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18th July 2021

Picking Up The Vibes

Passage: Mark 6;14-29

READING: Mark 6,verses 14-29. The death of John the Baptist

Why would anybody want to have a story like this read in church? It is not a nice story. It is a horrible story. And it does not even have a happy ending. Unfortunately, this story is true: as well as being in the Bible, it was recorded independently by the historian, Josephus. And, unfortunately, this story is also real. It is about life as it really was then and life as it really is now.
Look at the people in the story: a man and a woman in positions of power, yet feeling insecure, so they bully and scheme to keep their place. Know people like that? A young girl exploiting her sexual attraction without really understanding how to handle it. A party where a man who has had too much to drink is tricked into doing something terrible. A dysfunctional family, with a ruthless mother manipulating her husband and daughter. One lone whistle-blower suggesting that a King should surely keep the laws of the land. Sound familiar? Even the beheading of people posing risk to a ruthless regime still happens.
When I studied theology (study of God) at university, it was mostly “academic-” which ancient manuscripts of the Bible were the oldest; which teachings of the early church were condemned as heresy; what Jesus actually said and meant at the Last Supper. It was interesting and important but I guess it seems irrelevant now to 95% of our population. What has this got to do with them? Which is why theology has gradually become what we call “contextual,” asking how what we learn about God makes a difference to real life, right now. What is faith going to do for me when I am having relationship issues, suffering abuse, losing my job, messing my life up? Right now there is a lot of fear around: fear for our health and wellbeing; fear for our personal security and that of our world. If the church is going to be the face and the voice of God, then stories even as horrible as this one need to be heard. &&&&&&&&&&&&
Back in the Middle Ages, theology was called the “queen of the sciences”- the most important knowledge anyone could have. Science was quite primitive then but it was still “knowledge of the world” as we see it. Theology though, rather than being “what we learn about God” had become more a case of “what the church tells you about God.” Which meant that, when people like Galileo produced scientific evidence that the earth moved around the sun and not the sun around the earth or when Darwin offered scientific theory that the creation of the world was an evolutionary process, this was not what the church taught; science and theology came into conflict, with theology ending up losing the battle. Most people in our culture today are far more likely to believe what a scientist tells them than a preacher.
And yet, “respect for the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,” wrote King Solomon who was fabulously rich, extremely powerful and exceptionally learned. He had got everything but still it was not enough. For myself, I believe what scientists say, when they produce physical evidence. I accept, along with any decent scientist, that their knowledge is incomplete because there is always something new to learn but I don’t dismiss what they say out of hand. There are a lot of questions about God to which I do not know the answer and right now I am as scared as anyone else, being in the place where we are. But without God, I see little hope for the world. &&&&&&&&&&&&&&&
Going back to the story, John the Baptist was undeniably a bit odd. Living rough in the desert, wearing animal skins, eating locusts, you could suggest that his views on life might be a bit unbalanced. But John had some wise things to say to the people who came to hear him preach: advising tax collectors not to cheat, soldiers not to bully, people who had plenty to share with those who had nothing. This was all good stuff. And when he condemned Herod for marrying his brother’s divorced wife, he was not being an other-worldly kill joy; he was simply stating what the law of the land said. Surely a King should be seen to abide by his own country’s laws?
John the Baptist wanted to see a fair and just society, rather than a culture of greed and bullying. Is not this what we would all like to see? And it was John’s faith in God, his understanding of God that inspired him to say what needed to be said to people who, whether high or low, were hell bent on creating a culture where, if you had power and money enough you could do as you pleased. There was nothing other-worldly about his theology.
And, going back to all the fear around right now, just how scared do you think Herod was after that disastrous escapade? We heard how John the Baptist still haunted him, how Herod was scared of Jesus. When they sent Jesus to him as a prisoner later on, Herod said nothing. He would make no decision at all. He was terrified. There was no need for some religious fanatic to threaten him with hell fire after death. Herod was already more than halfway there. &&&&&&&&&&&&&
So, when people today feel threatened by the evil in the world or the evil in themselves, what can our theology say to them? I suggest 4 things. 1-believing in God, means that we see our lives as part of a much bigger picture. There is more to life than we can see or even predict right now but there is someone there who can see the whole. This lifts the pressure on us, personally, to “perform,” to succeed, to measure our success. Even if we do not achieve as much as we hope, God can take what we do and use it for something greater. Herod’s deep rooted insecurity stemmed from his panic that he, personally, would lose his credibility as King, which drove him to bullying and murder. John the Baptist’s confidence lay in his conviction that what he was doing was the work of God, meaning that even if he did die, that work would not be wasted. He was not afraid. He was brave but not a bully. He was passionate but not self-obsessed.
2-believing in God places a higher value on each individual human life. For Herod and Herodias, their people were pawns in a political game. And this is a dangerous game to play. The message is coming across loud and clear right now that until everyone is safe from Covid, no-one will be safe. When you dismiss whole groups of people as being without rights and beyond your responsibility, you are not only mistreating them but turning them into a threat. Look at the huge backlash caused by slavery, colonisation, sexual abuse. To believe in God means believing that every person has a value in the sight of God. And it is this conviction that has driven people of faith to take healing to those who cannot afford to pay for it; justice to those who have been denied a voice; hope and help to those who cannot help themselves. John the Baptist-like any of us- could not solve the problems of every single person in the world. But in his own straightforward advice to ordinary men and women, he taught them that nothing stopped them from living as citizens of God’s kingdom, even in an imperfect world. Because God valued them
3-believing in God means that religion is never static. Just as there will always be new challenges to face in faith communities (tell me about it), so there will always be new understanding to be gained, an evolving theology to offer to new generations, a breaking down of boundaries, reaching new people and cultures. John the Baptist was preaching a new message or at least a new interpretation of an old one, which many found threatening to their own position in the faith community. But many more found it liberating, relevant, all to do with them, which was why so many came to be baptised-washed in the river, as a sign of their new relationship with God.
4-believing in God means that Jesus Christ is not just some obscure preacher from 2000 years ago but a living presence in our world and in our lives. In Jesus Christ we see the battle of God himself against evil and destruction and just what it costs him. In Jesus Christ we see God identifying himself with humanity, coming alongside us, paying the price himself for our fears and our pride; our hatred and revenge; our greed and our power-struggles. It is a battle which is never ending, for evil renews itself in every generation. But it is a battle which Jesus fights and wins for each one of us. In the strength of God, John the Baptist won his battles against fear and doubt and weariness in doing good. Herod and Herodias lost theirs.
We still have a God. We still have a personal Saviour in Jesus Christ. We still have a voice. We still have a message to offer our world. Reflect on this now as we hear a new song from the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity- asking that that the presence of God will transform our society today through those who believe in him.

Tune: Abide with me
We seek your kingdom throughout every sphere. We long for heaven’s demonstration here. Jesus, your light shine bright for all to see. Transform, revive, and heal society.

Before all things, in him were all things made. Inspiring culture, media, and trade. May all our work serve your economy. Transform, revive, and heal society.

Peace, truth, and justice reigning everywhere. With us be present in our public square. Fill all who lead with your integrity. Transform, revive, and heal society.

Forgive us Lord, when we have not engaged. Failing to scribe your heart on history’s page. Make us again what we were made to be. Transform, revive, and heal society.

Faithful to govern ever may we be. Selfless in service, loving constantly. In everything may your authority transform, revive and heal society.