Sunday 12 July 2009

Guilty Conscience

I preached this sermon for children (of all ages!) at Templederry and Nenagh, and a variant for adults at Killodiernan, on the 5th Sunday after Trinity, 12th July 2009.

Children, today I’m going to talk especially to you, so I hope you will listen, or at least please try to! And those of you who are grown up can listen in, but I’m sure you already know everything I’m going to say!

I’m going to let you in on a guilty secret – I'm a thief! Or at least I used to be...

When I was about 6 years old, in the village where I lived with my parents, I used to go to Mrs Pullan’s shop with my pocket money to buy sweets. And sometimes, when I thought she wasn’t looking, when her back was turned, I would take a few extra and put them in my pocket. I stole them! I knew it was wrong, but I just couldn’t stop myself. I felt awful, so that I didn’t enjoy them as much as I thought I would, but I still went on doing it. I tried my best not to think about it, and I didn’t want anybody to know, because I didn’t want to admit to myself or to anyone else what a bold, naughty boy I was. That’s the first time I can remember having a guilty conscience - but I’ve felt guilty about much worse things since then.

We all know what a guilty conscience is, don’t we? It’s when we know we have done something bad, or not done something good that we should have done, and we just can’t stop thinking and worrying about it. It’s a horrid feeling. And we all suffer from it, no matter how young or old we are, because try as we might to be perfect - or even just ordinarily good - every one of us does what we know is wrong more often than we care to admit. That’s just as true for me as it is for you.

Well, in the reading we’ve just listened to, we heard about how King Herod had a really, really guilty conscience. He had done something very wicked indeed – he had ordered his soldiers to cut off John the Baptists head. And he had done this even though he thought John was a good and holy man and knew he didn’t deserve to die. So later, when Herod heard people talking about Jesus, he thought that Jesus must be John the Baptist come back from the dead as a ghost to haunt him.

Let’s remind ourselves again of the story about how Herod came to do this wicked thing.

King Herod had married a new wife, who was called Queen Herodias. And the trouble was that she was already married to Herod’s brother. It wasn’t right for Herod to take her from his brother and marry her himself. But John the Baptist, bravely, told Herod that what he had done was very wrong – it was against the law. Herod didn’t want John going about making trouble for him by telling everyone this, so he had John arrested and put him in prison.

How do you think Queen Herodias felt about John? She hated him; she really, really hated him! She wanted very badly to have him killed. But she couldn’t do that, because she knew Herod liked listening to John and respected him, even if Herod didn’t always like what John said.

Then at last came the perfect time for Queen Herodias to get her own way. It was Herod’s birthday, and there was a big party, with lots of important people there. Now Herodias had a daughter who was called Salome. And after Herod and all the important people had finished eating Salome came in to dance for Herod and his guests. She must have been a pretty good dancer because when she finished, everybody clapped. Herod was so pleased with her dancing that he did a very silly thing. Can you remember what he did? He told Salome that she could have anything she asked for – even half the kingdom! And all the important guests heard him say it! Salome didn’t know what to ask for, so she went to Herodias her mother, and asked her, ‘What should I ask the King to give me?’ Can you guess what Herodias answered? She said to her daughter, ‘Ask for the head of John the Baptist!’

King Herod was very sad and quite upset, because he really didn’t want to have John killed. But he had just told Salome she could have anything she asked for – absolutely anything - and he did not want to look weak or silly in front of all the important people he had invited to his party. So he gave the order, and the soldiers chopped off John’s head. They brought it on a big serving plate and gave it to Salome, who gave it to her mother Herodias.

It’s a horrid story, isn’t it? All the characters are pretty nasty! Except John the Baptist, who was brave.

Herodias wasn’t nice at all to use her daughter to take such an awful revenge. Salome asked for a truly yucky present - a bloody severed head - though perhaps she was too young to be blamed for doing what her mother told her. But it was Herod who gave that wicked order to behead John the Baptist, even though he knew it was wrong. Let’s think about him to see what lessons we can learn.

What do you think he should have done differently that day?

Well, one thing would have been not to make that silly promise! If Herod hadn’t promised to give Salome anything she asked for, she couldn’t have asked for John’s head, and everything would have been different.

This is the first lesson: we must always be very careful what we promise!

But even after Herod had made that silly promise, he didn't have to give that wicked order! Herod was a coward, wasn’t he? He knew it would be wrong to give Salome what Herodias had told her to ask for. But he was afraid – afraid that his important guests would think he was weak or silly if he didn’t – so he did it anyway. If Herod had been a braver man, as John was, not a coward, he would have listened to his conscience – that's the little voice inside each one of us which tells us what is right and what is wrong. He would simply have said, ‘No, that would be wrong, ask for something else’, and John would have been saved.

The second lesson is this: we must always be brave and do what we know is right no matter what.

So Herod did that wicked thing, and he suffered from a guilty conscience.

We are not told if he ever felt sorry for what he had done. But if Herod had listened to Jesus, he would have known what to do when he felt guilty for doing such a bad thing. Because Jesus tells us that if we own up to doing wrong, if we say we are sorry and really mean it, and if we try our very best to be better in future - then God, our loving Father in Heaven, will forgive us. In other words, if we repent of our sins, God will forgive us. We will no longer feel bad, and we can be happy living a new and better life.

So what about my own guilty conscience over stealing sweets when I was a child? Years later, when I was a student and thought I was grown up, I went back to the village and called on Mrs Pullan in her shop. She invited me in for tea and a chat, and when I came to leave, do you know what she did? She took a brown paper bag and filled it with all kinds of sweets, and gave it to me, to take away! Suddenly I was 6 again, and I felt really badly about stealing her sweets long ago. So I told her what I had done and said I was sorry. Then, with a laugh, she said, ‘You don’t think you were the only little boy who nicked sweets, do you? Of course I knew what you were doing. And of course I forgive you!’

This is the third lesson: if we are truly sorry for the bad things we do, God will forgive us when we ask him to - just as Mrs Pullan forgave me!

I shall finish with a little prayer:

O God our loving Father,
we thank you for the courage of people like John
the Baptist,
who do what is right even when it puts their lives in danger.
Give us the courage to always try to do what is right;
and when we fail
show us how to truly repent, and forgive us.
We ask you in Jesus’s name.