12 July 2015
Mark 6:14-29 – The beheading of John the Baptist
‘Facing up to death and bereavement’
with Canon David Stranack
That somewhat horrific story of the beheading of John the Baptist serves to remind us of the dangerous and often ruthless times in which the New Testament is set.
John paid the price for his fearless proclamation of God’s judgement on the behaviour of king Herod. This King Herod was not Herod the Great, the king who was responsible for the slaughter of the innocent babies of Bethlehem. This Herod was his son, who had married his brother’s wife.
Herod is pulled in two directions. He admired John but he also faced the temptation of personal power, wealth and popularity, which spell short-term satisfaction but spiritual death.
So he gave in to temptation, urged on by Herodias’s aggressive resentment at John’s meddling in their lives which led, as we heard, to his tragic murder.
And John was not only the one who prepared the way for Jesus but was, of course, his cousin, a close relative. John’s cruel murder would have been a reminder for Jesus of how his own cruel fate was predicted by the prophets and added to the many warnings he gave his disciples that they too would face persecution for their faith.
Jesus must have felt the tragic loss of John very deeply for after this he urged his disciples to go away to a place of quiet to rest for a awhile and no doubt to mourn the death of John.
In the world of today we see again and again such acts of cruelty and murder. Recently in world news we have heard of many shocking acts of cruelty and violent murder in various places such as Tunisia and such evil acts come at a time when we are recalling the tenth anniversary of the 7/7 murderous bomb attacks in London.
While our hearts go out to all those involved we are again faced with the challenge of murder and sudden death.
I remember Nicky Gumbel told how a soldier in the First World War lay dying in a shell crater. He asked his friend if he would do something for him. ‘I want you to go back to our home town and tell our Sunday School teacher that what he taught me in the past is helping me to face death now’.
We ourselves or our loved ones may not have to face a violent death but it is certain we do have to face the fact of death sometime in our lives.
So as Christians we do need to think about this and consider what our faith in Jesus gives us to help in such challenging situations.
And we need to think about this at a time when we are not caught up in the painful emotions at the time of loss.
We need to think about these things calmly and prayerfully so that when we do have to face such loss we are better prepared like that soldier.
In bereavement we go through all kinds of emotions – and even some that catch us by surprise.
In fact it can be something of an emotional roller-coaster going through shock and numbness, feeling of being overwhelmed by the situation. There can be feelings of unreality, ‘did it really happen? Then there can even be the painful sensations of anger, or the burden of imagined guilt, and coping with regret, coping with the ‘if onlys ….’ And the on-going challenge, ‘how will I cope in the future’.
Yes, that emotional roller-coaster is part of the painful process of adjustment and it takes time, a lot of time. We must never be surprised about these emotions nor how long it takes, often much longer than we, or our friends, expect.
But from experience, both perhaps our own and that of others, we can know that the clouds will lift. We can again pick up the threads of life once more even if those threads now weave a different pattern and have a different colour.
But in our struggles with bereavement this is where the message of Christ and his love and compassion can carry us through and help in our healing.
Sometimes people face bereavement after violent acts of terrorism. It is difficult for any of us to know how we would cope but recent experience in America does give us some helpful and inspiring thoughts.
Last Sunday I listened to the Sunday Worship on the BBC which came from St Martin’s in the Fields, when they were remembering the 7/7 tragedy. During this service the Episcopalian priest and author, Professor Barbara Brown Taylor spoke of the recent shooting of Christians in a black church in South Carolina.
Clearly the causes and the scale were very different from the 7/7 tragedy and that in Tunisia but it is interesting for us in that in South Carolina it happened in a church, which put Christians at the centre of it and people and reporters wanted to hear what their Christian response might be.
When the young white man with the odd haircut showed up at their Bible study on that Wednesday night, they did what the Bible told them to do: they welcomed the stranger so warmly that he sat with them for close to an hour before he remembered why he had come. Then he took out his gun and started shooting.
While the president rightly spoke of gun control, the governor called for the death penalty. Citizens said it was time for the Confederate flag to come down. But what the people were waiting to hear was the response of the Christians. What would they say to the man who had violated their small heaven and taken their loved ones by force?
At his court hearing two days later he stood handcuffed before them, under court order to listen until they were through.
A mother said of her son “You have killed some of the most beautiful people I know. Every fibre in my body hurts, and I’ll never be the same…but may God have mercy on you.”
Then a daughter said of her mother, “You took something very precious away from me. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”
One reporter said, “It was as if the Bible study had never ended…”, listening to people actually asking for God’s mercy for someone who had shown them no mercy, to forgive him though he had not asked.
Some showed that they were still trying to come to terms with the tragedy. Their hearts weren’t in it yet, but they knew what was at stake. Violence had already consumed the young man in front of them.
