A sermon from Revd Victoria Ashdown: an urgent call to self examination of conscience, and to activity in the service of Christ. Inspired by the accounts of the death of John the Baptist in Matthew 6 and events current at the time of the talk surrounding the Middle East, and the visit of the President of the United States to the UK.
That reading from Mark’s Gospel chapter 6, the first one on your list, is perhaps one of the saddest parts of the New Testament. It records the events surrounding the death of John the Baptist.
He was the man, if you remember chosen for the special mission, he was the fore-runner of the Messiah, the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies. He was the last of the Old Testament prophets, he was the last martyr of the Old Testament period and the first of the New Testament period.
A powerful preacher. He was a fearless prophet. He was a true man of God. As Jesus himself testified ‘among them that are born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist’ Matthew 11.11 While this passage reveals the details of John’s death, it also records the death of something else. The passage records the death of a conscience.
Our text speaks of a man named Herod. He ruled over one fourth of Palestine at that time. His father was Herod the Great the King who had been ruling when Jesus was born. It was his Father, Herod the Great, who ordered the deaths of all the infants in Bethlehem in an effort to destroy the Christ Child.
When Herod (the Great) died, the Roman Emperor divided his kingdom into four parts and one part was given to the man in our text Herod Antipas.
He wasn’t really a king, he was what is known as a Tetrarch, which means ruler of the fourth part. He did however demand that his subjects called him King.He ruled from 4AD ago 39AD and he was banished to what is now France by the Roman Emperor for demanding that he be made king.
Jesus summoned up the character of Herod Antipas once calling him a fox (Luke 13.32) so watch out don’t get above yourself, you will be banished to France. What we see in these verses is how a person can sin against their own conscience to the point that they were capable of anything. It’s possible to ignore the warnings of our heart our soul and our mind until those warnings cease to be heard. It is possible to so deaden our conscience that it no longer stands as a barrier between the individual and any sin they choose to commit. 1 Tim 4.2 says ‘They have seared their conscience to the point it feels nothing’ and no longer warns them about evil. This is why some people can do things without remorse or guilt.
But before we go any further we need to talk a little bit about conscience. Many people believe that a conscience is born in us, given to us, to help us make decisions between right and wrong. But of course it is not. It’s a tricky thing. The conscience will only resist any deviation from the truth or the right and wrong that it knows about. For instance, if you have been raised to believe that the Bible is truth your conscience will help you know the difference between what is right and what is wrong based on those biblical teachings: your standard of truth. If you start to do something the Bible says is a sin, your conscience will rise up and tell you hmm think about this is that right? If, on the other hand, you have been raised to believe that there are no limits in life and you can do as you please, your conscience will not give you any problems. Maybe we can see Herod Antipas’s heritage coming in here.
Maybe that is why we have so much trouble in the world today. They have adopted a philosophy that says, "If it feels good, go out and do it!"As a result, they do not live by the truth of the Word of God, but by the feelings of their flesh. We do as they please and conscience never bothers us at all.
The most dangerous thing any person can do is to sin against the truth. Paul tells us that sinning against a "good conscience" leads to spiritual shipwreck. (1 Tim. 1:19).A "good conscience" is one that knows the truth and desires to be obedient to it. When people know the truth and reject it in favour of their own standards of right and wrong, they sin against a "good conscience". They sin against God.
That is what we see in our text today. But it is also the death of conscience in the opposite way. John the Baptist could only preach from his good conscience. He knew what he was saying made him unpopular with both the religious and political leaders of the day. He knew that it could put him in danger. But still he spoke out calling out those who came to him for baptism a brood of Vipers for not looking at their own conscience before coming to him.He knew that in their hearts they had not changed. Matthew 3.7 He also knew that he faced death in the prisons of Herod Antipas but whatever the risk he continued to speak and seek truth.
On Friday Vanessa, Andrew, Emily and I and about a quarter of a million other people went to London to show that we don't like the policies of the American president and the US. Some were marching against his obvious disdain of women, the way he speaks about and treats women. Some were marching against his policies towards migrants and refugees, the despicable separating and caging of young children from their parents. Some against his policies in the Middle East, the inflammatory recognising of Jerusalem as Israel's capital when more than half that city is under Palestinian control, his bombing of Mosul and the tens of thousands of civilians that were killed, hardly going noticed by the rest of the west and condoned by Britain. The arming and bankrolling of jihadist militants in Syria and other parts of the Middle East in order to bring about a regime change only desired to make the West’s gas and oil supplies and delivery more expedient for ourselves and our rich benefactors in Saudi Arabia. A quarter of a million people, with many different causes but who felt they just had to do something
Yes it is political and we are told not to mix politics and religion (especially at the dinner table! we are told), yes it may do no good at all, but it is something, and in all good conscience l couldn’t stand by and do nothing, I had, We had, to say something.
This week has been a week of activism for me for I have also spent an evening at a week - long series of talks and lectures under the banner of 'Imperialism on Trial' There where many academics (including Andrew) , journalists and political pundits from around the world spoke about the dangers of imperialism and the fact that we have not been this close to midnight on the Doomsday clock since 1953, when the US and the then USSR successfully tested their first hydrogen bombs. Today's clock reflects the dangers of Nationalism, Imperialism, and Global Warming but has advanced because of the looming threat of Nuclear War.
By the way just as a 'fun fact' did you know that the US has [about] 800 military bases outside of its own shores, most of which have a nuclear capacity? Russia has [around] nine Which country should we see as the greater threat?
So here I am getting all political, and it’s hard not to do so in such a world and hard not to do so when our family where we have seen the effects of Western policies in the places we have been. And this sermon may be awkward or difficult to hear, but actually that's what a sermon should be. Somewhere, somehow each week there should be something that picks at our conscience and that's a good thing, if every week we go away thinking, ooh that was a lovely sermon, how nice, and think nothing more of it, then I am not doing my job, because Jesus didn't do that. Yes, he preached God's love for every person, yes, he healed and worked miracles, but he also expected something in return from us. He expected the rich young ruler to give away his wealth, he expected the young women caught in adultery to stop sinning, he expected those who said they would follow him to actually do it! Not delay by burying their dead or beginning to follow - then taking their eye off the ball and doing something else for a while - Luke 9.57-62.
If a sermon upsets I say good! Because somewhere along the line we all need to stop and examine our conscience. Are we speaking up for the poor, are we speaking up against corruption, bad policies, and unjust systems or do we just think l'In ok, my families ok, it’s alright, I can do nothing about it anyway. This week’s challenge is for me every bit as much as I am giving you.
Finding ways to fight the forces and authorities that cause all sorts of evils in the world and the animosity, distrust and disunity of our communities, whilst also demonstrating true Radical Grace to those human beings who we see as being complicit in all this is not easy and comes at some personal cost.
So, we can simply sit back and hate to see those things and those people who do differently to us (whichever way that is)- and we can just bother ourselves with our own problems and our own little bit of the world because we can't do anything about the rest. It is indeed simpler, a simpler way, but it does continue and contribute to the hate and evil that causes these problems in the first place. Or we can grapple with what it means to 'love your enemies and do good to those who hate you' Matt 5.44 whilst standing up against injustice and for those in need as the bible tells us in so many places and Jesus instructs us. and see if we might thereby change the world just a little bit like John the Baptist.