On Friday night, at an end of term party for the choir, I happened to mention that I was going to be preaching about sex on Sunday. One of them, who shall remain nameless, immediately responded "Oh No! I've been doing that all day!". After everyone had a good laugh, and the lady in question had a wonderful blush, she explained that what she meant was that the children at her school had been doing 'Personal and Social Development' all day - and that they had been learning about sex!
This story of the beheading of John the Baptist is one of the more gruesome stories in the Bible; gruesome not just because of the hideous notion of presenting a man's head on a platter - but, I think, even more so because of what it says about the power of seduction, and the allure of sex.
Picture the scene. The daughter of Herodias, who was in fact the niece of the King, was asked to dance for Herod and his guests at a banquet. Her dance is known as the dance of the seven veils... and has been repeated throughout history in ballets and operas. It's a seductive dance - one from which other middle eastern dances sprang...like the alluring 'belly dance'. Lots of shaking hips, and wobbling mamary glands! By tradition, the dance involved the successive removal of seven veils; each one showing a little bit more of the dancer and her face. It was a tease...literally the fore-runner of the strip-tease. It was designed to titilate, and to drive the male audience into a frenzy of desire.
Well, it certainly worked on Herod. He didn't worry too much about the fact that this was her his niece. After-all, he had already married his dead brother's wife (for which John the Baptist had condemned him). Ruling families in those days quite often married their family members. The Egyptians, for example, often married their sisters and their daughters as a way, they thought, of keeping the royal blood-line pure. (Of course, madness was often the result).
So Herod, being part of that culture, paid no attention to the fact that the dancing girl was his niece. What he saw was simply an alluring young woman, slowly and deliberately removing layer after layer of clothing. You can imagine him clapping his hands, sighing and mooning over the girl. At the end of her dance, captivated by her beauty, and letting his royal guard down for a moment, he said, "Ask me for whatever you want, and I'll give it to you....up to half of my kingdom!"
That was it - the girl rushed back to her mother who seems to have been a rather manipulative sort of person. Half of Herod's kingdom didn't really amount to much. Herod was only a vassal King, who ruled with the permission of the Romans - who actually owned the land. Herodias knew that even half a kingdom of goats and desert wasn't worth much. But she did see her chance to rid herself of the prophet, John, who had been a thorn in her side for a long time. "Ask him for the head of John the Baptist", she said.
And so, because he couldn't go back on his royal word in front of his guests, Herod reluctantly ordered John to be executed.
Herod had weakened. The power of the sexual urge is very strong. Throughout history, great men have often been brought down by it. Helen of Troy - over whom two great nations went to war. Cleopatra. Delilah. Greek myth is laden with men who have gone to their deaths for beautiful women. Sex-starved sailors have often been lured to rocks because of the mere possibility of glimpsing a mermaid.
In our own time, marketing professionals know the power of seduction. We've all seen the perfume adverts, and the car commercials. I wonder. Do you think I drive a Renault because an advert once told me to 'shake a little ass'?!
At the darker end of seduction, we all know stories of people who have been drawn into obsessions with sex...people who have given into their primal urges at all sorts of levels - from pornography, all the way down through wife-swapping and orgies, as far as the great evil of paedophilia.
We might well ask what this is all about. How has this sexual urge within us come to be so fundamental to us? Why is it so strong? If our picture of God is of one who designs the world with intricate care, what (we might wonder) is God doing when he makes us to be such powerfully sexual people?
Well, at one level its a relatively simple answer. According to the Hebrew Bible, God's command to creation, and to human in particular, was "Be fruitful, and multiply". The sexual desire is ultimately rooted in the desire to pro-create...to pass on our genes to the next generation. And let's face it, the sexual urge is a powerful tool in that act of pro-creation. For one thing, it helps us to overcome our more natural urge to sit on the sofa, on our own, with a bar of Toblerone!
But there's more to it than that. As men and women who are made in the image of God, we are sexual beings. We relate to each other in all sorts of ways that are coloured by our sexuality. I was recently reading some guidance for people involved in one-to-one counselling situations. The guidance was essentially focused on creating safe, non-threatening situations...avoiding the possibility of inappropriate sexual behaviour. The guidance said that it is important to acknowledge the place of our sexuality in such relationships.
