All Saints Margaret Street | Trinity 6 – High Mass Sermon Sunday 15 July 2012

Sermon for Trinity 6 – High Mass Sermon Sunday 15 July 2012

TRINITY 6, 2012                                         SERMON PREACHED BY THE VICAR AT HIGH MASS

Readings|: Amos 7.7-15; Psalm 85.8-end; Ephesians 1.3-14; Mark 6.14-29


Imagine that instead of being in an ordinary parish church behind Oxford Street this morning, we are in the much grander setting of Westminster Abbey.  As we wait for the service to begin, a man dressed as a farm worker appears.  He makes his way to the front of the nave. A verger goes off to warn the Dean, who comes out: not to welcome him but to send him packing. He knows who this is and why he has come. He is there to denounce the crown and the established Church, and in a jubilee year too. The Dean tells the man to go and make his protest somewhere other than this royal temple: perhaps opposite the Houses of Parliament – they’re used to that kind of thing over there. How dare he come and disrupt the worship of this royal shrine?

Well, we should not stretch the comparison too far but you get the point. Amos the prophet has come to the northern kingdom of Israel to proclaim the Lord’s message of judgement on King Jeroboam; a message which the king and courtiers like Amaziah, the priest of the royal shrine at Bethel do not want to hear 

Our Gospel reading takes us to another royal location: not to a royal shrine but to a palace and the birthday celebration of Herod Antipas.

There is a confusion of Herods in the gospel period:

  • Herod the Great, who ordered the massacre of the innocents;
  • Herod Agrippa, who would execute the apostle James;
  • Herod Antipas, the one who figures in today’s story.

They were all a bad lot.

The Jewish historian Josephus, writing at much the same time as Mark,  tells us that while Herod Antipas was on his way to Rome, and staying as a guest of his half-brother Philip, who was Tetrarch of Iturea, he had an affair with Philip’s wife Herodias. Philip divorced her and Herod then married her; first getting rid of his own wife.

Antipas’ affair with Herodias was unpopular with his subjects, although his courtiers probably kept quiet so that their heads remained on their shoulders. . But John the Baptist, a prophet like Amos, could not.  Herod was guilty of both a breach of God’s law and an injustice against Antipas’ first wife and Herodias’ husband.

But Antipas seems to have been in two minds about this fiery preacher: even though John denounced his marital misconduct, he still liked listening to him. He was rather like the rich and powerful of the ancient world who would hire a philosopher to speak at their dinner parties to show how intellectual they were. Herod may have listened to John but this did not change his behaviour.  This is a phenomenon not unknown among churchgoers even today: preaching as entertainment. We like to have our ears tickled by some great preacher or other; as long as our lifestyles can remain unchanged.

What forced Herod to lock John up was political consequence of his marital mess. The abandoned first wife was the daughter of King Aretas of the Nabateans. He saw the treatment of his daughter as a grave insult and threatened war.  A lot of Nabateans lived in Herod’s territory; their loyalty could not be relied upon any more than that of his Jewish subjects. The last thing he needed was a firebrand preacher on the loose denouncing the royal marriage.   

The king’s birthday celebration was clearly – at least for the men  – a drunken affair.  Mark simply records that Herodias’ daughter dances before the guests.  His contemporaries would regard this as a disgraceful thing to subject a princess to: turning her into a sex object for as lot of drunken men. This is the kind of thing which goes on in shady establishments in Soho and at what is euphemistically called a “Gentlemens’ Club” on Tottenham Court Road.

When Herod offers her half his kingdom, she probably knows that he cannot give away what is not really his, it belongs to Rome. So she asks her mother to suggest something more realistic.  Herodias, portrayed by both Josephus and Mark as a manipulative Jezebel figure,  sees her chance and asks for John’s head.  Herod, trapped by his sins and drunken promises, has to stick to his word.

The Biblical story ends there, but history tells us more.  Aretas did attack and inflicted a humiliating defeated on Herod – who was only saved by Roman intervention.  His subjects saw this as a punishment for murdering John.

By calling Herod a ‘king’, Mark hints at something his readers already knew.  Antipas was not really a king at all, merely a tetrarch, the ruler of a quarter of a province.   When the emperor Caligula made Herod Agrippa, who had been his drinking companion in their youth,  king of Judah, his sister Herodias began to lobby for her husband to be made king of Galilee. 

This was a bad mistake. Caligula, never the most rational of characters, saw it as treason. The would-be-royal pair were summoned to Rome and then banished to Gaul, to end their days in exile. By Caligula’s standards they got off lightly  –  but they might not have seen it that way.  

For Mark, this story in clearly significant, even though it mentions Jesus only in passing. He treats it at greater length than either Matthew or Luke because for him it serves the whole gospel:

  • Set amid accounts of Jesus’ popularity, the story sounds a note of foreboding;  of death at the hands of a secular ruler.  The sword of political power, whether in the hands of Herod or Pilate, will strike down God’s prophets.
  • Speculation about who Jesus really is, anticipates Peter’s Confession of Jesus as the Messiah at Caesarea Philippi.
  • The burial of John by his disciples anticipates the burial of Jesus. 
  • Herod unwittingly testifies to the greater and final truth: power has been released among by a resurrection from the dead: “John whom I beheaded has been raised.” 

So, the story is about the passion and death of John but Mark wants us to point us to the passion and death of Jesus.

The passage we heard from the Letter to the Ephesians seems in a very different register altogether: far removed from the cruel and sordid world of near eastern politics. I should perhaps remind you that during the green seasons, the Old Testament readings are chosen to complement the Gospel but the Epistle readings are independent – and this Sunday we begin a series of readings from the Letter to the Ephesians.

These verses are the first part of a magnificent eulogy at the beginning of the Letter. In the Greek it is a single sentence which stretches on to vs.23. The translators, mercifully for those who have to read it aloud, have supplied some punctuation.  It is a prayer of blessing couched in the language of liturgy and hymnody.  Superlatives are piled one on top of another; an excess of language intended to lift the hearers and worshippers to the very heights from which the work of God is seen to come.

The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is blessed for the blessing which he has given us.  God’s grace has been lavishly bestowed and displayed through Christ, through whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of our sins, achieved through the shedding of his blood.

And here we see the link with those events in Palestine under Herod Antipas and “under Pontius Pilate”: the murder of John and above all the death of Jesus in whom we are reconciled with God.  The writer sees the events which Mark records in the context of God’s purposes for the whole of creation; as the expression of those purposes.  

God’s saving work is seen as a mystery concealed from the beginning of time, but now “in the fullness of time”, revealed in its fullness. It is unfolded “with all wisdom and insight” and so illuminates our own understanding, both of ourselves and of God.  Neither the Christians in Ephesus, not we, nor the universe of which we are part, are merely accidental products of some random and impersonal process.  In Christ, God’s intention is manifest: the divine purpose to bring about the unity of all things in him, to “gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth.” 

The mystery of God’s purpose found in Jesus Christ is unfolded by the work of the Spirit: “the seal” and “the pledge of our inheritance.”  The Spirit is given to God’s people as both a present experience in the life of the Church, but also as the promise of and even fuller experience of God’s presence yet to come.  The unfolding of the mystery takes place as the community of God’s children worship and pray, hear the Gospel and celebrate the sacraments; the holy “mysteries” which unite us with the mystery of God’s will; his purposes not just for us but for the whole of creation.


Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses