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The King Liked to Listen

Hearing the call to repentance and acting on it.


The king liked to listen to him. So did most people.

"Repent. Stop what you're doing. You know it's wrong, so stop it. Make a radical change from one way of life to another. Surrender to God and find forgiveness."

It's a simple message. It's not always a popular message—not when it's about you. Sometimes people want to kill the prophet who says it, like Jezebel wanting to kill Elijah. Sometimes people want to ignore the prophet who says it, like Amaziah dismissing Amos.

But people seemed to really like it when John said it.

"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near … . The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire" (Matt. 3:2, 10)

It was a sensation. Everyone was talking about the prophet with the water, down by the river. Even the king. Especially the king.

There was a time, not long ago, when everyone went down to the river to hear John. Everyone: from Jerusalem, from Judea, from the whole region of the Jordan. John called the people a brood of vipers, and it just made him more popular. Crowds pressed in. "Yes!" they said. "We are a brood of vipers! What should we do?"

John told them: "If you have two shirts, give one to someone who doesn't have any shirts. Do the same thing with your food."

Tax collectors came to John and asked, "What should we do?"

"Don't collect more than you're supposed to," he told them.

Soldiers came to John and asked, "What should we do?"

He had a longer list: "Don't extort money. Don't accuse people falsely. Be content with your pay."

This was not a surprise. These were not new commandments; these were just hard commandments. It was so easy for a tax collector to rip people off, for someone policing the city to extort money, for the worker to always choose his own comfort and security over his neighbor's need. Everyone was doing it. Obeying God's law seemed almost crazy. But they knew they were supposed to. They knew it. And John was putting in their ears what they heard every day in their own hearts.

"Repent. Time is running out."

Now, the king had John all to himself. He knew John was a righteous man: a holy man. Listening to him didn't make him feel good. It was hard to hear. But he liked listening. We don't know how often they talked, inside Herod's fortified hilltop palace where the Jordan River runs into the Dead Sea. We know they talked often—Mark's Greek makes that clear. He listened to John a lot. We don't know exactly what they said, but from everything anyone ever recorded about John, it's easy to imagine what John said: "Repent. Change your life. God's kingdom is here."

The king's question would have been the same as that of the crowds, and the tax collectors, and the soldiers. "What should I do?"

"It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." We know he said it often. Mark's Greek makes that clear. "Your relationship breaks God's law. Repent. The kingdom—the real kingdom the world has been waiting for—has come near. You don't have much time left."

The story of 'King' Herod

King Herod wasn't king. I don't mean that spiritually; I mean it historically. When Mark calls him "King Herod," he might be simplifying things. But he might also just be mocking him, because Herod wasn't king, but he wanted to be. Oh, how he wanted to be. Just like dad.

Herod's father was Herod the Great. This was the man who conquered Jerusalem for the Romans, built the Second Temple, and massacred countless people—including all the baby and toddler boys after the birth of Jesus. It's confusing that there are two Herods. It's more confusing that five of Herod the Great's other sons were also named Herod. Two of Herod the Great's ten wives had the same name, too. The family tree is very confusing. Herodias, the woman who wants to kill John the Baptist, is Herod's granddaughter … and daughter-in-law.

As in any story featuring so many queens with so many sons, there were questions about which son would be king after Herod the Great died. And there were sons who didn't want to wait. Herod had two of his sons killed for treason: One was Herodias's father. After that, Herod's oldest son tried to poison him. After that, Herod decided to pass the kingdom to the Herod of our story, Herod Antipas.

But Herod was a paranoid king, and a fickle one. As he's dying a horrible, painful death, he changes his mind. He tells his family that no one gets the whole kingdom. He's going to divide it up. And then he dies.

Herod Antipas says, "Hey! That's not fair! I was going to be king!" He appeals to the emperor, Caesar Augustus, but Augustus doesn't budge. "You're not a king like your father," Augustus tells Herod Antipas. "You're a tetrarch. One-fourth of a ruler."

