Posted by: mikebackup | July 15, 2012

Being prophetic

Mark 6:14-29

New International Version – UK (NIVUK)

John the Baptist beheaded

14 King Herod heard about this, for Jesus’ name had become well known. Some were saying, ‘John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.’

15 Others said, ‘He is Elijah.’

And still others claimed, ‘He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago.’

16 But when Herod heard this, he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!’

17 For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. 18 For John had been saying to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ 19 So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, 20 because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.

21 Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. 22 When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests.

The king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.’ 23 And he promised her with an oath, ‘Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.’

24 She went out and said to her mother, ‘What shall I ask for?’

‘The head of John the Baptist,’ she answered.

25 At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: ‘I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a dish.’

26 The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27 So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, 28 and brought back his head on a dish. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother. 29 On hearing of this, John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

Do you like Shakespeare? Lisa and I have been frequent visitors to Stratford and have seen many a comedy and tragedy. Why does Shakespeare endure? Why do people spend years studying the texts, why do actors see playing a character in a Shakespearian play the pinnacle and gold standard of their profession? Well I think it’s because there’s something remarkably deep, enduring and the plays continue to speak in new ways. It’s the depth you find within the characters, conflicts, emotion, evil, goodness, madness and humour.
            The Bible is perhaps the ultimate collection of literature that has endured like no other and part of that is down to the same reason Shakespeare endures – they both provide telling insights into what it means to be human. When I studied this reading for today it struck me how Shakespearean it was with its brilliant layering of emotions and scheming – and of course it’s most definitely a tragedy.

We see the conflicting desires within Herod that lead to the death of John. It’s a study of the prophet’s rejection, looked at from Herod’s perspective, the one who abandons and destroys him.

  • Herod receives a series of messages:
    He hears the speculation about whether Jesus is Elijah or John raised from the dead.
  • This report leads into the story where Herod has been both troubled by John and has heard him gladly.
  • Herod hears his wife’s daughter’s terrible request for John’s head. These messages engage Herod at a deep level.
  • He is intrigued by John and defends him, despite John’s insult to his wife. He hears John gladly, although – perhaps because – he speaks the truth.
  • At the same time, Herod wants his guests to perceive him as all-powerful, the man above convention and normal constraints.
  • Herodias’ daughter’s request forces him to choose between these conflicting desires. The result is that John’s head joins the dishes at the banquet.

You can feel the weight Herod was under from all sides. He dare not lose face before the royal court. His wife, Herodias, wanted to be rid of John. Herod himself wanted to talk to John privately – to stop him causing a public scandal. Herod had no principles of his own and lost control of the situation. Eventually he is left fearing John has come back to haunt him – or at least that the issues which John raised have not gone away. Wonderfully Shakespearean, I wonder whether it influenced him when writing Macbeth.

But what does all this say about the human condition and faith? Well there’s something here about the nature of our desiring. Not all desires are bad. We are who we are by virtue of the desires that weigh most heavily with us. It’s the preferring of some kinds of desire above others that makes the difference. And it’s the prophets and preachers who draw us in one direction. The life in God that they offer competes with other kinds of ‘good life’. There’s no avoiding the choice. It will not be made for us, nor will we be coerced into it. Nor however will God withdraw this offer or cease to make it.

Christians walking close with God may relate to Herod’s conflict. What happens if what we believe to be God’s justice conflicts with the majority view – for example, on immigration, asylum-seekers, crime and punishment, taxation or poverty? John the Baptist was not afraid to stand up for what he believed, though he was also human and had his doubts. Compare Matthew 11.2-3 – When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” . Maybe in prison he regretted what he had done.

God calls very human people to be prophets to stand up for justice – perhaps this includes us. But what does it mean to be a prophetic and how can we be sure that something is prophetic? It’s worth being reminded of what the definition of prophecy is:

n. pl. proph·e·cies (-s z). 1. a. An inspired utterance of a prophet, viewed as a revelation of divine will. b. A prediction of the future, made under divine inspiration[1].

