Summary: When we lose our ways emotionally or spiritually, we hurt ourselves and others. Herod, Herodias and Salome demonstrate the ways we can be seduced into losing our heads. John only lost his physical head but not his integrity.

Do you know the poem, "If’, by Rudyard Kipling? I’m sure you’ve heard it a hundred times. But let me quote just a part of "If’.

"If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you; if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too; if you can wait and not be tired by waiting, or being lied about, don’t deal in lies, or being hated, don’t give way to hating, and yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise; if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you, if all men count with you, but none too much; if you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, yours is the earth and everything that’s in it, and -- which is more -- you’ll be a man, my son!"

Whew! Let me catch my breath after that mouthful! "If’. "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you ... you’ll be a man, my son." Well, some wit has rewritten Brother Kipling a little bit, and has said, "If, if you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, you obviously don’t know what’s going on!"

I suspect all of us have had the experience of losing our heads, either because we didn’t know what was going on, or maybe because we did know!

We lose our heads, we get emotionally unstable, when things happen too fast for us to absorb. Too many things going on, and we just throw up our hands and quit. Remember the song, "Stop the world, I want to get off!"?

We lose our heads when someone blindsides us; when someone’s actions are so strange and bizarre that we don’t know what to make of it all. Like that driver that cuts you off on Piney Branch Road where the left-turn only lane is. You just want to rev up and beat him out!

We lose our heads when somebody attacks us, questions our motives, even suggests that we don’t love the Lord. You know the kind of thing? My mother used to drive me batty when she would disapprove of some decision I had made by saying, "Humph. I can’t imagine a minister doing that!" And I would just want to scream!

We lose our heads, don’t we? We don’t stay in control of our feelings. I imagine we would like to. I imagine we would like to be cool and stable under stress. Wouldn’t you want to be like that pilot, the other day? The one who, when the engines on his jet conked out, just coolly and calmly calculated how far he could glide and how much braking power he had, and took it in for a safe landing? Weren’t you impressed with that?

Wouldn’t we want to be like those Wimbledon tennis stars? They know that if they get flustered under attack, they will throw the game away. And so, no matter how aggressive their opponent is; no matter how hard pressed they are, they know that if they just let their gut feelings take over, they will blow the game. So they play the game in their heads as much as in their legs and arms. Now they may lose the game even while they think, think, think; but at least they will not throw it away. At least they will not have lost their heads.

It’s easy to lose your head. It’s easy to react to stress by lashing out. But it’s destructive. It’s not only destructive to others; it is ultimately a loss to your own soul.

So: "If you can keep your head while all about you are losing theirs...". Today the Bible presents us with the ultimate losing-your-head story. In this story, John the Baptist loses his head, literally and physically. But as we read the story, we need to ask, "Who lost his head spiritually? Who really lost his, or her, head? And how did it happen?"


Consider King Herod. Tetrarch of Galilee, whose father, Herod the Great, we know as the king who ordered all those innocent baby boys killed when Jesus was born. Herod, who had managed to lure his wife, Herodias, away from her first husband, Philip, who was in turn Herod’s own half-brother. By the way, if you want something complicated, try this: Herodias was, first of all, Herod’s niece, by blood; but she was also, or had been, his sister-in-law. And now, thanks to some fancy legal maneuvering, she was his wife! You folks with training in family therapy could have a field day with that one!

Herod had put John the Baptist in prison. John was too much to handle on the loose, so Herod put him behind bars. Now we come to this colorful scene, in which the king’s wife Herodias and her daughter Salome ask for the head of John the Baptist. And Herod agrees. Herod takes John’s life. John lost his head.

But, again, I ask you, who really lost his head? Who really lost his spiritual head in this encounter, and how did it happen?


I say Herod lost his head. Herod lost his head, hoping that he could use power to force things to come out the way he wanted. Herod’s stress came from having to face the truth about himself, and it was tough. But Herod thought he could use power to bully his way through and make it come out right.

John had seen Herod’s sin, and had spoken up about it. John had seen that it was not right for Herod to flaunt the law of God and commit adultery with his brother’s wife. A lot of people just murmured in the background, too timid to say out loud what they thought. But not John. John told the truth, and told it out loud. "It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife."

So Herod reacted by clapping John into jail, and then by signing off on the order of execution. It became a question of truth versus power.

There is always a curious conflict between truth and power. If you have and know the truth, you don’t have to use a lot of power. But if you don’t have the truth, then you think you have to power your way through.

