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Will you stand?

6th Sunday after Trinity

Mark 6: 14-29 Ephesians 1: 3-14

King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, ‘John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.’ But others said, ‘It is Elijah.’ And others said, ‘It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.’ But when Herod heard of it, he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.’
For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias 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.’ And he solemnly swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.’ She went out and said to her mother, ‘What should I ask for?’ She replied, ‘The head of John the baptizer.’ Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’ The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

Will you stand?

May these spoken/written words lead us to the living word Jesus Christ. Amen

If you look at the entire course of the church’s history, you will soon see that Christians across the world have at one time or another been persecuted. Go back to the first three centuries of the church and see how believers suffered under the Roman Empire until the conversion of Constantine in 312 AD. Look at the church in Saharan Africa and the Middle East and how it was almost completely obliterated by the advance of Islam from the 7th century onwards. Consider the tragic history of the Reformation and the counter-Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries, and how Christians persecuted each other.

Sadly persecution is a terrible reality for many Christians even today. The shocking untold story of our time is that more Christians have died in the twentieth century simply for being Christians than in the first nineteen centuries after the birth of Christ. It has been estimated that ten percent of the worldwide Christian population are living in situations where they face discrimination, persecution or oppression because of their faith in Jesus. Christian meetings this morning would in many countries of the Middle East or Asia be deemed illegal. Attendance here would be noted by the police, and information passed to employers, teachers, and your family. Your right to decent housing or a suitable job would be severely curtailed. In some cases you would be thrown in prison, in others you and your family would be subject to bouts of apparently random violence.

But it couldn’t happen here, could it?

I don’t wish to be too alarmist but there is growing evidence of low-level harassment, discrimination in employment, loss of funding, restrictions on what we are and not allowed to say. In 2015 the Sunday Trading Bill was overturned allowing people to shop 7 days a week. This has forced Christians to work on a Sunday or risk losing their job. The media seems to be carrying a constant stream of stories about people who have been sacked for wearing a crucifix, or offering to pray with a client or patient. This is the reality of life in Britain in 2021 and it’s only going to get tougher as we face the prospect of an increasingly secular state.
This begs the question; will we be ready when the crunch comes? Will we stand up and be counted a follower of Christ, or will we simply melt away into the crowd?

The gospel reading for this morning was written around 70-75AD. At that time the Christians in Rome were suffering immense persecution being imprisoned and thrown to lions for entertainment. It was so intense that according to the historian Josephus the Romans ran out of wood on which to crucify Christians so they nailed them to the walls of the city. It was a terrible time. When Mark’s audience heard about the fate of John the Baptist - which of all the gospel writers Mark describes in greatest detail - they could not help making comparisons with the experiences some of their own number had suffered. Mark’s account of John the Baptist’s death is an important lesson about what it means to make a stand for your faith, and the cost that may be involved in making that stand.

So, bearing in mind all that I’ve said so far, what can we learn from the life and death of John the Baptist? Herod’s father had murdered the innocents in Bethlehem when Jesus was a baby. Now his son also called Herod had arrested John because John had criticised him for marrying his brother Philips wife Herodius and Herodius harboured a grudge against John. Herod was also a weak man as he allowed someone he liked to listen to, someone he underneath respected, be executed because he made a rash promise to Salome, Herodius’ daughter when she danced at a banquet. He may well have been drunk or frightened of his wife, either way he couldn’t lose face and back down on his promise to give her anything she asked for. This satisfied the grudge against John as Herodius told her daughter to ask for the head of John the Baptist.

Sometimes we can get caught up in the moment, making promises we wish we hadn’t and sometimes making promises we have no intention of keeping. Sometimes we find ourselves in a situation we can’t back out of, but like Herod we do not want to lose face. It is one of the many flaws of human nature that we have to do battle with.

Herod didn’t change, when Jesus was brought before him at his trial, he went along with the crowd when deep down he knew that Jesus was innocent. Rather than stand up for what was right he passed the buck onto Pontius Pilate. But enough of Herod, what about John? His extraordinary birth, extraordinary life, extraordinary message – Repent and be baptised, - and now his extraordinary death on the whim of a dancing girl and her Mother’s desire to have vengeance.

We are not told what John said when the executioner came for him, but Mark leaves us in no doubt that John was a holy man, a righteous man and the kingdom of which he had preached and the forgiveness that he had offered would win in the end. For light always wins over darkness. It is an ugly, brutal story that offers encouragement to stand up for what is right and true and it offers us hope. This may seem a daunting even impossible ask but we are not alone, and Paul reassures us that God will not test us beyond that which we are able to stand.

In our epistle reading today we find continued reassurance as Paul writes in his letter to the Church at Ephesus: Hear his words again:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.

Were you able to take all of that in? It is one of my favourite passages of scripture but difficult to understand when there is so much information in one hit. In the original text it was all written without punctuation!

This is my interpretation which may make it easier to digest.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Why? Because in Jesus Christ he has blessed us with every spiritual blessing:
In Christ he chose us
In Christ he loved us
In Christ he saved us
In Christ he adopted us as his children.

Chosen, loved, saved and adopted – those four words describe how God deals with us; people who sometimes disobey him, who often disappoint him and who are certainly not the perfect model yet: he chooses to love us and save us and adopt us as his own. Chosen from the beginning of time, before the world came into being. God is on our side, he promises never to leave us whatever life throws at us.

What Paul wrote in his complicated sentences was that the all-knowing, all-present Almighty God of the universe came to us as a baby in Jesus Christ. He gave himself as a sacrifice on Calvary, so that he could look at us and see us as holy, blameless and acceptable in his sight. WOW!

No matter what might happen to us God the Holy Spirit is with us, guiding, teaching, comforting and reminding us that we are his children and he loves us. We do not need to be anxious about tomorrow nor what the future may hold for us. We do not need to worry about standing up for what we know is right for we are the chosen, loved, saved and adopted children of God.

No wonder Paul writes in his opening sentence:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us..

Praise be to God indeed. Amen

John's head on plate
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