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Two Ways to Live

Most, if not all, of my readers will be at least somewhat familiar with J. R. R. Tolkien’s books, The Lord of the Rings. For those few who are not familiar, Tolkien’s trilogy is an epic tale all about a ring of power that gives to its possessor the power to rule all of Middle Earth. The one problem is that the ring comes at a price. Each of its possessors either end up dead, or having their lives permanently warped by evil. The ring is given to the good hobbit, Frodo, who is charged with destroying the ring in the fires of Mount Doom. However, along the way certain dark forces seek to take the ring back for the evil side. The evil forces of the story first appear in the guise of black riders. Later, the same black beings ride, not horses, but huge winged creatures. The shadow of impending cataclysm keeps falling across the story until the very end when Frodo is finally successful in his mission.

The way that Matthew tells the story of King Jesus is something like the way Tolkien tells the story of Middle Earth. The black shadow of evil continually falls across the face of this tale. At the beginning of the story this evil took form in Herod the Great who sought to have Jesus destroyed by killing all the male babies in Bethlehem and its environs who were two years old and younger. Now, in the very middle of Matthew’s tale, Herod the Great is dead but his son, Herod the tetrarch, is ruling over Galilee as an ominous figure of foreboding.

We read about this second Herod in Matthew 14:1-12....
At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, and he said to his attendants, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”

Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, for John had been saying to him: “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered him a prophet.

On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for them and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison. His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother. John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus.
I believe that here, in the very center of his Gospel, Matthew is showing us two ways of living and inviting us, once again, to make a choice. One way of living is illustrated in the life of Herod the Tetrarch. The other is exemplified in John the Baptist. Let’s look first at the life of Herod.

Herod’s way of living seems to be guided, almost completely, by emotion. Perhaps he had learned this way of living from his father, the Idumean, Herod the Great, who was known to fly into a rage and have people killed on a momentary whim.

Herod the tetrarch’s life is interesting enough to warrant a short summary. When Herod the Great died, the rule of Palestine was divided among three of his sons. As already mentioned, Herod the tetrarch, or Herod Antipas as he was also known, ruled over Galilee and Perea. His half-brother, Herod Philip II, was the Tetrarch of Iturea and Trachonitis. Herod Antipas’ brother Archelaus was governor of Judea, Idumea and Samaria. You may remember that when Mary and Joseph left Egypt with the young Jesus, they avoided Judea because of Archelaus and settled in Nazareth.

Early in his reign, Antipas married the daughter of King Aretas IV of Nabatea. However, while staying in Rome with his half-brother Herod Philip, Antipas fell in love with his host’s wife Herodius, granddaughter of Herod the Great. (You can be forgiven for thinking that this sounds like some modern-day soap opera. It certainly does.) Antipas and Herodias agreed to divorce their previous spouses in order to marry each other. On learning of this, Aretas’ daughter travelled to the fortress of Machaerus, from where Nabatean forces escorted her to her father. Relations between Antipas and Aretas understandably soured and in time preparations began for war.

Antipas faced more immediate problems in his own tetrarchy when John the Baptist began a ministry of preaching and baptism by the Jordan River. John attacked Antipas’ marriage as contrary to Jewish law. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that John’s public influence made Antipas fearful of rebellion. Thus John was imprisoned in the fortress of Machaerus. According to Matthew and Mark, Antipas was reluctant to order John’s death but was compelled by Herodias’ and Philip’s daughter Salome, to whom he had promised any reward she chose in exchange for her dancing.

Lest you think that John the Baptist met with a horrible end and Antipas got away scot free, let me relate “the rest of the story”....

Luke credits Antipas with a small role in Jesus’ trial when Pilate sends Jesus to Antipas for his opinion. Antipas washed his hands of the affair and Jesus was, of course, executed.

Antipas’ own downfall was to come in the not-too-distant future. It was caused by the emperor Caligula and his own nephew Agrippa brother of Antipas’ wife Herodias. When Agrippa fell into debt during the reign of Tiberius despite his connections with the imperial family, Herodias persuaded Antipas to provide for him, but the two men quarreled and Agrippa departed. After Agrippa was heard expressing to his friend Caligula his eagerness for Tiberius to die and leave room for Caligula to succeed him, he was imprisoned. When Caligula finally became emperor in 37 AD, he not only released his friend Agrippa but granted him rule of Philip's former tetrarchy (slightly extended), with the title of king.

