“John, whom I beheaded, has been raised”
When King Herod hears of Jesus’ ministry, it is as if all his worst nightmares have come at once. He’s convinced that John the Baptist, that inconvenient truth-teller, is back, raised from death – a death for which Herod was responsible. Suddenly he feels as if his life is unravelling before his eyes.
Herod’s problem was like that
of most dictators. He had too much power for his own good – far more than he
can handle - and yet he didn’t have the absolute power he thought he really
needed. Herod had the power to imprison John and to have him killed for daring
to challenge his incestuous marriage to Herodias, but killing the man didn’t
kill the message, and that was the power he longed for. Not only was John’s
call to repentance still out there being preached to the crowds by Jesus, it
was also still inside Herod’s head. He couldn’t forget what John had said to
him, however hard he tried. That is what really troubles him when he hears of
another teacher and miracle worker who seemed eerily similar to John.
Later on in the Gospels we hear of Herod plotting against Jesus and colluding in the decision to have him executed. Herod was desperate to take control of this situation too, desperate still to silence this challenging, disturbing message. But mighty as he was, that was something he just couldn’t do, because John and Jesus had the power of the truth behind them, the power of God, and that, in the end can’t be resisted.
I’m no surveyor or builder, so who am I to know, but my best guess is that this 800-year-old problem was there right from the outset; a small miscalculation, dodgy foundations, a bit of shoddy workmanship, a poor choice of materials, a false economy… I am eternally grateful that whoever built our church, around the same time, didn’t employ the same builders…
It might not have seemed important at the time; but 800 years on, the problem is all too evident. The truth will out. There’s nothing hidden that won’t someday, somehow be made known, and I can just imagine the moment, maybe not too long after the church was built when someone said to the churchwardens “Those pillars there…do they look straight to you?” And maybe, at that point, someone went and got a plumb line to check it out.
When the prophet Amos, in our Old Testament reading, saw a vision of God standing with a plumb line in his hand, he knew what it meant. A plumb line, a simple lead weight on the end of a string, was one of the most basic building tools in the ancient world, and they are still used today – Screwfix will sell you one for under a fiver. It tells you whether you are building straight or not. It alerts you to the problems early if there’s something going wrong with the foundations. Amos knew that the leaders of Israel hadn’t been building the nation straight and true. They’d been lining their own pockets, bolstering their own power by making dodgy deals with the nations around them and it was starting to show.
But just like Herod, five centuries or so later, they didn’t want to know about it. “Go and prophesy somewhere else!” was the message. Not long afterwards, the Assyrians swept Israel away, deporting its people across their empire. The nation fell, but the prophecy endured, and it still speaks to us today. Pay attention, it says, especially to the things you’d rather not pay attention to, the things that feel uncomfortable, challenging, difficult.
When Herod heard that Jesus, who had been baptised by John, was healing people and performing miracles, he knew that the truths he had wanted to ignore were coming back to bite him. Herod’s tragedy was that it didn’t have to be so. He could have changed. He could have heeded John’s message, but he was so anxious to cling to the life he had that he didn’t dare believe that any other life – a life lived honestly and lovingly – could be worth living. He’d always been a devious manipulator, and he wasn’t prepared to try living or ruling any other way. He lost his power in the end anyway, for all his cunning. He ended his life in Gaul, banished by the mad emperor Caligula when he rashly asked to be given the title of King of the Jews, egged on, once again, by Herodias. Herod overreached himself once too often in his desire to have absolute control of his world, and it all came crashing down around him. But it didn’t need to be so – he had a choice, as we all do. He just didn’t have the courage to take it, and very often, I suspect, neither do we.
So where do we find that courage, when we are faced with difficult decisions, when we are afraid to get out the moral plumbline and hold it up against our lives or the world around us? Perhaps, oddly, Herod’s words, the words I began with, might give us a clue. “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised” says Herod. Of course it wasn’t literally true, but resurrection is the key to this story. John may not have been raised, but Jesus, whose death Herod also connived in, would be. That was the proof for the early Christians, by and for whom this Gospel story was written, that however many people were killed, God’s life and God’s goodness couldn’t be snuffed out. They lived in the light of that resurrection, and they saw it at work in themselves and one another too. St Paul let go of his hatred and prejudice, and discovered the transforming power of love. St Peter let go of his self-aggrandisement and machismo, and discovered that Jesus still loved him, God still called him even after he had denied knowing him and run away in terror. People who looked like hopeless cases, with no chance of redemption, found that they could be and do things they never imagined.
Every week we begin our worship with confession – a moment when we ask God to hold his plumb line alongside our lives and show us what he sees. Sometimes people think it’s a rather downbeat, depressing way to start the liturgy, that we are just dragging ourselves down and beating ourselves up, but actually, the opposite is true. It is, or should be, a moment of pure joy, because it’s only when we can see and say what has gone awry that God’s resurrection power can begin to open up a new way for us, a way that leads to life, hope, healing, reconciliation. Only then can he rebuild us on foundations that are firm and true.