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Sermon for Sunday 15 July 2018


7This is what {the Lord} showed me: behold, the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. 8And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “Behold, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass by them; 9the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.” 10Then Amaziah the priest of Bethel sent to Jeroboam king of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the midst of the house of Israel. The land is not able to bear all his words. 11For thus Amos has said, “‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile way from his land.’” 12And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, and eat bread there, and prophesy there, 13but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” 14Then Amos answered and said to Amaziah, “I was no prophet, nor a prophet’s son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs. 15But the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’”


PSALM Psalm 85:1-13

1You have been gracious to your land, O Lord, you have restored the good fortune of Jacob. 2You have forgiven the iniquity of your people and blotted out all their sins. 3You have withdrawn all your fury and turned yourself from your wrathful indignation. 4Restore us then, O God our Savior; let your anger depart from us. 5Will you be displeased with us forever? will you prolong your anger from age to age? 6Will you not give us life again, that your people may rejoice in you? 7Show us your mercy, O Lord, and grant us your salvation. 8I will listen to what the Lord God is saying, for he is speaking peace to his faithful people and to those who turn their hearts to him. 9Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land. 10Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. 11Truth shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven. 12The Lord will indeed grant prosperity, and our land will yield its increase. 13Righteousness shall go before him, and peace shall be a pathway for his feet.


SECOND READING Ephesians 1:3-14

3Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. 7In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. 13In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.


GOSPEL Mark 6:14-29

14King Herod heard of {Jesus’ work}, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some said, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” 15But others said, “He is Elijah.” And others said, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” 17For it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. 18For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, 20for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly. 21But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. 22For when Herodias’s daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests. And the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.” 23And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.” 24And she went out and said to her mother, “For what should I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist.” 25And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. 27And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison 28and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. 29When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.



