This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached on Sunday, July 15. The gospel reading was Mark 6:14-29, the story of John the Baptist’s death.
Way back in the end of May, I told you that I would be preaching a sermon series throughout the months of June and July, a series called, “Words, Words, Words.” I said that I would talk about how we use words, how God uses words, and how God calls us to use our words.
Turns out I was not a man of my word. Twice in the past three weeks, I have not preached about words, because I didn’t preach at all! One week, a guest from the synod preached, and last week we had the excellent presentation from our youth. I broke my word; this eight-week sermon series will contain only six sermons. And there’s a part of me that wonders if perhaps I should have told both our synod guest and the youth group, “I’m sorry. You can’t preach today. I have already told the congregation what I’m preaching on.”
Well, I think I made the right choice both times, especially last week with the youth. But it meant I had to go back on my word. And here’s the funny thing. Today’s sermon topic, which I chose way back in May, is, “Don’t be afraid to go back on your words if you have to!”
I chose this topic because there is a character in today’s gospel whom I believe should have gone back on his word. King Herod. Now, just to clarify, this is not the murderous King Herod we hear about in the Christmas story. That was Herod the Great. This is Herod the Great’s son, Herod Antipas. And while Herod Antipas wasn’t quite as evil as his father, he was no boy scout either.
So Herod gave his word – he solemnly swore in fact – to give his daughter anything she asked for. Thanks to her mother’s grudge, the girl asked for the head of John the Baptist. Now, Herod was a pretty nasty king, so I doubt he was squeamish about murder in general, but he liked John. And feared John. He knew that John was a holy and righteous man. Even Herod knew that this was wrong. He should have gone back on his word. But he didn’t.
I think he felt trapped by his own words. Words that were spoken in the heat of the moment, probably while drunk. And he never expected his daughter to ask for something so horrific. He never thought his wife’s hatred of John would spread to his daughter.
I imagine he felt the eyes of all his guests looking at him when she asked this. The guests were probably as drunk as he was, and hatred can be a very contagious thing. They goaded him on, “Do it! Do it! Do it!” Herod considered: What would they think if I said no? What would people say if they knew I went back on my word? What would happen to my authority, to my power? Would this hatred turn against me?
The power of hatred is strong. Someone mentioned to me a few days ago that she sees so much hatred in our country right now. I’ve been thinking about how true that is. Looking around at the news and social media, it seems like we can’t disagree with one another anymore, at least not on political topics; we can’t disagree, we can only hate one another. My politics are liberal. I’m starting to wonder: can I be liberal today without hating President Trump and his supporters? And can those of you who have conservative politics be conservative today without hating me?
I hope the answer to both those questions is yes. But it is getting increasingly difficult. It is getting increasingly difficult to talk with one another. To show respect and love to one another. To seek and serve Christ in one another. It’s just getting so much easier to just hate one another. And not care whose head gets cut off in the process.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. And I actually see hope in this gospel reading today. I see hope in the verse that says this: Herod liked to listen to John. As evil and nasty as Herod was, he liked to listen to John the Baptist. Mark doesn’t tell us what John said to Herod when they talked in prison, but we do know the kind of things John was famous for saying. Things like:
Repent! For the kingdom of God is coming.
The one more powerful than I is coming, and he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.
When John saw Jesus, he said, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
John knew that Jesus was coming. And he called people to repent, which means “turn around.” He called people to turn around and make a new way. Turn around and see that you are not stuck. Turn around and see that Christ opens a whole new life for you.
A life without hatred. There will still be hatred around you, but not within you. A life without fear. There will still be fear around you, but not within you. A life without doubt. Without worry. Without sin. John knew that life was coming, and promised that we would experience it if we just, repented – turned around – when we saw Jesus.
You know as well as I that we don’t live that life today. None of us is completely free of hatred, fear, doubt. But Jesus is the promise that one day we will be. That one day, this world will be. That one day, our suffering will end, and our longing will be answered. And for now, Jesus is the hope that that day is coming. Hope that even now we can become a little less scared. A little less hateful. A little less doubtful. A little more trusting. A little more faithful. A little more bold. A little more joyful.
We don’t know how John met his death in that prison. The gospel-writers don’t tell us. But the book of Acts tells us how others met similar circumstances. Paul and Barnabas were thrown in prison, and what did they do? They sang hymns and praised God, even while shackled to the prison wall. Stephen was stoned to death, and what did he do? He saw Jesus in his glory, and he prayed for forgiveness for his murderers.
Whatever this world sends at us, we need not fear it. We can even go back on our words when we need to, because sometimes we make mistakes with those words. We need not feel stuck in those mistakes like Herod did. Instead, we can faithfully follow.