What I Have in Common with Herod and What Herod Has in Common with Jesus
I want you all to just gather yourselves for a minute.
Settle down comfortably in your pew, and then put on your seatbelt. Because today I’m going to do something I don’t often do.
Today’s sermon is a pulpit-thumper.
I am going to pound my fist and rant and rail about sin and depravity and moral rectitude.
Who’s that sneaking out the back already? I haven’t even started yet!
It’s funny because Episcopal priests are not traditionally fire and brimstone preachers, but the reality is we do have to take time to talk about sin, because it is a destructive force in our lives.
It is profoundly destructive to us, and as we see in our gospel lesson today, profoundly destructive to others.
I don’t think you need me to spend a lot of time outlining Herod’s sins and weaknesses, they are all too obviously on display.
In this one short episode, we get to know a man who is ruled by his love of power, his lust, his lack of respect for God’s law (having married his brother’s wife), his fear of what others think of him, and his rash and impulsive decision making.
But what interests me most about Herod in this story is his relationship with John the Baptist.
It can be interpreted in a number of ways, but where I want us to take it this morning is through the lens of John the Baptist as Herod’s conscience.
This is often the role of the prophet for an entire society, reminding us of uncomfortable truths and how far we have strayed from what God asks of us, but I want us to take it to a very personal and individual level with Herod and John.
The reason I want to do that is that we get a surprising amount of detail about their relationship.
And it is a relationship. Theirs is not an impersonal governmental encounter in which they never meet face to face, all actions coming through paperwork and rubber stamps.
John and Herod know each other.
Herod is a public figure, and all of society has witnessed not just his unlawful marriage but his ongoing lack of care and support for the Jewish people for whom he is responsible.
He is seduced over and over by the power Rome gives him into letting their land and people be exploited.
John sees it too, but he calls Herod out on all of it. John has spoken and preached publicly about Herod’s sins and shortcomings.
And while Herod hates it, he is yet fascinated by John.
There is something in John’s holiness and passion for God that calls to Herod deeply, and he cannot stay away.
Think about John the Baptist in terms of your conscience.
Most of us don’t think or talk about conscience much these days.
Maybe we remember a few Sunday school lessons about the small voice within, and all too often those lessons got translated into an image of a big angry God with a stick ready to smack us straight to Hell if we couldn’t muster a clean enough moral report card.
That is not a mature Christian understanding of conscience.
Our conscience is a manifestation of the indwelling Holy Spirit that is the heart of the spark of the divine God placed within us.
It is the unfailing north star of what God is calling us to do, how God would want us to live so that we might have life abundantly.
Every now and then we run into situations where we truly struggle with knowing what is the right thing to do, but 90% of the time, we know what the right thing to do is, we just don’t want to do it.
Herod provides us with a graphic illustration of what we do to that small voice of righteousness within us.
“Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison,” the gospel says, because John was telling him the truth and he didn’t want to hear it.
How often when we lack the courage or the strength to do the right thing do we simply shove the voice of our conscience into a dark jail cell in the back of our minds?
And yet Herod knew “that [John] was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.”
Herod knew that he really couldn’t afford to completely exorcise this moral voice from his life, and he was fascinated by the call to holiness that John consistently provided.
We think about it all the time—why is it so hard to do the right thing?
Why can’t I conquer my bad habits of selfishness and laziness?
Why am I not brave enough to speak up when I see an injustice?
Why can’t I be more generous?
What would it be like if I could listen and respond to my conscience more?
What amazing things could God do through me if I didn’t default to the path of least resistance, the way of convenience and comfort and self-centered routine?
It’s not hard to understand Herod’s complex relationship with John—we have the same relationship with the voice of moral truth within us.
It is a relationship fraught with emotion—fear, disappointment, and yet also desire and hope, for we instinctively know that God calls us to this high standard out of love.
God does not spend God’s time lamenting our lack of perfection, getting angry at our mistakes or even at our deliberately committed big ugly sins.
God does grieve over our sins because God sees how they hurt us and the people around us.
