Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: 2 Samuel 6:1–5, 12b–19; Ephesians 1:1–14 & Mark 6:14–29
I recently started rewatching the TV series Game of Thrones with Jiayin because she has never seen it. For those of you who have seen the series yourselves, I’m sure you would agree with me that King Herod’s birthday banquet, which is described in today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark, could have been a scene straight out of an episode of Game of Thrones. It certainly contains all of the key ingredients of such a scene: an opulent royal banquet with endless, extravagant food and wine; important and wealthy guests; intrigue; resentment; deception; and murder.
In this case the person murdered is John the Baptist, whom King Herod was tricked into beheading by his wife Herodias and her daughter. Herodias held a grudge against John because he had criticised Herod for marrying her, as she was actually Herod’s sister-in-law, and Herodias wanted John dead. However Herod had been afraid of John, because he knew John was a righteous and holy man. It took an act of trickery and deception, on the part of Herodias, to paint Herod into a corner where he was left with only one option, which was of course to have John executed.
Mark introduces the story of John’s demise in the context of Herod hearing about Jesus, and all of his teaching and healing. Some people were saying that Jesus was the reincarnation of John, while others were saying that he was the prophet Elijah, or that he was a prophet like one of the ancient prophets. Herod himself, consumed with guilt at John’s execution, is convinced that John has been raised from the dead in the person of Jesus.
Herod, like a number of characters from Game of Thrones who were the heirs to certain kingdoms or positions of power because of their lineage, was “elected” or “destined” to rule over areas of Judaea as a result of his family ancestry. And today, in the reading from the Letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul introduces us to the idea of “election” or “predestination” in the context of Christianity.
Those who accept the Christian doctrine of predestination believe that God has already decided who will receive salvation by His grace, and who will be punished for their sins. It has proven to be a source of trouble for many Christians because it presents us with a number of questions. Does God choose to bestow His grace on some and not on others? If so, why?That would seem to suggest God is inconsistent and perhaps cruel. Does it mean that the gospel is good news for some people and bad news for others? Or does it mean that all people are saved? If that is true, if salvation is universal, why then do we need to worry about discipleship and mission? So you can see how the idea of “predestination” or “election” can be problematic.
Let me offer up several perspectives on the notion of “election” that you mind find helpful. First, the Apostle Paul says in the Letter to the Ephesians that God has “blessed us in Christ” and that He “chose us in Christ”. The renowned theologian Karl Barth has emphasised that God’s election is always “in Christ”. This means that Jesus is the only one who is elect and that he alone is both the electing God and the elected (or rejected) human. So if we believe in Jesus, we can say that we have been elected by God, because God has chosen us in Christ. Just as Paul said in relation to the sin of Adam, “For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous”, all people are made righteous through the offer of God’s grace which comes in the form of Jesus’ self-sacrifice.
Two other perspectives on election. It reminds us that we are adopted children of God. Those chosen by God in Christ belong to God not because of blood or family; but because God “destined us for adoption” (v. 5). This once again comes back to the point made by Karl Barth; Jesus is the one elected by God, so if we believe in Jesus then we naturally have been chosen by God, therefore we are children of God. Our inheritance comes without any strings attached. As adopted children we belong to God not through any family connections or law, but solely by the goodwill of God.
And finally, election does not make us “special” in relation to other people, but calls us to specific tasks of serving God and neighbour. David was chosen by God to be anointed king of the people of Israel, but in today’s reading (from the Second Book of Samuel) we hear that David dressed himself in the simple garment of a priest when he celebrated as the ark of God was brought into the holy city of Jerusalem. This celebration was typical of the tradition of the Ancient Near East when a god was returned to its temple. In this case, the God of Israel, whose real presence was believed to be in the ark of God, was being brought into the new royal city of David, which was, of course, Jerusalem. David humbled himself before God by laying aside his royal clothes and instead clothing himself in the humble robes of a priest to take part in the celebration.
Just like David, those who are elected in Christ are called not to privilege but to discipleship. Election is the good news that God’s grace in Jesus Christ precedes us, surrounds us, and sustains us, or, in the words of 1 John 4:19, “We love because [God] first loved us.”