Normally we come to church on these summer Sunday mornings to hear the gospel, the good news, and this is important. However, on this particular Sunday morning what we seem hear in our gospel reading is Nightmare on Elm Street and Natural Born Killers, a gruesome R-rated-for-violence tale of lust, greed, misused power, and blood revenge. “I want his head on a platter, and I want it now” was the response given to a senseless vow made in a moment of drunken stupidity.
After the mesmerizing and probably erotic dance before the dinner guests, the young daughter of Herodias was made a promise by Herod that he would give her anything she wanted, up to half his kingdom. At this she runs to her mother, a woman who hates John the Baptist, to consult with her on what to ask. With the advice of her mother she approached her uncle, Herod Antipas, who was also now her stepfather, because he had abandoned his previous wife to marry the young dancer’s mother; “I want you to give me, at once, the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” Realizing that he had painted himself in a corner, Herod sends a soldier of the guard with orders to bring back John’s head. The soldier rushed to the prison and cut off John’s head and quickly returns with the severed head on a platter and gave it to the girl who then gave it to her mother. Seemingly, there’s absolutely nothing good we can find in this account. Or is there? How did this story slip into the biblical record, into holy scripture?
This is the only narrative in the gospel of Mark that doesn’t specifically mention Jesus or the disciples of Jesus. So why is this our gospel lesson for today? I must admit, I struggled with how I should go about preparing a sermon based on this passage: That is until I looked at the bigger picture. And by the way, I recommend you do this anytime you read a passage that is difficult to reconcile.
When examined carefully, in the larger sense, the story of John the Baptist is at the heart of St. Mark’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the promised Messiah; that Jesus is God, present with us and for us, even in the midst of our sometimes violent, unjust world. John the Baptist — his message, his person, his death — is a crucial component in the evangelist’s confession of faith. But to see this, we must step back and take a larger view in order to completely see how this story fits in God’s bigger picture.
There’s a fascinating children’s picture book titled Zoom. With each turn of the page, the reader takes a step back, in a sense, and has a better view of the subject portrayed in the book — a more inclusive view. As each page is turned, the reader is offered a more complete understanding of the subject. For example, on the first page of the book is a picture of what appears to be an aerial view of a Midwestern farm. Pictured on the page is a barn, a silo, and a grove of trees. It’s obviously a farm.
But on the next page, as if looking through the lens of an imaginary video camera that is zooming away from the subject, we discover that the farm is only a toy farm set and we can see now, a child playing with the small farm figures. Turn the page again, and we discover that the child and toy farm are just a picture on a toy catalogue cover. What is the whole story?
Turn the page yet again, and we can now see a boy holding the catalogue, and he’s on a deck chair on a cruise ship, which, a page later, turns out to be a poster on the side of a bus. It becomes as confusing as real life. We keep turning the pages to find out what’s coming next, how all this will end, and where it’s all going. Astute young readers find clues on each page that provide a hint of what’s coming next, but it’s not until the last page, at the end of the book, the final picture, that we see the total context. Not until the last page is the truth revealed.
The same author/artist, in another book titled Re-Zoom, attempts to play with not only spatial relationships but also with time and culture. As you turn the pages in this book, ancient Egyptian people are revealed to be just hieroglyphics on an obelisk in the middle of a street in nineteenth-century Paris which, turn more pages, is actually part of a modern movie set, and so on and so on, until the end of the book where it’s all made clear. The gospel of St. Mark is a Zoom-book with a surprise ending. And the part John the Baptist plays is of prime importance.
As we turn the pages and work our way through the various symbols that form the story of John the Baptist, we are ushered through a multitude of different perspectives that guide us to the divine gift revealed on the last page of the gospel of Mark. John the Baptist prepares us, including offering clues on each of his pages, prepares us, in terms of space, culture, time, and meaning, to see and comprehend the big picture, on the last page of Mark’s gospel.
Furthermore, John the Baptist is where all four gospels actually touch down in history together, to begin the story of the ministry and message of Jesus and foreshadow the final page of the story. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee … the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness (Luke 3:1-2.) That’s how Saint Luke affixed the message in real time.
St. Mark’s gospel actually begins on the first page with John the Baptist, and it’s that first picture that’s set our mental image of John. John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins … Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey (Mark 1:4, 6.) This was the first mental image of John the Baptist I had from Sunday school picture books.
As I envisioned him, it was John as a “wild man,” stomping out of the desert wilderness wide-eyed, insect-parts sticking to his mustache and bushy beard, his hands sticky from wild honey, matted hair in disarray, shouting words of fire and brimstone to Galilean villagers who were probably freaked out by John’s appearance. I could envision frightened villagers nervously whispering to one another, “Who is this guy? Call 911. Better get him to mental health.” But if we could zoom in on that time period, when the four gospels were first compiled and circulated, John the Baptist wasn’t viewed as a wild man; quite the opposite.
Far from being considered in the gospel communities as a wide-eyed eccentric or some spaced-out hermit, John was actually viewed as a person that we should aspire to be, if we’re to be faithful children of God in stressful, trying times. They believed that John knew the will and promise of God, and that even under very difficult circumstances–with all the pressures of a culture becoming increasingly narcistic, amoral, more pluralistic, and the alien occupation of the Roman empire demanding compromises of one’s traditionally Biblically grounded value system (sound familiar?)–the Jewish faithful believed that John was the one person who remained faithful to God, and, according to the text, they flocked to him to be baptized. John was the image of Godly, faithful living. Turn the pages and look at all the pictures. According to scripture, John ate locusts and wild honey. At first glance today, that may seem awfully strange.
I remember on one of my overseas deployments encountering an exotic food section in one of the local grocery stores. In this section, a friend and I found a small box of chocolate-covered grasshoppers. I was goaded into buying some. However, as part of the deal, we both had to try one. To me they tasted like mini-Nestle Crunch bars.