The parts of the kingdom Herod gets control of are Galilee and Perea (which is basically the east side of the Jordan River). There's trouble—always is—with the kingdom of Nabatea, east of the Dead Sea. So Herod does what a king does to make peace: He marries the Nabatean king's daughter.

Shortly thereafter, he is away on a business trip in Rome. That is when he stayed with his half-brother and fell in love with his brother's wife: his father's granddaughter, Herodias. They made plans to divorce their spouses and get married. Leviticus has two verses about not marrying your brother's wife, but Herod the Great's family was used to breaking a lot of laws like that. Obeying God's law seemed almost irrelevant. But they knew what they were supposed to do.

For Herod Antipas, the divorce is trouble immediately. The Nabatean princess heard about Herod's plan to divorce her and secretly returned home, and the Nabatean king declared war. Maybe he was mad about his daughter getting tossed aside. Maybe he just wanted an excuse to grab some territory. But he did grab some territory. Herod lost, and lost face.

Meanwhile, the divorce for Herodias was trouble—because, well, for one thing, under Jewish law a woman couldn't divorce her husband. So under Jewish law, she was still married.

But Rome had different marriage laws, so she basically said, "I don't care what the Jewish law says. The law of the land says I can divorce my husband. I did, and I'm now married to Herod." (A, uh, different Herod. Her first husband was named Herod too.) It was probably a scandal. But there were a lot of royal scandals. It probably wouldn't have been a big deal.

Except for this one guy, this really popular prophet who was telling people to repent: telling her husband to repent, telling him, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife."

Now, if Herod Antipas actually ends up agreeing with John the Baptist, and he divorces Herodias, what happens to her? We don't know. And that's the thing for her: She doesn't know, either. She could lose everything. She had gone from being an orphan to the wife of a tetrarch, and now she could lose it all. So you understand why she had a grudge against John. She was really, really afraid. There's a line that shows up in most commentaries: "The only safe place she thought she could write her marriage certificate was on the back of John's death warrant." She thinks, If I can silence the voice saying "repent," I won't have to think about it anymore. And then I'll be secure. It's not my sin causing my insecurity! It's him!

So Herod put John in prison. But he didn't kill him. Herod was in awe of John. He knew he was righteous. He knew he was holy. He knew John was right.

"You're breaking God's law. Repent. There's not much time left."

They talked. Herod left, puzzled but grateful at the same time, eager for their next conversation.

"Repent. There's not much time left."

They talked again. Herod left, puzzled but grateful, eager for their next conversation.

But eventually, there is no next conversation. The axe is already at the root of the trees. The opportune time came: a birthday.

'Send in the executioner'

Herod is not a king—but he wants to act like one. He wants to throw a party and be celebrated and toasted like one. So he invites government leaders and military leaders and economic leaders. It's his birthday, so the point is clear: Celebrate me. Validate me. Respect me.

Yes, he's probably drunk on alcohol, but Mark doesn't say that was the reason for what happened next. Yes, he's probably drunk on lust, but some commentaries say it could have been an innocent kid's dance, and Herod Antipas was just watching a cute performance by his step-daughter (who was also his niece on his father's side. And his grandniece on his mother's side.)

But it's not about the dance. It's about him. The kid isn't the center of attention: Herod is, and he loves it. He plays it up big, with an emphasis on how important he is. He's not speaking to her; he's playing to the crowd: "Ask me for anything you want, and I can give it to you. I can give you half my kingdom and not even miss it."

There doesn't seem to have been a plot that night. It doesn't sound like Herodias sent her daughter into the room with a plan that would end in John's execution. The kid had to go ask, "What should I say? What should I ask for?"

But Herodias was not puzzled. She didn't vacillate. She knew what she wanted to guarantee her comfort. She was finally going to fix her fear.

"Ask for the head of John the Baptist."

The little girl returns and asks for the head of John the Baptist. Right now. On a platter.

The king was "greatly distressed" (Mark 6:26). The Greek here gets used one other time and only one other time by Mark. It's the same words to describe Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He was greatly distressed. This is not something he wants to do, "but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her" (6:26).

