Summer Reading: Trinity 7 – Beheading of John the Baptist

A rather heavy topic for a hot July morning! However I think it is unavoidable to talk about John and his death, his relationship with Jesus and the senselessness of death. This also helped me to reflect on my recent trip to Poland and visit to Auschwitz.

Trinity 7

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19
Psalm 24
Ephesians 1:3-14
Mark 6:14-29

This morning we will be looking at the story of John the Baptist as told by Mark. I like John – the more I read about him – the more I understand his role as one of the key people in the New Testament.

John arrives in Mark’s Gospel even before Jesus does – he is first on the scene as the front runner to Jesus’ ministry. It is good to remember that John and Jesus are cousins, they are family. Their mothers, Mary and Elizabeth are cousins. John and Jesus were born very close together – so would have likely known each other as children, played together, got into trouble together.

Think about your cousins for a moment – in my family cousins have always been important. I love my cousins! I pray for them regularly and try to see visit as many of them as I can when I go home. I am really close to the cousins on my Mom’s side of the family – they are more like extra brothers and sisters.

Other than your siblings – no one will know you longer in your life than your cousins! They will know you longer than your spouse or your children.
Anyway – On the banks of the River Jordan, after a brief discussion, Cousin John baptizes his cousin Jesus which signals the start of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus is on the up and John’s ministry begins to decline. Jesus goes off into the wilderness almost immediately after his baptism to face temptation by Satan; John gets arrested by Herod.

If you read the first few chapters of Mark – you see that Jesus is very busy – lots of travelling around Galilee, gathering his disciples, encountering the Pharisees; Jesus begins his preaching, teaching and healing ministry. All the while – John is sitting in prison. Jesus heard about John’s arrest and Matthew tells us that he withdrew to Galilee. His cousin was in jail. I think Jesus’ heart was a bit broken over this. We don’t know how long he withdrew from his activities – so overwhelming was this news that Jesus needed to stop for a moment.

Matthew tells us a bit more about John that Mark does – there are a few occasions when John’s disciples pop up to see Jesus with questions. John is being kept up to date with the goings on of his cousin Jesus as he sits in prison awaiting his fate.

In Matthew 11 we are told that John sent a message to Jesus asking: ‘if he (Jesus) is the one to come, or are we to wait for another?’ You can almost hear the ‘come on cousin! Get me out of here!’ Jesus sends John’s disciples back to him with the message to tell John what they hear and see – the blind are receiving sight, the lame are walking, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are being raised, the poor are receiving the good news. Everything that John had prophesied about is happening. So – yes – John – Jesus is the One.

This makes it okay to question Jesus – John who knew him from childhood, who dedicated his life and ministry to proclaiming the coming of the Messiah – had a moment of doubt as the four wall of the prison closed in.

The next we hear of John is that he has been killed. Why?

John had been sent to prison by King Herod. John had been attacking Herod over marrying his brother (Philip’s) wife (Herodias) illegally. They were in breach of the Torah (Jewish law) and John apparently kept pointing this out to them. John had also been announcing that the Kingdom of God – the true kingdom was coming. Herod wasn’t the real king; God would replace him.

Herodias wanted John dead – no question. She held a grudge against him – as only a woman can! Herod is confused – on the one hand Herodias wants Johns dead; on the other Herod knows John to be a righteous and holy man. Mark tells us that Herod feared John. Herod liked to listen to John; but it left him perplexed.

John was publicly criticizing Herod over his bad behaviour yet Herod liked to listen to him. The word used is to be at a loss about something; this was Herod after listening to John.

Have you experienced something like that – you hear something that you don’t like – even though it’s true – you don’t want to hear more but you can’t help yourself? This is the position that Herod is in. John remains alive and in jail as Herod is confused about what to do! Then an opportunity presents itself – Herod’s birthday party – a right royal knees up. All of Herod’s friends and other important people there.

His teenage niece/step-daughter Salome dances for the crowd and this is pleasing. Pleasing here means pleasing of a sexual nature. A teenager is dancing in an erotic fashion for a group of drunken men. Does that still happen today? Dancing teenager then goes to her basically evil mother to be told what to ask for – the head of JtB.

The death of JtB is one of the most shocking accounts in the Gospels I think. His death – is a senseless one! Lost his head for a dance from a over-sexualized teenager and her rotten mother. So meaningless! Herod proves himself to be a weak leader, total lack of conviction to do the right thing. He won’t lose face in front of the crowd.

Herodias his wife is pulling the strings. John is the innocent in all of this.

I know that I mentioned my trip to Poland last week – but I didn’t talk about going to Auschwitz. I had not been to a concentration camp before. I tried to park everything I knew about Auschwitz – forget what I had read or watched about it so not to be influenced or dramatize my experience any more than necessary.

What I hadn’t fully appreciated was that only about 25% of the people who arrived at Auschwitz – stayed there. As people got off the trains they were ‘selected’ based on the outward appearance of someone who could work. The others – mothers with children, the elderly and the disabled were taken almost immediately to the gas chambers & crematoria for a shower.

