Let us begin these few minutes together with a question. The question is this: “What does it mean to be a morally serious person?” Dr. Ian Markan, the dean and president of our Virginia Theological Seminary across the river in Alexandria, in his book Do Morals Matter? has described a morally serious person as one who is committed to the quest for a position that is life-enhancing and committed to the care of others. We have two readings this morning that I think raise this question in our minds and throw some light on it. What does it mean to be a moral person?

One reading is from the Gospel of Mark—which we’ve just heard—which tells the story of the beheading of John the Baptist. The other is from Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, which tells us that we are called, you and I, to a holy life—or we may say, a morally serious life.

The beheading of John the Baptist by Herod Antipas is well-known to most of us. It is a story that has attracted the interests and skills of some of our most renowned artists, playwrights, musicians, painters, and novelists. It is a story that presents us with an interesting collection of personalities, each of whom raises for us the question of what it means to be a morally serious person. Of course, the artists like to concentrate particularly on Herodias’s daughter, traditionally named Salome, because it’s the most gruesome part of the story. But I suggested we concentrate on Herod and John the Baptizer, for they hold the response to our question, “What does it mean to be a morally serious person?”

First, Herod Antipas. This is not Herod the Great, who reigned at the time of the birth of Jesus. The Herod of our story today is third in the line of six Herods, every one of whom is linked with a confrontation of some kind. All six Herods ruled over the Jews under the umbrella of Roman power, and it was Herod the Great, the first Herod, who ordered the killing of the innocent children for fear that Jesus as a child would rise against him.

But Herod Antipas, this third Herod in our story, was like all the Herods who ruled: committed to the maintenance of public order and the preservation of his power. But there was another side to this Herod, as Scripture tells us. He feared John, because John was a voice of prophetic judgment among the Jews. Yet Herod knew, as we are told, that John was a righteous and holy man. So, what about John? This John is not the author of the Gospel according to John, who died in old age on the island of Patmos. This John is John the Baptizer, a prophet, the son of Zachariah and Elizabeth. He is related to Jesus on his mother’s side. His mother became pregnant with him six months before the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to announce the impending birth of Jesus. Remember that story? This is a kind of cousin to Jesus. He was connected to Jesus from his conception.

So this John grew into an ascetic—that is, a man with very deep spiritual drives and meditative instincts—living a solitary life in the desert and coming out in public to preach repentance to a growing following of people, calling them to prepare their lives for the coming of the Messiah, and baptizing them to signify new life. John himself, this John baptized Jesus, and many of his followers became disciples of Jesus, because John said to them, “This is the one whom you should follow. He should increase, that I should decrease.”

Because of his activities, Herod feared John, whom he saw as stirring up the people to no healthy purpose. And because of this fear, Herod kept John under guard as often as he could. But, we are told that Herod, when he heard him—when he heard John preaching and speaking—he heard him gladly, happily, with pleasure. So, John’s impact on Herod is profound. This man of the desert, with this man of power. John apparently forced Herod to consider the strange power of the truth he was preaching, so Herod was caught in a kind of dilemma. By asserting, on the one hand, his power over John—by keeping him under guard in his house—he was on the other hand stirred by John’s preaching. Here in Herod is a man perplexed, and yet, returning to hear John gladly. One commentator has written that we see in Herod the strange power of religious and moral truth, which launches a kind of civil war in the heart and mind of this man. Human beings turn away from spiritual truth often. And yet, like Herod, we turn back to it, perplexed often. Yet perplexity stimulates anger and conflict; we cannot completely close either our mind or our ear to the moral message. What is being witnessed and described here in Herod is the challenge of being a morally serious person.

Herod has heard about Jesus; he knows John, and he knows John’s teachings about Jesus, and he is troubled by it, even as Christian teaching often troubles leaders of power and public people. Think of the troubled conscience of this nation as it was facing the immoral life of slavery. To whom the words “a moral commitment” were spoken in Lincoln, in Martin Luther King, Jr., and in the heart of other morally serious persons.

The moral teachings of Christ and the Scripture are stirring and can be troubling. As long as Herod was able to continue pondering the message that John was promulgating, he was able to face the moral Christian. What do I make of Jesus, whom John serves? And how do I listen to John’s message, and exercise my control over him at the same time? Every moral question that you and I face confronts us internally. We are forced into a kind of self-examination, a kind of spiritual contemplation, and in this way we achieve a kind of distance from the issue while at the same time reflecting on it.

