Sermon – 11th July 2021 – Death of John the Baptist
The first person we meet in today’s gospel is King Herod, the son of Herod the Great who had tried to murder the infant Jesus by killing the babies of Bethlehem.
Our King Herod is a violent man. He is used to putting people to death when they get in his way.
But in today’s gospel, we hear that he has remorse for the beheading of John the Baptist. His sense of guilt is so great that when he hears about all that Jesus is doing, he thinks it must be John, back from the grave and looking for revenge.
Herod is so wrapped up in his own guilt and self-interest, that he can’t recognise Jesus for who he really is; the Messiah, the Son of God.
But I’m not actually going to talk much about John the Baptist or Herod today because I what really struck me when I read through this passage was its two female characters, Herodias and her young daughter.
And the reason I was so struck by their situation, and the way they behaved, was that it reminded me of my own family.
You see, my mum, for many years, was stuck in an abusive relationship with a violent man. She was afraid of him, but she was more afraid of leaving him; of being homeless and having no way to make a living. She was afraid that she wouldn’t be able to provide for herself and her three children if she was alone. And when anyone tried to persuade her that she should leave, she got angry and defensive and became more isolated.
My mum escaped in the end, but her struggle to build a life for herself has been hard.
So the situation of Herodias and her daughter feels very familiar to me.
Now, we don’t know what Herod and Herodias’s relationship was like. Maybe they truly loved each other. But we can still guess how a big threat John the Baptist posed for Herodias.
John has been reminding Herod of the Jewish Law which forbids a man from marrying his brother’s wife. By marrying Herodias, Herod is guilty not just of adultery, but also of incest.
But Herodias has already been separated from her husband, so if she doesn’t remarry, she’ll be left without any support or security for her or her children.
In the time the bible was written, a woman without a father or a husband had no rights or status as a person. She could not own property, or speak for herself in court, and would certainly struggle to survive on her own.
Throughout the Old Testament, God tells the people of Israel that they should take care of widows and orphans, but if Herodias is so afraid to be alone that she is willing to commit murder, we can guess that the Israelites have not been living up to what God has asked of them.
So Herodias has every reason to be terrified that if Herod listens to John, she will be out on her own, with no means of survival.
So what does she do?
She sends her own daughter to ~basically~ seduce Herod in order to gain his favour and secure her position.
The young daughter becomes a pawn in her mother’s scheme, but in the world of first century Palestine, her mother is also caught up in a situation where she has little control over her own destiny.
Fast forward to today, and some things have got a lot better! Women in this country have a lot more rights than they had even a hundred years ago! But any single mums here can tell us how hard it is to raise children alone when you’re struggling to make ends meet.
So, in a time when being a single mum was even harder, no wonder Herodias is terrified and angry and ready to lash out.
Herodias commits a terrible evil, demanding the death of an innocent man in order to save herself.
And presumably no one here today has any plans to kill someone for selfish gain, but I wonder if anyone here can think of a time when you’ve acted out of fear and hurt another person; or blamed someone else for what was happening in your life?
We know that people are capable of doing terrible things when they feel afraid or threatened.
Some of us here know young people – or, like me, have been young people – who have got involved with drugs or gangs because they are afraid that they have no future and nothing to hope for in this world if they don’t.
How many young people in Shadwell carry knives, or commit acts of violence because they are scared that if they don’t then someone else will harm them?
This stuff gets talked about a lot in the media, but for young people and parents in this neighbourhood it’s a really scary reality. Being worried about knife crime is something that some of the young people of St George’s have talked about quite a bit since I’ve been here.
When children grow up experiencing the violence of poverty, the violence of racism and discrimination, the violence of gang culture, the violence of fear, it’s easy to see how violence might become part of their identity.
And really, sin and violence are part of all our identities, because we all have it in us to be selfish, and to hurt others.
But there is HOPE!
Our reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians reminds us that we are no longer children of sin, because in Christ we have been adopted as children of God.
We have been heirs to violence and self-interest, but in Christ we have become heirs to God’s gift of love.
John the Baptist dies because of the fear and selfishness of one human being, and his death points us to the way that Jesus will also die, because Jesus draws all our selfishness and fear and hatred to himself as he dies on the cross in one perfect act of love and forgiveness.
And that’s not even all, because three days later Jesus rises from the dead to show that death and suffering never get the last word because God’s love is greater than anything we can ever ask for or imagine.
As disciples of Christ, we have something greater to rely on than our own wits. So instead of an understanding of ourselves which is rooted in selfishness, in self-reliance, and in violence, God offers us a new identity as beloved children, destined to inherit the Kingdom.
But God is asking something from us too.
At this eucharist today we remember that we are Christ’s body in the world. We will be fed with his body and blood so that we can be strengthened to go out into the world and be God’s hands, to build God’s Kingdom in places where it seems to be invisible; to be God’s eyes, looking for people who need help and comfort; to be God’s arms of love to hold those who are unable to see the image of God in themselves and help to restore the dignity and humanity that God gives to each and every human being.
It’s up to us to reach out to those who are afraid or trapped or in danger of going down a dark path.
It’s up to us to show those around us that they can rely on something other than violence because there are people willing to struggle to create a future where everyone in this neighbourhood can live full and happy lives.
It’s up to us to show the world what God is like by being believing Christians who organise in our communities to fight injustice so that the children who grow up here can share in the hope and joy and togetherness that we have.
Because it is through our actions that people in this neighbourhood will know that in Christ, as our psalm today says, mercy and truth have met together; that righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
So as we come to God’s table today, let’s all pray for the wisdom to know how each of us can best work for the coming of God’s Kingdom among us.