Summary: The Death of John the Baptist. No doubt all of those who had thrown in their lot with John figured that their reform movement had just come to a grinding and bloody halt!
No doubt all of you are deeply concerned, as I am, about what could prove to be the beginnings of World War III breaking out this week in the Middle East.
The Israeli army moved into Lebanon this week, ostensibly to take on Hezbollah militants operating from within Lebanon who apparently captured two Israeli soldiers. Even so, it appears to be civilian areas that are being targeted and there have been a number of civilian casualties, including an Islamic Imam, his wife and eight of their children. Their family home was bombed - an incident that is not likely to be easily forgotten by those who already have a grievance against the Israeli government.
It appears indeed that Israel is now at war on two fronts - the other front being with neighbouring Gaza, where again the civilian infrastructure is being targeted.
More concerning still are the indications that hostilities are about to escalate. Israeli government officials this week have suggested that both Syria and Iran are involved in the latest Hezbollah attacks, thus posturing to open hostilities on two more fronts!
I remember about a year ago reading an article by the great Jewish human rights activist, Uri Avnery, where he depicted Israel as America’s Rottweiler - the attack dog that would be used by the US to further its strategic interests in the Middle East. Avnery said then that the question really was which target the Rottweiler would be unleashed on first - Lebanon, Syria or Iran. Could it be that it will let rip on all three simultaneously?
Most disturbing of all, from my point of view, is that this week large numbers of Evangelical Christians are gathering in Washington to urge the US government to increase military funding to Israel, so that they might extend their military operations!
These people have never hidden the fact that they believe that Israel must conquer all of its enemies before the Lord Jesus can return - a twisted belief that may end up costing far more human lives than the crazy fanaticism that led to the crusades many years ago.
It is hard not to despair of the human situation in the Middle East. For all of us who have been praying and campaigning for a peaceful solution to the Israel/Palestine crisis, it is hard not to just want to throw our hands up in the air, and it must be much harder too for those who have been pouring themselves out for the cause of peace for many years from within Israel and Palestine - people like Uri Avnery and our brother Morde Vanunu.
The problem we all face in this is our apparent powerlessness in the face of global events over which we seem to have absolutely no control. Even so, we can pray, and we must pray, and we must do whatever we can to support the cause of justice and peace - hoping that one day soon these events will all just be part of an entertaining Hollywood movie with a happy ending.
Of course there’s no love interest (that I know of)! And that may disqualify it as a proper subject for a Hollywood blockbuster. It’s also what distinguishes it from our Gospel reading today, which is also a story of violence and political intrigue in the Middle East, but which has a love interest (or at least a lust interest).
I’m referring to the story of King Herod and the execution of John the Baptist that we read this morning in Mark chapter 6.
Most of you will remember this story I think, which I’m sure must have been the subject of at least one Hollywood blockbuster. It’s about lust and adultery and murder, about the abuse of power and corruption in high places, and about a blow that was struck to the cause of justice back in first century Palestine.
What you may not have remembered quite so easily about this passage is that it actually began as a story not about John the Baptist nor even about Herod so much as it was about Jesus and what people thought of him.
Jesus’ popularity in the Ancient Middle East was growing by the time we reach Mark chapter 6, and everybody was asking, ‘who is this guy?’
A couple of chapters later, in Mark chapter 8, we read of Jesus raising the question himself, “who do men say that I am?” (Mark 8:27) , and the disciples respond, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, some say one of the prophets.” On that occasion, Jesus then turned the question upon them, asking “but who do you say that I am?”, to which the Apostle Peter replied, “You are the Christ”.
But long before the disciples got it right, Herod got it wrong - “It’s John the Baptist”, he said, “come back to haunt me!”