Josephus tells us that Herodias, jealous at Agrippa’s success, persuaded Antipas to ask Caligula for the title of king for himself. However, Agrippa simultaneously presented the emperor with a list of charges against the tetrarch. Caligula sided once again with Agrippa and had Herod Antipas sent into exile in Gaul, or what is today, France. Caligula offered to allow Herodias, as Agrippa’s sister, to retain her property. However, she chose instead to join her husband in exile. And it was in exile that Antipas died.

Thus we see that on numerous occasions throughout his life Antipas made very important decisions based upon emotion. He committed adultery based upon emotion and paid for it in war with King Aretas. Antipas had John put in prison because of Herodias’ emotional demands. At first, Antipas didn’t kill John because he was afraid of the Jewish people revolting; again, a decision based upon emotion. Antipas gave in to Salome’s demand for the head of John the Baptist on a platter because he was afraid to say “no” and be embarrassed in front of his friends. Then Antipas spent the end of his life in exile because he gave in, emotionally, to Herodias’ suggestion that he should ask Caligula for the title of king.

Now don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with emotions, in and of themselves. Emotions are like the dials on your car dashboard; they tell you what is going on under the hood. We should pay attention to what our emotions are telling us and deal with the problems they reveal in the engine compartment of life.

However, one thing we should never do is to make decisions based upon emotion. When caught up in the feelings of a moment, whether grief or anger, or feelings of being in love, it is always best to let the feelings settle a bit before making a decision.

The movie Stepmom depicts the typical way we allow our emotions to guide our decisions. The movie is about a man, played by Ed Harris, who abandons his wife of many years, played by Susan Sarandon, to take up with a young woman, played by Julia Roberts.

There is one particularly poignant scene where Luke (Ed Harris) brings his two children, Anna, age 12, and Benjamin, age 8, to a park. As Luke and Benjamin launch their sailboat, Anna, looking sad, asks why Luke’s new flame Isabel (Julia Roberts) has moved in with them. Luke is taken aback by this direct question from his daughter but he answers: “Because we love each other. And we want to share our lives together.”

“We already had a life together with Mommy,” Anna replies.

“But Mommy and I weren’t getting along very well. And it wasn’t fair to you guys, fighting all the time.”

Benjamin interjects, “I fight with Anna all the time. Can I move out?”

Luke smiles and says, “No, but you guys are brother and sister.”

“You were husband and wife,” says Anna, “doesn’t that mean something?”

Luke, caught off guard, slowly says, “Yes. It does. But, well, when you get older, your relationships get a lot more complicated. And there are all kinds of feelings flying around. And sometimes, some of those feelings change.”

Anna then asks, “But, did you fall out of love with Mommy?”

“Well, yeah, I guess I did. I still love your mom. But it just became a different kind of love, that’s all. We’re still really good friends, and we always will be.”

Benjamin asks with a serious look, “Can you ever fall out of love with your kids?”

That’s a good question! You see Luke made the mistake of making a major life decision based solely upon emotion. He and Isabel gave into what the author, Sheldon Vanauken, once called “The False Sanction of Eros”.

In an essay by the same title, Vanauken describes how a Christian friend named John shocked him by announcing that he was leaving his wife to marry another woman. John explained his sudden change of heart by saying, “It seemed so good, so right. That’s when we knew we had to get the divorces. We belonged together.”

Vanauken then describes a conversation with a friend named Diana, who left her husband for another man. Diana defended herself with virtually the same words: “It was just so good and right with Roger that I knew it would be wrong to go on with Paul.”

As Vanauken explains, both John and Diana were “invoking a higher law: the feeling of goodness and rightness. A feeling so powerful it swept away whatever guilt they would otherwise have felt” for what they were doing to their families.

Living according to one’s emotions always leads to problems, whether you are Herod Antipas or a modern-day Luke or Isabel.

