Opportunity Lost

TEXT: Mark 6:14-29

When … Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” (Mark 6:22)

This year—on July 15—preachers who dine at the Revised Common Lectionary table are served up a meaty gospel text on the eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10 or Ordinary 15, in liturgispeak).

This passage from Mark (6:14-29) is surely one of the most well-known stories in the New Testament. It recounts the sad fate of Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, who was famously beheaded by the order of King Herod. Matthew’s gospel also reports this event, but—for once—Mark’s account is more detailed.

Beyond inspiring some truly disturbing artwork, this passage offers a powerful example of just exactly how our attitudes and our actions can build a wall between us and God. To be sure, it’s an extreme example—but it does show what happens when we get our priorities wrong.

The Herod described here is Herod Antipas—son of Herod the Great. Although he was sympathetic to the Jewish population, his household was thoroughly Hellenized—that is, completely absorbed in Greek culture and philosophy. Herod acted more like a pagan than a Jewish king. In fact, the Roman historian Josephus tells us about frequent revelry in Herod’s court (The Jewish War: 2.2.5). Lots of wild parties and drunkenness went on in this king’s palace!

Nevertheless, Herod did have a measure of respect for the Jewish religion. He also had a kind of reverence for a holy man named John the Baptist. This was true even though John was bold in his criticism of the king. Mark tells us that Herod liked listening to John’s preaching, although “When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed.”

Our gospel story revolves around the fact that Herod Antipas had married his brother Philip’s wife. For this, John the Baptist had publicly rebuked the king. Even so, Herod himself tolerated John.

However, Herod’s wife Herodias—whom he had stolen away from his own brother … Well, she hated John. In fact, she wanted him dead. It might even be true that Herod put John into prison in order to protect him from Herodias. Mark doesn’t exactly say that, but I think it’s possible.

Certainly, by now Herod would have realized just what kind of woman he had married. I have to wonder if Herod’s brother Philip wasn’t just a little bit relieved by the way things turned out … But, I digress.

Herodias was seething with anger against John, and when she saw an opportunity to get rid of him, she jumped at it. Here’s how things went down …

At one of Herod’s high-society parties, Herodias’s daughter performed a dance and wowed the audience. Now, according to Josephus, this girl was named Salome. But according to Mark, she had the same name as her mother: Herodias.

Did you ever notice that? Mark 6:22 says: “When [Herod’s] daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests.”

Now, this Herodias was actually Herod’s stepdaughter—as well as being his niece. But, no matter. She was very much her mother’s child. Her dance routine must have been … well … provocative. And Herod was so delighted with the response of his guests that he made an impulsive—and stupid—pledge: “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.”

So the girl Herodias runs to her mother Herodias and says, “What should I ask for?” And her mother sends her back with a chilling request: “Give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

Too proud to go back on his word in front of his dinner guests, Herod—albeit reluctantly—grants the request. And, with the ensuing action, the possibility of God’s blessing in Herod’s life disappears.

It was a “fork in the road” moment in Herod’s life—and he chose the direction of expediency rather than the path of blessing. The voice of God which had come to Herod through John the Baptist … Alas, it was lost in the din of noisy celebration.

If Herod had been thinking clearly—if he had been a man of courage—things might have turned out differently. But then, if Herod had been a man of courage, he might have gone to John the Baptist himself, and enquired further about the message which troubled him so deeply. If he had not been so enamored of the world’s pleasures, he might have paid more attention to the prophet’s words.

Sadly, the moment is lost. The decision is made. Herod chooses that “wide road which leads to destruction.”

John the Baptist loses his earthly life and gains the blessings of heaven. Herod loses his immortal soul. By shutting out the voice of the Spirit, Herod sinks deeper into the quicksand of his own depravity.

Okay. I know Herod’s story is an extreme case. Even so, I believe it contains lessons for all of us. The barriers to God’s blessing in his life are reminiscent of similar barriers we face in our lives. Consider the facts:

  • Herod was interested in God—but he wanted to keep God at arm’s length.
  • Herod listened to religious teaching—but he didn’t allow himself to be changed by it.
  • Herod’s life was consumed by the things of this world—so much so, that he ignored the message of God which had come to him.
  • Herod was more concerned about his relationships with other people than he was about his relationship with almighty God.

This is such a sad story. Mark makes it clear that Herod had a certain degree of respect—perhaps even affection—for John the Baptist. The message John brought touched Herod somewhere deep inside. John’s words attracted him. And yet, something within him kept him from responding.

You know, there are some Bible passages where we can recognize the “behind the scenes” ministry of the Holy Spirit. This passage from Mark is one of these. In verse 20, we read: “When [Herod] heard [John], he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.” On some level, Herod must have realized that, in the words of John the Baptist, he was hearing the voice of God.

Have you ever felt like that? The voice of God comes to us in so many different forms. It may come in the words of a sermon. It may come in the words of a friend.

Perhaps a particularly beautiful sunrise or sunset captures your attention and stops you in your tracks, and—if only for a moment—your spirit is awakened to another dimension of reality.

Occasionally, the voice of God even comes to us through some sad or tragic event—something that comes as a harsh interruption in the routine ebb and flow of our lives.

We are always being presented with messages from God. The question is: will we listen to them? Will we respond to them? Will we seize the opportunities that are being given? Or, to put it differently:  will we connect with the living God?

Certainly, Herod had his opportunities to do that. In today’s gospel, two of them stand out.

First of all, while John was in his prison, Herod had a golden opportunity to make a connection. I wonder if—in the years that followed—Herod wished he had spoken with John about the inner stirrings that troubled him so. Had he done that, he might have been blessed—perhaps blessed in ways beyond his imagining.

The second opportunity came when Herodias made her gruesome request: “Give me the head of John the Baptist.”

At this point, Herod could have chosen to do the right thing—or, at least, chosen to not do the wrong thing! But he was more concerned about saving face … and so he let the prophet die. And by doing that, Herod lost his chance to receive God’s blessing.

Choosing the wrong opportunity can have dire consequences. Isn’t this a lesson we all learn in life? Bad choices do not lead to good results. They only lead to more bad choices.

So … what about us? How can we make sure that our choices are good ones? How can we open ourselves up to God’s blessings, instead of losing them?

Maybe the most important advice is that so often given by Jesus: “Listen! Pay attention!” (“Whoever has ears, let them hear”). Listen for the voice of God. When God speaks—and when we listen—blessing is sure to follow.

What might happen if we decided to make our relationship with God our top priority? Our priorities, after all, shape both the character and the quality of our lives. As Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21).

Here’s another bit of advice: remember who you are in Christ! Keep your eyes fixed on him. In his Letter to the Ephesians (1:3), the apostle Paul assures us that we have already been blessed “with every spiritual blessing” in Christ.

We don’t have to go looking for God’s blessings—we already have them! Those blessings are already ours, if we keep our focus in the right place. No reward can ever replace the inheritance we have been promised in Christ. No matter what benefits are offered by any earthly opportunity, none will ever surpass what we already have.

Here and now, we’re given an opportunity: we can re-centre our lives in Jesus. We don’t have to place our trust in the things of this world—in property or prestige, or in riches that can be lost or stolen. We don’t have to define ourselves according to someone else’s agenda, in order to impress the high and mighty of this world.

No. We can choose differently. We can choose to trust—and to follow—the One who gave up everything so that we might lack nothing.

May we choose wisely.

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