Today I preached my second sermon for my "Preaching the Headlines" class at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. This was a difficult text to wrestle with, but I'm glad I did it.
1At that time Herod the ruler heard reports about Jesus; 2and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist; he has been raised from the dead, and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” 3For Herod had arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, 4because John had been telling him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” 5Though Herod wanted to put him to death, he feared the crowd, because they regarded him as a prophet. 6But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company, and she pleased Herod 7so much that he promised on oath to grant her whatever she might ask. 8Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” 9The king was grieved, yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he commanded it to be given; 10he sent and had John beheaded in the prison. 11The head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, who brought it to her mother. 12His disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus.
The name just smacks of evil.
Any time I read or hear the name “Herod” in a Gospel reading, it’s like when an old melodrama villain comes on stage and the crowd boos and hisses. I can almost see him twirling his handlebar mustache with an evil grin on his face.
Often when we hear the name, we think first of Herod the Great – the king who killed all the baby boys trying to murder Jesus before he could grow up, but today’s text features his son who isn’t much better. The name Herod is always bad news in the gospels.
Maybe. . . just maybe. . . pure evil wasn’t this Herod’s whole motive. I know, I know. It’s hard to think of Herod as anything but evil, but bear with me on this one. Like most things in life, there’s more to this story than we see at first glance, and I’d argue that Herod was just was weak as he was evil.
In today’s passage Herod hears reports about Jesus and he starts to feel a little guilty. He thought that Jesus was a resurrected version of John the Baptist who Herod had murdered. We then get this flashback to when John the Baptist was beheaded.
It’s a grim scene.
Herod hadn’t liked what John the Baptist was preaching. John had been speaking out against Herod’s immoral marriage to his brother’s wife who was also his niece. Because he was in charge of pretty much everything in the area at the time, Herod was able to throw John in prison just because he didn’t like him. Herod did want to kill John, but he was afraid to because the people called him a prophet. Not only was Herod afraid that the people might rebel if he killed their prophet, there was a bit of a taboo when it came to killing prophets. Prophets, they feared, might just come back to life.
Herodias his wife had no such hesitations. In a world where women were denied overt and public power, she found a sneaky and manipulative way to get what she wanted – the silence of John the Baptist. She used her own daughter - who some historical accounts say may have been as young as 11 or 12 – to seduce the men in the room and told her what to ask for when the dance pleased Herod.
In that day and age, it would have been scandalous for Herod to go back on a vow – even one as outlandish as telling a teenaged girl he would give her anything she wanted – so he was caught between a rock and a hard place. And consequently, John the Baptist was caught between a rock and the executioner’s sword.
From this little passage here, it’s hard to see any sort of silver lining. Herod was a despicable person who had a man jailed for speaking his mind, then had him beheaded at the whim of a child who had been manipulated by her spiteful mother. What a mess of a family!
We know from the beginning of this passage that Herod doesn’t get away with this cleanly. John’s beheading sticks in his conscience. It comes back to haunt him when he starts to hear the reports about this Jesus guy who has crowds flocking to hear him preach and to receive healing.
The key here, my friends, is Jesus. The moment Herod hears reports about Jesus, he begins to shake in his boots. Jesus is up to something powerful and Herod knows there’s something special going on. His analysis of what exactly that something special is happens to be off, but even the villain Herod can tell that there is something special happening.
God does not prevent this terrible crime – the murder of the prophet John. John is beheaded and his story ends abruptly. There’s no resurrection like Herod suspects. But just like God does not prevent the violent death of the voice crying out in the wilderness, God also does not prevent the violent death of the Son Jesus. John’s death is a foreshadowing of what is to come in the ministry of Christ. This whole passage is about Jesus and it foreshadows the coming death and resurrection of the Messiah.
John who proclaimed the coming of Christ was imprisoned and killed, but it’s not for nothing. His message carries on into the story of Jesus Christ and what an ultimately hopeful ending to a grim story!
