For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
July 15, 2012 (The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Series B)
Edgar Allen Poe once wrote a story called “The Telltale Heart.” The basic idea of the story is that, after having murdered someone and hidden the body beneath the floorboards of his house, he begins to hear a heartbeat. The guilt of what he has done bothers him so much, is such a part of his every thought, that he is convinced that the heartbeat belongs to the man he killed, and that everyone in the room (including the detective who is investigating the disappearance of the murdered man) can hear it, too. Of course, the heartbeat he hears is his own, amplified by the blood rushing through the tissues of his own ears, driven by his own rapid heartbeat and high blood pressure due to the stress of the situation. But it drives him mad. He is so convinced that everyone in the room can hear the heartbeat that he begins talking to it, yelling at it to shut up and go away. Finally he is forced to confess that he, in fact, killed the missing man and that the body is hidden beneath the floorboards, because the guilt of what he has done, taking the shape of a mysterious heartbeat, has driven him insane.
What happened to Herod Antipas in today’s text is somewhat like that. Herod knew that John was speaking the truth when he said that Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife was wrong. He hesitated to hurt John, despite the fact that he had imprisoned him, because he knew John was a true prophet and that the word of Law John had spoken to him was just. He knew that his guilt would only increase if he added murder to the list of his crimes. But, to protect his throne, he couldn’t let the man roam free and tell everyone what a horrible sinner he was, so he let John sit in prison.
But when his new wife Herodias asked, through her daughter, his own niece, his own stepdaughter, that John’s head be brought to her, he couldn’t refuse her. He had sworn to give her whatever she wanted. And so he ordered John to be beheaded and his head brought on a silver platter. Now his guilt was driving him insane. He knew he had killed the Lord’s prophet, and the thought just wouldn’t leave him alone. So, when he heard of Jesus’ preaching and miracles, his mind jumped to the conclusion that John had risen from the dead and had come back to condemn him anew.
It’s easy to look at a story like this and simply see Herod as the bad guy. And this is, after all, the same man who mocked Jesus when Pilate sent Him over during His trial early in the morning on the first Good Friday. His father, Herod the Great, had killed all the baby boys in and around Bethlehem some thirty years ago, trying to assassinate the newborn King before He could become a threat. The Herodian kings were all bloodthirsty dictators who were only concerned about their own power and about keeping the Roman occupiers happy so that they could hang on to their own thrones at whatever cost. These really were evil men.
But it is in Herod’s place that we all too often find ourselves as we remember the wrongs we have committed against our fellow human beings and especially against our fellow Christians. Most of us have not literally murdered anyone. But Satan loves to paint our own sins as just as severe and deadly. And, there’s an element of truth there. After all, before God’s judgment every sin is just as serious as murder. And so the Accuser (that’s what the Hebrew word satan means, by the way) loves to paint our sins in as ugly and sickening a light as possible. He loves to drive us to obsession and despair over the things we have done. And if it weren’t for Christ, Satan would be right. Our sins, no matter how small or insignificant they seem to our neighbors, really would send us to that place where gnawing obsession and guilt is all that is left to us, because the love of God the Father is completely absent.
What Herod imagined had happened to John really did happen, by the way. Only, it didn’t happen to John. There really was a resurrection in first-century Judea. But it wasn’t the resurrection of a man killed unwillingly to come back and accuse a bloodthirsty, neurotic dictator of his crimes before all of his subjects. The resurrection that did happen was of the man who Herod only thought was John raised to life again. The innocent Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity in human flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, rose to life again after having been brutally executed for his claim to be exactly what He was, the Son of God. But he rose again not to condemn those who put Him to death (despite what many Jewish leaders feared even in our own day in connection with Mel Gibson’s incredibly graphic cinematic portrayal of His execution), but to give the world forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. His death destroyed death, and so His life is for the salvation of the world.
And so, what Herod feared really did come to pass only a couple of years later. But it was for the opposite reason. It wasn’t a mere prophet, but the true Prophet who rose from the dead. And he rose, not for the sake of condemnation, but for the sake of salvation. And His body and blood are presented to us guilty little herods, not as a result of our own bloodthirsty evil ways, but as a medicine that heals our twisted, rocky hearts and gives us new life and eternal salvation. The resurrection of Jesus is not a ghostly specter that accuses us of our sins, it is a flesh-and-blood Savior and God who will raise us up with Him and bring us to His Father’s house to dwell with Him forever. Amen.
+ Soli Deo Gloria +