Counsellors - whether they be church ministers, or psychologists - need of course to be aware of the possibilities for exploitation of vulnerable people who seek their help. Body language, the way that chairs are placed, having someone else around in another room - all these are bits of advice that are offered to give protection to everyone involved. But while all of that is vital, the guidance said that we need to acknowledge, and even celebrate, the fact that our sexuality is a resource for ministry. That is because, (and I quote) our sexuality is "a relational power, supplying energy for creativity, responsiveness, passion and commitment. It is also a means of being present to those who are hurting as well as being passionately devoted to setting relationships right...our sexuality is the ordinary medium through which God's love moves to touch, to create, to heal." (Richard M. Gula, 1996, Ethics in Pastoral Ministry, New York: Paulist).
Our sexuality, then, is one of the God given ways in which we relate to each other. It has sometimes been suggested that one of the reasons that some parts of the Church has resisted the ordination of women is because many women find that they can relate more easily to a male priest. If they are heterosexual, women can find it easier to connect with someone of the opposite gender...and that's because issues of sexuality come into play.
Our sexuality then is a gift from God, that enables us to connect with other people. When two people are in love, we are not at all surprised when one of them is able to sense at a deep level how the other is feeling. But that ability to sense, and have compassion for others, isn't just something which manifests itself through romance. It is something that is in us all - waiting to be fanned into desire for one particular person, but always there, subliminally, in the way in which we feel, and love, and care for all people.
But, like all of God's gifts, our sexuality needs to be carefully and properly managed. There are clear boundaries which the people of the Bible have set for us. Our sexuality, while always with us, and always part of us, should only be allowed it's most unfettered expression within the bounds of faithful, committed relationships. Anytime that we allow ourselves to be seduced by the lure of sex in the marketplace, on the street, in the magazine or on the internet - then we let our sexuality get out of balance. Instead of being a force for love, care, compassion and commitment to others, it can be twisted into a morbid, self-satisfying desire for personal gratification. The Bible teaches us that we find our fullest expression of our humanity through loving God, and loving our neighbour. But when we start to seek our own gratification first - we get out of balance. We can become obsessive, wrapped up in our desire for the next sexual experience. We can quickly forget the higher purpose and calling for which we were made...the love, of others, including God, before ourselves - and the calling to be changed from glory into glory...ever more like the self-giving God in whose image we are made.
Of course it isn't only sex that can seduce us. The world is full of many seductive temptations. We can be seduced into believing that wealth will make us happy, or that a new set of clothes, or that new car, will fullfil our deepest desire. We can be seduced into believing that another cigarette is all we need, or that another pint of beer will bring us happiness. But how are we to be able to judge? How can we stay in balance when so many seductions are around us...when so many metaphorical dances of the seven veils are being danced around us?
Jesus gave us a piece of advice that may perhaps guide us. "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matthew 6:21). You see, the way we choose to spend our money, or our time, says a great deal about which seductions we have given in to. I want to suggest to you that this is, again, a question of balance.
Let's try a little exercise together. Let me invite you to think about what you spend your money on, week by week. Leave aside all the essential stuff - the rent, the mortgage, the petrol, the council tax, the weekly food-bill. The question I want you to ask yourself is "what do I spend my disposable income on - the money that is left over after the bills are paid?" Then, ask yourself "what is the largest single expenditure that I make from my disposable income?".
Just think about that for a moment.
What do you spend your cash on?
Is it life-affirming? Does it reflect your (and my) calling to be people who love God and love our neighbour?
How does the amount you spend on that one item...or one luxury...compare to the amount of money you give to relieve poverty or sickness? Or for the work of God in this church?
"Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."
You can, of course, do precisely the same exercise with your time. We all have at least some spare time.How much of it is used up doing things that are life-affirming and love-sharing? And how much in things that we have been seduced into doing by marketing managers and television producers?
Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."
Please don't misunderstand me. I don't want you to leave here today feeling miserable and guilt-ridden! I simply want to invite us all, in the light of the story of Herodias' daughter, to become alert to the question "what am I seduced by?" Maybe it's sex. Maybe it's alcohol. Maybe it's TV or computer games. Maybe it's food. Maybe it's consumerism. Maybe it's the desire to gossip. There are very few of us who are not, at one time or another, seduced by something.
Our task as people who are striving to be more like our creator is to recognises what seduces us...and then to learn from the story of Herod. Our task is to lay aside our personal seduction, before it consumes us or leads us into real difficulty - as it did for Herod. Our task is to re-distribute our time, and our money, into spending and tasks that are life-affirming, and life-enhancing.
For where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also.