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Sermon for 12 July 2015

Amos 7:7-15, Eph 1:3-14, Mark 6:14-29

We all love a good historical drama series don’t we - whether it’s Wolf Hall, Downton Abbey or the Borgias, we seem to love TV that tells us about the past, especially if it includes great costumes, lots of intrigue and issues that are just as relevant to us today as they were at the time the series is set. 

Well the lives and times of the rulers of Israel in the first century would make a great TV drama. And the gospel today would have been a key episode in any series about the Herods. It’s a classic story of a political leader whose power is both strong and shaky, his smart and manipulative wife always looking to secure her position and the flirty daughter who loved to dance and who knew how to use her beauty to get her way. 

And previous episodes of the show would, by this point, have given us the background. We might have heard about Herod’s childhood and seen some kind of flashback to that time. We might have seen how, when he was a child his Father, Herod the Great, met Wise Men and to protect his kingdom butchered all the boy babies in Bethlehem. Maybe, the story would have subtly suggested, the son was always going to grow up with the same tendency to abuse power as his Father.

And as the story unfolded we would have seen how the young Herod was given a third of his Father’s kingdom. We would have discovered that his power was totally dependent on the real Kings, who lived in Rome, and how actually Herod wasn’t a king at all - just a Tetrarch - a kind of puppet who had to keep on the right side of his political masters in the Imperial capital. 

And one of the episodes would have shown us how hard he worked to keep hold of his power, and it might have showed how he longed to be accepted as a good Jew, but how the people saw through him and hated him. And probably the episode would also have found a way to suggest that, caught up as he was in his power games and intrigues, there were times when he caught a glimpse of a different kind of power, something purer, holier and better, but how the realities of life kept drawing him back to what needed to be done.

And we would certainly have discovered how the young Herod married a princess from neighbouring Nubea, largely as a way to secure his own lands, and how he left her for his brother’s wife, Herodias. And we might well - because battle scenes look great on the screen - have gone on to find out that his first wife’s father, the King of Nubea, was incensed by the way his daughter had been treated and sent an army against Herod, and how Herod was defeated and humiliated, and how this was the beginning of the end for him.

And maybe, hovering on the edge of the story, might have been 2 other characters. One a wild man, who lived in the desert and railed against the corruption and decadence of Herod’s family and court. A man whose lack of fear and willingness to speak the truth - even though it put his life at risk - shook Herod deeply. And another man, one whose life seems to be tangled up with the Herod family - first as a new born baby, now as a popular leader who spoke about God in a new way, and who increasingly became a threat to Herod’s own political power. And we would have seen what happened to them both. First the wild man is imprisoned and  executed - on a whim really, just because Herod made a silly promise. And then, later on the other man, when it becomes clear that he stands for something completely different, has to die too. A shameful death on a cross. 

And from Herod’s perspective, that’s just what happens - that’s politics isn’t it. Those with power get to use it as they want. Herod’s kingdom was under threat and needed to be defended, and he was just doing his job.

And I guess, that as we watched the show, we might have thought - this is all so horribly familiar. And in the episodes when the Bethlehem babies are massacred, and John is beheaded, and Jesus is crucified, we might have noted that those scenes seem just like the reports in the news over on the other channel, - reports from places very close to Herod’s own country.

Because this story of power and terror and suffering isn’t fiction at all. It’s what the world is actually like. The bible is both ancient and modern - it tells what happened in the past and it tells us what we’re like today. God doesn’t pull His punches and pretend that all’s well, and if we’re just a bit nicer to each other everything will be fine. God wants us to understand that there is an evil kingdom - the kingdom in which Herod, ISIS and Boko Haram have free play; the kingdom in which fear and the need to protect our own interests has control; the kingdom in which power is all about domination. 

And lest we think that has nothing to do with us, the bible is very clear just how far that kingdom reaches, and how all embracing it is. ‘All have fallen short’ says St Paul, and we can all relate to that scene in Herod’s feasting hall. There’s something of Herod, Herodias and her daughter in each one of us. We all know what it is to protect our own interests, to be willing to do something wrong to save face. We all know how easily we manipulate others to our will using personality, money, sex or emotion. We all know what it’s like to use the power that we have to feather our own nests. 

And it’s unlikely it would have made its way into the drama about the Herod’s, because it’s violence that makes good TV, but the bible tells us that Jesus arrived talking about ‘Good News’. He knows that something has to break the endless cycles of violence and abuse of power. Something - or someone - has to break in and show us a different way. 

And the good news is that there is another kingdom; a kingdom that sometimes seems infinitely far away, but which is closer than we can imagine. It’s the kingdom that John came to announce and which Jesus came to inaugurate. And we know something of that kingdom - we know that we are called to be citizens in it, at home within it’s borders. And we know that life in this kingdom, God’s kingdom, isn’t entered by stepping over a territorial boundary, but by a decision about where we put our trust. In the kingdom of God we don’t need to use our power to dominate others, because we can trust that God is in control. In God’s kingdom, power is for service and is always exercised with love, in the interests of others. In this kingdom, evil has no place, because God is on the throne.

Today’s episode of our fictional TV show might well have ended with John’s body being buried in a tomb, and his grieving disciples returning home. Another day, another victory for violence and evil.

But if they’d been really brave, if they’d been willing to risk it, the script writers might have ended the series with a different tomb. The tomb of the man whose life had been so entangled with Herod’s. And this tomb is empty. And on that day, evil is defeated, and we start to realise that it doesn’t have the last word after all. Herod and all he represents may have power over life, but only God has power over death.

Jesus is risen. Evil is defeated. Hope will win.


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