Sermon on 15th July 2018: Trinity 7

The Revd Chris Newlands, Vicar of Lancaster, 15 July, Lancaster Priory

Imagine, if you will, a nation’s leader who is more obsessed with his own importance than caring for the people entrusted to his care. That man, being a narcissist, loves people flattering him, praising him, offering him gifts – and those people are also rewarded with outlandish gifts, often great influence in his court far beyond that person’s ability. He is also a man known for his multiple marriages and rapacious attitude to women, and even despite many public indiscretions he retains the support of the religious leaders of the establishment who depend on him for their position.

But those who dare to criticise him live very dangerous lives, unsure when their opposition could lead them to a fall from grace, or even worse.

I’m sure you know exactly who I am talking about:

I’m talking about Herod Antipas, who features in our Gospel reading today. (Who did you think I was talking about?)

He had been a very troubled young man. His father was also called Herod (known as the Great – that is bound to create some “daddy issues” when you have a father who everyone calls Great). His father was the king who reigned at the time of the birth of Jesus, who met with the wise men, and ordered the slaughter of the innocents in the hope that he would destroy the one “born to be king of the Jews.”

Herod the Great had four wives in total: the first he had sent away to the provinces so that he could marry the second. Convinced she was plotting against him he had her strangled to death and embalmed in honey because he really loved her. The sons he had by her were also executed. His third wife gave him two sons – one of whom was to succeed him, Herod Antipas. His fourth wife gave him another son, known as Herod II who thought his life expectancy might be longer if he lived far away from Jerusalem, in Rome. But while receiving a visit there from his half-brother (they were both called Herod), he was surprised to discover that his half-brother had fallen in love with his own wife Herodias (who was also their half-niece), and intended to marry her and take her back to be his queen. History does not record the conversation the half-brothers might have had; but it does record the fact that Herod Antipas did indeed marry his niece who was also his brother’s wife, Herodias, and brought her back to Jerusalem, along with their young daughter, whose name was Salome.

This shocking tale of abandonment of his royal wife, and the marriage to his brother’s wife (not to mention the fact that he was her half-uncle) was the talk of the kingdom, and of course he was supported by the religious establishment – who needed him to be their protector from the Roman powers, but he was going to be criticised by the independent religious figures of his day who were not ‘of the establishment’ but free to speak their mind and to do that most dangerous of things – to criticise the king. Of course, I’m talking about John the Baptist, a well-known preacher whose fiery oratory impressed many, and whose call to receive a baptism for repentance was drawing large crowds to the River Jordan.

This brings us to our Gospel reading, and the famous narrative in which his wife’s daughter (his step-daughter and grand-niece) came and danced for him. (Just a point of clarification – tradition remembers the daughter of Herodias as Salome, but in the biblical texts she is usually named Herodias, the same as her mother’s name, which can be confusing! I will follow tradition and call her Salome.)

“Her dancing pleased Herod” – she would have been around 14 at the time, so a girl very much under her mother’s instructions. The tyrant wanted to impress his guests who had assembled for his birthday celebrations, to receive their praise and adulation. So he made a ridiculous and pompous offer: “Ask me for whatever you wish and I will give it, even half of my kingdom.”

It was a vain promise as he was no king, in reality. This was because the land that he “ruled” was actually a vassal state. Let me define what that means, as that phrase has recently been completely misused by someone who should know better. A client state, or vassal state is one in which a major power – in this case the Roman Empire – places a subservient puppet as a local ruler, usually with an occupying army to ensure obedience, in order to ensure tax and tribute and the maintenance of the customs of the Empire. So Herod could not have fulfilled this promise without the permission of the Emperor, which would not have been forthcoming. But his wife certainly knew that, though she knew that he would make some pretentious offer after her daughter’s dance; and this was her opportunity to get her revenge on the one man who had dared to criticise her marriage to Herod, by asking her daughter to ask for his head on a platter. Of course Herod could not lose face – such powerful narcissists would rather commit murder than lose face, so Herod orders the execution of John the Baptist, and thus the first martyr who witnessed to Jesus as the Son of God joined the heavenly throng. His body was taken by his disciples and laid in a tomb, where it became a place of pilgrimage.

As to Herod and his wife and step-daughter, this is the Herod who, a few years later interrogates Jesus and sends him back to Pilate for sentencing. But shortly thereafter he fell out of favour with the new Roman Emperor Caligula, who confiscated all his property and sent him into exile in what is now Lyons in France. Salome became Queen of Chalchis and Armenia Minor.

So much for the story around the beheading of St John the Baptist. But what are we to take from this story, apart from the historical facts, which I hope might have been of some interest and, I hope, relevance?

The relating of the story is actually, in the gospel narrative, somewhat of a flashback, as the main thrust of Mark 6 is actually the ministry of Jesus which Herod hears about, and concludes that “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised!” Herod was very wrong. John had not been raised – but the one for whom he was but the forerunner was now present, and bringing the Kingdom of God to what Herod thought of as his own temporal kingdom. And Jesus, whom John had acknowledged, was the one who would be raised, to bring salvation to John who awaited the fulfilment of his ministry, and to all those who would come to believe in him in future generations.

According to one early Christian preacher, St John Chrysostom, who in his own life spoke truth to power, and was condemned because of it, John the Baptist was victorious over the tyrant Herod. He says:

“(Herod’s) attempt to silence John has only amplified his words of condemnation: In our own day and through all future time, throughout all the world, John continues to refute Herod every time this passage of scripture is read.”

Our Old Testament reading today was from the prophet Amos – a prophet whom God had called from his profession as a dresser of sycamore trees, to speak boldly to the ruler of his day – King Jereboam. He was a conquering king, but one who oppressed the poor and vulnerable in the land – which was explicitly contrary to God’s teaching to care for the widow and orphan, and those who were strangers in the land. Amos spoke out strongly against the king’s exploitation of the poorest and most vulnerable in the land. His prophetic words were quoted by Martin Luther King in his famous “I have a dream” speech, when he said “we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream”.

John the Baptist, the prophet Amos, and Martin Luther King: all of them powerful advocates for God’s reign of peace and justice in their own time and context. And all of them paid for their boldness with their lives.

We in our own generation also have the responsibility to speak out against injustice, boldly rebuking the wickedness of those Herods of our own time who abuse their position and power for their own ends, to line their own pockets and inflate their own egos, by victimising the most vulnerable in our own time and place.

Is it being “political” to say such things? Of course it is, but it is thoroughly Biblical, prophetic, and a right and proper thing for people of faith to do, to call all people – and especially those in positions of leadership – to do all they can to pursue:

righteousness, and not wickedness;

faithfulness and not deceit;

justice and not oppression;

peace and not destruction.

And may God give to us all a voice to call all people to repentance for sin, and to live in the ways of Our Lord who (in the words of today’s epistle), “came to proclaim peace to those who were far off and to those who were near (…) who are citizens with the saints, and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone.”