But God’s great desire for us is life, and that is exactly why that inner moral voice is so stubborn and so incorruptible.
Even when we convince ourselves that something wrong is okay because we’ve done it so often we don’t even notice that we’re lying or cheating or being cruel, deep underneath our denial, the conscience God gifted us still speaks the truth, like John the Baptist preaching from his prison cell.
God never gives up hope in us, hope that we will grow closer and closer to God with lives more and more in harmony with each other.
In the death of John the Baptist, we see the catastrophic consequences possible if we truly destroy the voice of our conscience.
Herod lets his fear of how others see him overcome the struggling spark of goodness within him, and compounding his besetting faults of lust and greed and hunger for power, he beheads the voice of the truth.
Although we can never completely kill our own conscience, we can blur it with rationalizations, numb it with pleasures and addictions, and deny and squash and avoid it until we completely drown it out with self-generated noise.
But the consequences are dire.
The wages of sin is death—but what we may not realize is that it may not be our own death, it may be the death of an innocent, like John.
Conscience matters, because when nothing else can get through to us, not the Bible, not our loved ones, not our clergy, not the morals we were raised with, nothing—it is the inner unbreakable diamond of truth that reminds us that we are better and we are more than our selfishness and our sin.
But what can never truly die is God’s hope for us, for our future. It lives on, deep within us.
It even lived on in Herod, amazing as that might seem.
Herod has something in common with Jesus, something incredibly important.
Go back to the beginning of our story. Word has begun to spread of Jesus and his disciples and the healings and miracles that they are doing.
Herod’s court is speculating on who Jesus might be—a reincarnation of Elijah? Another prophet who will be a seven-day wonder?
But Herod is immediately certain. “When Herod heard of it, he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.’”
Herod knows that the voice of truth can never really be killed.
Herod and Jesus share the same default assumption, and that default assumption is resurrection.
This is the redemption of God working in Herod, that even though he has done this terrible thing, he knows that truth and holiness are immortal.
And more importantly—truth and holiness can be and will be resurrected in Herod, if he will but open himself to that redemption.
Resurrection is the reality that lies beneath everything, and without even realizing it, Herod is proclaiming the same message as Jesus, if only for that brief moment.
There have been in the past and there will be times in the future when you stop believing in God, but let me tell you something right now: God will never stop believing in you.
The rest of our lives will be an ongoing struggle, at times a pitched battle, between the voice of our conscience and the voice of the power, lust, and greed of the world.
But no matter how often or how big you sin, no matter how you fear that the call to holiness and truth within you is dying or dead, God has faith that you will keep walking back into the light.
Sometimes it’s going to feel like crawling back into the light.
Let me tell you something completely ridiculous.
I was sitting in the St. Luke’s office, writing this sermon on Friday afternoon, and someone showed up at the church needing help.
I had used most of my discretionary account to help other people, but if I had gone and checked the balance, there were probably enough funds to help this man at least a little bit.
But I was distracted and a little irritated at being interrupted, and I didn’t help him.
I gave him the name of another place he could go to ask for help, and he left.
I came and sat back down at my computer screen, and my hypocrisy came over me in a sickening rush.
I just ignored the voice of my conscience while writing a sermon on the voice of conscience.
God, what am I even doing in this pulpit?
I went back outside to find the man, but he had already gone.
So you can see I’m in the same boat with Herod and any of the rest of you who listen to selfishness and fear more often than truth and holiness.
And it hurts when I sin like that, it hurts me to think about it, to know that truth about myself, to know that this homeless man paid the price for my selfishness.
God, I’m sorry. Homeless man, I’m sorry. Congregation, I’m sorry.
I screwed up.
But I will try again, because I believe God will grow me into the full stature of Christ one painful mistake at a time.
I will ask for forgiveness when I inevitably fail again, and I will try to receive the grace that I preach.
Because the voice of truth cannot be silenced forever, and what the voice of truth proclaims over and over again is that resurrection and life will triumph over sin and death, no matter how long it takes us to get there.
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