The Reverend John Allison
July 11, 2021
Christ Church, Hudson
Our Gospel reading this week picks up where we left off last week; the disciples have been sent out by Jesus and the passage ended with these words: “They cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.” The apostles have been doing these deeds of power in Jesus’s name and Herod has heard of it. Everyone has heard of it and people are talking. Who is this man Jesus? There is much speculation that he is one of the prophets who has been raised but Herod, in his guilt, believes “John, whom I beheaded has been raised.”
And it’s here that the flashback begins and we hear one of the few Gospel passages read on a Sunday that does not focus explicitly on Jesus or his ministry. Not only that, it’s a bit salacious, a tale of adultery and vengeance. A tale that begs the question, where is God in this? Where is the Good News of Christ to be found?
The great southern writer, Flannery O’Connor, in an essay on the art of the story, says, “There is a moment in every story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected, even though the reader may not recognize that moment.” Indeed, what is the moment in this story that grace is to be accepted or rejected? What is the point at which Herod might be redeemed?
If we are to see this episode simply as a foreshadowing of Jesus’s later betrayal and crucifixion the question may be moot. But I believe this tale of vengeance and guilt mirrors for us a key tendency we all have as humans. Just like the later crowds on Good Friday who yell out, “Crucify him” as Pilate weighs the fate of Jesus, we all have something of Herod in our natures. We all have barriers to being able to receive God’s word. For Herod, that barrier was pride, tinged perhaps with a bit of fear.
We are told that Herod had imprisoned John for speaking out against him because he had married his brother’s wife, Herodias. Herodias is angered by this for she herself had great ambition and resented anyone who dared get in her way. But Herod is reluctant to harm John; we’re told Herod feared him as he recognized him as righteous and holy. It’s with this knowledge that Herodias plots her revenge. At Herod’s birthday banquet Herodias has her daughter Salome, whom Mark here confusedly also calls Heriodias, dance for the King, knowing of Herod’s weakness for her. Because he is so pleased he tells her that he will give her whatever she wants and, as is her mother’s wish, she asks for the head of John the Baptist.
It’s here, I think, that the presence of grace hangs in the air and waits to be accepted or rejected. It’s here where Herod has the choice to choose God’s messenger who pointed the way to the Good News of Christ and at the same time illuminated Herod’s sinfulness. Herod saw the truth that John proclaimed; I imagine he felt the weight of his ambition, of his lust for power and for flesh. John calls for him to repent, to turn and reorient himself to God. That’s the moment where grace hangs in the air to be accepted or rejected and we know what Herod chooses. We have his answer in the gruesome spectacle of John’s head on a platter.
John calls Herod to right action. He calls him, as we are all called, to God’s word and he is rejected—and not just rejected but killed in a most brutal way. We are told that Herod was deeply grieved when he is asked to kill John, but we are not surprised that he does. He acts from a place of weakness, of fear, of pride. He does not want to lose face, does not want to break his promise in front of his guests and he chooses death—John’s death explicitly but a deep interior death within his own soul. His pride, his ambition to power, blocks his ability to accept the truth God sends to him in John. That’s what sin does; it separates us from God’s love. God is always waiting for us to turn to him. Paul tells us as much today in his Letter to the Ephesians, but our willfulness gets in the way. We are often bound by our willfulness, as was Herod. We are often bound by our pride, as was Herod. We are often bound by our fear, as was Herod.
We are not likely to find ourselves in a situation where our choice decides the fate of another’s life. There are no heads on a platter in the literal sense, but in our life we are faced with choices that nonetheless have grave consequences for us, for our souls, and also for others, for individuals and for the world at large. Every one of us here at times makes choices that we know, deep down, are not in accordance with God’s love for the world. It may be something as simple as appeasing the will of another whom we know to be wrong, simply to smooth our own path or to save our pride. It may be giving in to societal or political expectations that run contrary to God’s love, to the truth that God has revealed in Christ. It may be looking the other way, intentionally turning from injustice and suffering so that we might maintain our own privilege or so that we are not troubled too much. It may be demonizing the “other side” so as to avoid looking into our own hearts. The list could go on and on, but my point is that each of us is confronted with choices such as the one presented to Herod.
There are, in every life, moments when the presence of God’s grace can be felt as we choose to either accept it or reject it. There are moments, for all of us, daily, in which we are called to turn toward God, to live from a place rooted in God’s love and generosity. That’s the inheritance we have in Christ. Can we be awake to those moments? Can you identify them in your own life? Can we identify them in the life of the Church? Can we hear where God is calling us to righteousness? That is the awareness we are called to cultivate as disciples. That’s what Paul means when he calls us to live for the praise of God’s glory. May we all pray that we have eyes to see and ears to hear so that we might accept God’s grace in those moments when the choice is before us. Amen.