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Sermon - 7 Pentecost

In the Name… A story is told of an astrologer who had correctly predicted the death of a royal favourite. The astrologer was arrested and tauntingly asked if he could predict his own death. Unfazed, the astrologer replied to the king, “Yes, sire. I know when I am to die. Three days before you do.” The king let him go. If brevity is the soul of wit, then St. Mark is nothing if not the soul of brevity. His Gospel is very tightly written. A favourite connecting word, used by Mark between scenes is "immediately" or "straightaway." No time for long descriptions and lengthy teaching. The language he uses is short, concise, and presents the bare facts. One event follows another and Mark doesn’t slow down until Jesus begins his slow, final march to Jerusalem. That’s why the lesson just read from his Gospel is unique. It’s the only time that Mark ever diverges from the Jesus storyline. The question that intrigues the reader is why Mark adds this footnote, of sorts, to his Gospel. He doesn’t like to get off track, but, here he goes off in a digression and in vivid detail. The main story takes place at a dinner and, not just any dinner, either. This is Herod’s birthday dinner, and when you’re a puppet king of the Roman Empire you don’t have much real power beyond spending your citizens hard-earned tax dollars on extravagant banquets for you and your friends. Mark describes these friends: “courtiers and officers and the leaders of Galilee.” In other words, people just like him – wealthy collaborators, the great and the good – well, probably not that good. You can imagine them. There they are reclining at tables gorging themselves, knocking back the flagons, and Herod’s step-daughter performs what has become known as, thanks to Strauss’ opera, the Dance of the Seven Veils. The acclaim is so great that Herod swears to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” With the girl’s conniving mother in the background, we know this cannot go well. And, so it is, the girl demands the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Up until now, Herod had been reveling in boisterous partying, but, one can imagine Salome’s demand instantly sobered him up and probably everybody else in the room. John was a well-known public figure. Herod was a bit afraid of him, even grudgingly respectful. Others at the party may have had the same, or even more sympathetic, views. Herod was reluctant to grant the request, but swearing an oath was a big deal back then, akin to a legal contract today, but with more honour at stake, and, to break it would also be like taking the Lord’s name in vain. Probably somewhere between panic and resignation and feeling sick to his stomach, he dispatched his guards and John’s head arrived back on a plate - a gruesome and bloody spectacle, indeed. I can imagine it rather spoiled the mood of the party and that the guests suddenly remembered they all had urgent appointments elsewhere. It’s a frightening and disturbing text and not likely to be made into a Sunday School pageant any day soon. But here’s what’s so amazing about it. The one who is most afraid, the one who is most disturbed in this story, is Herod himself. More than the story of John’s beheading, it’s the story of Herod losing his head out of fear. For, in trying to save himself from what terrifies him, namely loss of honour and prestige, and maybe even loss of his position if he appears weak, Herod loses himself in terror and violence. As I’ve said, though, this is really unusual for Mark. He is not prone to commentary or digression. Yet, he gives us the most detail about John’s death of all the Gospels. Why? Well, immediately prior to presenting this hideous scene, Mark presented us with a very different scene where Jesus sends out his disciples to travel from town to town preaching, teaching, healing and driving out demons. And, he warns them that there will be those who will not welcome them or their message. Most likely, this kind of warning came as a surprise to the disciples. After all, so far, in Mark’s account, they have seen one success after another. Jesus was warmly received wherever he went; people brought him their sick; they listened to his teaching; he calmed storms and defeated demons and the first hint that we get that everything may not go as smoothly as first thought is when Jesus is not accepted in his home town, Nazareth - a story we heard, last week. This was a warning to the disciples that ordinary folks may reject their message. And then, today, the disciples are further warned that opposition will also come from the powerful. And, in both cases, people who know better won’t speak up; they’ll let their fears get the better of them and allow injustice to happen. In other words, what happened to John could happen to them. Call it a reality check. Elsewhere in the New Testament, Paul writes to Timothy and urges him to “fight the good fight” and endure hardship like a soldier of Christ. He also tells the Ephesians to put on what he calls “the whole armour of God.” And, these are just a couple of the references which present the Christian life in terms of combat. Indeed, this is what we see illustrated in the Old Testament lesson we also heard today. In the attack Amos received from Amaziah, the false prophet who had the ear of King Jeroboam, Amos showed courage. He remained faithful to the Lord knowing full well that there would be consequences. Luckily for him, he was only exiled, but it could have been worse. The truth is that the Bible never speaks of the Christian life as a bed of roses and, yes, there are times when we can rest in green pastures, as it were, but most of the time it’s not so easy. Because, as I’ve said before, Christians want to make people’s lives better and the World, with a capital W, doesn't want people's lives made better. People are easier to lead into despair, crime, violence, and a million other vices if their lives are miserable. That’s why Evil does not easily give up. And that’s also why being a Christian is something that involves courage. Sometimes, being a Christian means facing the criticism of the majority, or even a vocal minority. Either way, that can be a very uncomfortable place to be. Which is why we need encouragement. We might find it in an incident which occurred three hundred years after the death of John. At that time, the Roman Emperor Julian was doing everything in his unlimited imperial power to crush the Christian movement. Despite his best efforts, though, the Church grew to an unprecedented strength during his reign. And, as he lay on his death-bed, he is said to have gasped the words, "Vicisti Galileii" - "Galilean, you have won." We don’t know the last words of Herod, but they might easily have been those. May those words and that image encourage us every day. In the Name…

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