Poor King Herod the Second. He was having a bad day. To be honest, I suspect Herod had a lot of bad days. After all, it wasn’t easy being the ruler of Palestine, you are always caught in the middle between the demands of Rome and the Jews who were treated no better than pawns to be exploited by the Emperor. Deep down, Herod wanted to do what was right, but then again, he also wanted to live up to his father’s legacy, King Herod The great. It is quite possible Herod The Great had no soul, no sense of guilt or concern for anyone but his own advancement. Throughout his reign he built palaces and monuments to make sure no one could forget who ruled Palestine. When threatened with an unknown King believed to have been born in Bethlehem. Herod Agrippa found an easy solution to keep his throne safe . . . kill all male children two and under.
Herod the Second, it appears, had a bit more of a conscience than his father and was a bit less confident in the use of brutality in order to keep his kingdom under control. Yet, at the same time he was equally as ambitious, and desired to please the Emperor in ways that would convince Caesar to allow him to assume the thrones of his two brothers.
There was, however, one thing that held him back. A prophet from the desert named John. John, often referred to as the Baptizer, fascinated Herod. The contrast between the two men could not have been greater. Herod lived in luxury and was waited on hand and foot. He had power over the people of Judah and exploited this whenever he wished. John on the other hand, lived a simple ascetic life. He wore a roughly woven tunic. His home was the desert and he sustained himself through the generosity of others and the food he could scrounge in the desert.
John had no power, no money, simply a message of repentance and the tail of one who was to follow him. John also lacked the political tact needed when invited to speak before a king. Basically, John called it like it was and quickly made enemies in the royal court when he spoke out against Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodias.
No matter who you were, it was unwise to criticize Herod. In fact, it was usually fatal. John was lucky, because Herod was both impressed with him and afraid of him, John was simply jailed indefinitely. This was of course, until Salome danced for the king. Herod was so overjoyed with her dancing that he promised her anything she wished. “Anything?” She asked. “Yes, anything!” The king replied. “Hold on.” She said, I need to think about this.” So off to her mother she ran for consultation.
Now Herodias was a conniving woman, she knew her marriage to Herod was tenuous at best as long as John the Baptizer was alive. “How long,” she wondered, “until Herod would start listening to that nut job from the desert.” So she knew just what to tell her daughter to ask for. John the Baptist’s head on a platter.
It is hard to believe anyone would ask for such a thing. I suspect it was the last thing Herod ever thought young Salome’ would ask for. The usual requests were for gold, silver, houses or even jewels, but Salome asked for the life of John the Baptist. Herod was torn over this request. He was uncomfortable ordering john’s execution but at the same time knew he did not want to lose face with his court and especially with Rome. The choice was simple, do what was right and spare a man’s life or save face and hope this act of brutality would gain him greater respect from Rome.
As history and today’s Gospel tells us, Herod chose the latter and was troubled by it. He was especially troubled by the execution now that another young prophet/rabbi had burst onto the scene. His message was similar to John’s and as far as Herod could tell he was possibly the reincarnation of John returned from the dead to haunt him for what he had done and for all his other past sins.
So poor Herod, there he sat with all the riches and power anyone would want, and yet, he was troubled. Deep down I suspect he wanted to do what was right, but ambition and the expectations of the empire just kept getting in the way.
Choosing God or choosing to follow Christ is rarely easy. So often it requires letting go of all that is familiar. At times, it means making sacrifices for justice sake. If following Christ were intended to be easy, I doubt Jesus would have told his disciples that they must be willing to pick up their own crosses in order to follow him. Nor would he have exhorted his disciples to leave family behind and let the dead bury the dead.
Following Christ often comes with risk and our need to let go of all earthly ambition. Following Christ requires a willingness to surrender all that we have and all that we are in order to allow God to work within us, to literally change us and how we view the world around us.
Choosing God, as Herod found out, is just that. Our voluntary, thoughtful desire to follow and be one with God. God will never force our hand or even push us in any one direction. It is up to us and up to us alone to exercise the free will God has given us to accept and follow Christ.
And yes, as the fall of Adam and Eve shows us, God will allow us to make our own mistakes. Because as God declares in Deuteronomy after dictating the Law to Moses, “on this day I give you blessing and curse, life and death, choose life.”
Choose life. The tragedy of Herod in Mark’s Gospel is, he always seemed to choose death over life. He willingly chose to be ruled by the fickle cursedness of the empire over the peace and the freedom following God would have provided. He chose the anxiety that wealth and power bring over the peace and comfort of family and friends.
If what history tells us is correct, Herod died a withered and diseased man, paranoid of his family and anyone who could or would want to remove him from power along with a trail of blood and brutality. He never knew, he never allowed himself to take the risk of knowing the peace which comes from following God.
And so my friends, I stand before you this morning to encourage each and every one of us to learn from the sad example of Herod. A man who often chose what appeared to be the easier path in the short term, of earthly wealth and power without realizing the price he was paying in the long term. Instead, choose life, choose blessing and most of all choose peace by choosing God and following Christ. This is the path of true wealth, true peace and most of all true hope in what can be and what will be for all eternity.