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Editor’s note: The following is a condensed version of a sermon delivered recently by the Rev. Marc O’Neal. O’Neal is pastor at Mount Olivet UMC in Manteo.
The death of John the Baptist is quite the story, isn’t it? I mean, if it were made into a mini-series or a movie, it’s the kind of thing you wouldn’t let your kids see until they were older.
You have King Herod, who steals his brother’s wife and then allows himself to be seduced by a girl who most experts think was a teenager. Part of that seduction includes him promising her anything, so when she asks for John the Baptist’s head, Herod — because of pride or vanity or not wanting to lose face in front of his gathered guests — has John the Baptist executed and his head brought to court on a silver platter.
The story has it all: drinking and dancing and desire and death. I read a commentary online that said this story looks more like the show “Game of Thrones” than it does the Kingdom of God.
Do you see yourself in it? You may say, “That’s outrageous. There’s not a single thing about this salacious story that resembles any part of my life.” But you see, here’s the thing about Scripture: I believe every word of it has been written for us for a reason. And that includes the stuff that immediately jumps off the page at us as well as those things we may run over and not notice the first few times we read them. I think this is such a story, and for us it starts with the first half of the first verse: “King Herod heard of it.” Heard of what? What is the “it” here?
For that we go back to Jesus’ return to his hometown in Nazareth and his rather unkind reception when he arrived, but also to how Jesus kept on doing what Jesus does: equipping and training his disciples to go out and be on mission for the Kingdom. In Mark 6, 12-13, we read that they “went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”
This is the “it” that Herod heard of. Disciples going about the countryside proclaiming the message of repentance of sin. A message of acknowledging those places in life where you have fallen short; where you have stumbled or outright fallen down; those things going on in your life that you know need to be strengthened or straightened. A message of repenting and believing the Good News.
When he hears this message about the need to repent, Herod, who knows the disciples are taking their cues from this Jesus fella, falls into the same trap as the rest of Nazareth, because he has no idea who Jesus is. He becomes convinced Jesus is actually John the Baptist raised from the dead. Why? Because “repent and believe the Good News” was the message John preached time and time again.
And evidently Herod heard it time and time again. At first Herod protected John, and he liked to listen to him — even though this message of repentance left Herod feeling “greatly perplexed” or “miserable with guilt” or “greatly disturbed” or “greatly puzzled,” depending on which translation you use. But it was a message he heard over and over from John. So once this same message is being directed by another, Herod’s only logical explanation is that it must be John the Baptist raised from the dead. How else could the same message be preached over and over by different people?
Of course you and I know how, don’t we? Because it’s God’s message. It’s the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. God’s message, the Word of the Lord, does not change, even if the mouthpieces do.
Repent and believe the Good News. We have no problem with the back half of that statement, do we? We like the Good News! But that first part of it, repent? That means I have to take an honest look at myself. That means some of the things I want to remain hidden have to be brought into the light. That means I may have to have some difficult conversations with some people that I don’t want to have. That means some of the things I like to do, I may not be able to do any more, and it means some of the stuff I don’t want to do I may have to start doing.
And yet, is that not what God is asking us to do? One of my favorite verses from James is in chapter 1, when he writes, “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves ... those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act — they will be blessed in their doing.”
Which brings us back to my initial question: Do you see yourself in this story? Because Herod was a hearer, and not a doer. I have no idea how many times he heard John the Baptist’s call to repent, but my best guess is that it was certainly more than once. How many times did he hear God speaking to him through John the Baptist, and yet it didn’t change his behavior? How many times, upon hearing John and feeling perplexed or convicted or guilty or puzzled, did he simply throw his hands up and go on to something else, because he didn’t have time for what God was asking of him, or it was too hard, or the timing wasn’t quite right?
What about you? How many times has God spoken to you, whether through Scripture or a sermon or a trusted friend or God himself, and you’ve been merely a hearer and not a doer? How many times has God revealed something to you, or asked something of you, and you have been perplexed or convicted or puzzled, and yet just threw it on the backburner? Because it was too hard, or the timing wasn’t quite right, or it wasn’t remotely close to something you wanted to do?
I know all about it. In my former life as a lawyer, I had been in practice for a little over a decade when God started working on me and calling me into ordained ministry. While I had affirmations from others about it, I didn’t want it. It was too much. I would have to get rid of a lot of my bad habits. The comfortable lifestyle I was accustomed to was going to have to change. How was this going to affect my family? My practice? My friendships? I heard it, but it was too hard to do it, so I kept putting it off.
And then God found another mouthpiece. One morning, while in her daily devotion, God spoke to my wife Heidi. As clear as I am speaking to you now, she says God told her “I’m trying to call him into ministry and he’s not listening.”
Are you listening? I mean, God may not be calling you into ordained ministry, but He is certainly calling you, all of us, to something. At the very least, he is calling all of us to repentance. An honest account of the way we live, the words we use, the thoughts we think, and if any of those things take us away from God or what is holy in His sight then we must change it and turn back to God.
We must understand that true repentance is not saying “I’m sorry” or “my bad” and then going on as if nothing ever happened. No, it is an intentional turning around, it’s admitting wrong, and walking back toward God. All of us.
Please understand: I don’t say these things to make you feel bad about yourself, or guilty, or ashamed, or any of that. I say these things so that you may find happiness, wholeness and healing.
If we go back to verse 13 of Mark, Chapter 6, it says that in addition to preaching repentance, that they, the disciples, cured many who were sick. Do you think they were only curing those who were physically sick? I don’t. I think they were also curing those who were spiritually sick. Those who had regret or shame and felt that they weren’t good enough to be in God’s presence, much less have a relationship with the Almighty. Our God is a just God, yes, but also a merciful God. Eager and willing to offer forgiveness to his beloved sons and daughters — you and me — and all we need to do is to approach the throne with an honest and contrite heart.
Friends, eventually you will run out of tomorrows if you keep putting off being doers and not just hearers of the word. It happened to Herod. A couple of years or so after our story here, Jesus was in Jerusalem for Passover. Arrested by the Jewish authorities, betrayed by one of his own disciples, deserted by the others, Jesus found himself in front of Pontius Pilate. Pilate interrogated Jesus and found no fault in him. He was reluctant to pass a death sentence on an innocent man.
Once he found out Jesus was from Galilee, Pilate saw a way out. He decided to send Jesus to the Galilean ruler who just so happened to be in Jerusalem at that very moment: King Herod.
This was the same Herod who had ordered John’s execution. The same Herod who had heard the message of repentance over and over. That same Herod now stood face to face with the one who would ultimately pay the price for his sins, as well as yours and mine. Right there, in the presence of God, Herod had a chance to fall on his knees and seek forgiveness. Instead, he mocked Jesus, and sent him away.
My dear sisters and brothers, you have now heard of it, the call to repent and believe the Good News, the urging to listen to God and be not just hearers but also doers. The offer of healing and wholeness and forgiveness and life abundant stands before you. Are you going to be like Herod, merely a hearer and not a doer, one that sends Jesus away, putting it off til tomorrow?
Or will you go to God in prayer, saying, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed.” My dear, dear friends: Are you listening?
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