Godly Sorrow

Seven-and-Neelix-seven-of-nine-30912665-500-382For your Monday morning edification: pastoral theology with Seven of Nine. (‘Star Trek: Voyager’ Season 6 Episode 14 ‘Memorial”)

NEELIX: Seven? When you were a Borg, you were involved in some unpleasant activities.

SEVEN: I helped to assimilate millions.

NEELIX: I don’t mean to be insensitive, but do you ever feel shame about what you did?

SEVEN: Frequently.

NEELIX: How to you manage to keep going, knowing that you’ve done such horrible things?

SEVEN: I have no choice.

NEELIX: Guilt is irrelevant?

SEVEN: On the contrary. My feelings of remorse help me remember what I did, and prevent me from taking similar actions in the future. Guilt can be a difficult, but useful, emotion.

I have been reflecting on this dialogue ever since Marci and I watched it on Saturday night. I have thought for a long time that much popular Christian spirituality has been heavily influenced by pop psychology from the sixties, that sees guilt as entirely negative. And indeed false guilt can be negative and manipulative. But not all guilt is false. Paul talks about a godly sorrow that leads to repentance. I should not try to escape from that guilt. I should listen to it, and fix what needs to be fixed.

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All You Need is Hate

In the 1980s I was introduced to the poetry of Steve Turner, in a thin Hodder paperback called ‘Up to Date’. I was captivated by his sparse, uncompromising lines, and I thought then (as I still do now) that there was more about Christian discipleship in those pages than in many a book of biblical theology.

Here’s an example.

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(Book Info: Steve Turner, ‘Up to Date’, Hodder, 1983. Now long out of print, but you can get it for lots of money second-hand!).

Sheep Need a Shepherd (a sermon on Mark 6.34)

It’s a sure sign to us baby boomers that we’re getting older when we realize how many of our favourite musicians are either dying or retiring! When I was a teenager I became a big Simon and Garfunkel fan, so I was particularly struck by the fact that Paul Simon is officially retiring from touring this year, at the age of 76. I’ve always admired his ability to write a good song, and one of my favourites has always been ‘America’. Some of you know that it describes a bus trip across the continent in search of ‘America’, and toward the end we hear these poignant lines:

‘Kathy, I’m lost’, I said, though I knew she was sleeping;
I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.

At the time he wrote these words Paul Simon was already an enormously successful songwriter. And yet, in the midst of his success, he confessed that he was empty inside, that he was lost and couldn’t find his way. I suspect that there are many more people like him: financially comfortable, competent, successful, but inwardly empty and desperately trying to find a way to fill that emptiness.

I think that’s the sort of thing Mark had in mind in our gospel reading for today when he wrote these words:

As (Jesus) went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. (Mark 6.34)

Jesus saw the people he met as being ‘like sheep without a shepherd’ – they had no leader, no guide to show them the way. I suspect things are not so very different today. But what happens to sheep without a shepherd? Let’s think about this for a minute.

First, sheep without a shepherd can’t find their way.I didn’t see too many shepherds where I grew up in inner-city Leicester, but of course we all knew about how shepherds used sheepdogs – often border collies – to drive their sheep in the right direction. However, in the time of Jesus shepherds didn’t drive their sheep, they went out in front of them and led them. Without the shepherd, the sheep would start going off in all sorts of different directions and getting lost. And that’s true of people too: we go off in all sorts of directions and get lost, and we desperately need a wise shepherd to show us the way.

Life today is like a gigantic multiple-choice question; there are so many choices open to us and it’s so difficult to choose the ones that seem right for us. We can make choices about our values: what’s really important in my life? Is my life about getting as wealthy as possible? Is it about success in business? Is it about experiencing the greatest possible degree of happiness or pleasure? In other words, what’s the goal of my life, and how do I know I’ve chosen the right goal?

Is there a way to live my life in such a way as to be in harmony with what I was created for? In other words, are there ethical standards, moral laws, rules or guidelines to follow as I go through life? Are there right things to do, and wrong things to avoid? How do I know which is which, and where can I find a reliable guide to choosing one from the other?

