Three of the readings in the lectionary for today have the theme of joy. The Old Testament passage which we could have read speaks of David dancing with abandon in front of the Ark after it has been brought and placed in Jerusalem making that city the spiritual focus for the nation’s worship.
Sacred dancing to the accompaniment of musical instruments was known to happen in early Israelite prophetic tradition and it seems that David might have been seized by that prophetic spirit. They were so overcome with joy over all that God had done for them and were celebrating the safe arrival of the Ark in Jerusalem.
Psalm 24 which Ken read for us seems to be connected in some way with what might have been an even annual event celebrating David’s bringing of the Ark into Jerusalem – a kind of bringing God back into the temple. It’s a super psalm celebrating God’s creation and rule over the whole world. The final so well-known verses that are sung in The Messiah fit so well with that celebratory music. You can perhaps imagine dancing to it?
This week’s epistle from Ephesians is part of the writer’s expression of thankfulness and joy for God’s actions in the lives of the congregation to which he’s addressing his letter. This time though he isn’t satisfied with just a few verses but continues through the first three chapters. So once again a passage of joy.
However, in stark contrast to the first three readings, this week’s gospel reading is so gory that I debated with myself about having it read. The beheading of John the Baptist is a story that we all know well. However, Mark and Matthew both include a detailed account of it and Luke alludes to it so I think the early gospel writers must have felt it was very significant. Interestingly it’s the only passage of its length in any of the gospels that isn’t immediately focussed on Jesus.
What part does this story with all its gory details have in the total story of Jesus which Mark has recorded? Perhaps most obviously there’s the parallel Mark so clearly draws with John and Jesus and Herod and Pilate. Whereas Luke ties Jesus and John together with parallel accounts of Jesus’ and John’s conception and births Mark is more interested in the link between their deaths.
John and Jesus both suffer at the hands of a weak political figure. Both Herod and Pilate see good in the accused men brought before them and we can see that if it was up to them, they’d choose freedom rather than death. But both let themselves be trapped by outside pressures and allow the violent deaths of John and Jesus. Also notice that both deaths john’s and jesus disciples come and take the body to a tomb.
You’ll know from reading Mark that a conspiracy to have Jesus killed is already underway. In chapter 3 verse 6 after Jesus cured the man with the withered hand we read “The pharisees met at once with some members of Herod’s party and they made plans to kill Jesus”.
And here Mark sandwiches this gory story between the sending out of the disciples and their return with reports of a successful mission in the nearby villages.
So we are being shown very early on in Mark’s account that righteous and holy men are killed. And that’s not only John’s and Jesus’ deaths. But Mark, like Paul after him, is certain that all activities by good and holy people will be subject to opposition and punishment – and even death. Mark records Jesus later in the Temple warning the disciples that they’ll be dragged before kings and beaten in synagogues for the sake of the gospel.
John’s beheading was a calamity for such a small movement still in its early days so they must have asked “what on earth is God doing?” The answer, Mark tells us through this story and what went before and after, is that God was still at work, bringing healing, deliverance, and spreading the good news of the kingdom.
This poses for us the question of why good people suffer and why evil seems to triumph today.
Jesus told the story of the rich man and Lazarus – the rich man seemed to enjoy his wealth and ignore the poor man, but we’re told his comeuppance came when he died and roasted in hell whilst Lazarus had a cosy time in heaven.
Yes, there are times when we wonder about God. It is true that there is horrible evil out there. There are evil people – psychopaths, the mass murders, the vicious child and spouse abusers. There are evil moments as when police officers beat and kick wounded suspects. There are evil systems which we are all part of. People going without food and shelter in a nation with enough food for all – to say nothing of all the food which is wasted by us. A large part of the world is still not vaccinated partly because of the greed and selfishness of pharmaceutical companies interested in making a profit. Then there’s the problem of disease and illness – take Covid – certainly God didn’t send it – so often it’s humanity’s misuse of God’s creation which causes these problems. There are even evils born of sheer stupidity, like the stupid promise Herod made to Salome.
I’m sure you can think of many more examples. Yes, it so often feels like evil triumphs but the message of our faith says that evil does not have the last word.
Herod does not win. Herodias does not win. Hitler does not win. EVIL DOES NOT WIN! With joy we can shout out that God’s world does not end with either the whimper of a starving child or the blast of a nuclear bomb; it ends with the Lamb upon the throne and the victorious song of a massive choir perhaps singing words we have come to love: “The kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdoms of our God and of his Christ, And he shall reign forever and ever.” HALLELUJAH! Amen