This Lenten Sermon is from 1956. To learn more about the history behind it, click here.
At that very hour some Pharisees came, and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” And he said to them, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. Nevertheless I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following; for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.’” Luke 13:31-33 (RSV)
When Pilate heard this, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. And when he learned that he belonged to Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him over to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had long desired to see him, because he had heard about him, and he was hoping to see some sign done by him. So he questioned him at some length; but he made no answer. The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. And Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him; then, arraying him in gorgeous apparel, he sent him back to Pilate. And Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that very day, for before this they had been at enmity with each other. Luke 23:6-12 (RSV)
Dear friends in Christ.
The Pharisees came to Jesus telling Him that He should leave the country because Herod, the king, was seeking to kill him. Of course, the Pharisees were not relaying this information because they feared something would happen to the Lord. They had their own devilish plans. What did the Lord say when the Pharisees brought Him this information about Herod? “Go and tell that fox that I cast out devils today and tomorrow, but I know that my end will come soon.”
Our interest this morning centers on King Herod – “Go and tell that fox,” Jesus said. Our Lord sometimes rebuked very sharply, but He seldom singled out one individual and branded him with an ugly name. Here, however, He calls Herod, “that fox.” This is startling. Our Lord had a high regard for human personality. He saw in every human being a living, an immortal soul, and He loved everyone; but here He could not find a better name for a fellow human being than “that fox.” This word offers us a window through which to look into the soul and heart of King Herod. That is what we will do this morning.
Since Jesus called Herod “that fox,” let us first ask, what kind of creature is a fox? A fox doesn’t fill us with horror. It doesn’t make our blood run cold. Had the Lord called him a lion, we would think of Herod as a cruel, strong, blood thirsty, and courageous man. But a fox is not like that. A fox is cunning, but a coward. He’s only a hero in the chicken-coop, and as soon as the most cowardly dog barks, the fox takes to his heels. Since Jesus called Herod a fox, the picture we get of him is that of a shy man, who is at once cruel, cowardly, and weak; someone who wants to be a hero when he feels perfectly safe.
In the Bible we have a short biography of Herod. He had a brother, named Philip, a married brother. One day Herod went to see his brother and his wife. There he behaved like a fox. He made love to his brother’s wife. Her name was Herodias. She consented to elope and marry him, provided of course that he got rid of his own wife, which he did. So this fox returned to his palace after wrecking two homes, his own and his brother’s. Read the story in Mark 6.
We are not surprised that Jesus called this man a fox. He was a low, cunning, tricky thief. You might say, “The woman Herodias was willing to be stolen.” That may be true, but it does not excuse Herod. The chance to play false does not give somebody a right to do so. Imagine that someone left a five dollar bill within easy reach of your hand and forgot it. You might slip it into your pocket, thinking, “I would be a fool to pass a chance like this,” but you would be considered a thief. A person who steals in the moral realm is an even greater thief. Someone may be willing to be stolen, but that does not give you license to go and do it. I am perfectly willing to admit that Herod had his reasons for making this change in women, but God and His word were against him. In the case of adultery, let it be done according the Lord’s word.
God gave Herod, the cunning fox, a chance to repent. John the Baptist preached in those days. This great and mighty man of God made a tremendous appeal to Herod and stirred his soul. John preached in the wilderness and multitudes went out to see and hear him. We are a bit surprised to find that foxy Herod listened to this wilderness preacher. Most probably he did not go out to sit with the common people on the bank of the river Jordan, but invited John to his palace. Rumors about this great and strange preacher made even Herod curious.
Perhaps Herod was a bit bored with the wife of his brother and wanted something new. It could also be that he longed for a better life, that his heart was hungry. Hunger for goodness and righteousness and for God belongs not only to saints, but also to sinners. Such hunger is universal. Other people just as bad as Herod have felt such longing. But whatever the reason, Herod invited John to his palace. One day the two men met face to face. Herodias was also present.