And what about God? Churchgoing may be on the wane today, but spirituality certainly isn’t; many people are fascinated with it and are intensely interested in finding a way to connect with the spiritual world and with God, whoever God may be. But how can I find God? There are so many paths on offer; are they all equally valid? If I think so, what do I make of the fact that some of them tell me that I can serve God by flying planes full of people into tall buildings, or by bombing abortion clinics? How can I find a true path through this maze, a path that will help me to connect with the true and living God and find his will for me?

We all need shepherds to guide us in finding answers to these questions. But who are our modern shepherds? Who are the voices we turn to for guidance? Newspaper columnists? Political leaders? Celebrities? Motivational speakers?

I have a friend who is an Alliance Church pastor. A few years ago he left pastoral ministry for a while and began to travel across the country as a motivational speaker. When he was on his way through Edmonton once we met for breakfast, and he told me that a lot of his Christian ministry these days was to other motivational speakers. “It’s pretty sad, really”, he said; “They stand up before large audiences and share their five steps to a successful life, but when you get to know them as individuals you discover that a lot of them are as messed up as everyone else!”

So where do we go for help? We go to Jesus. In all of this confusion, the clear voice of Jesus speaks to us from the pages of our scriptures: “Follow me”. God has not left us shepherdless; he has come among us in the person of Jesus to show us the way. Jesus said, “I am the Way”. God’s revelation to us in the pages of the Bible comes to its clearest focus in Jesus as we read about him in the gospels. Jesus promises to lead us to the Father, and to guide us about the sort of life we should be living in God’s world. I find it interesting that in today’s gospel, Jesus’ response to the people’s shepherdless state was instruction: ‘he began to teach them many things’. Still today, if we follow his teaching, we will find our way.

For many years now I’ve been suggesting a prayer that I think gets right to the heart of what being a disciple is all about. It goes like this: ‘Jesus our Master, teach us today to see life as you see it, and to live life as you taught it’. I think if we live our daily lives in the spirit of that prayer, God will honour our request, and Jesus will show us the way.

First, then, sheep without a shepherd get lost and can’t find their way – but Jesus says “I am the way”, and he promises to guide us to the Father and to the way of life that is the Father’s will for us. Secondly, sheep without a shepherd can’t find pasture and food.A big part of the shepherd’s job is to make sure that the flock gets adequate nourishment. Nowadays most sheep live their lives behind fences, in fields belonging to their owners, but that wasn’t the case in the time of Jesus; in those days sheep were pastured on the open range. It was the shepherd’s job to lead them to fresh pasture where they could find the food and water they needed.

Speaking of food, I’ve seen statistics claiming that the average Canadian goes out to eat more than anyone else in the world. Today in Canada we are experts at feeding our bodies with the most varied and delicious foods – some of them nutritious, some of them perhaps less so! But have we lost the skill of nourishing our souls?

Physical food gives us the strength to continue our bodily existence, but we are not only physical people – we are also souls, people with minds and hearts and emotions. ‘Soul food’ is food that feeds our inner life, food that gives us the strength to be the people we want to be and know we should be. Where do we find this food?

Over the next few weeks our gospel readings will be addressing this issue as we read through the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John. In John 6:35 Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”. In some mysterious sense, Jesus himself is our soul food; Jesus lives in us, by his Holy Spirit, and nourishes our inner life. Our conscious faith and dependence on him every minute of the day is what keeps us going as Christians. Coming to him and believing in him is what satisfies our souls.

