It haunted him. That grizzly sight of John’s head on the platter. He’d never meant it to come to that. Even after he had had John arrested and thrown into jail, he still would listen to him sometimes. He was drawn by John’s words – they had a way of reaching deep into his soul. He knew in a way that he couldn’t deny that John spoke truth. And yet John’s words also scared him. He didn’t want them to be true. He didn’t want to think of a coming judgment. He didn’t want to think of a God who knew the secrets of his heart and remembered everything he’d ever said, done, thought, felt. Who would expose his entire life before His throne and render a verdict upon him. But he listened because he couldn’t help himself. And yet he still wanted to do what he wanted to do. He wasn’t about to give up his new wife, though now that he had her, he wasn’t quite satisfied with her either. Why else had he been so captivated by her daughter and that suggestive dance? What a fool he’d been that night, to make such a stupid promise! What a fool not to guess how Herodius would have her revenge on the prophet she hated! He wasn’t thinking straight. Too much partying. He thought he’d do better someday. But the someday never came. He never seemed to think straight anymore.
And suddenly all these rumors spreading around the countryside. Unheard of miracles worked by some prophet from Nazareth! Some folks said the long awaited King of the Jews was at hand. But his own guilty conscience gave him another answer: You can’t escape. It’s John. John come back from the dead. Come to confront you with your evil, your weakness, your sin, your cowardice and failing. Just thinking about it he started to tremble. As though that head on the platter with the open eyes, looked straight at him: it was the look of pity from a free man gazing at a poor slave.
For Herod was a slave, make no doubt about it. He may have lived in a fine house. He may have feasted royally day after day. He may have stumbled from party to party and he took whatever he wanted. And that’s how he showed his slavery. He was a slave to his own appetites, his own desires. He didn’t conquer them; they ruled his life. And when he heard John preach, shackled and bound as he was, he knew he was in the presence of a free man.
John was no slave. From the time he was a little six month old foetus in his mother’s womb, he was a free. Already there the Holy Spirit had filled him and he had confessed by his leaping the presence of his Lord. At his circumcision, his father Zachariah had said of him: “You, my child, will 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. Through the tender mercy of our God when the Day shall dawn upon us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” John was a free man. Filled with the Holy Spirit, he didn’t bother about what folks thought of him. Good thing, too. He was a little strange. Clothed in camel’s hair, chomping on grasshoppers, and dipping his fingers in wild honey, he lived out in the wilderness. A free man.
He knew he had a task to do and he did it with zeal. He called Israel to repentance – no two ways about it. The Lord was near at hand, the kingdom was about to break in, and so lives had to change. His message hit hard. Folks came to him from all over. “What shall we do?” they cried. His message was one of mercy. They all went into the water and came up new people. Those who were wealthy, who had two tunics, were to share with those who had none. Tax collectors were welcomed too – and they were told to stop thieving and take no more than their due. Soldiers came, their swords red with blood, and they were welcomed as well. Their sins washed away and he told them: “Do not extort money from anyone by false accusation” and “be content with your wages.” He welcomed everyone but the self-righteous. Them he challenged: “Bear fruits befitting repentance. It’s not a show. It’s not a game. You need to turn from these sins that enslave you and let God set you free. If you don’t, you will meet Him in a way you don’t want to. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he’ll clear his threshing floor and gathering the wheat into his barn. But the chaff? You know what he’ll do to the chaff? Fire. Unquenchable fire. Repent while you can!”
But John wasn’t all law. His call to repentance was to prepare the people to greet with joy another One. His finger pointed to that One as He walked along. “Look!” he cried. “Look, one and all. THAT’S the Lamb of God. THAT’S the One who takes away the sin of the world. He’s the reason I’ve come – to point Him out to you all. He’s yours. Your Lamb!”
John was so utterly free because he knew that he was unworthy, as he confessed when the Lord came to him for Baptism: “I need to be baptized by you.” He knew that he was a sinner in need of mercy and forgiveness. But he knew also that the Lamb of God had come into the flesh to forgive his sin and that of the whole world, and to take on death and destroy it. There is no man so free as the man who knows his sin is forgiven, his death is destroyed, and that he is beloved child of the heavenly Father. Such a man is free to face the executioner’s sword – he lives by faith alone and so he lives still, even though he die.
John wanted everyone to know that freedom. Even Herod. But Herod declined the gift. He chose to stay in the prison house of his sinful desires and refused the freedom that he was offered. And all he had at the end were his regrets, his fears, his terrors.
And you? Which will it be for you? Will you like Herod stay a prisoner of your own passions, enslaved and bound to your own desires? Or will you receive from the same Holy Spirit who set John free, the gift of freedom? Will you rejoice that Jesus is your Lamb, that His death on the cross is your righteousness, that His resurrected life is your very own and that nothing but nothing – not even peril or sword - will ever be able to separate you from His love?
God is calling you today to freedom – to the freedom that John enjoyed, freedom from the long shadows of the sins that haunt you, freedom that the Spirit gives, that the Son won for you, that your heavenly Father summons you to enter. Bid farewell to the ways of Herod, people loved by God. There is forgiveness bigger than all sin. Come, behold the Lamb of God, let Him put His undying body and blood into you as the promise that your sins are forgiven and that they have no power to hold you a slave anymore. Come, feast with John the Baptist and all who live in Him, whom death has no power to destroy. To Him, our Lamb, be the glory forever with the Father and the Holy Spirit unto the ages of ages!