Losing Your Head
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
In the Gospel appointed for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, we encounter three people who are losing their heads. One of them, John the Baptist, had spent his life preparing the way for Christ. He had preached the message of repentance, a message which is never popular. He was finally imprisoned for preaching that message to what the world would consider the wrong people.
Those wrong people were Herod and his mistress, Herodias. Herod had set aside his own wife and separated Herodias from her husband, his own half-brother, Philip. It was bad enough that Herodias had married her own uncle in Philip. But then Herodias and Herod both left their legal spouses to come together. There was no way John could overlook such sinfulness, not even for someone in a position of great authority—not even for the sake of his own freedom or even his very life.
Rather than heeding John’s message of repentance, Herod, at the request of Herodias, had John arrested. Herodias wanted even more than that. She wanted John dead for daring to speak against her. She had lost her head. But Herod, despite his sinfulness in this relationship, apparently had enough of a conscience to deter him. Besides, he liked listening to John, even if he didn’t always understand or approve of what John had to say. He also believed, and rightly so, that John was a man set apart by God, and that killing John would call down upon himself the wrath of God. So he was content to keep John imprisoned. He’d call John into his presence from time to time to hear him preach; and John did what he always did: he preached the message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Herodias had already lost her head regarding John and his message. But she needed Herod to lose his, as well. She needed him to let go of the scruples which kept him from killing John. And when her own asking would not do, she devised a plan. She sent her daughter out to dance for Herod and his company. Influenced by his libido and desiring to impress his guests, Herod offered to give the girl whatever she wanted. At the urging of Herodias, the daughter asked for John’s head on a platter.
What his wife’s pleading could not do, his step-daughter’s dancing finally achieved. Herod lost his head, too. Herod knew then that he’d made a promise he shouldn’t keep, but he didn’t want to back down in front of his powerful guests. He caved. He ordered that John should be beheaded. So finally John lost his head, too.
This is a sordid tale, so disgusting as to make it worthy of being a plotline on a soap opera. But no soap opera would take it. After all, the problem is so much more than just infidelity. One of my favorite “evangelists”, “Saint” Paul Simon, once wrote, “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” This is especially true regarding the Word of God. Herod refused to heed the Word of God which John preached to him, though he certainly liked to hear John preach; and Herodias refused to heed the Word of God, so much so that she wanted the messenger killed.
We can look with disdain at Herod and Herodias, but we’re just as guilty of the same sin. You see, it’s easy to heed the Word when it comes to matters of which we approve. “Thou shalt not kill.” Certainly, by all means. It’s wrong to murder a man. We all know that. But what about a fetus? What about embryonic stem cells? What about that guy who cuts you off in traffic when you’re already having a bad day? “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Fair enough, Lord. But what if she’s gorgeous? After all, Lord, you’re the one who gave me these hormones that affect me this way, so if you didn’t want me to be attracted to her, you shouldn’t have made her so attractive. And what if I’m not married; it wouldn’t apply to me, would it? “Remember the Sabbath day.” I guess I can come to church every Sunday. But do you really expect me to agree that closed Communion is a good idea when it means my druid cousin can’t receive the Lord’s Supper? And surely you didn’t mean us to believe everything you teach in the Bible; after all, a lot of that is so out of place with how things are in society today. And surely you don’t mean for us to hold to the Word if it means we’re going to face persecution or even death because of it, right?
The Word of God causes people to lose their heads. Some, like Herod, hear the Word of God and find it a mere amusement; others, like Herodias, hear the Word and seek to destroy those who bring that faithful Word to them because they don’t like the message it conveys.
And then there are people like John the Baptist. John faithfully preached the Word, regardless of the consequences. From the time of his birth, John prepared for that moment. His father had told him, “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the most high, for you will go before the Lord to prepare His way, to give His people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.” But preparing them for forgiveness meant they had to be made to see their sinfulness. No one likes to have their sins pointed out to them, and some even react with violence. But John lived up to the responsibility placed upon him. He preached the message of sin and repentance. Many repented and believed through the Word which John preached. Not everyone received it as willingly, though. John’s head on a plate shows us that. The Word caused John to lose his head, too.
And the Lord calls upon us to show the same faithfulness. During the rite of confirmation the confirmands make confession of baptismal faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed. Then the pastor asks, “Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?” Each of us has been or will be asked that question, and we respond, “I do so intend with the help of God.” Later the pastor asks, “Do you intend faithfully to conform all your life to the divine Word, to be faithful in the use of God's Word and Sacraments, which are His means of grace, and in faith, word, and action to remain true to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even to death?” We respond, “I do so intend by the grace of God.” These are weighty questions, and your response is a solemn vow, a vow which may result in you losing your head, just as John did.
John preached the Word as God graciously gave it to him. Even in the midst of his imprisonment John didn’t step down, knowing that a whim could—and eventually did—send him to his death. God strengthened him for this service. He does the same for us. We live in a sinful world, and we are sinful people. It is never easy to live according to the Word of God. That’s what makes it so easy for non-believers to think of us as hypocrites—it’s easy not to be a hypocrite when you don’t believe in anything. He knows how hard it is to remain faithful, especially when we face trials and persecutions. Who could understand that better than Jesus? He was put to death for preaching that He was the promised Messiah and the Son of God. But He rose again as well, so that we would have forgiveness for our failure to live according to His Word. When we repent of our sins, God is faithful to forgive our sin.
Our Lord understands all too well. He knows that we may be called upon to suffer, and maybe even die, for our faith. After all, they treated Him that way. He prayed that the cup of suffering could be removed from Him, though He drank it to its bitter dregs on our behalf. And knowing that we may be asked to suffer for the sake of His holy name, Christ gives us a cup to drink as well, a cup filled with His precious blood which, along with His holy body, forgives us our sins and strengthens us for this life and even unto life everlasting.
John the Baptist lost his head. Some would think of this as a bad thing; and to be sure, none of us desires to be beheaded or to face any other kind of gruesome death or persecution for the sake of Christ. But we thank God for John the Baptist and for the death which he died; for John died in faith, living according to the Word and suffering all, even death, rather than turning away from the Lord and the message God gave him to preach. God grant that we, too, may be faithful, even to the point of death; for the crown of life awaits us. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.