It had taken nine people they loved as well, but it had not yet taken them. They still had power to resist that deadly power of violent reaction by doing what Jesus had taught them: turn the cheek, pray for the persecutor, love the enemy, welcome the stranger. In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.
The speaker continued: It sounds like advice for angels, not humans – so unrealistic, so undefended, it’s a wonder we repeat it at all. Yet there it is: the Christian teaching on how to respond to violence when it comes. Sometimes it actually works to disarm the violence in others, which is why we know the names of Gandhi, Tutu, and Martin Luther King. But that is not its main purpose. Its main purpose is to disarm the violence in us, so that we don’t wreck heaven ourselves.
It is always remarkable when we hear of Christians, who have lost loved-ones in violent circumstance, speak of such forgiveness.
And coming to terms with any feelings of bitterness and anger that we might have in bereavement can be incredibly hard and takes much time and spiritual effort and we need to call on the strength of God’s grace.
With all such feelings we have to try; we have to learn to hand them over to God. To do otherwise would allow such feelings to drag us down distorting our vision, crippling our efforts to move on and do deep spiritual harm to ourselves. I think forgiveness can only ever be truly possible with the aid of God’s grace.
And if our response to a violent act is to retaliate with violence against others ourselves, then violence and evil have won. That is what caused the ethnic war in the Balkans in 1991. True, one may need to use force to halt the men of violence but revenge should never be the motivation.
Most of us here have not experienced that kind of violence against our loved ones and I hope we never will.
But we all do have to face loss and bereavement at some time in our lives and the desire to blame someone can be very strong. Many can find themselves wanting to blame God himself.
I remember visiting a bereaved lady who was understandably distraught at the death of her 16 year-old son. ‘Why has God taken my son?’ She asked. The lady was so distraught so it was no time to give a theological answer even though her son had been knocked off his motorbike by a van coming out of a side road.
But it is important that we in a less distressing time should consider such a very common question. People often say when someone dies that God has taken them.
I prefer to put it a different way and say that when a person dies, God is there to receive them, indeed to welcome them into his eternal kingdom; – as Jesus said to the penitent thief – ‘today you will be with me in Paradise’.
And in John 14 Jesus promised to his faithful ones, ‘I shall come again and receive you to myself’.
God in no way wishes harm to anyone and God is not the one who takes away life but he is the giver of life in this world and the giver of life in the next.
Sometimes the book of Job is quoted at funerals with this verse: Job said, ‘The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ (Job 1.21)
Sadly this is not seen in its true context, for in this Old Testament parable, for that is what it is, Job is ignorant of Satan’s challenge to God. Satan accuses Job of serving God for what he can get out of it. God allows Satan to test Job’s faithfulness. Job does not realize that it is not God who has ‘taken away all the good things of his life’ but Satan. And so he says, ‘the Lord has taken away.’
Sadly because people do not know the full story they have gained the wrong impression that it is God who takes away life. By using this sentence in a Funeral Service it conveys the idea that it is God who takes away life, even when it is quite clear that God is in no way to blame.
God is the giver of life and he wants us to enjoy that to the full by living his kind of life as shown to us by Jesus. He would not therefore want to take it away prematurely. This quotation from Job is taken out of context and is therefore liable to mislead, and encourages many people to blame God for disasters even when they are clearly caused by the failure or cruelty of man.
If we find ourselves in bereavement torn by anger or bitterness instead of blaming God, it is to God we can turn for support and strength, spiritual strength, to face that hour.
Those feelings that are so painful to us are better handed over to our loving compassionate God.
It is not easy but we need to let go of those feelings that seem to cripple us and instead let God hold us in his loving arms. To let go and to let God should be our prayer.
And in all this let us remember that as he mourned the death of John and later he mourned the loss of his friend Lazarus so we know that he understands our grief, he has trod that path of loss before us. He knows what it is like.
But let us also remember the teaching that he gave his followers that he would prepare for us a place in the kingdom of heaven. ‘Set your troubled hearts at rest. Trust in God always; trust also in me. There are many dwelling-places in my Father’s house; if it were not so I should have told you; for I am going there to prepare a place for you’. And then he says: ‘I shall come again and receive you to myself, so that where I am you may be also’. (John 14)
He promises to his followers a place in the presence of our loving God. And as St Paul says: ‘I am certain that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8.38-39)
So our Christian belief is – (again quoting St Paul): ‘that Jesus died and rose again; and so it will be for those who died as Christians; God will bring them to life with Jesus. Thus we shall always be with the Lord.’ And then Paul adds: ‘Comfort one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:14, 1 8)
So let us rejoice therefore that God understands what we have to face, that he is ever present to help and support us in all things so long as we ask him, and that his love for us is a love that is forever and ever. Amen.
Finally do speak to me or one of the ministry team if you wish about any of these issues.
Canon David Stranack