Sunday 11 July 2021

Guilty Conscience

Salome receives the head of John the Baptist, by Aubrey Beardsley

Address given on Sunday 11 July 2021, the 5th after Trinity, in St Mary's Nenagh, when Josh William Thomas Platt was baptised, and at Killodiernan, without the baptismal reference.

I am going to share a shameful, guilty secret with you - I am a thief! 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, 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. It made me feel awful, as I scoffed them all by myself, but I still did it. I tried my best not to think about it, and I didn’t want anybody to know. 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 of course I’ve felt guilty about much worse things since then.

We have all felt the pricking of a guilty conscience, haven’t we? When we know we have done something bad, or not done something good that we should have done, we can’t stop thinking and worrying about it. It’s a horrid feeling. No matter how young or old we are, 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.

In the reading from Mark’s Gospel (Mark 6:14-29), we heard about King Herod’s guilty conscience. He had done something truly wicked – he had ordered his soldiers to behead John the Baptist, even though he thought John was a good person. So later, when Herod heard people talking about Jesus, he was afraid that Jesus must be John the Baptist come back from the dead to haunt him.

Let us remind ourselves again of how Herod came to do this wicked thing.

King Herod had taken his brother Philip’s wife Herodias and married her. John the Baptist had bravely told Herod that what he had done was not right - it was against the law. Herod didn’t want John going about making trouble by telling people this, so he had had John arrested and put him in prison.

Herodias nursed a grudge against John. She really hated him and wanted to have him killed, but she couldn’t do so straight away, because she knew Herod liked listening to John and respected him as ‘a righteous and holy man’, even if he didn’t always like what John said.

But Herodias got her chance for revenge when Herod gave a banquet on his birthday, for all the important people in his kingdom. Herodias’s daughter – tradition tells us her name was Salome – was brought in to dance for Herod and his guests. She must have been a good dancer, because the guests liked it; and Herod was so pleased with her that he did something very foolish. He told her that he would give her 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 ask her mother, ‘What should I ask for?’ And Herodias told her, ‘The head of John the baptiser!’

King Herod didn’t want to have John killed – ‘The king was deeply grieved’, we are told. But he had just told Salome she could have anything she asked for – absolutely anything - and he did not want to look weak or foolish in front of his important guests. So he gave the order and the soldiers chopped off John’s head. They brought it in on a big serving platter and gave it to the girl, who gave it to her mother Herodias.

It’s a horrid story, isn’t it! A story from which no one in Herod’s family comes out well.

Herodias must have been a thoroughly nasty piece of work to use her daughter to take such an awful revenge. Salome too asked for a ghastly present, but perhaps she was too young to be blamed for doing what her mother asked her. But it was Herod who gave that wicked order to behead John the Baptist, even though he knew it was wrong. Let’s focus on him to see what lessons we can learn. What should he have done differently that day to avoid the heavy burden of a guilty conscience?

Well, the first thing would have been not to make that foolish 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 be very careful what we promise!

Even after Herod had made that foolish promise, he did not 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. So he gave the order anyway. If Herod had been a braver man, not a coward, he would have listened to his conscience – that little voice inside each 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 be brave and do what we know is right no matter what the consequence.

So Herod did the wrong thing. He gave the wicked order and 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 his guilty conscience pricking him. Because Jesus tells us that if we repent of our sins – that means if we admit we have done wrong, if we are sorry and try to make amends and to be better in future – then God, our loving Father in Heaven, will forgive us. The burden of guilt will be lifted from us, and we can find happiness 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 university student and thought myself to be very 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, she filled a bag with all kinds of sweets and gave it to me. Suddenly I was 6 again, and my guilty conscience made me feel bad. I told her about stealing her sweets, and said I was sorry. With a laugh she said, ‘You don’t think you were the only little boy who nicked sweets, do you? I realised what you were doing. And of course I forgive you!’

This is the third lesson: if we repent of bad things we have done, God will forgive us, just as Mrs Pullan forgave me!

Today is a joyful occasion, a day for celebration, a day of baptism for Josh.

But what, you may ask, has the story of Herod’s foolish promise, his cowardice, and his wicked order to execute John, got to do with Josh’s baptism?

In a few moments Josh’s parents and godparents will promise, with the help of God, to care for him, and to help him take his place within the life and worship of Christ’s church. We pray that they will teach him, by their example and love, to be brave and do what is right. And we pray that they will also teach him to repent and seek forgiveness when he falls short.

It will be important for Josh, with their help, to learn from Herod’s story, because the lessons it teaches are tools to protect him from the pain of a guilty conscience.

So today it is right for us all to celebrate and rejoice in Josh’s baptism, with his family and his godparents, as he is joined with us into Christ’s body here on earth, the Church.

 Let me finish with a 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 costs them dearly.
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. Amen

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