Do you find this idea difficult to grasp? You’re not alone; many people find it hard to get their head around this. It’s a bit too abstract for us, so God in his compassion gives us a concrete sign of it: the sacrament of Holy Communion. The old Anglican prayer book uses the phrase, ‘feed on him in your heart, by faith, with thanksgiving’. That’s hard for me to do in an abstract way, but I hear those words, in the prayer book, when I’m actually holding out my hand to receive the bread of Holy Communion. Scripture teaches us that as we receive the bread and wine with faith in our hearts, so we are fed spiritually by the life and power of Jesus. We are coming to his table to receive our spiritual food. This isn’t the only way that he comes to us, of course, but he has promisedto meet us here. Are you spiritually hungry, thirsty, tired, burdened? Come to the Lord’s Table and be refreshed!

So Jesus our shepherd is leading us into God’s will for us, and he’s nourishing us so that we can have the strength to do it. But there’s one more thing about sheep without a shepherd: sheep without a shepherd have no defence against danger.

Sheep grazing out on the free range are exposed to many different dangers. There are steep cliffs and ravines; there are wild animals out to kill and eat their prey; there are thieves and robbers out to steal the sheep for themselves. And we as human beings and Christians are also exposed to spiritual dangers. In the first letter of Peter we read these words:

‘Discipline yourselves; keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour’ (1 Peter 5:8).

The New Testament writers assume that there is an enemy of our souls who wants to separate us from God forever. He does this by tempting us to leave the path Jesus is leading us along and to take a path we’ve designed ourselves. Right at the beginning of the biblical story he tempted the first humans to ‘be like God’ – in other words, to choose their own path rather than sticking with the one God had chosen for them. That temptation continues to be a powerful one today. 

In this situation, where is the safest place for me to be as a sheep? The answer is, in the flock, behind Jesus my shepherd, doing exactly as he tells me to do. When I do that, I put myself in the position where he can defend me; otherwise, I’m all alone. That doesn’t mean our shepherd never comes to look for the ones who stray – the gospels assure us that he does. But it would be much better if we didn’t stray in the first place. 

So we need to stay in the flock with the shepherd. In other words, we need to be part of the Christian community, and fully a part of it – not just half-heartedly, when it’s convenient, when it doesn’t clash with our busy schedule. It’s here that we listen to the word of the Good Shepherd, here that we experience his presence together and are fed with his body and blood. We are a community of people following Jesus together, and in that community is the safest place for us to be. 

Let’s go around this one last time. 

Jesus looks out on the world and has compassion for everyone he sees, because so many are like sheep without a shepherd. He wants to be our shepherd. How do we take advantage of this?

First, Jesus leads his flock to the Father and teaches us how to live, so we need to learn to listen to his voice and practice what he says. So our prayer is, ‘Lord Jesus, help us know the Father as you do. Help us listen to your words. Help us to see life as you see it and live life as you taught it’. 

Second, just as the shepherd leads his sheep to pasture, so Jesus is the nourishment we need for our souls. So we learn to depend on him day by day, and to rely on his presence to sustain us on the way. Most especially, we come to his Table regularly to receive the spiritual food he offers us here. 

Third, just as the shepherd protects his sheep from danger, so Jesus protects us from the attacks of the evil one. And we make it easier for him to do that by staying close to him and to his flock – his Church.  The closer you are to Jesus and his community, the safer you are from the attacks of the enemy. 

Let me close with some more words of Peter. In his first letter he writes:

‘For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls’ (1 Peter 2:25)

May this be a living reality, for all of us, as we follow our Good Shepherd.

On Starting with Jesus

Rant ahead. I think of Anglican Christianity as being rather fixated on the idea that God became a human being and lived among us in Jesus (the ‘Incarnation’). This is the centre of our faith. It’s why we stand for the reading of the Gospel every Sunday. We don’ do that for any other reading of the Bible, and we certainly don’t do it for the sermon – but we do it for the Gospel reading. Heck, some of my Anglo-Catholic friends bow every time the name of Jesus is mentioned!

So I can take for granted that when I read John 1.18 – ‘No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known’ – Anglican heads are going to be nodding. As Archbishop Michael Ramsey said, “In God there is no unChristlikeness at all”. That’s what we believe.

