The Death of John the Baptist
(Amos 7.7-15, Ephesians 1.3-14, Mark 6, 14-29)
Putting your head above the parapet is a very dangerous thing to do. You’re quite likely to lose it. And yet, that is what God has consistently called his people to do throughout the centuries.
In the early days of recorded human history, the Jewish nation came to believe that God had called them to put their heads above the parapet. They believed that through Patriarchs like Moses, God had called them to be a people through which the whole world would be changed, redeemed and saved. This was to be a way of life that was completely at odds with the way people used to live in those days. It was a way of life which included ideas like,
welcoming the stranger
sharing of wealth
a prohibition on usury (or the charging of interest).
and the very notion of charity.
God called his people to willingly surrender some of their wealth for the good of the whole community. Widows, orphans, strangers, the sick – all could be embraced and cared-for. No-one would be exploited through the charging of interest. All would be welcome.
And they were to do all this despite the pressures and the temptations of the world and the nations around them… nations who sought to conquer them and take over Jewish lands. God promised them that if they would live according to his laws, they would prosper, despite the pressure on their borders.
But, the Jews were (and are) made of the same stuff as you and me. Time and time again, they, like us, failed to live up to God’s call to be radically different to the rest of the world. They were tempted by the allure of gold and power, and gave up the laws of God. They failed to abide by the rules of Jubilee and Charity and purity. The rich and powerful grew fatter, while the poor went hungry.
God, however, did not give up on his people. He sent them prophets, men who put their heads above the parapet, to remind people of God’s laws, and to call the people to repent. We heard just now a small snippet of the book of Amos, who was one such prophet. Amos lived about 750 years before Christ, at a time when the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah were peaking in prosperity. The rulers of the Kingdoms at that time had never had it so good. International commerce was flourishing. But as a result, the peasant farmers were being forced to grow crops that would make more money for their masters – like wine and olive oil for the rich to consume, instead of grain for bread. The rich oppressed the poor. Might was right. Profit was king.
Amos was himself a farmer and a herdsman. Out of his own experience, God calls him to go to the capital city – and there he puts his head above the parapet – loudly proclaiming the iniquity of the current economic system. He became a Prophet against profit. (Did you see what I did there?)
But, as you might imagine, this doesn’t go down very well with the people who have the power. Amaziah, for example, was a priest of the Temple of the Golden Calf…and he was particularly upset. The Golden Calf was a symbol of the wealth of the nation. People prayed to the Calf for their own wealth…praying to be raised out of their own poverty. It was rather like the way that people today buy lottery tickets in the hope of great wealth. The people of Israel sacrificed desperately to the Golden Calf…and the priests lived off the sacrifices. Amaziah was their priest – and he didn’t want Amos to upset his rather comfortable apple-cart. He incited the crowd to beat Amos up. Amaziah ridiculed the prophet, and warned him to get out of town.
Prophets against profit are never very popular. And that was the pattern throughout the Bible’s history. Time and time again, the prophets called the people back to the ways of God. John the Baptist was the last in this long line of ancient prophets. He too stood up against the powerful elites of his day – especially the vassal King Herod. Herod was a puppet of the Roman authorities, but he lived in a fine palace, held lavish parties, and kept on partying while his people suffered and squirmed under the ‘might is right’ domination of Rome. John the Baptist cried out against Herod…against his lifestyle, his love of wealth and profit and his iniquitous inter-marriage to his brother’s wife. He put his head above the parapet…and for his trouble, got himself locked up in Herod’s dungeon, then had his head removed.
There are of course many other juicy themes I’d like to explore about the death of John the Baptist. The whole topic of the use of sex and seduction to obtain immoral ends is particularly juicy! But I don’t want to over-stay my welcome.
Let me just conclude with these thoughts. When the Bible speaks about the human beings of history, it describes us too. It reads us. Human nature does not change. There will always be wealthy elites, who will manipulate the power they have been given, or that they have taken, to oppress the poor.
