I expect you’re wondering why I called you all here this evening. Sorry, this morning. We’re assembled here in the library – sorry, the church – in order to consider the circumstances of a suspicious death. It is a death which should concern us all, because the victim was our patron, St. John the Baptist. The medical evidence suggests that death occurred approximately two thousand years ago, with the time of death being somewhere between 30 AD and 35 AD. As we have just heard from the documentary record, the ostensible cause of the victim’s death was having his head cut off. Or was it…? No, it definitely was. But we have much to consider about this case. As it says in the Scriptures, the worship of the Living God should be undertaken with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our little grey cells.
I don’t think it will come as much of a surprise to you that I am fond of detective stories. I believe some of you are too. A few months ago one of this very congregation came up to me after a service and asked if I could spell the name of one of the people I’d mentioned in my sermon. Aha, I said, Rabbi Eleazor ben Azaria? No, she said, Miss Phryne Fisher. Indeed one of the choir has been kind enough to lend me a few of the old green-covered Penguin crime paperbacks, much to my edification.
It may seem odd to approach today’s Gospel as if it was written by Agatha Christie, but – as we have said many times before – the Bible is a series of books. They have plots, characters, jokes, suspense, twists in the tail. They have themes, symbols, poetry, images. I think we sometimes forget – I know I sometimes forget – that when reading our Bibles. It can be easy to think that this is a religious book, so each line is probably reminding us that we should be nicer to each other, pray more and generally be a bit more Bibley. And a lot of the Bible can probably be made to say that, though sometimes it takes a bit of ingenuity.
But I’ve read enough Dorothy Sayers and Ngaio Marsh to know a crime story when I read one. And today’s Gospel tells of the murder of our own patron. It has a victim, John, and a cast of suspects including Herod, his wife Herodias, her daughter Salome, and supporting characters such the soldiers and dinner guests. We have a murder weapon, the sword. We even have a motive, Herodias’ long grudge held against John for his preaching.
And when I saw these elements of the reading, when they began to look like the kind of novel I read all the time, I found the story begin to come alive. I began to see the figures in it as real characters rather than moralising cardboard cut-outs. Other stories started to emerge from the text we’ve been given. Herodias’ murderous wish to kill John – it’s obviously the impetus for our hero’s death. But I saw a woman whose father had been executed in the murderous politics of the region, who had been married to a local power-broker, and then to his brother, and whose security was threatened by this local religious teacher.
Then I saw Salome. She’s famous in history as a temptress, beguiling people with her dancing. But why is she dancing at this party? On a second look we might see a teenager being sexually exploited to entertain her step-father’s drunken friends. Being manipulated by her mother into asking a horrible favour in exchange for pleasing them. The further we look into the web of this crime, the more we don’t see it as a simple morality tale, the more involved we become.
We are not the first people to find this story full of hidden complexities. In the National Gallery in London hangs a portrait by the Renaissance master Michaelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, called The Beheading of John the Baptist. It is a picture of a courtyard, painted as if the viewer has just turned a corner and seen a group of figures murdering the saint. The painting has been called one of the masterpieces of Western art history.
And it is one of the few paintings whch Caravaggio ever signed. There is a small signature, scrawled in an odd part of the canvas. After producing the greatest painting of his career, the master Caravaggio took a brush and wrote his name in the blood flowing from the saint’s throat. I, Caravaggio, did this thing. In producing a masterpiece of Renaissance art, he left a mysterious message, as if he felt somehow responsible for the death he had painted.
Another century, another great artist. The later nineteenth century. Oscar Wilde reads the Bible and is captivated by the melodramatic story we have just heard. His imagination sees the whole scene and he writes a play, which is promptly banned by the authorities in London for being obscene, and for being blasphemous because it depicts Biblical figures. The play is called Salome, and the main character is the teenage dancer whose motives and whose mind Wilde tried to understand.
In the first production of the play, which took place in Paris, Wilde himself played the role of Salome. Like Caravaggio, he found himself so compelled by this Bible story that he placed himself inside it by his art. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that so-called “Sunday school stories” are safe. They can draw us in, force us to try to find the meanings of God in story of murder and revenge.
And if we do what I’ve suggested, if we read this story as a crime novel we should be looking for motive. What is the cause behind the death of John the Baptist? Well, a soldier’s sword. But he was carrying out the orders of Herod. And he was fulfilling a promise to Salome. Now she was obeying her mother’s instructions. No-one started this, but no-one is quite innocent. No wonder Oscar Wilde and Michaelangelo Caravaggio found themselves drawn into this drama of guilt and revenge. Even we, as readers, might find ourselves questioned by it.
Why did Herodias want John dead? Because he preached that her marriage to Herod was incestuous and wrong, and that they should repent and stop it. The chains of motive begin to stretch even further back, as we trace them like detectives. And why did John preach so earnestly? Why did he call for repentance so continuously? This is where we get close to the mystery. Like any great detective novel, we were told the crucial clue at the very beginning, and we probably overlooked it. How did the gospel reading begin?
King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.”
But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
So the story of John’s death begins with a question. It is, to quote, Sherlock Holmes, “a case of identity”. We are told about John’s death in Mark chapter Six, and the denouement comes two chapters later. In Mark, chapter Eight, we read this:
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
This is it. This is the answer to the clue we heard at the beginning of today’s reading. The whole story, of lust, revenge and murder, is shaped as a mystery, to which the answer is the identity of Jesus Christ. That is why we are even told the story, because some people said Jesus was John come back to life. That is why John could not stop calling people to repentance, because Jesus was the Son of God. “Repent and believe, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” The motivation for this whole murder – the drive, the desperation, the chain of causes which we can trace back – is the identity of Rabbi Jesus son of Joseph.
It is a strange mystery, the murder of John the Baptist. When we understand the meaning of all the clues, it points us not to a killer but to a saviour. Not to guilt but to forgiveness. And that’s very apt, because the whole of John the Baptist’s life was shaped in that way – it pointed away from himself towards Jesus the Messiah. His life – and his death – appear in the Bible as clues to who Jesus Christ is.
And it is that mystery which challenges us as the church of St. John the Baptist. Can we live out the mystery revealed in the death of our patron? Can we be always pointing away from ourselves and towards Jesus? In our worship, in our life together, in our fetes and festivals and music and fellowship, in the way we treat each other, and the way we welcome and serve those beyond our church, will it all be shaped by the secret that lay at the heart of the life and death of John the Baptist? The secret that the kingdom of God is at hand, for Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
This sermon was preached at the parish church of St. John the Baptist, Beeston on 15th July 2018
Very well done! I don’t know if I’ll ever read that story quite the same way, now!
Thanks very much – that’s most kind of you.