Saturday, July 15, 2006

What will you do? (Mark 6.14-29)

Over the last week I guess we’ve had a bit of an insight into the murky world of politics.  I’m referring, of course, to the question of what John Howard promised Peter Costello 12 years ago – whose version of events do you trust?  How much does it matter?  We might say, well, you can’t trust any of them.  Politicians always lie.  If Peter Costello’s only just finding out now that his boss has got a unique sort of perspective on non-core promises, well, we could have told him that years ago.  Or as one letter-writer to the paper asked, do you think now Peter Costello might be a bit more sceptical about the value of individual workplace agreements?

It’s about power, isn’t it?  About how power makes everything else relative.  About how when political power and the truth intersect, the truth generally comes off second best.  Political power breeds suspicion and second-guessing – ‘I thought he was going to double-cross me, so I double-crossed him back first’.  Fortunately for us, in our relatively peaceful corner of the world, we can more or less trust that behind their power games politicians of all persuasions do try to act in the best interests of the country, at least as they see it.

In our gospel reading this morning, we’ve taken a little detour.  Jesus has sent out the disciples in twos – under-equipped and over-excited – and in a little while they’re going to be coming back to report on how things went.  We’ve already had a hint that it’s not going to be plain sailing – Jesus has got himself cut down to size in his home town and it’s no easy job that they’ve been given – nothing less than to confront evil, to offer hope and bring restoration and reconciliation to communities that are demoralised and divided, healing to the sick and hope to the fearful, the marginalized, and the down-trodden.  And then Mark goes back a few paces to fill us in on the bigger picture, to give us the wider context of the story which is this – you can’t do this sort of stuff without making powerful people nervous.

Jesus is no longer just an obscure country preacher, he’s come to the attention of the high and mighty.  Confusingly enough, this isn’t the King Herod – the one who gets anxious and homicidal around the time of Jesus’ birth – the family tree of the Herods is complex to say the least, made worse by their habit of marrying into other parts of their own family – the one we’re talking about today is Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great and not actually a king at all - only a local governor or ‘tetrarch’ put in place by the Romans, but every bit as murderous as his dad.   Very soon, Mark is going to give us the twin stories of miraculous feasts – the feeding of the 5,000 and the feeding of the 4,000 – stories that he knows we are going to connect with the miracle of the Eucharist and the underlying good news of God’s goodness and generosity – but before we get there Mark’s showing us the dark side – the upside down miracle of selfishness and fear that is going to follow Jesus wherever he goes from now on until Good Friday.

Not only does Mark gives us some of the popular gossip about Jesus that’s got Herod so worried, but in the process shows us something of his own take on what resurrection is all about.  Is this Elijah come back to life?  Herod is more terrified by the other possibility doing the rounds – that Jesus, whose ministry didn’t start until after John the Baptist had been executed, might be John risen from the dead.  Obviously not on a literal level, given that Jesus and John spent time together in the desert.  On the other hand, there’s a sense, isn’t there, in which the Church itself is Jesus risen from the dead?  Jesus is certainly the one who fulfils the meaning of what John was doing and preaching out there in the desert.

And to explain all that, Mark needs to detour back a little bit further – why did John come to such a sticky end?  Here, Mark’s colourful story about drunken parties and dancing girls starts to look a bit blurred, compared to the more pragmatic version of Mark’s contemporary, the Jewish historian, Josephus.

Josephus’s own life was colourful enough.  A Jewish rebel leader in the second failed uprising against Rome in the 60s, defeated in battle and taken into slavery, Josephus proved himself a master of adaptability by reinventing himself as a historian and advisor to three successive Roman emperors.  Where Mark downplays Herod’s role by claiming that he had to arrest John for being a moralising killjoy – and was then manipulated by his wife into cutting off his head even though he quite liked him – Josephus claims more believably that Herod arrested John and executed him in the mountain fortress of Machaerus because his preaching made Herod nervous.  Josephus tells us Herod was afraid of John’s popularity, afraid that John’s call to repentance was not just a call to personal holiness but a dangerous popular uprising. 

We know John was a wild card, the people who flocked to him out of Jerusalem thought he was the first authentic prophet for four hundred years.  What made John popular was the same thing that made him dangerous – his preaching.  In Luke’s gospel we get a pretty good idea of what John’s sermons were mostly about: “…His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Lk 3.17-18)  John was no smooth-voiced crowd pleaser – with his camel skin clothing and his wild eyes John wasn’t interested in preaching warm fuzzy feelings – instead he believed the evil and oppression in the world he lived in were so extreme that God was ready to burst in from outside, to tear the sky open and establish justice once and for all.  John was what theologians call an apocalyptic eschatologist – which means he thinks that God is calling all things to account and God is imposing a solution on the evils of the world, as it were, from above.  If he was around today, John would be talking about the end times.

What else was John doing out there in the desert?  He was baptising – probably not a new thing, there’s evidence the Essenes practiced some sort of ritual washing as an act of purification – but the way John did it was different – John had folk come out to the Jordan – to the desert on the other side of the river and then baptised them in the Jordan as they crossed back over into the Land of Promise – in other words John was re-enacting the defining story of the Jews, the flight out of Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea and across the River Jordan into new life as God’s people.  If Herod was nervous about this, he had every right to be!  Because what John was doing was challenging people to say where they loyalties really lay – with the Roman Empire and its ordering of things, or with God’s ordering of things.  Baptism, for John, was not a harmless, cute ritual in church on a Sunday morning but a dangerous act of commitment that threatened the world’s practice of oppression and injustice.  We need to keep this in the front of our minds when we baptise, here at All Saints.  Baptism isn’t safe, baptism poses the question, ‘and you, how will you live?’

So who’s this Jesus?  Is he John come back to life and if so, what’s he going to do?  The question isn’t too far off the mark – but Jesus is going to turn out to be even more dangerous than John.  Like John, Jesus lived and practiced his eschatological convictions – which means he too thought the issue was that things have got to such a pass that God is about to break in on us.  But unlike John, Jesus’ brand of eschatology was not apocalyptic but ethical – what’s the difference?  It means that where John expected God was going to come crashing down from the sky, Jesus realised that God works more subtly than that.  It’s not about us waiting for God to come crashing in, but about God waiting for us to get the point that it’s up to us to do something about the evil and the injustice in the world.  Up to us to do something about a world in which some children still grow up – even in our own neighbourhood - without any reasonable expectation of a safe home, or enough to eat, or the chance of an education and a good job.  That’s what Jesus is talking about with his kingdom of God metaphor – it’s the demand for us to participate in God’s priorities, to make God’s priorities present in the here and now.

The jury’s still out on the mission of the twelve.  Soon enough they’ll be coming back, and they’ll be telling Jesus how they anointed the sick, how they taught, how they encouraged and how they were encouraged.  In the meantime, Mark has been reminding us that faithfulness to Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God implies opposition.  In Mark’s gospel it’s an opposition that the disciples never do quite confront.  At the end they’ll run off into the darkness, utterly demoralised.  Only after Jesus’ resurrection will they find the courage to have another go.

It’s a question that Mark leaves hanging uncomfortably in the air.  What about us?  What will we do?