What does it take to get ahead? What must you do to be successful? To be Powerful? Who must you please? Which backs must you scratch? What compromises must you be willing to take? Movies and TV have made those answers pretty clear. To get ahead you must be a man like Herod. Indeed, Herod was a man who by all accounts had gone very far in this cruel world of ours. But is that the whole story? The real story? Herod was a man who had gotten where he did only by losing himself.
(17-20) For it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.
Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch of Perea and Galilee, was the most successful and powerful son of his father King Herod the Great. He had outlived a maniacal father who killed any who looked at his throne sideways. He had won much favour in the courts of Rome. He had claimed not one but two territories as his own, and was almost as renowned a builder as his dad before him.
Yet, for all this the scriptures and ancient historians paint him as a man filled with fear and doubt. He is ruled by the lusts of his flesh, taking his brother’s wife (who was also his own niece) to be his wife he broke every law of Israel and of good taste. He is a man who vacillates between the whims of the people and the wishes of his hateful wife. He fully recognizes in John someone approved of by God, holy and righteous – someone who had the hearts of the people. Yet he will not stand up to his wife. Nor will he put her murderous intentions away.
He is a man beset by pride and vanity, a banquet for his birthday, the who’s who of ancient Israel in attendance to pay him honour. A lewd show by his daughter/niece/grandniece, Salome, the bluster and bravado of a little too much wine a little to much pride and the unthinkable is demanded. What will Herod do? Unwilling to back down from his pride John must die and give up his head so Herod can stay ahead. Is he sorry? Sorry he was backed into a corner. Sorry he must send his guests away with a foul vision and a spoiled party. Sorry he will incur the scorn of the people. Sorry? Yes, but repentant … no.
Now consider the lowly and reclusive figure of John. Consider the great preacher of repentance. (18, 20) For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” … for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.
John by the world’s standards was a nobody, a potential for greatness squandered and wasted tragically by the careless whims of another. Yet is that the whole story? The real story? John was a man who remained true to himself and his God, and gained so much more than he lost. For John the Baptist you see, uncouth wild man, poor son of an unimportant priestly family was none-the-less fearless and faithful to the end. He remained unbowed by power and trappings of the rich and famous, unmoved by the death threats of a woman scorned. Not only does he recognize the sin – he calls it what it is knowing full well that as Herod’s soldiers bundle him off he will not taste freedom again this side of heaven. Yet is he Sorry? Sorry he did it? Sorry he got nabbed by Herod? Sorry he didn’t know when to shut up? No! Not once. Even in prison he continues to call Herod to repentance just as he himself was repentant!
So how can two men so closely connected be so very different? Was it that Herod had so much more to lose than John? John lost his life, because Herod wouldn’t even lose a little face. Was it that one understood what it took to get ahead in this world and the other had his head in the clouds (until it was put on that platter)? Was it simply because these two men were cut from very different cloth? NO. It had nothing to do with either of these two men, and everything to do with the third man mentioned in our tale.
Herod was the kind of man he was precisely because he couldn’t see Jesus for who He was. Or wouldn’t. Despite all he heard all he saw, despite all the witnesses and his own encounter with Him Herod could never quite get past his guilty conscience to see Jesus as anything other than his accuser. The ghost of John back from the dead to blame him, accuse him, and make him pay for what he knew he had done wrong. If he could not view Him as the Saviour then he would eventually dismiss Him as a fraud, for his guilty conscience would have it no other way. He had no one to trust in but himself if he were to get ahead.
John, similarly was the kind of man he was precisely because he knew full well who Jesus was. He didn’t trust in himself, but in his Lord. He answered not to himself alone, but to God.
Faith in Jesus made John into that man of conviction. Indeed, in death just as in life he continues to point to Jesus the Messiah. To save face before a gathered crowd of drunken party-goers, to fulfill a blustering oath of up to half a kingdom innocent blood will be served up in an unsightly dish
Not so very long afterwards there will be another crowd, another desperate act committed to save face and Jesus’ innocent blood will be served up to satiate the hunger of an angry mob. Pilate will swear oaths of innocence, but call for the deed to be done non-the-less. As John the forerunner did in life so to does he do in death. He points in faith and repentance to the greater one to come. The one who will take away the sin of the world through His unfair sentencing and death at the whim of those caught up in murderous plots and ploys.
Why do the good suffer? Why does God let his saints die unjustly? Why must we bear cruel indignities here in this world? Be so often at the whim of those who are wicked and vain? … Why do we think it should be otherwise? To share in Christ’s life is to share in the good as well as the bad. To share in the bad that is made to become the good. The joys and the sorrows, the suffering and the persecution, it is all for the good – our good.
All those who have been put to death by the world for a message it doesn’t care to hear, like John, have a place prepared for them in the kingdom of heaven. “I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.” (Rev. 6:9b). Ironically, in the martyr’s death of St. John the Baptist, indeed in the death of each and every baptized saint of God, the believer is not really being separated from his head but being united with Him for eternity. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:5)
It was to the glory of God that John bore witness to the will of God, and the call to repentance. It was to the glory of Christ that John shared in the suffering and death of Jesus. It was to the glory of John that he was beheaded at the whim of a wicked woman, and a devious girl only to join the heavenly bride of Christ in triumph and victory everlasting. Herod may have sought to get ahead, Herodias and Salome may have gained John’s head, But only John got what he desired – and so much more!
What glory is God calling you to, friends? What Witness shall you bear? Will you stand firm when others are offended, when the whole world rails against you? Will you bear the cost patiently, even when it seems too high a price to pay? In whom will you place your trust? Will you risk family, friends, and neighbours to stand firm in the Truth of God Word and God’s call? Will you be the one who will do whatever it takes to get ahead or will you be the one to risk losing your head to gain the crown of life? Will you cling to the one who hung on the cross for you? God grant that you will!