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Emmanuel Church, Plymouth
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Tony's Reflection 57
Tortured for Christ
by Richard Wurmbrandt is a book I will never forget. It’s the story of a pastor who openly said, in 1945 Iron Curtain Romania, that loyalty to Jesus trumped all other loyalties. From then on, his card was marked. On February 29, 1948, walking to his morning service, Wurmbrandt was bundled into a secret police van and “disappeared” into 14 long years of isolation and torture, behind dark, dank walls.
Worldly powers get just enough about Jesus to realise he is a threat. They react with the iron fist. They always have done and always will. As we shall see, they did the same when Jesus first burst onto the public scene. Today, Mark lifts the curtain on the court of the most feared worldly power of Jesus’ day, King Herod (
). It is not a pretty picture…
We are coming into the throne room. This king is the son of the notorious Herod. The one who wiped out all the baby boys in Bethlehem. For that Herod, the little he did understand about Jesus had freaked him totally. And innocent blood had flowed.
Today, the courtiers tiptoe around the throne. They daren’t raise their voice beyond a hushed whisper. The King’s mood is dark.
Herod’s mind is in turmoil. He has had reports of a Galilean rabble-rouser. Crackpots were 10 a penny back then, but this one was different. He seemed more concerned about putting people right with God, than getting rid of Rome. There were rumours, too. Stories of miracles. Not just by him, but by the rabble with him, too. Exaggerations? Possibly. Common, superstitious people do that. But there’s no smoke, without a fire ...
All these stories Herod was hearing had a familiar ring. His mind went back to John the Baptist. The crowds had adored him, too. He had that same all-consuming obsession about getting right with God, as well.
Herod had known John. It had been quite a catch, when he came to preach at court. Everyone who was anyone had wanted to be there, curious to hear this eccentric who was creating such a stir. Herod remembered the hushed silence as John spoke. A strange awe had descended. Each word had brought them, inch by inch, closer to a Being who was utterly powerful, who seemed to be reaching out, right into the heart of everyone there.
Herod and his glamorous wife had been sitting on their thrones, in royal splendour, utterly entranced, like everyone else.
Herod’s marriage was questionable, to say the least. Both Herod and his wife had “put away” another husband and wife, so they could come together. He was her uncle and she had been his brother’s wife. Everyone knew it was wrong, but no one dared say anything. No one except John.
John had sought a private audience. Herod was so curious, he granted it. John had told him he was no better than a common adulterer, in fact worse.
No one had ever spoken to him like that. What should Herod do? There was something otherworldly about John. He was strangely unnerving. Every time Herod listened to John, he wanted to run and forget it all … but at the same time he wanted to find out more.
Herod’s wife, though, had no such restraint. John had affronted the royal dignity and he had to die. She wouldn’t kill him herself, of course. There were plenty of military men in the court. She could charm any one of them into doing her bidding and dispatching John.
Herod had put John into prison, while he figured out what to do. His wife had everything worked out. John had to die. She smouldered with hate and waited for her moment.
The moment came at Herod’s birthday party. All the top political and military personnel from Galilee had been there. It was men only. The wine flowed freely and, when the dancing girl came on, so did the passions. Sleazy music started and she swayed seductively. She deliberately brushed each guest, tantalising with scent, movement and touch, calculating every suggestive move. There was leering, lewdness, lust and wine-fuelled flirtation. Herod had been utterly delighted at the entertainment. As it came to an end, he raised his voice above the clamour, in generous, royal ostentation:
“How shall I pay you for the show? Anything you want, my dear and you shall have it …”
Overwhelmed, the girl disappeared backstage to find out from her waiting mother what she should ask for. That mother was Herod’s wife. She knew exactly what she wanted. The girl was sent back with a gruesome request:
“John the Baptist’s head on a platter.”
Having promised in front of everyone, Herod could do no other than deliver her “reward”.
All these dark, disturbing memories flashed through the King’s mind, as the cloud of guilty darkness gathered over the throne and cast its blackness over his heart. This new Galilean rabble-rouser could only be one thing. God had brought John back from the dead. The executioner’s axe had been useless. John would surely want revenge… and who could stop him?
This story has two huge tragedies. They are both woven into our reality, today.
There is the tragedy of Herod. Too fearful of John to reject him out of hand, too fearful of his wife to obey his message, now wracked by guilt and condemnation. Such is the fate of anyone who thinks they can compromise with the message “change your ways and believe”.
Then there is the ultimate tragedy of John. All he had done was to be faithful to God and his truth. It cost him his head.
The path of compromise towards God always ends badly.
All who walk faithfully, do so at a personal cost – which can be great.