It’s lovely to be here this morning, and I must start by saying thank you to you all for welcoming Anke and me so warmly and generously over the past couple of weeks, and especially for the cakes and fizz last Sunday morning after the 9:30 service. It’s been wonderful to meet you, and I look forward to getting to know you much better over the coming weeks and months. Please do bear with me as I learn names!
Last Sunday we heard the passage in Mark’s Gospel about the prophet without honour, and Kenneth spoke around the idea of people coming to us from outside – outside our immediate areas – and as the new boy here in the parish, I am learning and experiencing what that is like, coming into a new place as your curate. Fortunately, though, I haven’t yet had any shoes thrown at me – though I guess there is still time!
The story in the Gospel this morning carries on from where we left off. We had that description of a ‘prophet without honour’; now in John the Baptist we have one of those prophets. We last saw him at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, announcing the good news of the kingdom, of Jesus’ coming, but since then he has been arrested, and we read here of his fate. It’s a bit of a grizzly one, and I have to say that whenever I think of the story I’m somewhat haunted by a beautifully illustrated, but overly graphic depiction of John the Baptist’s head on a platter from my children’s Bible when I was little. Not especially sensitive, but thrillingly gory… And so here we have this man, Herod, who is now bound to fulfil the promise he had made – the promise to grant the dancing girl any wish she had. So he had to save himself and his honour by giving the gruesome order.
But I want to rewind just a little. Do you see back in verse 20 where it says “Herod feared John” and “protected him,” knowing that he was righteous and holy? And although when he heard John, Herod was “perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.”
I find this snippet fascinating, and I don’t think I’d spotted it before. We have John the Baptist, someone who is so misunderstood and rejected – to continue our theme from last week – that he is imprisoned and ultimately killed, because Herod can’t undo his fateful promise. Yet despite all this, there’s something that even someone like Herod has latched onto, something tantalising that he hears in John’s message – maybe even sees in John’s character. A seed has been sown. Perhaps John’s teaching has caused Herod to re-evaluate his unethical behaviour. Somehow John is making a difference.
And that’s how things work sometimes, isn’t it? To continue with gardening metaphors, a number of years ago I very often found myself in the car when Gardeners’ Question Time was on Radio 4. I wouldn’t have called myself a gardener, but it was always strangely mesmerising in a way I’d never have expected. I had no idea most of the time what they were talking about: the particular plants suggested, least of all any of the Latin names. To be honest, much of it just washed over me. But the whole effect was gripping. To paraphrase St Mark: “I was perplexed, yet I liked to listen to it.” And I am utterly delighted that there are experts who do what they do so well – it’s wonderfully reassuring. What’s more, in the process I latched onto something myself. Because in its own very trivial way, this little radio programme made a difference: it shifted me, even if I didn’t quite know how, from gardening phobe to someone who wanted to get stuck in.
So in John the Baptist we have someone who has the capacity to make a difference, even to a bullying king. And what is that difference? Well, one clue we have is that John has pricked Herod’s conscience enough to make him realise the seriousness of having taken his brother’s wife. Recognition of this less-than-worthy behaviour is at least a start, even if we don’t know how things pan out from there. So John is making a difference.
And I think we see something similar in our reading from Amos. Amos is described to us as a pretty regular sort of person. He’s a herdsman – perhaps a shepherd – and looks after sycamore-fig trees. Not, you might think, someone particularly special, and he himself is at pains to point out that he’s neither a prophet, nor the son of a prophet. As so often throughout the Bible, God uses the normal, the everyday. He chooses ordinary people like Amos. But God uses him powerfully nonetheless to go and preach his message of justice. Because things were in a fairly sorry state: the people of Israel had been forgetting their covenant promises to God, acquiring great wealth at the expense of the poor, and fraud and corruption were rife. The message that God asks Amos to deliver might strike us today as harsh, speaking first of the destruction of Israel before its wonderful restoration. But it’s a message that needs to be heard if the people of Israel are to start changing their ways.
And so, like John the Baptist, Amos, too, has the capacity to make a difference to those who hear him.
And as Christians, God has equipped us all with the capacity to make a difference. Not in some ‘do-goody’ kind of way, but simply because we are God’s people in the same way that Amos and John the Baptist were. It’s what we – as the Church – do as the body of Christ, ready to make ourselves available to God, whether at home, in our workplaces or at school. The phone call to someone who we haven’t seen for a while just to check up on things; being alongside someone during a tense time in the office; helping a schoolfriend who’s moving up from primary to secondary school; praying for one another. We may or may not see the fruits of what we do – it doesn’t matter. I love the banner just up by the font, and those words seem to speak to me to some of these everyday, real-life areas where we can be part of God’s transforming love.
And collectively we make ourselves as a church – as the parish of St Michael’s with St Mary’s – available to God, too. At PCC on Wednesday night, when we weren’t sneaking a peek at the football score, we were beginning to think about the next parish Mission Action Plan – being part of God’s transforming love together. More of that over the next few months.
No World Cup mentions today, which seems like an ongoing mission impossible, but I was pleased to hear about Tom Cruise’s latest Mission Impossible film! Well, our mission is certainly not impossible. Our God is a God of mission, and the God of mission has a church. We are that church.