Oaths were important. Keeping them was part of the law: "Whatever your lips utter you must be sure to do, because you made your vow freely to the Lord your God with your own mouth" (Deut. 23:23). But you can't use an oath to justify breaking the law, to justify breaking the Torah. Scripture was clear that you could break a rash oath for mercy. King David did it. It wasn't like Herod was someone who always kept his word. The Nabatean princess might have something to say about that; he hadn't kept his word to her.

But there were the dinner guests. Herod craved the respect of the powerful. They were honoring him like a king, and there was no way he was going to lose face with them. He had seen how kings acted in this kind of situation. You don't keep your critics in prison; you kill them. That's what his dad had done over and over and over again. That was his choice: Was he going to act the way the king of the Jews is supposed to act, with mercy and justice? Or was he going to act the way powerful men expected a Roman king to act?

The king was greatly distressed. So he did what a king, or a tetrarch, or you, or me, or anyone does when we've decided not to repent—when we've decided not to change that one big thing God keeps telling us is unlawful. The king makes things worse. And he gets really self-righteous about it: "I made an oath. I can't possibly break my oath. Well, I could, but I'm not that kind of person. I have high standards. I'm a good person. Let's do the right thing here. Send in the executioner."

The silence of Jesus

In almost every martyr story, there's a final scene. The martyr refuses to recant. She stands up for what she believes. They get to speak one last time.

There's a legend in the Eastern Orthodox Church that after the axe fell and the executioner carried away John's head, the mouth opened, and people heard it say: "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife."

But that's not what happens in Mark's story. John doesn't speak. He dies, silent.

That's the end of our reading. But, of course, it's not the end of our story.

Here's what Mark says:

(Read Mark 1:14-15; 6:7, 12-16)

Herod is greatly puzzled. He is greatly distressed. But he gets over it. He silences his conscience and gets on with the business of acting like a king. But, eventually, he does meet this Jesus. This Jesus had been arrested because someone wanted him dead, because he was a threat to someone's security and comfort. If people actually did what this Jesus was saying, they could lose it all. So they nursed a grudge against him and wanted to kill him. But the Roman governor was trying to protect him, because he found him to be righteous, and he tried to hand his case off to Herod.

Luke tells us that "[w]hen Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform a sign of some sort. He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer" (Luke 23:8-9).

The king had liked to listen to John, and he wanted that experience back. Now he wanted to hear from Jesus, even though he knew—or at least he thought he knew—what Jesus was going to say: "Repent. Change your life. God's kingdom is here." That's what Jesus had been saying to everyone. He'd told the people, "If you have two shirts, give one to someone who doesn't have any shirts. Do the same thing with your food." He told the tax collectors, "Don't collect more than you're supposed to."

Herod knows this story. It's a puzzling story, but it's one he liked to hear. "Your relationship breaks God's law. Repent. The kingdom is here. You don't have much time left."

But Jesus didn't say that. He didn't say anything. God had told Herod what he needed to hear, and Herod had put it off over and over and over. Now God himself was right in front of Herod, and he was silent.

So Luke tells us, "Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate" (23:11).

Herod thought, This man wants to be king! Isn't that … ridiculous! Mockery almost always reveals the mocker's insecurities.

The end of their story

Four or five years later, this is what happened. Herodias's brother got in trouble—I bet you can guess his name. Yes, Herod. Herod Agrippa: the Herod who persecutes the church in the Book of Acts. He was Herod Antipas's nephew and brother-in-law. At the time, he wasn't a ruler; he was just a son of Herod the Great who was reckless and extravagant. He spent all his money, and then he spent a lot more money. He had to leave Rome and hide in a fortress. Herodias convinced Herod Antipas to help him out financially. But money and family and power—you know what happened even if you don't know the history. Antipas and Agrippa fought and fell out and didn't talk to each other. They became rivals.