It’s a shame that prophecy isn’t as clear these days as it was in the days of the Celtic Saint Cuthbert.

Cuthbert decided to join a monastery. He had heard of the prophetic leadership of Boisil, abbot of Melrose, so he rode to Melrose with his boy servant. As Cuthbert dismounted and gave his sword and spear to his servant to take away, Boisil was watching. Foreseeing in spirit how great the man whom he saw was going to be, he uttered this one sentence to those who were with him, ‘Mark this. Here is a servant of the Lord.’ Bede comments that in saying this Boisil was echoing Jesus’s words on first seeing Nathaniel, ‘Here is a true man of the people, in whom there is nothing false.’

Years later Cuthbert returned to Melrose monastery, where he fell victim to the plague, though he was to recover. Boisil prophesied, ‘You will not get the plague again, nor will you die at the present time; however, I will die of this plague; so let me use the seven days left to me to teach you.’ They spent each of those days studying John’s  Gospel.

In fact Boisil had predicted the plague to his abbot Eata three years before it appeared, and did not hide the fact that he himself would be carried off by it; but he declared that the abbot himself would not die of this but rather of dysentery, and events proved his prophecy was true.

Cuthbert used to tell people, ‘I have known many who far exceed me in their prophetic powers. Foremost amongst these is Boisil who trained me up, and foretold accurately all the things which were to happen to me. Of all these things only one remains to be fulfilled.’ This was the prophecy that Cuthbert would become a bishop. It may be Cuthbert would have refused the pressures on him to become a bishop had it not been for Boisil’s prophecy. After his death Boisil appeared in prophetic dreams which helped shape the future of the kingdom.
Sadly, these days prophecy is often lost in the noise of conflicting viewpoints and scepticism, so where do we go from here? Well John Rackley[2] is a minister who has been at the heart of the discussions on the future of the Baptist Union and in all the noise on the subject he came up with this way of discerning what a prophet is:

+ may be a person or a community
+ will turn me to face God, the holy and passionate one
+ will give me discomfort where I am not expecting or wishing it
+ will expose my lack of integrity which will usually be about where I am righteous and where I am not
+ will turn me to face where my religion is damaging me and others; disregards God and therefore is toxic
+ is someone over whom I can have no influence – financially, preferentially or relationally
+ addresses me where I am most powerful and asks why.

And finally: a prophet is someone who I am no longer with but they still speak to my condition

I agree with all of that except perhaps the last one. I believe that a prophet can be with someone we are still with.

So we have a useful way of discerning prophecy, but what then? The answer I think comes at the end of that Cuthbert story – . It may be Cuthbert would have refused the pressures on him to become a bishop had it not been for Boisil’s prophecy. We have to fulfill the prophecy and that’s when the challenge really begins. But should we falter at any point in that fulfillment then I’d like to add a layer of confidence. This layer is to spot the qualities of deep love at work – healing, reconciliation, patience, kindness, relationships, nurture, joy, the consideration of others and forgiveness. It may be all of those or just one of those but love will be found when we are working with God to fulfill his good purposes for us and the world.

Prayers

The Lord calls us to follow.
We walk in your strength, O Lord.

We pray for situations where we struggle to follow Christ, offering them to God in the silence. Silence

The Lord calls us to follow.
We walk in your strength, O Lord.

We pray for our country and the places where God seems absent. Silence

The Lord calls us to follow.
We walk in your strength, O Lord.
We pray for our church, our home, our neighbourhood, and the struggles we have in centring our lives on the love of God. We offer into God’s care the situations and people with whom we struggle. Silence

The Lord calls us to follow.
We walk in your strength, O Lord.

We pray for areas of the world where Christians face persecution; and we pray for ourselves when we face situations where standing up for right is hard and painful. Silence

The Lord calls us to follow.
We walk in your strength, O Lord.

We pray for people who find themselves alone, and for all who suffer, naming them before God and trusting in God’s faithful love. Silence

The Lord calls us to follow.
We walk in your strength, O Lord.

Amen.


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