Okay then! I’ve been researching confirmation courses and inquirers’ courses produced in the Anglican family (this is because I want to revise my [now out-of-print] 2003 book ‘Starting at the Beginning’). And here’s what I found! Some of the confirmation courses have great long screeds about the church and the sacraments, how to pray and so on, but they barely mention the story of Jesus at all! The best known inquirers’ course, the Alpha Course, simply assumes that people already know the story of Jesus, and just starts asking doctrinal questions about him: Who was he? Why did he have to die? etc.

Is this a responsible way for us to provide basic instruction about our faith in 2018? I know a lot of non-churchgoing people, and most of them are very unfamiliar with the story of Jesus. They certainly don’t have access to the background knowledge they need to help them understand the story (they don’t for instance, know what the word ‘Christ’ means, which is rather fundamental – if you don’t know that, you’ll certainly miss the point).

Surely, in 2018, anything claiming to be an inquirers’ course or confirmation course ought to be firmly based on the story of Jesus? Surely it ought to begin by re-telling that story, and exploring why his life and teaching is so important for us?

The worldwide Anglican Communion is currently emphasizing discipleship; they’re calling it ‘living and sharing the Jesus-shaped life’. So what shape is that, again? I ask, because recently two well-known Anglican bishops have each issued a suggested ‘rule of life’ to help their people follow Jesus more closely. But I haven’t seen much acknowledgement that Jesus has actually already given us a rule of life; we can find it in the Great Commandments (Mark 12:28-32), the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20), and the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), among other places.

What would a Jesus-centred Rule of Life look like? Surely it would begin with the idea of seeking first the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33), and then explore the practical ways Jesus gave us to live that out. Things like avoiding anger and practicing reconciliation, being faithful in marriage, telling the truth at all times, turning the other cheek, loving our enemies and praying for those who hate us, practising prayer, fasting and giving to the poor, not storing up luxuries for ourselves, not judging others, and doing to others as we would have them do to us (see Matthew chapters 5 – 7).

What I want is a course about basic Christianity that is intentionally centred on the life and teaching of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. We want people to come to know God. We believe that God is most clearly revealed to us in Jesus. So why isn’t our basic Christian instruction focussed, to the point of obsession, with the life and teaching of Jesus?

Note to self: We need to do better.

 

 

 

Summer rambles (in mind, heart and body!)

I haven’t done one of these for a while, but here it is, in no particular order.

Anglo-Catholic Anglicans have a strong doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. I have no particular quarrel with this, although my evangelical tradition has a slightly different way of understanding it (see my internet friend Peter Carrell’s post here, if you’re interested, although you will need to get through a bit of theological jargon). But over the past few years I’ve come to a strongly experiential appreciation for the doctrine of the Real Presence of God in his creation. I DSCN1805have to honestly say, I often am more aware of God’s presence in the cathedral of nature than I am in the cathedral of wood or stone. I have reflected on this a lot as I have been out walking lately, in Whitemud Ravine and in Elk Island National Park. There have been times when the presence of God seemed so close that I felt I could reach out and touch him.

Heresy hunters, please don’t misunderstand me – I’m not a pantheist, and I understand that God is different from God’s creation. What I experience was well described by the great evangelical preacher Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758):

‘The appearance of everything was altered; there seemed to be, as it were, a calm, sweet cast, or appearance of divine glory, in almost everything’ (quoted in Bruce Hindmarsh, ‘The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism: True Religion in a Modern World‘, New York, Oxford University Press, 2018; chapter 4).

Speaking of Bruce Hindmarsh, I’ve really been enjoying his new book on early evangelicalism. My spiritual tradition gets a bad rap in the world today and I love going 512CP34YQtLback to investigate its early roots. A few years ago I read a superb book by Hindmarsh about the life and work of John Newton. His new book goes further; it examines the evangelical awakening of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in connection with the history of science, law, art, and literature of the time. This is new ground for me; nowadays (especially in North America) evangelicalism is not, shall we say, usually associated with an appreciation for science and the arts, so it may come as a surprise to read about John Wesley’s attempts to educate his followers in the discoveries of contemporary science, or the astronomical explorations of Isaac Milner and John Russell. I’m about two thirds of the way through the book now and I’m sure it will become one of my favourites.