It was a great hour when those two sinners listened to the wilderness preacher. It was an hour that might have changed them completely. It was also a great hour for John. When preaching in the wilderness to the common people he had one topic: “Repent, the axe has already been laid to the root of the trees. Oh generation of vipers, repent, bear fruit that befits repentance. Do not say we have Abraham as our father. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and cast into the fire.” This is what John preached when he faced the crowd, the publicans, the soldiers, the Pharisees, the fisherman. But today he was preaching to Herod and Herodias. Should he tone down his language, forget their past, and give the two sinners a gentle educational lecture? No, not John the Baptist. He passed over the other nine commandments and spoke directly to one, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Herod was living with a woman who was not his wife and the woman was living with a man who was not her husband. The preacher made them confront the fact; “It is not right for you to have your brother’s wife.”
He rebuked them in the most courageous fashion. He might have softened the blow by saying, “Listen, it is not good for your reputation; you should provide a better example.” But not John. He rebuked them on the principle of right and wrong. “It is not right. Many others may do it, and you may try to excuse yourself by saying others do the same, but that is no excuse. Just because others wade through the mud gives you no license to do the same. You stand and fall before God, and God says, it is not right. Don’t try to cover up your sins with excuses. God will never accept them.” It certainly takes the highest type of courage to say what John said. He preached before people who had the power to make or break him.
Herodias listened in amazement. Her face became tense and white with anger. She made up her mind that this preacher would pay with his life. She did not get angry with the disease, but with the physician. No question, Herod also felt uncomfortable during the sermon. He too was shocked, but there was also something that spoke to him. We even read that Herod heard John gladly. That’s surprising. Not many people like to be told of their sins. Deep in his heart Herod had to admit that what the preacher said was true, that it was a message from God. Herodias would have killed John at once, but Herod held his protecting hand over the life of the preacher who had rebuked him – at least for a time. Yet he did not do what he should have done. He did not repent. He did not clean the inside. A farmer had a lovely spring in his pasture, but the water became so putrid that even the cows wouldn’t drink from it. He investigated and found a dead animal in the pond. There was only one thing to do; remove the corruption. That is what Herod should have done. His heart was stirred, but not enough to repent. The fox escaped. He did not change.
We learn this when we read about his birthday celebration. He celebrated it with plenty of wine. Some people believe they only have a good time when everybody gets drunk. Herod got drunk; so did his friends. People who like to drink always manage to find company, whether they are rich or poor. Only Herodias stayed sober. She watched for her opportunity. At last she is able to strike the deadly blow. The head of the preacher was brought to her, and the fox had someone to blame for his crime. He can blame the woman. The wilderness preacher had stirred his conscience only for a short while, then it fell asleep again.
Friends, we should not hear this story and think, well that happened 2000 years ago. It happens all the time. People are stirred in their conscience but are not willing to leave their sin behind, and after a while their conscience falls asleep again. It is something I’ve experienced often with people. They are convinced this is God’s word, God’s message to them, but they are not willing to pay the price. They bring their excuses or blame someone else. But I am fully convinced the real reason lies in their own life and heart.
After studying Herod this morning we can understand why the Lord called him a fox rather than a lion. He was a coward; he was cunning; he played with fire and with sin. However, his conscience was not entirely dead. Another preacher was also stirring up sinners. Some said he was Elijah, others a prophet, but Herod said, “It is John the Baptist whom I beheaded.” At last he acknowledged his crime. Reports about the new preacher made Herod uneasy, but it seems he did not invite Jesus to his home. He had had enough with one preacher. Better to stay away from them. He was eager to see Jesus, but he didn’t want to listen to another sermon.
Months later, Jesus stood before him as a prisoner. Pilate had sent him. The fox asked many questions, but one question he did not ask, “What must I do to be saved?” Because Herod had no interest in eternal life, Jesus had no message for him. He answered him not a word. The fox had only ears for worldly things, not for the voice of God.
How did the meeting end? Herod put a purple robe on the Lord and laughing sent the Savior back to Pilate. God had given even this fox another chance to repent, but he laughed and spit in the face of the Savior.
Let us not cast a stone upon Herod, saying, “Only a fox would do this.” At one time Herod was very near the Kingdom of God. He realized he was a sinner and that he needed to repent. However, he loved sin more than the Lord. His end is tragic. The same will happen to you and to me if we do not turn away from sin, turn to Christ with our whole heart, and follow the Lord.
4th Sunday in Lent, 1956