July 12, 2015 – The 7th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
The audio of this sermon can be heard here.
It’s easy to throw Herod under the bus. Scripture doesn’t give us many reasons to admire him. He’s a lustful, spineless traitor who served the Roman Empire instead of the Jewish people he claimed to rule. As we read in today’s gospel lesson, he was not only bad enough to marry his brother’s wife, but he allowed his niece and stepdaughter to seduce him. In a drunken and shallow display of power, Herod foolishly offered the temptress anything she wanted—even half of his kingdom. And, when she asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter, rather than tell her “no” because he knew that John was a man of God, he caved. He didn’t want to look bad in front of his guests. He had made a promise, and he couldn’t afford to back down, and so he had an innocent prophet of the Most High executed to fulfill the blood-thirsty demands of his unholy bride. Like I said—not much to admire.
But Herod’s story isn’t as simple as that. Even though he isn’t portrayed as a sympathetic character, I find myself pitying the man because, even though he wasn’t willing to stand up for what is right, we read that he lost sleep because of his cowardice. When Jesus became famous and word of his preaching and healing spread, people began to wonder where this man from Galilee got all this power. Could he be John the Baptist? Could he be Elijah? Is he a prophet like those of old? Herod, however, didn’t need any convincing. He knew. He knew without a shadow of a doubt that God had brought John the Baptist back from the dead just to punish Herod for what he had done. Irrational and ridiculous though that may seem, to Herod it was absolutely real. That’s what unresolved guilt can do to a person. And, even though this story sounds like it belongs in a soap opera, if you scratch the surface of real life, you’ll discover that it isn’t very far from the truth.
Guilt is a powerful motivator and a crippling force. I have seen grown men, who are beheld by the world as successful, upstanding members of society, crumble in tears because of the guilt that plagues their lives. I have listened to women explain how decades later they are still haunted by guilt from the graves of their disappointed mothers and fathers. An octogenarian on his deathbed once told me that God had punished him for his entire adult life because, as a nineteen-year-old, he felt that he was called by God to be a missionary but had refused to answer that call. I have been that quivering, tearful mess of guilt. You have, too. Parents use guilt to get their children to behave. Children use guilt to get what they want from their parents. For all of human history, religions have used guilt to motivate the masses and collect revenues from the faithful. But, today, I want to tell you that Jesus Christ came to earth and died on the cross so that you would never need to feel guilty about anything ever again. And anyone who says otherwise isn’t preaching the gospel.
As anyone familiar with the passive-aggressive tendencies of polite southern society can tell you, guilt is a formidable tool, but, as any good therapist will confirm, it always leads in the wrong direction. Instead of affirming, guilt destroys. Instead of making us better, guilt wears us down. Guilt is built on conditional statements. It is the “if you are a good son…a good daughter…a good person” that keeps us agonizing over whether we have done enough. Guilt says, “I will love you if…” and “you don’t deserve my love unless…” Guilt is expressed as shoulds and oughts. It is the voice of authority—whether that of the teacher or the minister or even the perceived voice of God himself—that says, “Thou shalt do this or else.” It is the overbearing mother who says, “Now, what you need to do is this.” And it is the always disapproving father who says, “What you should have done is that.” Guilt is the inescapable, unsatisfiable, unbridgeable abyss of “you’re not good enough.” And that’s exactly why it’s contrary to the gospel.
The remarkable truth proclaimed in the story of Jesus is that, in God’s eyes, we are good enough. God hates nothing that he has made. God desires not the death of sinners but rather that they should turn to him and live. God united himself to human nature in the incarnation, taking onto himself all that was broken and wrong with our race. He did so out of love—reckless, unrestrained love. The inevitable consequence of that God-initiated union was our rejection of that love, and so we killed his Son by nailing him to the cross. But that was not the end of the story. God reached out with a love that triumphs over even our very deepest sin, and, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, he proved once and for all that we cannot separate ourselves from God, who loves us without limit. The union he forged with us through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son is truly unbreakable.
Don’t get me wrong: we are sinners—every single one of us. Yes, God loves you no matter what, but that doesn’t mean you’re not a wretched, miserable sinner just as bad as Herod. (You are, and so am I.) What I’m telling you today is that your sin isn’t the end of the story.
When we come face to face with the totality of our sin and the magnitude of God’s love, one of three things is possible. We can deny our sin and continue on a path that spirals further and further away from the abundant life that God is trying to give us. Or we can deny God’s love and allow our failures to amass exponentially until we are crushed by guilt. Or we can accept both the fullness of our failures and the fullness of God’s forgiving love and, in so doing, be remade by God into the children he is calling us to be.
God is not asking you to wallow in your sin. God does not want you to make a big show of how sorry you are. Your guilt will buy you nothing. In fact, guilt is really just a sign that you refuse to accept that God’s love is bigger than your sin. Guilt means that you aren’t willing to move on even though he’s asking you to do just that. Yes, confront your sin. Yes, take a long, hard look in the mirror. Yes, fall onto your knees and confess to God the totality of your brokenness. But don’t do that because you think God is waiting on you to muster up some tears of remorse before he’ll grant you forgiveness. Do that in order to let go of your sin and the guilt that comes with it. You are already forgiven. In Christ, God has already bought your redemption. Confession is merely our way of realizing that fact—of staring out at the abyss and seeing that God is looking back at us with open arms.