Just as in his life, John proclaimed the coming Messiah – Jesus the savior of all peoples – John’s death proclaimed the sacrifice made on our behalf and the hope that was to come.
It can certainly feel like we’re hopelessly at the mercy of rulers’ whims sometimes. And often, it’s hard to tell who’s really in charge.
It seems like that’s all we hear about on the evening news. I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when I start to think about the tangled web that is politics in this country. And we’re not that different from other countries when it comes to government and politics. Sure we have different governmental structures and some are functionally more successful than others. There are different sets of problems in different places, but everywhere we see problems like poverty, human trafficking, oppression, slavery, division. All over the newspapers, TV, and internet, we see stories of abuse of power and manipulation of other people. We see messed up systems like that of Herod’s family taking advantage of the people around them and seemingly ignoring or silencing any voices that speak out against them.
Many of us feel like victims of these systems at some time or another. Some of us may feel that way often or always. You might feel like Herod – powerful in some ways and in others just another pawn in a tangled web. You might feel like Herodias’ daughter – forced to do a dance and ask for the right thing. Maybe you sympathize with Herodias – culture has said you have no power and the only way to make your voice heard is through sly and creative means. You might feel like John the Baptist – punished for doing the right thing and thrown to the mercy of a bunch of nutjobs.
It’s hard to know how to stand up for what’s right when we’re stuck in these confusing webs of human mess. Sometimes it’s hard to even tell what’s the right thing to stand up for. What are we to look to? What did John look to? Or rather WHO did John look to? Even in his death, John points us to Jesus. Our first step is to look to Jesus and point to him in every moment.
We have to remember that even in the midst of messed up evil, we can see glimpses of Christ. Keep your eyes open. Sometimes you have to filter an awful lot to get to it, but it’s there and when we find it, we have a chance to encourage our brothers and sisters and protect those around us.
Recently, there was a BBC report that re-visited a bit of news from 1996. This particular news review and the amazing photograph that accompanies it have been going around on Facebook and Twitter too. This report was done to highlight how this particular incident still motivates people to this day. Something that happened nearly 20 years ago is still so powerful that it moves people to action and kindness in the world today.
It happened at an anti- KKK rally. The rally was peaceful until a man wearing a confederate flag T-Shirt wandered by. It’s unclear what he was doing there or if he was purposefully antagonizing anyone, but what was meant to be a peaceful rally swiftly became a mob. Demonstrators began to chase the man away and when he fell, they began to kick him and beat him with the posts of their placards. It’s then that an 18 year old African American woman threw herself on the man to protect him.
This young woman put her own well-being at risk to protect someone who proudly wore symbols of everything she was there to speak out against. I don’t know that my instinct would be to do that, let alone if I thought the man might be a member of a hate group like the KKK.
Unlike Herod who was spiteful, easily manipulated, and willing to watch the death of someone he disagreed with, this young woman reacted with what she knew in her gut was the right thing to do. Obviously, this comparison is a bit backwards in that in John’s case, it was the good prophet who was beheaded by a bad guy and in the case of this news story, I doubt any of us would try to argue that the KKK and other white supremacist groups are speaking truth.
That’s what makes stories like this one even more incredible.
This is just one glimpse of Jesus in this present world, sisters and brothers. That’s the sort of light we are able to be in the midst of hopelessness. God is working in all circumstances; we just need to be on the look out.
Christ is coming again, friends and while we wait, we are given awesome opportunities to step out of the roles of Herod, the dancing child, or Herodias.
It may be risky, but we, like John, are called to take a stand for what is right and just. Like the prophets before him, we must call it when we see it. Someone must take a stand for Jesus and for Truth - even if it means mirroring his death - even if it means risking the anger of a mob.
In his death, John the Baptist continued to proclaim Christ and the sacrifice Jesus would make on our behalf. We can find hope in this passage and look to it to remember that even in tangled, messy situations, there are glimmers of hope. There are opportunities to shine Christ’s light and stand out against the crowd. There is a light even in the darkest of nights and the name of that light is Jesus Christ.