I tell you, among those born of woman, there is no one greater than John.
This is Jesus’s endorsement of John the Baptist, prophet, whose horrific death was the subject of our gospel reading.
John and Jesus were related and their lives became intertwined while they were still in their mothers’ wombs. When Mary received the news of her pregnancy, her first response was a very natural fear – she was young, unmarried, bewildered. Her second response was the extraordinary proclamation which we know as the Magnificat – a song of praise to the God who will bring down the mighty from their seats, fill the hungry with good things and send the rich, empty, away. Her third response was to visit Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. Elizabeth was also pregnant, in very different circumstances. She was barren and she was apparently past childbearing age. Zechariah, her husband, didn’t receive his wife’s news with abandoned delight but Elizabeth was overwhelmed, almost ecstatic with happiness . When Mary arrived Elizabeth exclaimed with a loud cry – Blessed are you among women…….. as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy.
It’s not surprising that with two redoubtable mothers like Mary and Elizabeth, these two young men should be confident, forthright and secure. Luke’s gospel says that [John] grew strong in spirit and lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly in Israel. Jesus’s childhood is sketched in the gospels but he too began his ministry after a period in the wilderness.
They were both charismatic, attracting large followings. Both adopted unconventional lifestyles. Jesus lived the life of an itinerant preacher, remarking wryly that whereas foxes had lairs and the birds had nests, he had nowhere to lay his head. John wore camel skins and lived off a diet of locusts and wild honey. Whenever he emerged from the desert, crowds flocked to hear him. Sometimes Jesus was almost besieged, forced to escape the multitude by preaching from the waters of a lake.
Both had a vocation ‘to speak truth to power’.
This phrase became popular after it was used as the title of a book published in 1955 by the Society of Friends in the US. Its subtitle was: a search for an alternative to violence. It was taken up by Robert Kennedy, made into a Human Rights initiative and was quoted by significant figures such as Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Eli Wiesel and Vaclav Havel. It proposed challenging those who hold important positions in government, business, religious institutions at whatever personal risk, using non-violent means. (In fact the concept dates from classical Greece.)
From the beginning of their ministries, Jesus and John consistently spoke truth to power. Although, very early on, Jesus said that he did not intend to destroy the law but to fulfil it, the sermon on the mount is full of defiance of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and Scribes, the Temple hierarchy, and full of injunctions to create a new law, the law of love. The way of life summarised in the Beatitudes is a pre-echo of the ‘new commandment’ that Jesus gave to his disciples before the
Last Supper: love one another as I have loved you.
A few verses from Luke’s gospel encapsulate two crucial aspects of Jesus’s message. In the hearing of all the people Jesus said to his disciples: Beware of the scribes who like to walk up and down in long robes and love to be greeted respectfully in the streets and have the chief seats in the synagogues and places of honour at the feasts. These are the men who eat up the property of widows while for appearances’ sake they say long prayers. The sentence they will receive will be all the more severe. As he looked he saw rich people dropping their gifts into the chest of the Temple treasury. He noticed a poor widow putting in two tiny coins. I tell you this, he said. This poor widow has given more than any of them. Those others who have given had more than enough. But she, with less than enough, has given all she had to live on.
Noam Chomsky, a leading 20thc American philosopher and political activist, rejected the idea of speaking truth to power. He said that power already knows the truth and is very busy hiding it. Chomsky said that it’s the poor and the oppressed who need to know the truth. Jesus recognised this need. It’s quite possible that before he observed it for himself, he was told it by his mother. He combined his zest for justice for the poor with confronting the rich and condemning their greed, their dishonesty and their lust for control. He made no effort to conceal his indifference to wealth, status, or reputation. When Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem riding on an ass, he was presenting both the Romans and the Jews with a symbol of the new order. The three years Jesus spent teaching, healing, guiding, inspiring, showing his followers the possibility of a new order, led inexorably to his death.
And it was a specific episode, the culmination of a prolonged personal conflict, that led to the execution of John.
Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great, ruled the regions of Galilee. The gospels portray him as a complex man. His marriage was unlawful – he had stolen Herodias, the wife of his brother Herod Philip and married her. John denounced this, leading to his arrest by Herod. Although he had John in custody, and although his wife hated John and wanted him dead, Herod Antipas had an unusual fascination with the prophet: “Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and kept him safe. When he heard him, he was much perplexed; and yet he heard him gladly”.
Even John’s death didn’t end Herod’s fascination with him. When he began to hear reports about Jesus, he said that John had been raised from the dead, reincarnate in Jesus.
Herodias, had loathed John with a passion, obviously infuriated by his judgements on her immorality. Eventually, after her daughter Salome delighted Herod Antipas with a special dance at his birthday party, Herodias manipulated him into ordering John’s death by beheading. John like Jesus paid a high price for speaking truth to power.
We’re in dire need now of men and women with prophetic vision and heroic courage who will speak truth to power. Our political figures need to find integrity and honourableness to replace self interest, personal aggrandisement and opportunism. Leaders in finance and industry are heard and respected but we rarely hear the voices of people who are running food banks or doling out soup at midnight to the marginalised people in our cities who are sleeping rough. The deep divisions in our society are being treated with sticking plaster while vastly expensive projects are underwritten from an apparently bottomless pit of money. Children in care and/or suffering from serious health conditions, both physical and psychological, wait sometimes for years before their needs are addressed. Our housing situation is at crisis point. Elderly people endure loneliness and neglect because our social services are starved of funding. This is happening in the 5th richest country in the world.
The Church of England which should be a moral beacon, a model of principled decency, finds itself embroiled in a long scandalous tale of child abuse, made worse by the incompetence and obfuscation which characterised an investigation, conducted in some cases by the abusers themselves. A bishop and a former archbishop were involved in the process which led to the bishop being sent to prison. A report in 2007 into the way this situation was being handled led to one member of the General Synod remarking that ‘a failure to proceed might be taken as evidence of a church culture which has colluded with child sexual abuse’ It might indeed!
Five years ago David Cameron, prime minister of a conservative government gave unconditional support to legislation allowing same sex marriage. Five years later, a committee set up by the General Synod is still consulting on the way forward for the C/E. It has another two years to run. The extraordinary thing is that it’s chaired by Chris Hardman who used to be our archdeacon. We remember her as a clear-thinking, shrewd, very able woman. It’s difficult to believe that she couldn’t have made her mind up at the first meeting.
Like an ageing tortoise moves the church of God, as John Bell once observed.
Meanwhile, in the real world, there is much to raise our spirits. Get hold of a copy of the Washhouse Youth Project quarterly newsletter. You will read about the holiday schemes at Easter and half term. Nearly 30 children took part day after day. They were respected – they were consulted about what they wanted to do. They were entertained at the same time as learning to work together, to help each other, to listen, to enjoy new experiences, to take risks.
Read reports of the ESOL class. See the response to our Developing World appeals month by month or be part of the LEWCAS collections. These are our version of the widow’s two small coins. We must carry on supporting and contributing and praying for the emergence of a prophet who will speak truth to power. Perhaps it will be Michael Curry, whose sermon at the royal wedding made such an impression on some commentators that they said it was far too religious.
Margaret serves as a Reader at the Church of the Ascension.
There is no substitute for attending church – the communion, the community (the coffee and biscuits at the end!) ...but if you do miss a Sunday service you can find past sermons here