This sermon is based on Ephesians 1:1-14 and Mark 6:14-29. This was also the last sermon that I preached at one of my four churches.
What a contrast we have in the two different readings assigned for today.
The first reading we heard was from the letter to the Ephesians: a letter that is dedicated to explaining the covenant relationship between Christ and his Church universal.
The particular reading that we heard this morning/evening from the beginning of the letter was written in a style that would have been familiar to people in the Greek and Roman world. It’s a eulogy of praise that people might have heard given at a banquet in honour of a wealthy patron. Except that here the words of praise are not directed at a human being but toward God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ.
The second reading we heard this morning/evening was from the Gospel of Mark as the assigned readings continue through the 6th chapter of Mark. This reading is quite a contrast from the glorious opening verses of the letter to the Ephesians. Here we have a dark story: a powerful man (Herod) who recognizes the prophetic calling of a man of God, but who nonetheless allows the forces of jealousy, anger and hatred to have their way. And John the Baptist is killed because of the evil intentions that Herodias has been harbouring in her heart toward John the Baptist.
It occurred to me that there is a contrast in these two readings between different attitudes of the heart:
The first reading expresses all sorts of Godly and constructive perspectives: the praise of God, gratefulness, unity with God and with fellow Christians, forgiveness, grace, wisdom, goodness, hope, abundant life, truth, redemption and good news.
But the second reading is a lesson in evil. We see that evil arises from wrong-doing and from anger and vindictiveness.
We also see illustrated in this story the fact that evil is given free reign when good people do nothing to stop it.
So my thought for today is ‘Be careful what you wish for’. Or maybe more accurately, ‘Be careful what you think’
Keep your Eye on the Goal
Many moons ago, my husband and I decided that we were going to take golfing lessons together. I still can’t really play golf because I never learned how to use a driver, but that’s a different story.
As those of you who do play golf know (and pardon me if I’m teaching my grandfathers to suck eggs but) this is a game that is not just physical, but it is also mental.
And one of the things that our golfing instructor taught us was that we should visualize where we wanted the ball to go before we took a shot. If we wanted to get the ball on the green, we should visualize not only the green but also the hole that we were aiming for. He also pointed out that the worst possible thing that we could do would be to think ‘Don’t go into the sand trap, don’t go into the sand trap.’
Guess why? Because our brains would be thinking about the sand-trap and visualizing the sand-trap and that’s exactly where the ball would end up going. The combination of the physics of golf and the leverage involved in the game somehow manage to transmit your thoughts into physical action and to have a real effect on the direction of the ball.
As you think, so shall you reap.
Herodias’ thoughts were apparently on revenge. We are not given any details about what Herodias, Herod’s wife, thought and felt prior to asking her daughter for the head of John the Baptist, but we can well imagine the strength of emotion behind this request. How long had Herodias been rehearsing this day in her head? How long had she been wishing for John to get his comeuppance? She certainly seized the opportunity to initiate his death the minute the opportunity presented itself.
In a foreshadowing of Pilate’s role in Jesus’ crucifixion, we get the impression that Herod would rather let John the Baptist go all things being equal. But events seem to have taken on their own momentum and ordering the death of this holy man is now Herod’s safest option.
Herodias’ evil thoughts led to evil being unleashed in to the world.
A World of Grace and Hope
But look at the contrast with this morning’s Epistle reading.
We move from a world of evil to a world of grace and of hope. We move from a world ruled by the forces of chaotic, incoherent evil to a world ruled by mercy, by grace and by hope. We’ve moved from the Kingdom of Evil to the Kingdom of God on earth.
I suppose that one lesson you could take from what our golf teacher taught Trevor and me is the ‘power of positive thinking’.
But the power of God’s Kingdom isn’t just the power of positive thinking. All the positive thinking in the world isn’t going to do anyone any good if hope isn’t real, if the Kingdom of God isn’t real. The words that the author of the letter to the Ephesians uses are powerful words precisely because they are expressions of the underlying truth of God’s rule.
It is certainly true that there is evil in the world. Today’s Gospel story reminds us of its power. But the Good News that Christians proclaim is that, in Christ, the powers of evil and chaos and confusion have been conquered.
That means that we do have real choices, under God, about the influence we have on the world around us. It is not futile to hope. It is not futile to seek to do what is right. It is not futile to forgive.
The choices made by God’s people can and do help to further the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God.
And it is by being careful to tune our hearts and minds in to the will of God that we can be used, as God’s church, for agents of good in the world.
At the end of the day, the task of a Christian preacher is both very easy and very difficult. The easy bit is the Gospel message.
The Gospel of Christ is that creation has been set free from the powers of evil and that human beings have real power to choose good. The Gospel of Christ is about the fact that God loves each and every individual and wants to draw each person to him.
The difficult bit for the preacher is that we need to find 50 or more different ways to say this every year!
But, I think that, most of us understand intuitively what is important in life and that is love in all its various aspects and relationship in all its various aspects: with God and with other people.
By turning both our thoughts and our deeds in God’s direction, we gain practice in all those things described in the introduction to Ephesians: The praise of God, gratefulness, unity with God and with our fellow human beings, forgiveness, grace, wisdom, goodness, hope, abundant life, truth, redemption and good news.
My prayer this morning is that, as we prepare for our ways to part from one another on this stage of our journey, we may all grow in the grace and knowledge of God and of our Lord Jesus Christ.
To him be all the glory for ever and ever. Amen