King Herod wants to have it both ways: please his flesh yet listen to the Word. He has taken his brother’s wife. This is a great evil. This sin depicts what all sexual sins do: they not only sin against the flesh, but deprive others. Herod has lured a woman away from another husband.

Yet Herod wishes to protect John the Baptist, who has been imprisoned for criticizing the marriage. Herod protects John the Baptist from execution, and even listens to him gladly. Many are like this. They enjoy hearing the Word of God, they would like to benefit from preaching, but at the same time set up walls, places where the Word of God is not allowed to intrude. For Herod, it was his sinful marriage.

What are your walls? What fences and barriers have you erected where the Word of God is not allowed to go? Are you, like Herod, wanting to listen to God’s Word and yet please your own flesh?

Dr. Luther puts it this way: “Herod knows that his actions are evil, yet he does them anyway. There you see that flesh does not fear God.” Luther describes sins that are willful. All Christians cannot help but commit sins of impulse, sins of weakness. These are called “daily sins,” and we even have many sins that we cannot identify. And we have other sins that we are working on, sins that plague us and stay with us, hounding us like a barking dog, a buzzing bee that will not fly away. For all these we pray daily, “Forgive us our trespasses,” and must fight the besetting sins constantly.

The willful sin is when we stop fighting. Willful sin says, “Yes, I know this is a sin, I have another choice, but I deliberately do it.” Perhaps this is the moment of rejection of the faith; or perhaps you presume upon God’s grace, saying, “I will sin now, and ask forgiveness later.” We have all probably done this, against one commandment or another. But this way is perilous. These are called “mortal sins,” not because of the enormity of the crime, but because of the enormity of the choice, the conscious choice to disobey God. They are mortal because they kill – kill faith. One can recover, as a person can often recover from a knife wound or gunshot, but medicine is needed, help is needed, and the more wounds one receives, the closer one draws to death.

Herod commits here a mortal sin with his choice to go along with the proposed beheading of the last and greatest Old Testament prophet, John the Baptist.

Beheading of St. John the Baptist

How did he get into this situation? By his reckless oath. He promises his daughter Salome anything she wants. The girl asks her mother what she should request, and she sees there her opportunity to rid herself of this meddlesome preacher.

Now Herod has a problem. He knows he should not behead the preacher of God’s Word, but he also has made an oath, in public. To break his oath would bring shame. Here is where human reason and faith come into conflict. Reason says, “I made the oath, and now I must keep it.” But faith would say, “If I made an oath that was evil, I must break it. For better to have all the world laugh at me and discredit my word, than for me to go ahead and sin against God. Better to lose face with all people than to lose God’s Word.”

Isn’t it easy to read this Gospel and say, “That wicked Herod! I would never do such a thing.” Yet listen again to Luther: “All people who are deprived of the light of God have a history which is like Herod’s here.” And I must confess that many times, backed into a corner of looking good to the world or being faithful to the Word of God, I have chosen the path of least resistance. I, like Herod, would like to both follow my own desires and listen to God’s Word. I would like to do what I want and still be regarded as a Christian.

What about you? Do you have a history like Herod’s? Tonight we see the picture of God’s faithful servant, John the Baptist, who remains strong all the way to the end, who never wavers. And that picture is given to us who wage smaller battles but no less perilous.

How does John remain faithful to the end? While tonight’s text does not say, we have the other words of John the Baptist to listen to, most especially the words that have come into our liturgy, turned into a prayer every Divine Service: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” This Lamb of God John confessed even from prison. His words ring down to us across the centuries, saying, “Though you suffer martyrdom, or the lusts of your flesh and the pride of life, look to the Lamb. You must decrease and the Lamb increase. Follow Him. Follow Him to prison and death, follow Him in bearing the cross, for following Him is the path to life.”

And in that life, the life of the resurrection, sin is destroyed, the flesh is purged of its evil desires, and even severed heads are restored.