What a contrast the life of John the Baptist was. John the Baptist sought to live his life and make decisions according to the Word of God. John told Antipas, “It is not lawful for you to have Herodias as your wife.” Why did John say this? He said it because the Hebrew Scriptures said it was wrong for Herod to live this way. John was able to stand up courageously for what was right, despite the cost, because he had learned to live his whole life according to the Word of God and not according to his emotions.

In a sense, John began living according to the Word of God before he was even born. According to Luke 1, when the angel Gabriel predicted John’s birth to John’s father, Zechariah, the angel told Zechariah that the boy was “never to take wine or other fermented drink”. In other words, John was destined before his birth to live his life according to the Nazirite vow spoken of in Numbers 6, Judges 13, and 1 Samuel 1.

According to Matthew 3, when John began his ministry of preaching in the Judean wilderness he did so according to the words of Isaiah the prophet: “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”

According to John 1, when John the Baptist saw Jesus he identified him as “the Lamb of God” in accordance with the prophecy of Isaiah 53.

John the Baptist didn’t have the same benefits we have today. He didn’t have the complete Bible. However, he focused his life on the truth he did know from the Hebrew Scriptures, and he allowed the major decisions of his life to be guided by God’s Word.

I don’t mean to suggest that John the Baptist was perfect or that he didn’t have his moments of doubt. While John was in prison he began to have doubts about whether Jesus really was the Messiah. According to Matthew 11 he sent some of his disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else.” John’s situation in prison must have been very discouraging to him. He must have often been tempted to despair. But once again he received encouragement from the Word of God, in this case: the direct words of Jesus.

Jesus told John’s disciples, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.”

John became such a blessed man. He took courage from Jesus’ words. And so he was enabled to stand up to Herod Antipas even as he himself was languishing in prison. That courage, inspired by the Word of God and displayed in John’s life, must have given courage to many in the early church who read Matthew’s words. As Billy Graham once said, “Courage is contagious. When a brave man takes a stand, the spines of others are stiffened.”

“But,” you say, “I have such a difficult time ordering my emotions under the Word of God. So often it seems like my emotions get the better of me and I make many poor decisions because of them.”

Haven’t we all? Thankfully there is forgiveness in Christ when we, like Herod, make wrong decisions because we are led by emotion. And the really good news is that when we persevere in submitting our lives to be guided by the Word of God—the positive outcome in the end is assured.

It reminds me of the story of the little burro who was harnessed to a wild horse. That horse would buck and rage, convulsing like a drunken sailor, and all that the little burro could do was go along for the ride. One day the two were turned loose on to the desert range in this condition. The burro and the horse could be seen disappearing over the horizon with the wild horse dragging that little burro along and throwing him around like a bag of cream puffs. The two were gone for days but eventually they came back. However, upon their return the burro was first, trotting back across the horizon, leading the submissive steed in tow. Somewhere out there on the rim of the world that wild horse became exhausted from trying to get rid of the burro and in that moment the burro took charge and became the leader.

That’s the way it works with our emotions and the Word of God. Yes, there are many times when our emotions seem to be in charge and cause all sorts of havoc. However, if we harness our emotions to the Word of God and persevere in that condition, eventually our wild emotions will become exhausted and the Word of God will take over.

“But,” you say, “Things didn’t turn out all that well for John the Baptist. He served God his whole life but ended up in prison at the end and had his head cut off.”

That is true. And that dark ending for John the Baptist in this world foreshadows the even darker life conclusion his cousin Jesus will experience near the end of Matthew’s Gospel.

However, in our text for today there is a note of hope. When Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus he said, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”

Herod was wrong. Jesus wasn’t John “risen from the dead”. But Matthew wants us, his readers, to remember that one day Jesus will be executed in a far worse fashion than John and then he, Jesus, will rise from the dead—giving each of us hope for our own resurrection.

When we examine these two ways to live—according to emotion or according to the Word of God—it can seem that living according to emotion is the way to go . . . until we examine these two ways of life in the context of eternity. Once we do that there is no contest.

Live according to what your emotions dictate and you will one day regret it. Live according to the Word of God by the grace and power of the indwelling Lord Jesus Christ and you will never be sorry.


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