King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some said, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” But others said, “He is Elijah.” And others said, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” 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.
But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. For when Herodias’s daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests. And the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.” And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.” And she went out and said to her mother, “For what should I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist.” And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb. (Mark 6:14–29)
Poor old Herod had it all. He was a man with power - a king no less - and the wealth that power attracts. He bore influence in his realm and was ready to wield it. Amongst the Jews in Israel who would have had more freedom than he did? And yet it all went terribly wrong in this sorry tale of the execution of John the Baptist.
The point is this: Herod did not want to kill John the Baptist. He might have said uncomfortable things about his marriage, but John was held in high regard by the king. “He heard him gladly”. The monarch would regularly visit the prophet, even though “greatly perplexed”. Even though his wife took a dim view.
So what went wrong? Something which can all too often go wrong for us too.
To explain what I have in mind, allow me to contrast the two men in this account. John is a man who clearly is obedient to the call of God. He knew that to wade into the matter of the king’s marriage was a dangerous thing to do, but he could do nothing else but act upon the prompting of God. Herod, on the other hand, is fascinated by John and although worried by what he says keeps coming back for more. Yet he does not act. John preaches, but Herod prevaricates. John is obedient but Herod is merely intrigued. It’s a case of action versus curiosity.
We can see in all of this something crucial. In the end our reaction to the promptings of God makes all the difference. God usually does not operate through neon signs, lowered between the clouds. Commonly we are aware of promptings and a sense of ‘oughtness’. Oh, well then you must act and do something. There may well be 101 reasons to try and ignore what you feel God is prompting you to do - timing, embarrassment, a lack of energy - but to take no notice of the proddings only weakens you in your faith.
The second contrast is to do with stuff, with God’s provision. Herod was a man of luxury, and it is fair to say that an outfit of camel’s hair and a diet of locusts and wild honey is far from fancy. John had submitted everything to God, but Herod clearly thought all his goods were his own to do with as he liked. After all, he feels free to pledge half his kingdom in an oath. But “The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1). It’s not Herod’s to do with as he wills. Or ours. Rather than owners, we find in scripture the notion that we are stewards of the earth. Ultimately all is of God, and so we must have an explanation of how we deal with our resources. In the Acts of the Apostles, goods were held in common for the good of the early church. As we say in the communion service “all things come from your, and of your own do we give you”. There is a freedom in not being so concerned with possessions that they end up obsessing you!
The final contrast is to do with reputation. For John, God’s praise was paramount. He wanted to do what was right, and live in obedience to his call. Even to death. For Herod he was more concerned about what his guests might think if he broke his rash oath. In Romans 12:2, Paul urges: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect”. In the actions of Herod, whose desire to save face lead to John losing his head, we see a sorry example of failing to heed Paul’s advice. I wonder what we are put off from doing through embarrassment, or a desire to be accepted. Do we find ourselves constrained by the opinions of others. In the end, there is only one person whose opinion matters.
So there we have it. Herod and John. One who looked around for approval, and the other who only looked up. One who only listened, and the other who also acted. One who held all that he had close to him, and the other who put it all in God’s hands. In the end Herod was haunted by his decision, thinking that Jesus was John the Baptist back from the dead. John though had a life transformed, and died at peace with God.
Two choices as to how to live are clearly laid out in front of us.