Preacher: James Cowan
God, grant us serenity to accept the things we cannot change; courage to change the things we can, and wisdom to know the difference. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We all sin. That’s one of the underlying assumptions of Christian theology. It’s why the Bible is filled with images of sin and repentance. Job cries out: “I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” David laments: “My sin is ever before me.” John the Baptist proclaims: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.” Christ avows: “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.” And Paul testifies “ to both Jews and Greeks about repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus.”
The true measure of our character is what we do when we realize we have fallen into sin. In today’s gospel, we witness the sin of King Herod. What we may not realize is that King David is very similar to Herod, for he sinned also, and his sin is remarkably like Herod’s. Both committed adultery by stealing someone else’s wife. Both were reprimanded for their actions by a prophet. Both used their power as kings to work damage control on the situation. And both ordered an execution as a final result of their sin.
For those not familiar with David’s sin, here’s a recap: One day, David spies a beautiful woman bathing while he is strolling on his rooftop. Overcome with lust, he sends for her, even though his spies tell him she is the wife of one of his soldiers. He sleeps with her, sends her home, and probably forgets about her until she sends word to him that she is pregnant with his child.
Realizing he’s in trouble, David calls back her husband from the frontlines, hoping that the toll of battle will result in a passionate home coming and the soldier will think that the child is his. But the soldier refuses to go to his home while his regiment is still in the field, so he sleeps on David’s porch with David’s bodyguards.
Irritated that his plan isn’t working, David makes another effort to get the soldier to sleep with his wife: he invites the soldier to a banquet and gets him drunk, hoping it will make him amorous and he’ll stagger home to his wife. But again, the soldier sleeps on the porch.
Feeling out of options, David orders the death of the soldier. He writes a letter for the soldier to give to his General. The letter commands the General to place the soldier in the thick of the battle. The soldier is killed. David waits until his wife is done mourning before marrying her. Life returns to normal for a while and I imagine David heaving a great big sigh of relief.
But God isn’t happy with David’s behavior, so God sends Nathan the prophet to reprimand him. Once David realizes his sin is known and he can no longer kid himself that he had no choice, he immediately fesses up and repents.
David repents because he is in the habit of setting God’s kingdom before his own. Since his youth, he has been finding his power and authority in God. When he was younger, David wrote:
How shall a young man cleanse his way?
By keeping to your words.
With my whole heart I seek you;
let me not stray from your commandments.
I treasure your promise in my heart,
that I may not sin against you.
Blessed are you, O LORD;
instruct me in your statutes.
With my lips will I recite
all the judgments of your mouth.
I have taken greater delight in the way of your decrees
than in all manner of riches.
I will meditate on your commandments
and give attention to your ways.
My delight is in your statutes
I will not forget your words.
Herod, by contrast, is in the habit of setting his own kingdom before God’s kingdom. He loves to listen to John, but is perplexed by the tension he feels between his authority and God’s authority. That’s because Herod has been finding his power and authority in the earthly power he wields over his subjects. When his step-daughter asks for the head of John the Baptist, Herod is filled with regret—not repentance, not remorse, not humility—but regret, because he values the opinion of his guests more than God’s opinion and feels he can’t go back on his word without losing face. I wonder: if the request had been made in private, would Herod have broken his promise and spared the life of John the Baptist? I suspect he would; but the potential social suicide he feared didn’t seem worth the price of saving the life of the one person who brought light into his dark and complicated life. It turned out Herod didn’t rule over his subjects; they ruled over him.
Every time we sin, we are given an opportunity to make a choice for or against God’s kingdom. If we choose not to repent, then we may become like Herod. Herod made his choice to remain king of his realm. By the time we see him again during Christ’s passion just a year or two later, Herod is nothing more than a debauched man of influence who wants only to be entertained. He has no interest in what Jesus has to say, instead wanting to be impressed by miracles and signs. When Jesus won’t perform for him, let alone speak to him, Herod simply sends him back to Pilate. There is no indication that God’s kingdom ever crosses his mind. That’s probably because the image of John’s severed head on a platter haunts him every waking hour. Without forgiveness, it’s no surprise Herod seeks greater and more extravagant distractions to help him forget. Eventually, this behavior culminates in Herod’s exile to Gaul, where he dies without his kingdom at the outermost edge of the empire.
In choosing to repent, we join ourselves to God and follow in Christ’s footsteps. By confessing our sin and vowing to change our behavior, we join in the passion and death of Christ by allowing a useless part of us to die. By accepting the forgiveness of God and the forgiveness of those we’ve wronged, we burst out of the tomb of our sorrow and shame into new life and hope. With David, we can dance for joy before the Lord because we have been forgiven! David’s life didn’t get any easier after he sinned, but he died at a ripe old age with his kingdom intact and is still highly regarded to this day.
So, the next time you sin, (and make no mistake, we will), ask yourself: would I rather be like David or like Herod? Would I rather repent of my sin and find myself dancing the joyful dance of resurrection? Or, would I rather just shrug and pretend I had no choice, missing my chance to discover God standing right in front of me?