14 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some weresaying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” 15 But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
17 For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. 18 For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20 for Herod feared John, knowing that he 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. 21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22 When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” 23 And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” 24 She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” 25 Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”26 The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27 Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28 brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
Whenever I preach on this text, these song lyrics come to mind:
You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes you just might find
You just might find
You get what you need
If you remember, or recognize this song, it’s a Rolling Stones song from the late 60’s. It seems appropriate for this morning’s text because Herod finds himself in an awkward place. A place where he feels cornered into making a dark decision.
King Herod was not well liked. He maintained power as a regional ruler under roman authority. He was the Jewish king, but he had to make a lot of folks feel secure. Israel was a religious culture based on a set of theological and cultural understandings. There were Pharisees and Sadducees, religious leaders and legal scholars who had set up a system of daily living that kept society and culture in a particular order, there were on top, as was the political authority of the King. Now, Herod and the religious leaders didn’t like each other much. The religious leaders put up with him as long as he didn’t rock the status quo. He kept certain things in line, kept the masses under control with his thugs and soldiers, and they were backed up by the roman army that occupied Israel.
The religious authorities looked passed Herod’s morality because it was convenient. However, they were starting to have some uncomfortable concerns, especially considering he had taken his brother’s wife, Herodias. Yet, because of their relative comfort at the top of the social food chain, they let him get away with it.
Herod knew that, he also had a lot of wants. He desired his brother’s wife, and we can tell by this passage, that he liked big parties, and he lusted after his wife’s daughter as she danced for him. We also know that his now wife was pretty crafty and knew how to work the relationship with Herod by pushing her daughter to dance for him. Pretty scandalous stuff.
It’s easy to judge Herod with history on our side, but as I read this passage, I had to ask, was their an inkling of hope for conversion, for growth, for repentance and change within Herod?
Herod was drawn to the teachings of Jesus and John the Baptist. He put John in prison, but from the passage, we can see that John the Baptist had access to Herod. Herod was drawn to John’s message. What was John’s message? In Matthew 3, we hear these words: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”. John was saying first and foremost, Jesus is coming near, the Kingdom of heaven is at hand. A new day was dawning, God in the flesh is here. The truest human, Jesus was walking on earth, showing folks how to love well and preaching a message of hope and release. John was saying that God is nearer than we realize, that God’s love is more real than even the temple in Jerusalem, more real than all of the rules of the religious leaders, and more meaningful than all of the systems that we have set up to maintain power, status quo…and that life, real life, meaning deeper than all of our lusts are found in a relationship with God and others.
John also had hard words…because this love was so near, we need to repent, to change, to grow. He shared those words with Herod. But, Herod didn’t want to give up on his wants, he didn’t understand that there was a new day dawning. He was drawn to John, but he also feared John. Herod had a lot of anxiety as he held on to what he knew. He also knew that John’s message had appeal to the masses.
So, we come to the party. It’s a family party, but this family has some interesting dynamics! Herod’s wife is feeling insecure and makes a dark move. Have her daughter dance and ask for John’s head. Again, it’s easy to judge her, but she wanted to keep what she knew going. She felt threatened and saw an opportunity to get rid of John. She also had anxieties…she didn’t understand why Herod kept John around, especially knowing that John was telling Herod that their relationship was wrong.
The daughter dances, Herod is drunk with lust and literally drunk. He tells the daughter that he’s pleased and she can have anything she wants. She follows through and asks for John’s head. Herod tries to sober up, he’s caught in a hard place. But, rather than making a stand for what is right, rather than staying curious and in relationship with John, in order to save face with the immediate crowd, he gives into the system that he’s a part of and gives the girl John’s head.
It’s a tragic story, yet it gets played out in our lives daily. We may not be dancing for the king, or beheading anyone literally, and we may not be in a literal prison. Yet, we are all being called to see that God loves us and is near to us. We are all prisoners to a system inside and outside of us that imprisons us, that keeps us thinking and acting in ways that we are used to. Yet, John’s message rings true to us, God is near, we have a moment to change to and to grow and to be the persons that you have always wanted to be. You have an opportunity to repent.
It makes us uncomfortable and react to this message in many ways.
The question is do we want to do the hard work of recognition, of sobering up to a new reality, of living life together in community and not as individuals. Herod thought John was drawn to John because of John’s closeness to God, he wanted some of that, but he also wanted to live life on his own terms, or so he thought. He was actually enslaved to a way of living and thinking that prevented him from truly knowing himself, God, or others. John couldn’t give him that automatically, John couldn’t give God to Herod. God was, and is, already there and here. Herod simply needed to want to see it and to make a stand for once in his life that went against what he thought he knew. Herod didn’t understand or love himself, didn’t understand or love his own community in Israel as he only wanted to maintain power, and didn’t have a desire to see the greater world around him changed through the love of God.
Friends, if Herod were here today, I would hope that I would have the courage to tell him three things. Since he’s not here, but we’re here, I would propose that these three things will help us to break free from whatever enslaves us in order to make better decisions that lead to life, real life.
- Be willing to understand and truly love yourself. That’s possibly the hardest thing to do. But, I believe through relationships and community with each other, we can begin to see ourselves in deeper and more helpful ways. I would suggest taking advantage of the weekly Bible study that we have, looking for a spiritual director, starting a Bible study on your own with others. I have some other tools and resources that I’d love to share with you as well.
- Loving your community. That’s the neighborhood in which this church resides, and your neighborhood in which you live. The two can’t be separated. Love well and live well with others. That means honoring and not labeling or putting others in boxes. You don’t want to be in a box, so why put others? Stay curious and stay open to possibilities that emerge within this church and within your neighborhood.
- Having a concern for the world. Jesus came for the whole world, God is not small. God wants all of us to live in a way that not only honors those closest to us, but those around the world. Also, having an understanding that being spiritual encompasses everything in this world. God is present everywhere, our UCC theology says that God takes the ordinary and gives everything meaning. There is meaning and spiritual meaning all around us.
I used to love coaching my XC kids, telling them that they all have a moment of truth in a race. Will they push in that 3rd mile to win or to reach a goal, or will they give in a settle for 2nd place. I can’t guarantee the outcome, but I can tell kids and to each of us, that pushing through to the other side, a willingness to meet the moment of truth and decide to push through to a better way of running or living life will cause growth.
Herod was given a moment of truth, and he decided to save face and succumb to the systems or surroundings that he found himself. He is truly the victim in this story. We don’t have to be the victims, we can meet our moment of truth, whenever we recognize it, and experience the full life of God’s Presence.