SERMON: Telling truth to power is a risky business

A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley

by Andrew McKearney on 11 July 2021

The reading we’ve just heard from Mark’s gospel has been retold in all sorts of ways down the centuries with its dramatic and gruesome ending – John the Baptist’s head brought into the banquet on a platter. Yuk!

So why do both Mathew and Mark tell this story?

Well it’s because John the Baptist is the forerunner of Jesus – that’s why he’s so important. And in each of the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, the writers draw parallels between John and Jesus to make the point.

Luke ties John and Jesus together from their birth, weaving together and drawing parallels from their conception, their birth, their naming and childhood. That’s how Luke does it.

Mark, on the other hand, ties John and Jesus together through their deaths.

Quite striking, for instance, in what we’ve just heard is the respect that Herod has for John the Baptist. Both Herod and, later in the gospel story, Pilate can see good in the accused man standing before them, and left to their own devices, they’d release them. But for shoddy reasons both Herod and Pilate permit a violent death to take place under their watch.

And I’m sure you couldn’t fail to notice that both stories end the same way – the disciples come, take the body, and lay it in a tomb.

So the first thing that the brutal beheading of John the Baptist does is to serve as a wake up call: if this has happened to the forerunner what’s going to happen to Jesus?

But there’s another important function that this story serves – and where Mark places the story in his gospel is the clue.

Mark was very fond of sandwiches. By which I mean he inserts a story into the middle of another story in order to make a sandwich.

The beheading of John the Baptist is the filling in a sandwich. But if so, what has Mark sandwiched it between and why?

Just before Mark tells this terrible story, Jesus has sent the disciples out on a journey through the surrounding villages. We heard about it last week – how Jesus told them to carry no bread, no bag, no money, but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics – they’re sent out on a mission.

And immediately after telling the story of John’s beheading, the 12 disciples return and gather round Jesus to tell him about how successful their mission had been – we’ll hear about that next week.

Placed in the middle of the account of this mission, Mark tells the story of the beheading of John the Baptist who’d provoked the establishment by speaking the truth.

So not only is Mark drawing a parallel between John and Jesus in their painful and unjust deaths, but he’s also warning us that being a disciple of Christ is not a triumphal march to heaven. So it’s another wake up call: following Jesus is no guarantee of popularity or success.

Now some similar issues are raised in our first reading from the Old Testament from the book of the prophet Amos.

Jeroboam is the king of the northern kingdom. The king’s temple there is the sanctuary at Bethel and the priest in charge is a man called Amaziah.

Amos comes to the heart of the establishment and speaks his words of prophecy only to be quickly hounded out by the man in charge:

‘O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah – that’s the southern kingdom – earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.’

You can feel the weight and the power of the establishment in Amaziah’s words!

So how does Amos reply?

‘I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go prophesy to my people Israel”.’

What he seems to be saying is that he’s not part of any establishment. In fact he’s not even a prophet in the sense of belonging to a professional guild of prophets. By trade he’s a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees, but he’s been unexpectedly called to go and prophesy to the northern kingdom, and in obedience he’s come.

The trouble is the message he’s been asked to deliver is bad news for the establishment – king Jeroboam is going to die and Israel taken into exile.

So what can we take from today’s readings?

John the Baptist and Amos, few are called to such a significant prophetic ministry as they were.

Nevertheless all of us as Christ’s disciples are called to both tell the truth and live by the truth as best we can, with no guarantee of popularity or success.

And in particular, whoever we are and wherever we are, in our workplace, in the church, telling truth to power is a risky business.