This is senseless of death on an unimaginable scale. What is left behind is displays of shoes, suitcases, hair brushes, combs, human hair. It was a really overwhelming experience! But the senselessness of it all has really made me think more deeply about it.

What do we do with this story? With the senselessness of death sometimes?

Sometimes we try to make sense of what has happened and provide an explanation – ‘Nothing happens in the world unless God wills it’, or ‘God has a plan’ or my favourite – ‘God doesn’t give us more than we can handle’.

I really don’t think that God wills teenager girls to dance for old men, I don’t think mass murder of millions of people was part of his plan. Giving us more than we can handle – is just untrue. You won’t find that line anywhere in the Bible and it suggests that if a person was less than who they are – less personality, less strength, less them – then whatever has happened wouldn’t have happened. Again – not true!

John is one of those people – and I’m sure we know them – who does the right thing and suffers anyway. His death accomplishes nothing – no one is saved or converted. It’s an injustice that hasn’t been solved.

One of the Christian writers, Debie Thomas, that I like to read said this:
Maybe in John’s story we are meant to learn something about how God works. Maybe “the point” of this Gospel story is to show us that all forms of transactional Christianity that promise us comfort, prosperity, and blessing in exchange for our good behaviour. Maybe the point is that God doesn’t exist to shield us from pain, sorrow, or premature death — however much it offends our sensibilities to admit this. Maybe the point is that we don’t need to slap purpose or meaning on all human experience. Maybe some things are just plain horrible. Period.

It’s tempting to read a story like John the Baptist’s and tell ourselves that it’s old fashioned — that it comes from a rougher, cruder, and more barbaric time. But of course the opposite is true. We still, right now, today, live in a world where faithlessness is an accepted norm. We still live in world where the innocent are detained, imprisoned, tormented, and killed. We still live in a world of sudden and random violence. We still live in a world where young girls are made to be sexual objects for powerful men. And we still live in a world where speaking truth to power is a rare and revolutionary act.

Closer to home, I still live in a world where I distance myself from people who tell me truths I’d rather not hear. I still live in a world where I worry more about sounding stupid or losing face than I do about practicing discretion, admitting my mistakes, and humbling myself in front of people I’m desperate to impress. I still live in a world where people within my reach live lonely lives and die meaningless deaths — and I barely notice.

What do we do with this? We could look to Ephesians 1 – this is a remarkably powerful statement about the glory of the risen Jesus. I want to be careful – I am not saying that this is the answer to the question of why JtB died or to explain away the senselessness of some deaths.
This is about knowing who we are in Jesus – we were chosen before the foundation of the world, destined for adoption as God’s children, we are redeemed by the blood of Jesus, forgiven of our trespasses. In Jesus we have been given the greatest inheritance and have been marked wit the seal of the Holy Spirit. All things will be gathered up in Jesus in the fullness of time.

If we can hold onto this – understand who we are in Jesus, where we fit, what he has done for us – then we have hope. We have something to hang on to when the senseless things happen. We have someone to take our grief to, somewhere to hang our uncertainty and confusion. We also have to work out that God may not operate the way we want him to either – that his sole purpose is not to make our lives easy and pain-free – again this is not mentioned in the Bible!

We might not know why things happen the way they do and we might never know on this side of heaven. But we do need to know who we are in Jesus and be reminded of what He has done for us. We see in the life and death of JtB. If you are not sure who you are in Jesus – or that sounds weird or strange – I will gently suggest that you might want to look into that! It might be time to read some new books or do a course – take some time to contemplate your relationship with Jesus.

The world might not make sense – but Jesus does!

Summer Reading: Trinity 6 – Thorns in the Flesh

Trinity 6

2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10
Psalm 48
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6:1-13

This past week I was in Poland for 5 days. I really am getting in my European travel at the moment!

One of the few things I do outside the parish is serve as a volunteer Trustee for St Katharine’s Parmoor which is a retreat house outside Marlow/High Wycombe. St Katharine’s was used as a convent during the Second World War for an order of Catholic nuns who had to leave London during the Blitz.

St Katharine’s was later given by these nuns to Sue Ryder – a name some of you may know from the hospices and charity shops around the country. Sue Ryder dedicated St Katharine’s as her ‘powerhouse of prayer’ as well as a place of rest and retreat for herself and her staff. Sue very much believed that prayer underpinned everything that she and her charity did.

Sue Ryder was born in 1923 and died in 2000. From a young age Sue was made aware of the plight of people around her – firstly by her own mother caring for the families who lived in the appalling conditions around their home in Suffolk. Sue joined the FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) in WW2 – an all-female charity that did both nursing and intelligence work during both wars. It was during this work that Sue came into contact with Poland and the Polish people. They were to become the thorn in her flesh – so to speak.

After the war ended Sue spent a lot of her time in Poland caring for POW’s and those who had survived the German concentration camps. She would drive back and forth between England and Poland, collecting supplies to take back and set up homes for them.