Speaking of books, Marci and I have started reading Dante’s Inferno together, in the Mark Musa translation. I’ve read Dante’s Divine Comedy twice before, but this is the first time through for Marci. We’re both really enjoying it.

I’m used to the word ‘love’ being used in the New Testament as a translation for the Greek word ‘agapé’ – meaning unconditional, action-oriented love, not feelings or affections – so it took me a while on my first trip through Dante to realize that he almost always uses it  in the sense of ‘eros’ – not what we now call ‘erotic’ love but love that is a response to some beauty or worth in the beloved, love that desires to possess the beloved for itself. Dante shares with his theological contemporaries the idea that sin is fundamentally disordered love – we want the wrong things, and we want them in the wrong way. It took me a while to get my head around the way he uses this language, but now that I understand it, it makes a huge amount of sense to me. It reminds me of Tony Campolo’s sermon ‘Who Moved the Price Tags?’, with his illustration of the world as a department store window in which someone has changed all the price tags so that the cheap stuff is expensive and the expensive stuff is cheap. That’s what’s happened in the world, Campolo says: a lot of the things God values are not valued at all by humans, and many of the things we humans value aren’t important at all in God’s eyes. Disordered loves, you see.

And now for something completely different. Black terns are not very common – not as common, say, as the common tern. On Astotin Lake in Elk Island National Park common terns are very common indeed; if you walk the shoreline or go out in a canoe you’ll see them swooping and diving, and you’ll hear the splash as they hit the water in search of their prey. They move fast and they’re notoriously difficult to photograph because of that (hence the lack of photographs here!).

Marci and I were canoeing on Astotin Lake on Monday morning and we suddenly DSCN2326noticed that the terns that were diving and swooping around us were not white – they were dark-coloured. They were black terns! That was an exciting moment; I have never seen a black tern in my life before, so this was a lifetime first. We also got to see a whole flotilla of pelicans (see photograph!), which apparently were not stressed at all about the presence of a canoe in close proximity to them. And we also got close to the island in the lake where the cormorants roost and got to watch them flying and diving from the tall trees where we normally see them (from the shore, through binoculars). Truly, the world is charged with the grandeur of God.

Which leads me to the poem I’ll close with: ‘God’s Grandeur’, by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Amen!

The Challenge of Costly Discipleship (a sermon on Mark 6.14-29)

It will be nineteen years next month since I was interviewed by the search committee for the position of rector of St. Margaret’s. It was a memorable interview in many ways, but one thing I especially remember was a question I was asked by Murray Tait, who was People’s Warden at the time. He said, ‘Do you consider it to be part of your job as a preacher, not just to comfort us, but also to challenge us?’

Preachers often have difficulty with that question – after all, we’re dependent on our congregations to pay our salaries, and it can be so tempting just to tell people what they want to hear! And yet we know that passing on the challenge of Jesus is also an important part of our calling. The message of Jesus won’t always sound like good news, especially when he calls us to leave selfish ways behind and put God’s word into practice in our daily lives. How do we react to that challenge? Today’s gospel tells us about two people who were challenged by God’s message, and how they reacted to it. 

I need to clarify that the Herod in this story is not Herod the Great, the one who tried to get the wise men to lead him to the baby Jesus in the Christmas story. Our Herod is his son, Herod Antipas; Herod the Great had divided his kingdom between his sons, and Antipas got Galilee, where Jesus was brought up. 

There are two things you need to know about Herod Antipas. First, he was a puppet ruler; he kept his throne because it suited the Romans to have him there. Because of this, keeping the peace with Rome was always a priority for him. But secondly, like his father, he really wanted the people he ruled to recognize him and accept him as their legitimate king. You see, the Herod family weren’t really full-blooded Jews – they were Idumeans, and this was one of the reasons they were very unpopular with the Jewish people; how could God’s true anointed king not be one of God’s chosen people, the Jews? 