And, while it reads us, the Bible also calls to us…the modern day people of God…the new Israel. We are the people who, as Paul said (while writing to the Ephesians in our second lesson) have had “made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ”. (Eph 1.9). We cannot be in any doubt about this. God has made abundantly clear, through the pages of the Bible the ‘mystery of his will’. We cannot be in any doubt that the way the world is structured is absolutely and fundamentally flawed. Wealthy elites have sway in our world – perhaps even more than in biblical times. Something like 90% of the world’s wealth is owned by 10% of its population. The poor are trampled on, or turned into slaves to work in the seat-shops and factories that support the wealthy elite. Golden Calves are erected to give people hope. They are called things like ‘the American Dream’, or given fancy labels like ‘equality of opportunity’…when in reality, all the opportunity is exclusively reserved for the sons and daughters of the elite.
Into this sinful, depraved, iniquitous system…the Bible speaks loudly and clearly the ‘mystery of God’s will’ – his mysterious upside down view of the way the world should be. Blessed are the poor…for theirs is the kingdom of God. Blessed are the meek…for they will, ultimately, inherit the earth when the Great Day of the Lord comes. Blessed are the peacemakers…for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. We have the words of Mary, echoing Hannah the mother of another prophet, Samuel…”He will put down the mighty from their seats, and exalt the humble and meek. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away”.
Our task…our fundamental task…our mission…our calling is crystal clear. We are called to co-operate with God in the building of a completely different way of life…establishing a Kingdom in which all can flourish, and everyone can thrive. That’s what it means to be a follower of Christ. In Paul’s words, we have been “adopted as his children through Jesus Christ” – we are the new people of Israel. We, like Israel before us, are called to live holy and blameless lives. We are called to declare the promises of God to the whole world, living by the light of “him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will”. The great Day of Lord that Amos foretold will come. The rich will be sent empty away. The poor will be raised up and the meek will inherit the earth.
But what does this calling actually mean for us? What does it mean, as we considered last week, for us to ‘act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God’?
On a personal level, you need to work that out for yourself. What is God calling you to do differently as a result of understanding this calling? What power do you hold over others that he calls you to relinquish? How can you be more self-emptying, more uplifting of the poor and the down-trodden people you encounter in your life? We need to work these things out for ourselves. We need to take time to listen to God’s call on our individual lives. Many of us live remarkably comfortable lives, don’t we? Could it be that God is stirring us up to more fully ‘live for the praise of his glory’ (in the words of St Paul - Eph 1.12)? Could you bring a tin of food for the food-bank? Could you offer to visit one of the lonely and housebound members of this community? Could you give up some sofa-time to improve our community facilities? Could you sacrifice some of your personal financial resources for the work of the Kingdom? You need to answer these questions for yourself.
But as a community, I think God is speaking loudly and clearly. Through our Mission Development Plan, he is calling us to build community structures that speak loudly and clearly of Kingdom Values. There are physical spaces like our church building and our community halls in which the lives of the very poorest can be transformed into something at least approaching God’s counsel and will. That’s why we are bending ourselves towards the task of restoring our church hall. That’s why we are improving our church building.
But as well as physical structures, I believe God is calling us to build new ways of being a community too. We need to adapt the way we worship and worship spaces – so that they welcome and embrace the young, and those for whom traditional forms of worship don’t speak so clearly. We need to get serious about learning what the Bible has to teach us, and about what it means to truly Follow Jesus – hence the new course we are starting in the Spring. Our Mission Development Plan invites us to devote ourselves to:
- · worship of God and to service of our community
- · to discipleship for ourselves and encouragement and support of others
- · to nurture the young – who are largely absent at the moment
- · to enhance our environment – our piece of the planet which we’ve been given to care for
- · and to care for our buildings
We need to become, in short, the kind of people who put their heads above the parapet and who declare through our lives, our words and our actions, that God is at work, and the world will be changed.