Truth and Promises

by Donna Ahlberg

This sermon was preached in July of 2018 at Indian Shores and Clear Lake campgrounds, an outreach ministry of Calvary Lutheran Church (ELCA) of Minocqua, WI.

Text: Mark 6:17–29

Truth and promises can be in harmony with one another, or in disharmony. Promises built on a foundation of truth will flourish and be honorable. Promises built on a foundation of deception will ultimately wither and die. I want to talk about these two themes from this text – truth and promises. John is the messenger of truth, and Herod is the man of promises. Herod knew what truth was and was intrigued by it. Indeed, he was “greatly perplexed” or puzzled by John’s words, yet he liked to listen to him. I think that Herod was intrigued and perplexed by the truth of John’s words, just like we are. John’s declarations, his perplexing words, were all proclaimed so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah. Ultimately, though, Herod could not abide in the truth of those words. Perhaps, it can even be said, that due to political pressures, it was Herod’s choosing not to abide in that truth.

In the parable of the seed and the sower from Matthew 13, Jesus told a story about a sower who tossed seed on different soils. Some seed fell on the walking path and the birds came and ate the seed. The seed that fell on rocky soil sprung up quickly but had no depth of soil and when the sun rose, they were scorched and since they had no root, they withered away and died. Others fell among thorns where the thorns grew up and choked them, and some seed fell on good soil and brought forth grain some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.

Focusing on the seed that fell on rocky soil, Jesus explained it this way: the word will fall on ears that hear and take heart, but the ways of the world will triumph over it because such a person has no root and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. I think Herod was an example of that rocky soil. He liked listening to John when he spoke the word. He didn’t understand it – he was perplexed by it – but he knew there was something meaningful to it and, yet, he didn’t let it root, did he? The same Herod would appear later, at the crucifixion, and he would meet Jesus himself. He would mock Jesus, “Are you really the King of the Jews? Then, why don’t you save yourself!” And he would turn Jesus away and back to Pontius Pilate. Herod had certainly hardened his heart by that time and clearly he had fallen away from the word, the truth. Herod chose not to abide in the truth.

It is an understatement that this gospel story – events at Herod’s birthday party – reflects the tension that can develop when promises are built on deception. One deception was Herod’s marriage to Herodias. If John was a truth-teller, Herod was a law-breaker. Due to class and privilege, Herod took Herodias as his wife even though it was against Jewish law to wed another man’s wife. And, for Herod, Herodias was not just another man’s wife – she was his sister-in-law, married to his brother Philip before she divorced him. Herod was a thief, in that sense, taking what wasn’t his to take according to Jewish law. John called him out on it, telling him he shouldn’t have done that. This truth seems to have angered Herodias more than Herod. For Herodias is the one who insisted on John being arrested and jailed because she had a grudge against him. Herodias was a deviously clever and dangerous woman who wanted to bury the truth.

Herod knew in his heart and in his head who John the Baptist was. He knew that God Himself had sent John as a messenger to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of Christ on earth. He knew that John was “a righteous and holy man.” And yet he had him killed to honor an oath that he had made to his daughter: “Whatever you ask me, I will give you.” Herod did not truly understand the implications of the agreement that he proposed and we know he was saddened by the choices he had to make. Yet he was a politician whose reputation was placed on the line by his wife in front of many major and important players in the world of Roman power and politics. She was cleverly deceptive in setting up this ethical wedge: choose between maintaining your own political reputation or choose to abide in the truth of the word.

Up to this point, Herod clearly had protected John from adversaries. This we know directly from the reading. But now, there is something more personal at stake: Do I stand up for what I know is right, or do I want to look good in the eyes of others? Do I do something new, or do I fall back on what has always been? Do I rock the social boat and rule by compassion, or do I maintain power and authority in my world of privilege? The promise – “Whatever you ask me, I will give you” – has now pitted Herod’s power and privilege and prestige in the world against the truth of God’s word. Isn’t this so like our world?

Herod’s promises were meant as an honor, a gift in response to his step-daughter’s beautiful dancing, a foolish gift on his part built on a rocky foundation. The oath was made to impress not his daughter, but the crowd. Here is another deception. His daughter, who is referenced as Salome elsewhere, did not even know what she wanted if half the kingdom were hers to receive. How many personal promises are made in our world to satisfy political agendas instead?

Then there is Herodias, the opportunist, corrupting a foolish political whim into a murderous personal agenda. Give me what I really can’t forgive, the truth, on a platter. John the Baptizer, whose mission in life was to tell God’s truth about salvation in Jesus as the fulfillment of the prophet Isaiah, as the fulfillment of the Old Testament. John who, as an historical figure, linked the old with the oncoming new. Give me his head on a platter. Usually, at a birthday celebration, we expect a cake.

The story of Herod and Herodias is a disturbing one about the choices we have to make in our lives. I remember learning, as a child, that if you made a promise, you were supposed to keep it. Promises are supposed to mean something about integrity and keeping your word. Having character. Being trusted. Being accountable. This is pretty easy if you make a promise that you want to keep. But, did you ever make a promise that you didn’t want to keep? A promise with an unforeseen disagreeable ending? A promise that resulted in unethical or immoral behavior? A promise built on deception? Like Herod, did you keep it anyway? Because, really, what is more important – the promise or the truth? In the eyes of God, what is really more important?

Sometime later Herod heard accounts about Jesus from the preaching of the witnesses – the disciples – and he remembered those words that he had heard directly from John the Baptist – that God was sending a savior, the Messiah. Herod concluded that John must have been raised from the dead. Instead of feeling perplexed, I think he knew something by now about truth, that it can’t stay buried.

History has not looked favorably on Herod, the king who kept his promise and ordered the beheading of John the Baptist, the king who unintentionally created his own prideful dilemma and then, enlightened of the gospel, was unable to choose the holy and the righteous.

The question for us to consider: Do we favor the holy and righteous in our daily living, or do we, like Herod, favor our own authority in the world? Do we try to make ethical and moral choices, or do we opt for choices that protect our pride, our status, and our self-image? It really is for us to choose. Because life will challenge us with deception and evil, and God will ask us to abide in truth, even if it means broken promises.