen to John and he was more interested in pleasing other people than in obeying God. Nevertheless, John stood firm and refused to be silenced because his priority was being loyal to God. My prayer for all of us is that we will be able to show that same courageand that, like Malala Yousafzai, we will stand up for what is good and right, declaring confidently:
“With God’s help and the support of my community, I say I am stronger than fear. I am stronger than violence...I am stronger than every kind of thing that stops me from being true to God and true to myself.”