An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Baying for Blood

A sermon on Mark 6:14-29 by Nathan Nettleton
A video recording of the whole liturgy, including this sermon, is available here.

It is rather sobering and depressing to see that on this day, eighteen years ago, the opening lines of my sermon were as follows:

The horrifying news of a new outbreak of war between Israel and Lebanon has filled the front pages of our papers and sickened us all in the last week. Four Israeli soldiers are captured and Israel declares that Hezbollah will be made to pay a very very heavy price, and they back that up with massive air strikes.

That conflict lasted 34 days and saw somewhere around 1500 people killed. As horrifying as it was, it pales into insignificance now in comparison to the current conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, which has now lasted more than 9 months and cost at least 40,000 lives. 

Both conflicts are part of an much longer series of outbreaks in a much longer conflict. The modern nation of Israel was born in trauma and continues to bear the deep scars of that trauma. The Palestinian people are also deeply traumatised. Both sides have continued to exacerbate those traumas by seeking peace only in the elimination or absolute suppression of the other. If ever there was a conflict that showed that no nation can have real peace or security as long as they are denying peace and justice to their neighbours, then this is it. No one is secure while their neighbours are seething with resentment.

Most of the victims in this series of conflicts are ordinary men, women and children who were not in any way responsible for the acts of aggression that sparked the flare ups. But they are the ones who are sacrificed to satisfy the baying for blood that arises so readily when people are scared and passions are aroused. 

Where is God in all this? How is it that such horrendous conflicts can flare up again and again, and God seems powerless to do anything about it? Does Jesus offer any reason for hope in the face of these things? And what can we do?

For us, as followers of Jesus, attempts to make sense of where God might be in times of such violence and suffering are always going to begin with talking about the cross: the violent lynching and execution of Jesus. But often we run into a problem here. Often we have spoken about the death of Jesus in ways that suggest that it is quite unique – that it is a one of a kind death – special and unlike any other. And if it is so unique, then it is going to be a bit hard to relate it to other deaths and suffering isn’t it? If it is unique, then by definition it is not like others.

But maybe we’ve got that wrong. Maybe it isn’t the way he was killed that makes Jesus unique. And indeed I think that if we read what Jesus himself has to say about his impending death in the gospel accounts, we will find that he doesn’t make any suggestion of it being special or unprecedented. Quite the opposite, in fact. We find him in a number of places making a direct comparison between what has happened to the prophets in the past and what he can see looming ever larger on his own horizon. “What will happen to me is just the same as what has happened to many before me,” he is saying. 

His most detailed comparison is found the parable of wicked vineyard tenants. The owner sends a series of servants to remind the tenants who the owner is and collect the rent, and each servant is beaten up or killed. Eventually the owner sends his own son, thinking surely the tenants will respect his son, but they murder his son, just as they did the servants. The message is clear: Jesus sees his own death as one in a long line of similar deaths. Nothing unique in the way it comes about.

The story of the death of John the Baptiser, which we heard in tonight’s gospel reading, also appears to be part of drawing this parallel. John was seen as the last of the Hebrew prophets, and why else would his death be included in this way in Mark’s account of the story of Jesus? Mark has already told us back in chapter one that John was dead. Why does he need to tell us again now with all this gruesome detail? 

The answer, I think, is that here, in the midst of a groups of stories teaching us about the discipleship and ministry of those who follow Jesus, it serves to remind us that following Jesus will not put us out of range of the world’s hostility and violence, and that it might even attract more of it. 

The story does this, not only by where it is placed in relation to the material around it, but by drawing some startling similarities to the crucifixion stories, despite the obvious differences. Both John and Jesus have been arrested because they have exposed the unfaithfulness of powerful leaders. John has exposed the marital unfaithfulness of King Herod and his wife Herodias, whose marriage was built on the adulterous betrayal of Herod’s brother. Jesus has exposed the religious unfaithfulness of the Jerusalem Temple establishment, and shone the spotlight on their hypocrisy and lack of grace. 

Both John and Jesus find their fate is in the hands of a ruler who find them both fascinating and contemptible. Herod hates John, but likes to listen to what he has to say. He is bizarrely drawn to hearing the words that condemn his own evil. There’s a fascinating psychological study in that one! 

Pilate regards Jesus as a naive and ridiculous dreamer, but senses that there is something unusual about him and tries hard to get him talking. Both John and Jesus find themselves as the target of an aroused mob, baying for blood. Herod’s dinner party guests, aroused but denied by the dancing of Salome, quickly redirect their arousal into a hunger for the grotesque spectacle of John’s severed head on a platter. 