And the choices Herod Antipas made in his personal life didn’t help the situation. Herodias had been the wife of Herod’s brother Philip. Herod had met her at his brother’s house; the two had become infatuated with each other and had left their previous spouses to marry each other. It’s actually not clear whether a formal divorce ever took place between Herodias and Philip; in Jewish law a woman had no right to divorce her husband, and there was a lot of controversy at that time about the proper legal grounds for a husband to divorce his wife. It’s fair to say that a large percentage of the population of Galilee saw Herod and Herodias as living in sin – and, to them, this was further evidence that Herod Antipas simply could not be God’s true anointed King. 

And this was why Herod Antipas had to arrest John the Baptist. Our text says ‘John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife”’(v.18). We shouldn’t understand from this that John and Herod had enjoyed a quiet fireside chat over a glass of wine, discussing Herod’s matrimonial woes! No – when it says ‘John had been telling Herod’, it means, ‘telling in public, in his sermons’. And if John was saying this about Herod’s marriage, the people would have understood him to be denying that Herod could be God’s true anointed king – which, of course, would have been an act of sedition on John’s part. At this point – as a ruler interested in keeping his throne – Herod had to arrest John.

But now comes the curious twist: Herod had a soft spot for John, too! In fact, he was more than a little afraid of him, knowing that ‘he was a righteous and holy man’ (v.20). Even more curiously, we read that Herod ‘liked to listen to (John)’ (v.20). It sounds as if there was an internal struggle going on in Herod; he was angry at what John was saying, and yet deep down he knew there was truth in his words.

But Herod and John were no match for Herodias; she was a manipulator, determined to get what she wanted, and she wanted the Baptist dead. A dance on Herod’s birthday gave her the opportunity to get what she wanted. Our NRSV translation opts for a minority reading of the text and identifies the dancer as ‘Herod’s daughter Herodias’. However, this makes no sense; there is no evidence that Herod had a daughter who was also called Herodias. The majority of manuscripts identify the dancer as ‘the daughter of Herodias’ – presumably by her marriage to Philip. The Jewish historian Josephus gives her name as ‘Salome’. Herod, an impetuous man, was so infatuated with her dancing that he made a rash vow promising to reward her with anything she wanted, up to half his kingdom. This was Herodias’ opportunity; the girl asked for advice from her mother, and her mother had no hesitation about using her daughter as a pawn: she was to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a plate. ‘The king was deeply grieved’, but felt bound by his oath, and that was the end of the matter. 

Now – what can we possibly learn about Christian discipleship from this grizzly story?

Well, let’s look at the three main characters. Let’s start with Herodias. Here’s a woman who sets out to get what she wants and doesn’t mind who gets hurt along the way. She’s not afraid to use power to better her own position, and if people try to stop her, she crushes them mercilessly. 

It’s possible that her own personal insecurities were fuelling her determination to have her own way. She knew her marriage to Herod was doubtful in the eyes of the people, and she knew Herod was hungry for their approval. She knew he had a soft spot for John the Baptist. And she knew if he chose to listen to John’s message, she stood to lose her marriage and her position as the wife of the Tetrarch of Galilee. You can imagine how she must have felt. 

Of course, that’s often the way it is with bullies – they often have a deep-seated insecurity inside, an insecurity they’re determined not to reveal to anyone. So they overcompensate; they come across as forceful personalities, and if you dare to stand in their path, they trample you down without mercy. To them, the world’s a ‘dog eat dog’ sort of place, divided into winners and losers, and they’re determined to be the winners every time.

The lengths Herodias was prepared to go to in order to get what she wanted are quite shocking when you think about it. Do you think it was a pleasant experience for a young girl to be presented with the head of John the Baptist on a plate? But Herodias was quite prepared to put her daughter through this trauma in order to get what she wanted. Apparently she saw people, even people she loved, as pawns to push around so she could get her own way.

