Today’s gospel reading is Mark’s account of the beheading of John the Baptist, famous for his dress sense and strange diet. As I was preparing this sermon I got a distinct message to use Johnny Cash’s song Man in Black. Although I’ve long been a fan of Cash’s music I wasn’t really familiar with the words of this particular song, so I had to look them up. You can see him singing the song here.
Here’s what I said.
Well, you wonder why I always dress in black,
why you never see bright colours on my back.
And why does my appearance seem to have a sombre tone?
Well, there’s a reason for the things that I have on.
Not the words of a priest, but the words of the great country and western singer, Johnny Cash.
Johnny Cash was well-known for always dressing in black. And people often wondered why. And in 1971 he wrote a song called “Man in Black” to explain:
I wear the black for the poor and beaten down,
living in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
but is there because he’s a victim of the times.
Well, we’re doing mighty fine, I do suppose,
in our streak of lightning cars and fancy clothes,
but just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back,
up front there ought to be a Man in Black.
Johnny Cash wrote Man in Black as a protest song against the treatment of the poor by wealthy politicians, against the condemnation of prisoners and drug users, against the lack of care for the sick and the lonely and the elderly, and against the war in Vietnam and the wasted lives of the young men who died. He clearly wasn’t too worried about offending those in power.
I have a feeling that Johnny Cash would have got on well with his namesake John the Baptist. Times don’t change much and there was as much to protest about in John the Baptist’s day as when Johnny Cash wrote his song. And John the Baptist was also someone who decided to make a statement by the clothes he wore – he adopted, like Cash, an image. In John the Baptist’s case it wasn’t a suit of black but a garment of camel’s hair with a leather belt. And although the Bible doesn’t record for us that he sang protest songs – Man in Camel’s Hair doesn’t have quite the same ring as Man in Black – protest he most certainly did and without fear or favour.
If people were in the wrong John the Baptist told them so, in no uncertain terms. And he wasn’t bothered who they were. He called sinners to repentance, and his loudest and severest condemnation was reserved for those in power. He thought nothing of calling the religious and political leaders of the day, the Pharisees and Sadducees, a brood of vipers, and he told them to bear fruit worthy of repentance. And at the heart of John the Baptist’s message was that need for everyone to bear fruit. Not just to repent of past wrong but to live out day by day the righteousness and justice of God, to make a difference to the world by living out the message that the prophets before him had preached of caring for the poor and the elderly and the widow and the orphan and the stranger.
Because John the Baptist, like Jesus after him, wasn’t content with simply converting people to a new way of believing, what he wanted was to convert people to a new way of living. And those who were found wanting would be thrown into the fire, he said. He didn’t mince his words.
Well, in the end such a forthright message was bound to bring John to the attention of the authorities. But that didn’t seem to bother him. He didn’t write protest songs, but protest he most certainly did. And as we hear in today’s gospel he was fully prepared to protest against those in power when necessary even at the risk of his life. Because in those days that is what protesting against those in power meant.
Let’s just get this all into context. Herod Antipas was the ruler of Galilee and Perea. Just to be clear, this is not the same Herod as the one we are all familiar with from the birth stories of Jesus. That was Herod the Great. Herod Antipas was one of the sons of Herod the Great and he ruled Galilee and Perea as a client state of the Roman empire. Basically he was allowed a certain amount of freedom in the way he ran the country in exchange for being subordinate to the Romans.
The problem for John was that Herod Antipas had divorced his wife so that he could take his brother Philip’s wife and live with her instead. This was Herodias, mother of the infamous Salome. There was no way anyone could gloss over the fact that this was totally contrary to God’s Law. And John made sure that Herod Antipas heard his condemnation. So John ended up in prison, and this morning in our gospel reading we heard the famous story of how Herodias engineered the beheading of John.
And Mark’s placing of this story is quite deliberate. He places this story of John’s protest and John’s execution right in the middle of a story about a successful preaching campaign. His intent was to remind those who first heard his gospel that sometimes bad things happen – things that need protesting about and that may result in persecution – but that even persecution has to be set within the context of spreading the good news of Jesus. He was reminding his audience that being a Christian may bring unwanted persecution but there is always hope in the gospel of Jesus. And that like John it’s worth standing up for.
So what are we to make of John the Baptist, the man in camel’s hair?
Well, it’s worth remembering that John came to prepare the way for the coming Messiah – to prepare the way of the Lord as the prophet Isaiah puts it. And the way to prepare for the coming Messiah, says John, was to turn from doing what was wrong to start living lives worthy of those who would be followers of the Messiah. And for John that meant highlighting issues in society that had to be dealt with – not just issues at a personal level but issues concerning those in power as well – national issues.
We too are called to prepare the way of the Lord. Because two thousand years after John the Baptist came as the forerunner, and more than forty years since Johnny Cash wrote his protest song, we still live in a world where so many struggle to live a decent life. And where that call to repentance and to bear fruit worthy of repentance is a call so many still need to hear. And where part of the context of preaching the good news of Jesus is also preaching that attitudes need to change, even though we may be criticised for saying so.
And we as followers of Jesus in this place and at this time are called to speak out about issues of righteousness and justice, and to call for change when we see things that are wrong. We are called to speak out on behalf of the poor and the elderly and the widow and orphan and the stranger. God’s command to do that runs through the whole of the Bible, to call for his justice and his righteousness to be enacted, and especially to speak out on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves.
At this point people often start to say things like: Well, I know things could be better but what can I do? Or we start to feel that if someone’s going to be the one to put their head above the parapet and start telling people that they’ve got things wrong and need to change then it would be best if it were someone else.
Well, John was prepared to put his head above the parapet despite where that got him. Because he knew that he had to speak out. Nothing much will change unless people of God speak out about the things that are wrong in today’s world.
I started by talking about the Man in Black and about the Man in Camel’s Hair – clothes that made a statement of intent. Perhaps today we can start to think about how the image we portray by the clothes we wear – not the real clothes we actually have on this morning, but the spiritual clothes, as it were, that show our intent. Do we truly clothe ourselves with the gospel? With righteousness? With justice? Are we truly clothed with the love of Jesus Christ? When people look at us what clothes do they see?
I’d just like to finish with the end of Johnny Cash’s song –
Well, there’s things that never will be right I know,
And things need changing everywhere you go,
But ’til we start to make a move to make a few things right,
You’ll never see me wear a suit of white.
Ah, I’d love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything’s OK,
But I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
Till things are brighter, I’m the Man In Black.
Now, we might not be into writing protest songs, but like John the Baptist it is the calling of every person who puts their faith in Jesus to play their part in extending his kingdom of light to all those who still live in darkness. Let us all work together to make at least a few things right, to rid the world of some of its darkness, to make things brighter, take a little of the darkness away from others – in the name of Jesus and in the power of his Spirit.