This is how I came to be in Poland this past week with a group of Trustees and volunteers from St Katharine’s and 2 other wings of the Sue Ryder family. We went to meet with the Board of Sue Ryder Poland who do similar things that happen here – we visited a care home, a school and a charity shop – all under the banner of Sue Ryder Poland. It was fascinating to see the work being carried on with such passion and commitment to Sue Ryder’s legacy.

The other lovely thing about being Poland was visiting many different churches and chapels – I love religious art! I am a church geek! The more bonkers – the better!

In the chapel of the Sue Ryder care home in Pierzchnica behind the altar was this picture – St Rita of Cascia. I stood in front of it for a little while as I didn’t quite understand what was going on!

St Rita was an Italian Augustinian nun who lived in the 1300’s. In this picture she is kneeling before a crucifix and the figure of Jesus looks to be piercing Rita’s head with a thorn from the crown of thorns on his own head. It looks like Jesus is zapping her with a laser beam! What a religious experience that would have been!

St Rita became a powerful intercessor along with being a very kind and caring woman. She became known as the Patroness of Impossible Causes – in the Catholic church she is the patron saint of abused wives (she was insulted and abused by her philandering husband – married when she was 12 – he was later murdered) and heartbroken women. According to the stories Rita endured this with humility, kindness and patience and apparently her husband became a better guy. Her kindness, good character and piety were obvious to all.

After seeing this picture and then realizing that the 2 Corinthians reading this morning was Paul’s recount of his thorn in the flesh – I had to put them together!

2 Corinthians 12 begins with Paul making the point that there are some people who have something to boast about – like someone who has had a mystical experience of God which Paul uses with the example of a man caught up into the heavens. It is thought that Paul is talking about himself and his own spiritual experience – maybe on the Road to Damascus. He is very reluctant to admit he might be talking about himself – but needs to in order to make his point.

Self-boasting in never okay according to Paul as it can lead to arrogance – rather than humility. Paul is boasting – this is his most dramatic boast yet. Paul is boasting from a place of weakness; a place of humility.

Paul talks about the importance of humility from his own experience – referred to as the ‘thorn’. It is not clear what the thorn actually was – could have been an illness he picked up like malaria, has been suggested it was his eyesight or kidney issues. It could have been a moral or character issue. It may also have been a person who was undermining or opposing Paul’s work.

Whatever it was – it limited his actions in his mind.

It is not what the thorn was that mattered to Paul – the point is the spiritual relevance of the thorn. The Corinthians – who Paul is writing to – were very keen on exciting experiences and they have been influenced by the visits of the ‘super-apostles’ who appear to have been pandering to their love of entertainment.

Paul is trying to counter this attitude of being dazzled by the spectacle. Paul’s calling was to witness to Christ. St Rita was a woman who was devoted to prayer and intercession for people who were hurting and abused; she publicly forgave her husband’s murderers. Sue Ryder worked tirelessly for the Polish people who had been devastated by the war as she had been so moved by the hardships they faced.

Each of these people have gone to great lengths to serve Christ, be a witness to Him.

I don’t think you can preach on this passage and not acknowledge that God did not grant Paul the healing he prayed for. God said no to Paul three times. Don’t let the significance of three pass you by. Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gesthemane three times and he was not delivered from his suffering either.
Paul was given the grace to endure the suffering; and that is better than deliverance. God is not a magic genie in a bottle or some holy fruity machine.

The ‘No of God’ taught Paul to rely on the ‘Grace of God’ rather than his own strength. How much energy is wasted by thinking we can do it ourselves. Sue Ryder knew she couldn’t do it herself – so she recruited her friends and neighbours – 2 of the people on the trip to Poland had gone to school with Sue’s children, now in their late 50’s and are still involved with her work. Sue Ryder set up shops to sell second hand goods to raise money.

Paul also learned that his own weakness was more than compensated for by the strength of God. Paul takes on this suffering on the human level so that he may find Christ’s grace and power more fully.

No is not always the bad or wrong answer. No is a hard answer to hear – especially from God. Paul found this very difficult to live with – he may have thought his thorn was limiting his effectiveness or lowering the opinion of the people he was trying to reach.

However, God is not concerned about this in the same way that Paul is and we can be. God is not dependent on the world’s good opinion of him.

This is why the thorn is a gift – it reminds Paul that God is God and he is not. Paul is dependent on God – not the other way around. The relevance of the thorn is not lost or irrelevant – it is central to Paul’s mission and ministry. He needs to be reminded of that daily.

I hope you picked up the theme of prayer running through this morning. Sue Ryder and her powerhouse of prayer, St Rita and her intercessions for others, Paul and his three prayer requests. This is how we live with the thorns in our own flesh. God may tell us no too but that is not the end of the story. He hears our prayers, wants us to be dependent on him in everything.

It is how we use the thorn to tell the story of God’s grace in our lives – not for the entertainment value – but for the lived-out experience of complete dependence on Christ in us.