Emperor Tiberius died; Caligula became emperor. He gave his friend, the prodigal Herod Agrippa, a tetrarchy to run. But Caligula didn't call Herod Agrippa a tetrarch. He gave him a different title. Herod Agrippa was king.

Herod Antipas didn't lose his territory. He was still a tetrarch. But suddenly that was not good enough. At Herodias's insistence, he went to Caligula and asked, "Can I be called king, too?"

But Herod Agrippa used Herod Antipas's trip to accuse him of treason. Herod Antipas had been stockpiling armor—enough for 70,000 men. Antipas admitted to the armor. He and his wife were very sensitive to threats to their security, so they had a lot of armor. But to Caligula it looked like a plan to revolt.

So Caligula took away Antipas' territory and money and gave it to Agrippa. He banished Herod Antipas and Herodias to Gaul, and they were never heard from again.

Everything they had killed John to protect was gone. Herod lost face, lost his claim to royalty, lost everything. Herodias lost her security, lost control, lost everything. Their time had run out.


That's the end of their story. I do not want it to be the end of my story.

But like Herod, I like to listen. "Repent. Change your life. God's kingdom is here." When I hear the Holy Spirit speaking through his Word, I like it. A lot. I was going to preach my sermon on all the stories Mark is alluding to here: from Esther to Elijah, to the feeding of the 5,000, and to the repeated stories about daughters here in chapters five to seven. As I was preparing for this sermon, I got really excited about how awesome and magnificently interrelated the Bible is. But the sermon I really need is this: Repent. Stop what you're doing. You know it's wrong, so stop it. Make a radical change from one way of life to another. Surrender to God and find forgiveness.

Like Herod, when I'm not repenting and I hear about Jesus, I am fearful. Because like Herod, I have a lot of wrong ideas about who Jesus really is. I don't understand that he's good, and that he's God, and that he's king. I don't want to repent, because I'm afraid of losing everything. Because I want other people to think I'm awesome, and I'm afraid they won't. I want to be my own king.

But I know what I'm supposed to do. I know John is right. "You're breaking God's law. Repent. There's not much time left."

I listen. I leave church, or I put my Bible away, or I try to think about something else. I'm puzzled but grateful at the same time, eager for the next time I hear the Holy Spirit.

"Repent. There's not much time left."

Let me be clear about what I'm not saying: I'm not saying the time has passed for you. If you're hearing that call to repentance and thinking, It's too late. I've gone too far. I've rejected this call too many times, that is not the voice of God saying that to you. It is a lie. Do it. Repent. Change your life. Surrender to God and find forgiveness. The Lord is "gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love" (Ps. 145:8).

But if you're hearing the call to repentance, and you know exactly that thing God has been telling you over and over to do, and you want to—someday, but not tonight—you don't have much time left. This may be the loudest you'll ever hear that voice telling you to repent. This may be the last time you hear that voice telling you to repent. I'm not talking about you going out and getting hit by a truck or whatever altar call clichés you've heard before. Herod lived for years after killing John the Baptist. But he was even face-to-face with Jesus, and he didn't hear that voice again: "Repent. Change your life. God's kingdom is here." It gets harder and harder to listen.

I'm going to stop for a minute for us to listen, me included: to listen to Jesus and to tell him, "Help me! I don't want to repent, but I want to want to repent. Help. Save me. I give up. You can have this."

But you don't have to do this by yourself. Don't try to protect yourself by working through your repentance alone. You need help. There are a lot of people who will help you and not embarrass you or hurt you.

In the words of Psalm 85, let us "listen to what God the Lord says; / he promises peace to his people, his faithful servants— / but let them not turn to folly. / Surely his salvation is near those who fear him, / that his glory may dwell in our land … . The Lord will indeed give what is good … Righteousness goes before him / and prepares the way for his steps."

Ted Olsen is Editorial Director for Christianity Today and a member of Church of the Savior, an Anglican congregation in Wheaton, Illinois.

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Sermon Outline:


I. The story of 'King' Herod

II. 'Send in the executioner'

III. The silence of Jesus

IV. The end of their story