In his private moments Herod no doubt had this ability to engage in his own spiritual contemplation. He listened raptly to John, but at the same time, he feared him. Then a great public event occurs: Herod celebrates his birthday. He gets a banquet for his courtiers, for the officers of his troops, and for the leading men and women of Galilee. And in this public arena, Herod loses his way. He is enchanted by the dancing of Herodias’s daughter Salome; she intoxicates him. In a public show of bravado in front of all the citizens, he makes an inflated and dangerous offer. “Ask for anything you want,” he says to Salome.

Is he just a concerned stepfather who wants his stepdaughter to have whatever she wants? Or is there something deeper? Obviously there is something deeper, because Herod is unanchored in his life by an unbridled fascination with Salome. One of the serious enemies of moral seriousness, for any of us, is unbridled fascination, particularly for men of power, but not only for men and women of power. The taste for forbidden fruit can be overwhelming. Salome answers Herod’s question. “Give me the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

As one commentator has put it, the moment of deceptive exhilaration has opened the door to tragedy for Herod. He has failed the test of morally serious behavior. Instead of saying, “No, I cannot do that,” because of his pride in front of all the citizens of Galilee, he fulfills his promise. He fails the test of morally serious behavior. In contrast, John stands strong. He has the courage to speak the truth to power, saying to Herod, it is not lawful for you to have married your brother’s wife. There is something solid in John. There is an integrity here that has the force of conviction. It was solid enough, in fact, to win respect from Herod, even grudging respect. John was not tossed and turned by the restless change and desires and drives of life. The will of many of us often will speak and act without integrity when we are under pressure from our peer group in public. In doing this, we often act without integrity and honor. We shame ourselves by turning our back on moral behavior under the power of the group, of the community. But John had an inner security that gave him balance and stability.

And what was the source of the balance and stability in John? The straightforward answer to that question is that John set his life firmly on the conviction that Jesus Christ was the guiding principle, the animating force, the essential paradigm for his life. This he affirmed when he said, “He must increase; I must decrease.” This is the source of the stability in John. Now in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, which we heard earlier, Paul reminds us that God chose us to come into a relationship with Jesus in order that we should live a holy life full of blessing. A relationship with Jesus, in order that we may live a holy life. You and I, like John the Baptizer, are invited to emulate and follow the example demonstrated in the life of Jesus. To seek and live a holy life, blessed with balance and stability.

If you and I chose this way, we would bind ourselves with the life and ministry of Jesus; with his teaching, and with his spirit. This, then, becomes the foundation, for our understanding and exercising of moral stability. We may ask, “What does it mean to engage our life with Jesus, to connect ourselves to his life, and his ministry?” Well, one thing it means clearly is to enter into a friendship and community with him. It means to study his life so as to see how his life can be reflected in our own life, so that he may live in us and we may live in him. What does it mean to be chosen to a life of holiness, as Paul says? That is what you are letting yourself in for, when you choose to engage your life with Jesus– a life of holiness. Now you may resist, as I do, the word “holy” to describe your life: both because it is a kind of “churchy” word, and because you, like I, may recognize the presumption of “holiness” as a description of your own life. But another word that is related to holiness is “goodness.” That word, goodness, described Barnabus in the Acts of the Apostles where St. Barnabus is described as a good man full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.

Well, let us see if we can accept the challenge to live a good life—not just a life of good pleasure, but a life of a goodness, which means for us the development of a contemplative spirit. Thinking before we act. Thinking on what we are doing, and why. This can result in an awakening of a dormant conscience, and turning a dominant conscience into a caring will. Certainly, John the Baptist had a caring will in his life with Jesus. Another thing that goodness can mean in our lives is practicing humility—not to denigrate yourself, but to see yourself as subject to God’s will and love. To develop a kind of modest perspective on yourself, as John did when he said, “He must increase; I must decrease.”

Goodness also means, I think, recognizing the mystery inherent in every human being. This means exercising a reverence for life and accepting, especially, a reverence for other human beings. This reverence is recognition of the unique and singular reality of every individual. Goodness means opening your own life to love’s enduring power, because love expresses itself in goodness. So we are told to live a good life, full of grace and charity. To join your life to Jesus Christ in faith is to consent to God’s invitation to holiness—to goodness, and to a humble effort to make your life, in the words of Irish Murdoch, “A source of uncontaminated energy; a source of new and quite undreamt-of virtue.” If this can happen, then you would be on your way to become a morally serious person. Good luck.

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