Sermon preached on the 8th Sunday after Pentecost [B]
15 July 2018
Readings: Ephesians 1.1-14; Mark 6.14-29
Two stories running through my head all week. The gospel, preparing for today; and the recent saga of the soccer team trapped with their coach in Chiang Rai caves.
These stories couldn’t be more different. Yet we need them both, because they open out into the realities of human life – its debasement and despair, its joy and triumph – because they balance each other. Tip too far towards the first, and you’re into despair; too far towards triumph, and you are into the rose-coloured world where dreams come true for those who hope and work and pray hard enough.
The gospel is brutal, describing Herod’s cynical and spur-of-the-moment murder of John the Baptist, who had rightly rebuked Herod about marrying his own (Herod’s) sister-in-law. Not that Herod cared about the Jewish Law; but he was “pleased” (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) at his daughter’s dancing, and makes her a rash promise – only to be quickly checkmated by her mother.
Remember, the John beheaded is the John who was miraculously conceived by the elderly priest Zechariah and his barren wife Elizabeth; the John who had a powerful preaching baptising and revival ministry in the wilderness, and who had baptised Jesus himself. Surely God has let the side down, here, and owes John something better than a demeaning execution at the hands of a despot in his cups? But Mark is brutally honest … because sometimes that is exactly how life can be, for faithful and unfaithful alike. No point relying on Paul’s words in Romans 8.28 (“all things work together for good for those who love God”); no get out of gaol card for John; nor later for Paul. All things do work together for good, for those who love God; except it’s God’s definition of “good”, not ours. 
Fast forward to Chiang Rai in Thailand, which dramatically hit world news Saturday 23 June when a soccer team of twelve boys aged between 11 and 16 along with their 25-year-old coach were reported missing in an extensive cave system. The mammoth search and rescue operation required ingenuity, precision, courage, stamina; and heaps of equipment. It took nine days to find the boys and their coach, another 8 days to get them all out, the only fatality, a volunteer Thai Navy Seal who died in the rescue.
Coach and team were guided out, one by one, each by two experienced cave-divers, one ahead and one close behind. The smallest aperture they all went through (in the water and darkness) was only 38 cm high. It gives me claustrophobia to imagine it.
Quite apart from the impressive skill courage and stamina of all involved, quite apart from the significant Australian involvement, and quite apart from its inherent drama, why does this story attract and hold our attention? Because it touches our humanity, our compassion, and our deepest fears, including our mortality.
The gospel story assaults our sense of justice. More subversively, it challenges our conception of God. Isn’t God “just”? Isn’t God “powerful”? Why didn’t God protect his faithful servant John the Baptist, now in the despot Herod’s hands because of his faithfulness to God’s call?
These are all human questions, urgent human questions, which confront us daily. Questions for which we have no satisfying or compelling answers … until we glimpse and grasp what God has done for us in Christ Jesus. Beautifully summarised in the Letter to the Ephesian Christians.
God has “destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ”, richly lavished his grace upon us, and shown us his deeper and eternal purposes in creation, in “the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth”. We have obtained an inheritance in Christ and been marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit – as “pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people, to the praise of his glory”.
Now that’s too much to take in quickly, so that’s your homework for this week, to read the Ephesians reading as often as you can, trying to get your head around it all as best you can.
Just this last week, I was alerted to a poem by G K Chesterton, where Jesus the Eternal Word is the speaker. Some lines:
Last night I held all evil in my hand
Closed: and behold it was a little thing.
At the end, referring to the resurrection as bursting death’s bubble (wherein we are held ever captive to the grave), … [I] woke “laughing with laughter such as shakes the stars”.
Can you put that into your perspective on death and dying? This comes packed inside the pledge of our inheritance – sealed in baptism.
Back to our two contrasting stories. Trying to see through God’s lens, they make some sort of partial sense. John the Baptist’s execution was – in secular terms – similar to what happened to Jesus who was also executed for being faithful; John’s death was a clear signal to Jesus of what was ahead; Matthew records, significantly, that Jesus, hearing the news, “withdrew … to a deserted place by himself” (except the crowd tracked him down).
But what about the cave rescue? The boys and their coach were piloted out by skilled and experienced divers. My picture of my own dying (described in a poem I wrote called The Ridge) was inspired in part by a verse of the 23rd Psalm:
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:
for you are with me, your rod and your staff comfort me.
So I imagine Jesus piloting me through to safety, along a track he knows well …
I’d like to close with the prayer, Jesus, Saviour of the World on p 414 of APBA. Let’s pray it together. After which: Don’t forget your homework!
Jesus, Saviour of the world, come to us in your mercy:
we look to you to save and help us.
By your cross and your life laid down, you set your people free:
we look to you to save and help us.
When they were ready to perish, you saved your disciples:
we look to you to come to our help.
In the greatness of your mercy, loose us from our chains:
forgive the sins of all your people.
Make yourself known as our Saviour and mighty deliverer:
save and help us that we may praise you.
Come now and dwell with us, Lord Christ Jesus:
hear our prayer and be with us always.
And when you come in your glory:
make us to be one with you and to share the life of your kingdom.
© the Rev. Canon Dr. James M. McPherson
Image Tony Reid on Unsplash