The stakes in life are high.
I suppose that’s an obvious fact, and yet it isn’t always apparent to us who live in this corner of the world, here on the northwest coast of North America. As we know, here we practically “have it all,” including answers or fixes for most everything.
But from time to time, something happens to remind us. It might be individual, like a personal crisis in health or an accident. Or it could be collective, like a global pandemic. Or the destruction of an entire town by wildfire.
At times like those, it might hit us once again.
Or maybe by hearing the story of John the Baptizer. From the very start, his life seemed destined for conflict. He launched a ministry among the Jewish people that opposed the ministry of the Temple in Jerusalem. He even called the staff of the Temple to repentance and then baptized them … not in their pools of purification located in the Temple precincts, but in the Jordan River.
I imagine that provoked anger not only among the leaders of the Temple, but also among the general population. For the Temple was not only the centre of religious expression; it also provided livelihoods either directly or indirectly for up to one-third of Jerusalem’s residents.
The stakes in life are high. John and his disciples – and Jesus and his disciples, too – must have been acutely aware of this. For they are part of the dawning reign of God, the in-breaking of the kingdom. Jesus had warned that the coming of the kingdom will always result in violence.
Well, today we hear a story which, next to the story of Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion, stands out as one of the most gruesome stories in the Bible – certainly because John loses his head … but also because Herod loses his life.
Herod was a member of a dynasty of rulers. He was governor of Galilee and Perea. The family was not Jewish but Idumean, originating in the border region on the south end of the Dead Sea. Herod’s grandfather, Antipater, had gained favour with the Roman empire and had extended that favour throughout his family by appointing his sons and grandsons as governors of various parts of the region.
Both John the Baptist and Jesus were Galileans, and therefore were his subjects.
Herod had earned John’s criticism because he had married his own niece, Herodias. When the two met, she was already married to Herod’s half-brother. Both divorced in order to marry each other. Into this marriage Herodias brought her daughter, also named Herodias. This was the young woman who danced before Herod and his guests at his birthday party on that fateful day.
Herod’s wife held a grudge against John. With good reason he had openly criticized her marriage to her half-uncle: they had transgressed the boundaries of social structure, human decency, and God’s law. They got away with it because they were powerful people who placed themselves above all such law. And now, Herodias schemed to get rid of John.
But her husband, Herod, was in the way. To his credit, he regarded John as a righteous and holy man, and thus protected him. Granted, Herod had imprisoned John in the first place, but he had done this only because Herodias had insisted upon it. Herod’s continuing resistance had been effective up to this point, but Herodias finally saw her opportunity and capitalized upon it. Controlling both her daughter and her husband, she got what she wanted: John’s head on a platter.
A tragic end to a controversial life, to be sure. But John only lost his head. The one who really lost his life was Herod.
You see, in a way John lives on. John knew who he was in God’s unfolding plan of salvation. He came to proclaim Jesus Christ. He was vitally aware of his own prophetic role and knew that he spoke for God.
But he also knew that he was not the Saviour. Rather, he foretold and “told forth.” He said regarding Jesus: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” John understood who he was in relation to God and the promised Messiah.
John lives on. He lived on in the memories of the people whom he had called to repentance in his day. He lived on in the memories of countless generations of Christians who similarly took up their calling and proclaimed the Saviour. He lives on today in our memories and our preaching and teaching, as the one who prepared the way for the coming messiah and continues still to point us to him.
Most important of all, John lives on in the memory of God, for it was God who first called him to his prophetic mission and preserves him still by his own gracious love … even though John lost his head.
Meanwhile, Herod lost it all.
- He lost his integrity as King because he permitted his authority and his power to be used by another person.
- He lost his self-respect because he permitted his public office to be controlled by his spouse.
- He lost whatever peace of mind he had enjoyed to that point in his life, because he was haunted by the memory of John.
- And finally (most tragically), because he was possessed by the spirit of evil, he lost his ability to hear Jesus’ word of forgiveness and new life.
John lost his head … but Herod lost his life.
The stakes are high. No wonder, then, that God must do it all for our sake. God must redeem us from the pitfalls of power, from the snares of family intrigue, and from the folly of our own thoughtless and sinful desires. God must redeem us because we are powerless to save ourselves.
Thank God that God has created us anew through Jesus Christ. We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that as he was raised from the dead by the glory of the father, we too now live new life. Winners, all of us … but not by the world’s standards.
You and I are children of God. Because of our faith in Jesus Christ, we are members of God’s household. We know who wins the battle for us, and we know what life is for: forgiveness, trust, righteousness, integrity in all our relationships and in all our responsibilities, and loving service to God’s people.
That, dear sisters and brothers in Christ, is victory. Because of Jesus Christ, the battle is won. Go from this place with renewed courage and confidence, for God goes with us!
May God’s peace be with you all.