Sad to say, this sort of thing isn’t unknown in the Christian church. We Christians can be just as determined as anyone else to get our own way, and I sometimes think Christian congregations are particularly vulnerable to the activity of bullies. This is because we try to be kind to everyone, and so bullies can throw their weight around in a church for a long time before someone confronts them with their behaviour and challenges them to stop it. 

And of course, if we’re ever going to grow as Christians, we dohave to stop. Herodias saw herself as the lead actor in her own play; everyone else existed for her benefit alone. But if we’re ever going to grow in the Christian life, we have to learn to take ourselves out of the centre of our own universe and give that place back to the one to whom it rightfully belongs.

So Herodias exemplifies the person who uses power to get what they want. But now let’s turn again to her husband, Herod Antipas. He’s a fascinating character! If ever there was a man with conflicted emotions, it was Herod! Deep down inside, he knew what was right, but over and over again he showed himself unable to do it.

It started with the arrest of John the Baptist. As a shrewd politician, Herod knew that if he was going to keep his throne he had to arrest John, but he seems to have felt guilty about the fact. He liked to listen to John! No doubt John talked about the things he’d always talked about – the coming of the Kingdom of God, and the need for people to turn their lives around so they could get ready for that Kingdom. John had never shied away from spelling out specifics, and no doubt he continued to do so when he talked with Herod; no doubt he told Herod “It’s wrong for you to have your brother’s wife”. We read that Herod was ‘perplexed’ about this, but I don’t think this means he was ‘perplexed’ about what John meant. No one could miss John’s meaning! No – he was perplexed about his own response to the message he was hearing: would he obey, or not? He knew what he should do, but he couldn’t summon up the moral courage to actually do it.

And of course the same thing happened when Herodias’ daughter asked for the head of John the Baptist. No doubt Herod saw immediately that he’d been in the wrong in making such a rash oath, but he cared too much for the good opinion of those around him to retreat from it. Once again, he knew what he ought to do, but he didn’t do it.

Most Christians will recognise themselves in Herod. We all ‘like to listen’ to Jesus and his message – we do it here every Sunday – but we’re often ‘perplexed’ about putting it into practice. It seems so costly! It’s so hard to actually do the things Jesus says. Nonetheless, if we’re going to grow in our Christian lives, we have to face the fact that it isn’t enough just to ‘enjoy listening to’ the Christian message. Jesus told us that if we do that, we’re like a person who builds their house on the sand: the rains come and the floods rise and beat upon the house, and down it comes. Obedience in theory won’t help us build a life that can stand up when the storm comes; only obedience in practice will do the job.

So the story’s telling us we have to be willing to take ourselves out of the centre of our own lives and commit ourselves to following God’s anointed king, Jesus. It’s telling us we have to be willing to put Jesus’ teaching into practice, rather than just listening to it and agreeing with it in theory. And the story’s warning us: if we do this, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee a happy ending for us.

John the Baptist was a faithful and honest man of God. He’d given his entire life to the proclamation of God’s message. He’d spoken the truth fearlessly and seen huge crowds responding to his words, accepting baptism as a sign of repentance and commitment to God’s kingdom. He’d pointed to Jesus, the lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world. And then he’d followed God’s call to speak the truth to powerful people, and he’d come to a sticky end. 

Mark – and the early Christians who read his gospel – didn’t see this as something strange. Mark wrote for Christians in Rome who were being savagely persecuted by the Emperor Nero. They understood that this was part of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. Two chapters later in Mark, Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). In all likelihood Jesus meant this saying literally; many of those who followed him would take up their crosses and go to the place of execution, just as he had. To be a Christian meant being unafraid to nail your colours to the mast, identify yourself publicly as a follower of Jesus, and accept the consequences. 

