Losing Everything to Gain Everything
This passage follows Jesus sending out followers to tell people about him. News of his ministry was spreading. People were talking and excitement was growing. Which brings us to our scripture. Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great was serving as the governor of Galilee and Palestine as Jesus was beginning his ministry. Herod was first married to Phasaelis. He met another woman and they fell in love. Unfortunately it was his brother’s wife Herodias. Herod married Herodias even though she was still married to his brother Philip. Oh, also, because of some complicated interfamily marriage, she was also his niece.
Marriage to one’s brother is not very common, but marrying your niece while she is still married to your brother is pretty rare. I guess if you are powerful enough you can do about anything.
Many people were surprised by what happened though. Herod Antipas had a nasty reputation. He had killed off most of his family out of fear that they’d take over his powerful position. Though he was born a Jew, he remembered his Jewish faith and its worship only when it was convenient for him. John, who we call the Baptist because he was inviting people to repent, be baptized and follow Jesus as the messiah had been going around telling everyone how terrible Herod was for his most recent marriage.
Today I want to think about why we do things that we later regret and the relationship between our values and our actions.
The beheading of John was not simply a whimsical execution by a violent leader, but a deeply conflicted act that evolved from guilt and shame and which produced even more guilt and shame.
We all know what this is like. We do something that we know we should not do, and then we feel worse for doing it. John was arrested because he was a political threat due to his popularity among people which the religious leaders thought might lead to some sort of rebellion.
Intermarriage among royalty was a matter of politics in those days, necessary for building and consolidating power. Herod’s first wife, the daughter of Arteas IV, King of Nabataea, created a strong military alliance. Divorcing her to marry his brother’s wife Herodias was seen as an insult, creating tension not only between two rulers, but also between their countries.
Herod’s action was also unpopular in Israel. Under Jewish law, Herod was guilty of both adultery and incest. But no one was going to tell the Jewish ruler how wrong it was; no one that is but John, who was very vocal; and very public and eventually very beheaded.
This was easier for Herod than dealing with his own behavior as the problem; easier to silence John than to consider that he might have made a mistake. John had also deeply offended Herodias, saying that she should not be married to her brother-in-law, Herod. Since she rather enjoyed being in power, she decided that John had to go. Arrest was insufficient for Herodias as she demanded John’s death for exposing her scandalous marriage.
John died because of human insecurity and to appease a guilty conscience, a malicious grudge and the desire to eliminate that which makes us uncomfortable. The same could be said about the death of Jesus. In the end, Jesus simply could no longer be tolerated by those with power. All too often, people don’t want to hear the truth, so we try to ignore or eliminate them but when we find that we can’t, we try to squelch the truth teller.
We have all made promises in the heat of the moment or at a time of desperation that we later regretted. Herod’s big talk caught up with him and ours does too.
The challenge of the gospel is to feel guilt for our part of the problems we have, realize that God forgives us of everything that we do and then try to act differently. Doing what God wants can sometimes bring us discomfort. Challenging popular forms of injustice and immorality invites disdain and persecution from those who prefer unjust and immoral lifestyles
John was a truth teller who spoke for God. Herod and his new wife, Herodias, were enraged by John’s words and had him imprisoned in order to quiet him. Herodias, on the other hand was not happy with John’s imprisonment. John had embarrassed her and Herodias nursed her grudge and the anger built up within her. Hate can do that. It can really cripple and distort our judgment.
Herodias sought to achieve her ends by whatever means necessary, a manipulator who acted out of her own personal ambition.
Mark tells us that Herod respected John, knowing that he was a righteous man, and protected him. Herod liked to listen to John and would have John brought to him from prison for late night talks. Herod was perplexed and disturbed by John. It was as though Herod became aware that he had a conscience when he was in John’s presence, but didn’t know what to do with it.
Herod lived a very obscene, raunchy and self-centered life. He gave a very raunchy party for his male friends. Herodias’ daughter, Salome, came in and danced for the less than polite crowd. In his exuberated state Herod offered her anything that she wanted.
Salome knew how her mother felt about John so she told him that she wanted John's head on a platter. She had no beef with John. She was just a willing pawn in her mother’s chess game skillfully executing her mother’s scheme.
Herod was in a jam. He had to honor his word or he would look foolish and weak in front of his friends. He was at the mercy of his own foolish promise and the shallow, misguided expectations of his friends. He felt compelled to do what his conscience told him was right, but he gave in to the pressure. We face pressure all the time. The pressure of school projects, a crazy workload or schedule meetings, deadlines. Your faith in God, no matter how strong will not completely take away the pressure of the world.
As we seek to understand this story, we must keep before us the truth. What happened to Herod could happen to us. We have all been pushed and pulled in many different directions at once. When that happens, do you allow yourself to be manipulated by the pressures of other people’s expectations and demands? Are you able in the midst of that pressure, to think clearly and make the right decision based on your goals and those of the organization? Have you ever ended up doing things that you didn’t believe in or want to do?
This was the case with Herod. People were making him do things that he knew was wrong, yet he did it anyway. He felt compelled to act in a certain way. This has happened to me. The problem is that we can’t run from pressure all the time. We have to learn to handle it and yet please God in the process. We have to decide what it means to follow Jesus. Can we silently look the other way all the time?
We all face pressure. What we do about it says a lot about us. We face the pressure of doing things to be popular. We all want to be liked. That’s why we give in to peer pressure sometimes. We feel pressure at work. We want the boss and our coworkers to like us more than other employees. It may mean a raise or promotion for us. There is nothing wrong with being liked or popular, unless we have to compromise our integrity or do unethical things against our conscience—then we’re in trouble.
For Herod, this meant murdering an innocent man just to keep his reputation and pride. We are constantly pressured to conform to someone else’s viewpoint, attitude, way of living, dressing, talking etc. How many have been suckered into doing something just because you thought everyone else was doing it and you didn’t want to back down? How many of us have agreed to do things we knew were absolutely wrong and would lead to terrible consequences, but we decided it would be less painful to deal with the consequences than to look at the sneering faces of our supposed friends right now.
We talk about losing our heads. This is not just when we stop thinking for ourselves. It also means that we have taken bad advice from people who don’t really know what’s right. If we give up responsibility for our decisions, then we are like loose cannons on a deck and a lot of people are going to get hurt.
We are answerable to God for every word we say, every act, and even every thought. The question we need to ask ourselves throughout the day is NOT “what will my friends think”, but what will God think. We should not submit to anything that is not God's plan and purpose for us. Don’t give in. Live by God’s standards. This is easier said than done. We need to be on our toes all the time. Never mind that you might not be as popular. Dare to be yourself and do what is right.
If you’ve been compromising, turn around and take a stand. Pray. Get in touch with God's power. There will be people that don’t like what you’re doing or the stand that you’re taking or what you’re saying, but what the world needs are Christians who dare to take a stand for Jesus, people who do not give in to pressure, but who respond to God's truth and ways. Our calling is to let them see Christ when the pressure is on.
Our scripture is about some very visible people doing something that was wrong. The response was that a lot of people whispered and mumbled, But John spoke out publicly, knowing that nothing would change unless he spoke up. John told the truth and paid for it with his life. He knew his own mind and spoke it. He would not change what he understood to be God’s purpose for our lives.
You say, “But John lost everything”. No, not at all. He did not lose the two things they could not take from him; his relationship with God through Jesus and his witness to the world. And friends when our lives are over and all the pieces are put back in the box—those are two most important things to have.