Sermon for the 6th Sunday after Trinity: John the Baptist and Herod the Tetrarch: preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 11 July 2021 by Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes. (Ephesians 1: 3 – 14; Mark 6: 14 – 29)
Today we have our sights on two towering figures of 1st century Galilee; and, uniquely for Mark’s Gospel, neither of them is Jesus. The first one is dead before the narrative begins, but, a little like Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, dominates the story. We hear of John the Baptist’s death in flashback; but, less dramatically and more subtly, we infer significant information about his influence on the other main actor in this drama, Herod the Tetrarch.
Let us consider Herod first. A son of Herod the Great, that ruthless client-king kept in power by the Romans, the younger Herod had ruled in the north and east of Judaea since he was in his mid-teens; he was now about 50, and was, like his father, a client-governor for the Roman administration. He was currently holding John in prison, on what grounds or charge Mark does not say.
So what of John himself? Previously he had gone out into the wilderness, where he did much preaching and baptizing, a hairy, somewhat unapproachable figure with a stern message – “Repent and be forgiven of sins.” In some ways he seems rather modern and alternative – weird clothes, weird diet. And yet he drew the crowds: they came out to him and were moved by his implacable honesty and his clear integrity. Here was someone who practised what he preached, however uncomfortable.
And there is another quality that we see here: insight into people’s characters and motives. Of course, he spoke truth to power: he told Herod bluntly that he was wrong to have taken and married his brother’s wife, Herodias. She took exception to this, which is why John was languishing, uncharged, in prison. But his effect on Herod was strangely different: Marks says Herod felt unnerved or intimidated by the Baptist’s message; that he recognised John to be a righteous and holy man, and therefore protected him. Perhaps that was Herod’s reason for keeping him in prison – so that he could talk to him; for he “heard him gladly”, even though what he said put Herod in aporia, a moral quandary. That does not sound to me like a shouty prophet; rather, John appears as a man with deep insight into Herod’s insecurities and moral anxieties, but who could yet give him strength and confidence to see the way forward, to challenge and at the same time to build up.
Who knows what Herod might have become had he not been beguiled by Salome into agreeing, unwillingly, to John’s execution? All we do know is that a few years after this, at his wife Herodias’ instigation, he asked the emperor Caligula – himself pretty unbalanced – for the title of king. Bad move! He was deposed on a charge of treason.
I am grateful to St Mark for providing these small clues into otherwise unknown, and perhaps unsuspected, aspects of Herod’s and John’s characters. They may have been big players on the Galilean stage, but their influence on a personal level was – or might have been in Herod’s case – much gentler and perhaps more significant. It seems to me that John, whom God had equipped with such missionary and evangelistic zeal, also had the ability to perceive and nurture in others those talents which they also had received from God; and the intuition to understand their weaknesses and difficulty in realising those talents.
It is not given to most of us to be able to make huge, lasting changes in the world. That need not worry us overmuch. As people of faith we are called to nurture and affirm others, to listen to their doubts and fears, to celebrate their successes and to boost their confidence. In so doing we can be pointing them towards God and salvation. We can also play our part, however small, in helping to protect God’s creation. Individually we can make a difference. “Every generous deed, each healing word, every embracing gesture brings redemption nearer.” *
In St Paul’s words in today’s Epistle, “In Jesus we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us.”
*Jonathan Sacks: To Heal a Fractured World (page 266)