What we need to keep in mind is that eating grasshoppers or locusts (without the chocolate of course) was a very common food for those living on the edge of deserts; in fact, they are an excellent and readily available source of protein. And most importantly, according to Jewish guidelines at the time of John, locusts, along with wild honey, were listed as ritually “clean” foods. In other words, John was eating kosher, as well as healthy. One could even say that John was eating organic man! What the pictures on the biblical pages show is that everything John did was faithful to the law and holy scripture. And John’s camel hair clothes? Along with wool and goat hair, camel hair is still the typical attire of desert Bedouins — durable and warm for the cold desert evenings of honest work. Turn another page.
Living in the wilderness was not viewed as antisocial or psychotic conduct. At the time, it was viewed as faithful behavior; the wilderness was considered uncontaminated by religious or political impurity. The wilderness was also seen as a place of escape for those who rebelled against the local enforced rule of the Roman-Gentile occupation and its perceived idolatry. The wilderness was a place of retreat, exile, and hiding, and was a location of no compromise to one’s religious principles. Turn another page.
Perhaps of paramount importance, the wilderness was a symbol of religious hope — a place to receive insight from God and to receive God’s guidance and blessing. The wilderness was the prime place for meditation and spiritual reflection, a place to be close to God. This also help us to make sense out of why Jesus was driven out into the wilderness just as He was beginning His ministry. Turn another page and we also see the wilderness as a “historic symbol.”
The wilderness was the location of escape and revelation for the chosen people of the exodus, the site of Mount Sinai and the divine gift of the Ten Commandments and the laws that guided the Hebrew people. The wilderness from which John emerged was considered the corridor to the promised land, to the promise of God. This is where John was coming from. John wasn’t something radically different. He was perceived as representing a return to the hope and promise of the Hebrew scriptures and the words of the ancient prophets; and people longed for direction in difficult, confusing times. Yet, as we turn all these pages of perspective and symbol, zooming along, we need to ask ourselves, where is it taking us?
John emerged from the sacred wilderness to proclaim that One is coming who will be the corridor, not to some new promised land elsewhere, but to God Himself, now present among us. But the story of John reveals even more. It also reveals what sometimes happens when our society is confronted by the way and will of God. The structures of human power including lust, fear, jealousy, and blood revenge are challenged by the prophetic word of a compassionate God. It reveals that human selfishness can lead prophets of God to imprisonment, a beheading or a crucifixion.
Today’s gruesome narrative of the death of John, spokesperson of God, warns us of the risk of leading the prophetic life, which we are, by the way, all called to do; and it foreshadows the ministry, arrest and execution of Jesus. But this isn’t the last page of the story. This isn’t where it all ends; with Herod and Herodias sitting on the throne of final control. The gospel authors considered John the Baptist to be the last, great prophet, speaking with the same authority as Isaiah.
John emerged from the hope of the wilderness to help bridge the old and the new Covenant and to set the stage for the coming of the Christ into this often unjust and brutal world; for the historical reality of Jesus. We know now that Mark’s story doesn’t end with the death of John. To find the real ending, we must keep turning the pages. Jesus moves into focus, into His life-altering ministry in Galilee. He then journeys to Jerusalem, where He, too, is executed by the human forces of greed, power and revenge. But it’s only on the last page or two of Mark’s gospel that we can see the total picture; it’s that last page that holds all of creation together, and that which blesses our sacred co-humanity. The final page is the victory of divine love over any injustice and even the reality of death. John the Baptist sets us up for the good news.
I should have mentioned earlier one other children’s book of the same genre as Zoom and Re-Zoom, though by a different author. This other book is titled, Looking Down, and it reverses the process of the book, Zoom. Looking Down takes the reader on an excursion that starts in outer space. The first page holds a picture of the earth as a blue and white globe floating in the black of space. But as you turn the pages, things become closer to home, and we can now see the mountains and the lakes, and then closer still to see towns and communities, until the book ends in a child’s own backyard.
While Zoom starts with the very small and ends with a sense of the infinite, the book, Looking Down, opens with the extraterrestrial big picture and closes with the very familiar. God in flesh is also part of the message of the Baptist’s narrative. “I have baptized you with water; but Jesus will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8 paraphrased), is how John in Mark’s gospel put it early on. Here is the Son of God in your own backyard, John proclaimed. This Christ is for you!
John the Baptist — Zoom-book for God. I believe that our contemporary culture in many ways mirrors the context of St. Mark’s Greek Testament period — that mixing of often opposing or contrasting ideologies and powers and affiliations that occurred in Palestine at the time of the Roman occupation. The age of John the Baptist was also like our present times, when many people were reaching out for some meaning, some sense of divine purpose.
Today we’re in great need of people who can assume the role of a contemporary John the Baptist, faithful people who can connect the old and the new and effectively point others to the reality of the living Jesus, who can lead others to the last page of the sacred story. But, answering God’s call to Go can, of course, be risky.
There will often be various forms of lust, greed, revenge, the misuse of power and authority, who will want your head, and maybe on a platter. There are times that it’s not easy to take a traditional Biblical stand before the powers that be — for Biblically grounded values, for justice, for compassion, for peacemaking, for being Christlike. John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, to prepare the way, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He answered the call to prepare the way for the Messiah. But that call to prepare didn’t end with John’s death.
The call for us today is the same: we’re called to bring others from the wilderness to the water — from death to life — from the first page to the last page of the gospel story in the book of Mark, which is a picture of the empty tomb. The last page reveals to us a picture of sin and death defeated and Jesus ascended to the right hand of God in power.

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