This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered as Yallourn Parish Uniting Church at Yallourn North on Sunday 15th July 2018.
Mark 6:14-29; Ephesians 3:1-14
The passage from the gospel that was read to us this morning is unique in that the hero of this story is not Jesus. In every other story told by Mark Jesus is the hero by his helping the main character, or Jesus is the main character. But in Mark 6:17-29 Jesus doesn’t appear, and we read an episode from the past where John the Baptiser is both the major character and the hero. I wonder why that is, why does Mark make an exception to his rule?
Of course, our set reading does actually begin with Jesus, and in Mark 6:14-16 we read that his fame was so widespread and impressive that even the king had heard of him. Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Perea and Galilee was both astonished and afraid by the news of Jesus’ ministry: the news of the Kingdom of God was upsetting to the kings of the earth, especially the king with jurisdiction in Galilee. John had been proclaiming the coming of the king, and now the message of the Kingdom of God was going ahead even though John was dead. So, if Herod Antipas is afraid that being murdered has only made John Baptiser stronger imagine what he’ll think about Jesus!
Antipas was a bit of a Herod-wannabe, not the man his father was, and since old man Herod The Great had been a Solomon-wannabe and a Messiah-wannabe with his temple building and his sucking up to the Romans, the moral and intellectual challenge set for Antipas by John Baptiser was warranted. So, since Antipas thinks John was dealt with and silenced, but now he’s back, and in version 2.0 to boot, Antipas is on guard. This is where it is helpful to consider for whom Mark wrote, and see his story as encouragement intended for the small communities of persecuted believers and potential martyrs in the generation after Jesus. Mark reminds them that God is stronger than every king, and that Jesus will always win when the Caesars (or Herods) gets knotted up and narky (Mark 6:26).
According to Jewish history the kingship of God is not something to be taken lightly. In 2 Samuel 6 (1-5, 12b-19) the stories are told of how David went out from Jerusalem to gather and bring the Ark to the place set aside for worship. The journey began as a military parade with David marching in pageantry; the royal retinue was full of nationalistic pride and treated the Ark as the spoils of war. You all know that this attitude ended in the death of one of the attendants of the Ark, even as he thought he was being helpful. Make no mistake in reading this story, we are to rejoice in God’s presence with us, God’s choosing of us, and God’s victorious vindication of our confidence in God. But God is never a trophy for us to toss around like winning grand finalists on a lap of honour, and neither are the things of God ever “booty”. The Ark of the Covenant, which I have seen one children’s Bible call “the box of the promise” (grr!) belongs to God. More than a box, or even an ark, it is a sign of God’s faithfulness to Israel. The Ark itself is the visible remainder of God’s covenant with Abraham, repeated to Isaac and Jacob, and reminded to all further generations by the prophets. That the Ark is coming to Jerusalem, and that it is being brought there by David, is a magnificent thing. But it is a God thing, not a David thing: as great a king as David is and as great a conqueror he was in capturing the city from the Jebusites, God is the hero of this story, not David. God is stronger than any Caesar and every Herod, and God is more wonderful than David, indeed more wonderful than David can even imagine.
When the journey of the Ark toward the city resumes it is as a celebration of praise and thanksgiving to God. There are songs of worship and blood sacrifices along the road. David is stripped back in humility and abandonment before The LORD, even as king, and he is more effusive in praise than all the people. All of the people are blessed with gifts of food as signs of the abundance and generosity of the God of the covenant and a reminder of what was agreed to in the first place. The Kingdom of God is at hand, the realm where God is king through the agency of a human intermediary of Abrahamic descent, and those to whom the kingdom has been revealed are receiving the abundance of the king. Likewise, in Psalm 24 we read earlier that The LORD is the great king, ruler and creator of all the universe. There is no doubt who is God, and who God is to us. There is also no doubt of the message of God which is welcome and blessing for those who are blameless in action and thought, who are faithful to God and to their word. When the pageant celebrating the God of the covenant cries out “lift up the gates and the King of Glory shall come in” God invites us to join the march and enter the city of God with God, and to make our home in the place where the Ark is.
And so that is where we are: in the Spirit at least. We who belong to God by God’s choosing are citizens of the Kingdom of God and we live in the heavenly realm. We do not live in Heaven, but we live in the realm of which Heaven is the capital and the place from which we take our identity and receive our government. Even if we are kings in life, as Antipas and David were, we are subject to the rule of God; and even if we are at the bottom of the chain as John was in gaol or the random peasants who grabbed a flying loaf or two from David’s cake-chucking teams, we are beneficiaries of God’s justice.
Today’s set reading from Early Christian history came to us from Ephesians 1:3-14 where we read the larger story of Christian life in faith. In other words, this is what life in God’s realm looks like, even for us in the borderlands. Our instructions as citizens begin with an exhortation to bless God for all that God has blessed us with, especially in God’s sending Jesus as king. The passage fits well with the gospel and Jewish history accounts because it is a declaration of adoration and praise for God’s choosing each and all of us by grace to be God’s agents for missional action for the transformation of Creation. John the Baptiser served out his days as a prophet of God, and whilst it cost him his head it cost him no more than that. Jesus praised John as a faithful witness to the coming kingdom and a herald of the almost present king. David eventually got it right and today he has the honour in history of being the man responsible for seeing the Ark of God placed in the City of God in the very centre of the place occupied by the People of God, a venue where it remained for almost five hundred years. The visible reminder of God’s covenant was there to see (if you were allowed in to see it). In all of this glory for the heroes of our faith we can be assured that God glorifies us in our celebration of God and our participation in the work of God: the inheritance passed on to us by grace is the transformed Creation.
God’s promise to us, to Christians and to others who follow the Way of Jesus, is the new creation. We are confident that this will come about because as Paul reminds us we have received the Spirit as deposit. This is cause for celebration. Now I’m not expecting you all to start leaping about David-style, stripped to your underwear and throwing cakes of dates at each other, but this is not a message to just sigh at and say “oh yeah, okay” either. The promises made by God were trusted implicitly by those who went before us. David was prepared to look like a complete idiot in front of his subjects and his grumpy queen, and John was prepared to go to the block, because of what they each understood about God. God has promised that God is coming, and coming as king, and coming as saviour with restorative justice and bounteous provision. God has promised to overthrow all injustice and iniquity, all the Caesars and Herods of the world. This is good news.
This is the good news we proclaim. This is the good news the twelve in pairs proclaimed as they went about Galilee proclaiming the kingdom of God and restoring to wellness the sick, the possessed, and the dead. This is an exciting message because it will transform the world, and it is a true message as well. God has already begun to do this, God is doing it today, and God will do it wherever we go and introduce the story of God to people who are waiting for liberation.
No matter who the story is about, or who it is told by, the hero is always Jesus.