Of course, we know the final outcome is very different. In the short term, Herodias is victorious and John is dead. But a decade later Herod was deposed from his throne by the Romans and ended his life in exile in Gaul, while John was already looked on as a hero by the growing Christian movement. Even more than that, as Jesus said, “those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (8:35). John lives in glory today, and one day he’ll be raised to live with Jesus forever, and I’m sure he has no doubt that he made the right decision. But – when he was looking at the executioner’s axe, I’m sure he was just as scared as we would have been in his place. 

Speaking of fear – one last thing. In his brilliant little book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis says that the virtue of courage – which he calls ‘fortitude’ – is something we need whenever we try to practice one of the Christian virtues. Here’s what he says:

Fortitude includes both kinds of courage – the courage that faces danger as well as the kind that sticks to it under pain…You will notice, of course, that you cannot practice any of the other virtues very long without bringing this one into play.

I know what he means. You believe God is calling you to do something, but you can see the possible negative consequences. You might not literally lose your head as John the Baptist did, but you might lose some financial security, or some comfort, or the good opinion of your friends. You can’t help feeling some fear and anxiety about that. So are you going to let the fear control your actions, or are you going to do what’s right? That’s where the rubber hits the road!

Don’t make the mistake of praying that God will give you a feeling of courage. Courage isn’t a feeling; courage is the habit of doing the right thing, even when you’re afraid of the consequences. There’s an old saying: “Courage is fear that has said its prayers”. And the content of the prayers is simple: “God, you’ve called me to do this difficult thing, but I can see the path ahead is going to be hard. Quite frankly, I’m scared. So can you please help me not to let fear control me? Help me do what you’re calling me to do, and give me a sense that you’re with me in it”. 

I can’t begin to count the number of times in my Christian life I’ve had to pray a prayer like that. And I’ve learned from experience that the prayers don’t take the difficulties away, but they do give me a sense that I’m not alone. “I am with you always”, says Jesus, “to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). He was with John the Baptist, and he’ll be with us too. So let’s pray for the courage to follow him as faithfully as John the Baptist did.

Charles Wesley (1707-1788): ‘Author of Every Work Divine’

I came across this hymn lyric in Bruce Hindmarsh’s brilliant book ‘The Spirit of Early Charles_WesleyEvangelicalism‘, in a chapter describing the attitude of early evangelicals (the Wesleys, Jonathan Edwards,  George Whitfield) toward the emerging science of their day. It turns out that they were very curious about it and wrote extensively on the subject.

I find this lyric interesting. It is addressed to God the Holy Spirit, who traditionally is seen as being involved in creation (‘and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters’ – Genesis 1.2 KJV). However, in today’s evangelicalism I think it would be rare to find much discussion about the Holy Spirit’s role in the creation and sustenance of the universe; the emphasis would be almost entirely on the Spirit’s role in the work of human salvation. This lyric, then, is a salutary reminder to us of the attitude of an earlier generation: ‘Author of every work divine who dost through both creations shine’ (i.e. the old creation of the universe, and the new creation in Christ). The Spirit is not only the God of grace, but also the God of nature.

Charles Wesley: ‘Author of Every Work Divine’

Author of every work divine,
Who dost thro’ both creations shine,
The God of nature and of grace,
Thy glorious steps in all we see,
And wisdom attribute to thee,
And power, and majesty, and praise.

That all-informing breath thou art,
Who dost continued life impart,
And bidst the world persist to be;
Garnish’d by thee yon azure sky;
And all those beauteous orbs on high
Depend in golden chains from thee.

Thou dost create the earth anew,
Its Maker and Preserver too,
By thine almighty arm sustain;
Nature perceives thy secret force,
And still holds on her even course,
And owns thy providential reign.

Thou art the Universal Soul,
The plastick power that fills the whole,
And governs earth, air, sea, and sky;
The creatures all thy breath receive,
And who by thy inspiring live,
Without thy inspiration die.

Spirit immense, eternal Mind!
Thou on the souls of all mankind
Dost with benignest influence move;
Pleas’d to restore a sinful race,
And new create a world of grace
In all the image of thy love