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John the Baptist

The story of John the Baptist, from beginning to his brutal end, is intriguing and challenging. Sadly in our time, and maybe for most of history, the story of his arrest and execution is not as difficult to believe as it should be. That is, we are surrounded by stories of brutality and the punishment of those who speak truth to power, even God’s truth to power. (Eight Sunday after Pentecost. Proper 10 (15) Amos 7:7-15 and Mark 6:14-29.)

You may like to read what I wrote three years ago about this story.

Christians are often mainly interested in those prophecies and prophets which relate to Jesus as Messiah. This is understandable but most prophets were speaking to their own people in their own time about the issues of their circumstances. The prophet was called upon to speak the words of God, conveying hope to the exiled and challenge and caution to the hypocritical and unjust. “The function of the prophet is not to destroy. The function of the prophet is to expose whatever cancers fester beneath the surface so that what is loved can be saved while there is yet time.” (Joan Chittester) Certainly the prophet Amos can be understood in this way. And John the Baptist can be seen in this light too famously calling those who came to hear him in the wilderness a brood of vipers while calling them to repentance and preparation for the one who was to come. As a prophet John challenged the people to ready themselves for the coming of the anointed one, the one he himself would baptise. And in this he was successful, so successful that some of his own disciples then followed Jesus. John also spoke truth about the behaviour of Herod and this led to his arrest and ultimately to his death.

 

The stories of John the Baptist and Jesus the Messiah are entwined in many ways as their storylines cross over one anothers and as there are similarities and contrasts to their roles. Both came out of the prophetic tradition and were recognised as such in their own lifetimes. Both lives included weakness and vulnerability and ended in apparent despair and failure. Both were lain in a tomb by their disciples. One stayed there and one did not. And of course their stories intersected as relatives meeting first, according to Luke, as unborn infants, and certainly at the occasion of the Baptism of Jesus. And curiously John and Jesus are also linked in a way by Herod. The Herod mentioned in this story is Herod Antipos the son of the Herod the Great (mentioned in Matthew and who ordered the murder of the children under two around Bethlehem that is remembered as the slaughter of the innocents). He is the same Herod as Jesus will encounter in his trial.

 

According to Mark there is also a series of banquets or large gatherings around meals. The first is this dark banquet of Herod’s in which dark forces of power and misuse of power are served, or as Mark describes it later, the leaven of Herod. Soon we will read of the bread of life feast for 5,000 pointing to the feeding of Israel, and then the feeding of the 4,000 pointing to the feeding of the Gentiles. And these feeding stories prefigure our sustaining family meal of the eucharist.

 

The story of the end of John the Baptist is a strange and disturbing story that only indirectly references Jesus and his message even though John has played a crucial role in preparing the way for Jesus and his ministry. So we may ask what does this all mean to us today?

 

Maybe we are being challenged that we must open our eyes to the disturbing celebrations of darkness and misuse of power in our times – to face that things are as dark and troubled and troubling as we sometimes fear. There are those who misuse their power for their own ends and to satisfy the few at the expense of others and the current news and history would suggest that there are some very dark concentrations of power and violence in our society.  And there certainly are communities and concentrations of light and justice, hope and integrity, that serve, inform and enlighten our society. We who gather around the Bread of Life should count ourselves among those who celebrate and fan the spark of light, the truth that can set one free, and the hope that sustains on the journey.

 

 Certainly we must choose which banquet we attend – the one that serves up darkness, despair and misuse of power or the humble meals served by the hand of Jesus intended to sustain us. For the banquet that prevails will be the one we allow, enable, support with our attention and intention.

 

If and when the outworkings of the dark banquet are seen and felt in our world we are called, like John, to name what we see, remember the disappeared and not let their names and deeds be forgotten, demand justice whether or not it is forthcoming, imagine and pray a better world, and give strength and blessings to those who are serving the bread of life in difficult terrains. If we are ever called upon to be the truth teller and the sacrifice of such a dark banquet let us give our lives to a great cause and pray with our last breath that the Holy One, that good, shall flourish beyond our span of time and influence.

 

And surely we are called to recognise that the Bread of Life is not only the eucharistic bread but justice, education, healthcare, the arts and daring adventures, all that supports and celebrates the expression of the divine impulse in all its joyful tender variety.

Even so, come Lord Jesus the Christ, give us the courage of John the Baptist and help us to celebrate the feast of the Bread of Life with all who answer your invitation.

 

 

This is my work informed by all I have heard, read and experienced. I am indebted to the wisdom of others. This week I am especially grateful to:

Joan Chittester: “Role of the Prophet”

 

Bill Loader: Pentecost 8 Mark 6:14-29

 

John T Squires: “The Head of John and the Politics of Ancient Judea (Mark 6)”

 

Paul Turley and Philip Hoffman

Two Old Guys talk about the Text, Facebook, 8th July 2024.

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