The crowd in Jerusalem, who had so recently waved palm branches and cheered for Jesus as he arrived in the city, quickly become an angry mob demanding his execution. And the executions of both John and Jesus are authorised by the only leader with the power to do so, but leaders who initially want to spare their lives but find themselves unable to stand against the blood-lust of the inflamed mob.

So there are startling parallels all over the place, and Mark uses this story to make a similar point to the parable of the wicked tenants in the vineyard. The death of Jesus is of the same type as a long line of deaths, the most recent of which was the death of John. The things that are unique about Jesus are not to do with how he came to be killed. That story is all to familiar. And while Mark has picked up the similarity to the deaths of previous prophets, the door he has opened allows us to go through and explore the similarities to other victims of violence and death too. 

When we do that, we quickly find that the links go in all directions, both comforting and discomforting. We find that the death of Jesus is indeed of the same type as the deaths of many innocent Palestinian and Israeli people in the current conflict. On each side there are victims of the enraged mob on the other side, and of the decisions of leaders who do not have the courage to stand against the mob’s demand to sacrifice innocent lives for the satisfaction of the wounded honour of the mob.

Once we start drawing these lines and making these connections, we begin to see that they go all over the place. We find that the presence of traumatised and impoverished peoples seeking asylum in our country shines a spotlight on our greed and selfishness, and we find our own people easily becoming a frenzied mob and calling for these innocent victims to be sacrificed to re-establish our comfortable sense of who we are and what is ours. So we see that the casting out of Jesus is of the same type as Australia’s casting out of asylum seekers. 

Or bring it even closer to home. Bring it right into the life of our own congregation and our relationships with one another. I know myself how easy it can be to start looking for a victim to scapegoat and sacrifice whenever I am feeling uncertain about myself and under threat of failing and falling on my face. If I feel anxious and guilty about my struggle to live up to some of our covenant commitments, I find a reflex welling up inside of me to take it out on someone else. I find myself wanting to attack someone who has failed more obviously than me, thus taking out my anger at myself on them, or I find myself wanting to attack someone who I think has probably done it all more reliably than me, and I start resenting them and bringing them down in my own mind – and if I’m not careful, in public – for having done it in the wrong spirit or with the wrong motives. 

And at that point I find the axis of evil that spills out in the bombs flying back and forth between Palestine and Israel also runs right through the middle of my own heart so strongly that if there were nothing to stop it I would find myself inciting a mob and baying for blood. And at that moment I am struck with the awful truth that the victimisation of Jesus is of the same type as the victimisation of those who I target as my scapegoats.

Where are we to find hope in all of this? Is there a way out of this quagmire of scapegoating and violence and death? 

Yes, in Jesus the Messiah, there is a way out. And in a sense the rest of our worship service is the conclusion to this sermon, the proclamation of the way of freedom that Jesus opens to us. So just a few hints and then I’ll let us explore it around the Lord’s Table. 

Recognising the solidarity of Jesus with the victims of these various acts of violence and humiliation does act as a confrontation of us when we are in solidarity with the perpetrators, but there are plenty of times when we find ourselves as the victims. There are times when we find ourselves isolated and misunderstood and unfairly accused and abused. And in those times we find the suffering messiah standing in solidarity with us. And the call to us, in those experiences, is to seek to always position ourselves with the victims, and to look at all these situations through the eyes of the victim. 

But, and this is the next step, not just any victim. In Jesus we have encountered the victim without resentment, the victim who recognises his own murderers as victims, as those caught in the web of hostility and violence and unable to break themselves free. In Jesus we encounter the victim who is able to pray for the forgiveness of his own killers, and who comes back to us, raised to life by God, as the sacrificed victim whose death exposes the sickness of all our violence but whose wounded hands are open in welcome and mercy and the absolute absence of resentment or vengefulness. 

It is only in that experience of grace, in surrendering ourselves to that gratuitous forgiveness, that we can find a way free from our own hostility, and that the world can begin to be healed of its grievous wounds. It is only as we find ourselves anew in that overwhelming mercy that we can begin to become part of the solution instead of continuing to be part of the problem. It is only as we begin to reciprocate that love and spread it around that we can find the courage to stop perpetuating the vengeful cycle of declarations that “they will pay a very very heavy price”, and instead say “they will face a very very awesome outpouring of resilient forgiveness, just as we have been saved by a very very awesome and resilient outpouring of grace.” 

But I am going to get out of the way now and invite us to affirm our faith and pray for the world and gather at the table where our infinitely merciful host offers himself as a sacrificial victim in solidarity with our brokenness so that we might be fed and nourished for new life in his wholeness, a life in which vengeance is cast aside and all people are wrapped in the peace and security that comes only with grace and love.


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