This past Friday we found out through the news that before he died Peter Keller left behind a video explaining why he did what he did. Peter Keller is the man who killed his wife and daughter, burned down his house and then holed up in a bunker he constructed outside of North Bend.
Peter Keller was out to build his own little kingdom. In the video Keller said he looked forward to a future that would be exciting. He said, “I don’t have to worry about my family and everything will be taken care of. It’ll just be me.”
King Herod also had a kingdom. It was a lot more than Peter Keller’s self-made bunker, but it really wasn’t all that much. Although we call him king, Herod actually had little power. Like his people, he was a subject of the Roman Empire. But Rome wasn’t the only one that had power over Herod. Like Peter Keller, Herod also had a wife and daughter. In today’s story we find that they have power over him.
Herod had been scolded by a wild man named John the Baptist for taking his brother’s wife. That woman became enraged and wanted John killed. She finds her opportunity when King Herod foolishly makes a public promise to grant any wish, up to half his kingdom! Well, he doesn’t have the power to make good on such a promise because he doesn’t have a kingdom to give away. But, to hang on to the little power he does have, he has to make good on the promise, which means that someone has to die.
The worlds of Peter Keller and King Herod seem so far from our own. But while it’s the Peter Kellers who make headlines in our day, it’s the spirit of King Herod that might teach us the most.
Herod didn’t know what to make of John the Baptist. Mark writes that Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When [Herod] heard [John] he was greatly perplexed, and yet he liked to listen to him. Herod was an admirer of John the Baptist. We was a fan of John! But when push came to shove, even this man he admired had to go because preserving the little power he had was the most important thing.
The choice that today’s reading offers us is a choice between kingship and discipleship. It’s a choice between following the example of King Herod or John the Baptist. It’s a choice that each of us is presented many times a day.
It’s easy to be an admirer of Jesus. Herod’s responses to John might resonate with our own. Like Herod we might fear Jesus. Like Herod, in reading the Bible we might find God’s Word perplexing. Even so, like Herod, we might like to listen to the teachings of Jesus. We might want our children to grow up as ethical people with sound moral values. But discipleship is not primarily about morals. There are many non-Christians in the world who have higher ethical standards than many church-going Christians. No, discipleship, by definition, means to follow the leader.
That’s why King Herod can teach us something. To what extent are we like Herod, admiring Jesus, fans of Jesus, showing up for church on Sunday, and yet primarily interested in calling the shots ourselves, setting our own agenda, intent on preserving what little power we have in this world?
John the Baptist didn’t have much—and he knew it! In the end, not even his life was his own. Interesting, isn’t it, how John seemed almost to go out of his way to make trouble for himself. He didn’t have to stir things up with Herod’s family. He could’ve kept his mouth shut. But John chose discipleship. John chose to follow the leader.
To be a disciple of Jesus Christ means studying the teachings of the master and discerning the voice of God in the world. For example, King Herod promised his daughter half his kingdom. He couldn’t make good on the promise because it wasn’t his to give. It wasn’t the first time such a promise was made. Remember the story of Jesus tempted in the wilderness by Satan. In the story, Satan’s final temptation was the promise that he would give Jesus the whole world if he would only bow down and worship him. The big lie in the story is that the world is not Satan’s to give away, any more than Herod’s kingdom was his to give away. And if we go all the way back to the book of Genesis we find the snake in the garden, promising the man and the woman that they will be masters of God’s kingdom if only they will eat the forbidden fruit.
We find such promises over and over. Jesus himself made a similar promise! Whatever you ask in my name I will do for you, he says in John’s gospel, chapters 14,15 and 16. Even though we don’t understand that and wonder how that might be possible it’s not the words that count as much as the one who makes the promise. Whom do we follow? A nation? A political party? Promises of economic security? The frightened little voice inside our head?
Or, recognizing the risk do we nevertheless choose to follow the one called Christ?
Every day we get to choose: Will I be an admirer of Jesus Christ? Will I be a fan? Or, will I be a disciple, a follower, listening for God’s Word and obeying God’s will.
Although the worlds each of us live in seem so different from those of Peter Keller or King Herod the temptations are the same: to create, or cling to, a kingdom of our own or someone else’s making. Whatever illusions of power or security we create are eventually stripped away. Our youth fades, our health diminishes, our choices decrease. Circumstances beyond our control, including the prospect of our own death, remind us that we’re a lot more like John the Baptist than we thought. We don’t have that much power.
Our hope is not in control over our own lives or even in life itself. Our hope is in Christ. In the company of others we listen to the teachings of Jesus, we study his example, and we pray that the Holy Spirit will lead us to filter every little thing through the question: What would God have me do?
In today’s second reading we get a hint of what that spirit looks like at its best. Notice how the author of Ephesians seems little concerned about his own fears and needs. Instead, his focus at every turn is on Christ and doing God’s will…
May the Holy Spirit break open our hearts to receive this same spirit, so that each day and many times a day we may choose not to be merely masters of our own kingdom and admirers of Jesus Christ…but disciples. AMEN