If you know the truth, then the truth will stand up for itself. But if you don’t know the truth, you think it will be improved by forcing it on others. Like the preacher who left his notes on the pulpit one Sunday, and someone sneaked a look at them. In the margin the preacher had made a note to himself, "This is a weak point, so remember to pound the pulpit and yell like crazy!" If it isn’t the truth, you think you have to force it.

Think about what we do with children sometimes. We think we don’t have to tell our children the truth, because we can overpower them. We suppose that because they are dependent on us, we can just bludgeon them into silence. I’m not proud of this, but I do remember a time, years ago, when I lied to my young daughter about something, because it wasn’t flattering to me. But you can be sure that your sins will find you out, and she did find out. What a sting it was when she said, "Daddy, can’t I trust you any more?"

We think we can power our way past the truth, and intimidate others. But to do that would be to lose our heads. Consider Herod, who cut off John’s head, thinking John was a nobody; but it was Herod who lost his head trying to use power against the truth.

It’s easy to lose your head. It’s easy to react to stress by lashing out. But it’s destructive. It’s not only destructive to others; it is ultimately a loss to your own soul.


Again, consider Herod and how he lost his head. Herod lost his head, because, when stress comes from guilt, then guilt makes us find scapegoats. Guilt and shame make us divert the heat away from ourselves and toward others.

It was Herod who had broken the law, God’s law. But Herod decided to make John look like the criminal. It was Herod who was guilty, but he tried to take the heat off himself by making John look guilty.

Football coaches will tell you that the best defense is a good offense. When you are backed up against the wall, you’ve lost if all you do is to defend yourself. What you have to do is come out fighting, come out with an attack. And so, if you are Herod, and you hear John pointing out your sins to the people, and you know you could lose big-time, what do you do? You lose your head, that’s what. If you are guilty, then you look for a scapegoat, you try to put the finger on someone else, you play the blame game, you attack.

Let me take just a minute to comment on accumulated guilt. Accumulated guilt. Guilt is one of those things which just builds up and accumulates in us. It’s not, well, I’ve done this bad thing, and that’s it, it’s behind me. No, it’s more like, I’ve done this, and it’s still with me; and then I did that, and it’s with me too; and then this and then that and then something else, and it all builds up and accumulates. And at some point it breaks out into a thunderstorm of hate, drenching somebody else.

Herod is a good example of accumulated guilt. Herod, the historians tell us, had already executed several of his own sons! Imagine being so cruel and so threatened that you would kill not just one of your own sons, but several. In fact, they had a popular saying in those days, that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than to be Herod’s son! Now just think about how much accumulated guilt this man was carrying! Just think about how much shame and guilt and burden he was carrying around, after all that! It’s no surprise to see him lose his head and lash out at John the Baptist. Guilt makes us lose our heads and find a scapegoat.

It’s easy to lose your head. It’s easy to react to stress by lashing out. But it’s destructive. It’s not only destructive to others; it is ultimately a loss to your own soul.


Once again, consider Herod and how he lost his head. Herod lost his head because he had not sorted out his love-hate relationship with his opponent. Herod found it hard to deal with John the right way because he couldn’t get it straight in his own mind exactly what he felt about John.

Listen to the text. How instructive it is! "Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he liked to listen to him." Wow! Isn’t that a complicated relationship?! He liked him and he feared him, all at the same time!

And isn’t it true that the more we care for someone, the more violent our reactions are toward them? Isn’t it true that there are folks, maybe your spouses or your parents or your children, folks whom you love so profoundly that you sometimes hate them? Does that make any sense to you? To love somebody so profoundly that you sometimes hate them?!

When we have not really sorted out, thought through our relationship to our opponents, then we churn inside and we lose our heads. When we don’t really know how we feel about somebody, look out, because the intensity of our feelings for that person is going to break out some kind of way!

It’s easy to lose your head. It’s easy to react to stress by lashing out. But it’s destructive. It’s not only destructive to others; it is ultimately a loss to your own soul.


Ah, but one more time, consider Herod. Herod who lost his head because he trapped himself in his own pride. Herod who lost his head because he got caught up in his own swagger and didn’t know how to get out without losing face. When we are under duress, we forget about what the real issue is, and start maintaining our macho. We have to keep our image up. We have to meet the expectations we have created. And pretty soon, we’re really not thinking about what’s right and what’s wrong, or who gets hurt. We are thinking only about rescuing our own images. Pride!

Mark tells us that when they asked him to behead John the Baptist, Herod was "deeply grieved." He didn’t really want to do this. Somewhere deep down in a depraved heart, he still knew that it wasn’t right. But listen to his motives, as Mark reports them, "yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her." "Out of regard for his oaths and for the guests ..." Poor Herod, king though he be, is at the mercy of his own foolish promise and the shallow, misguided expectations of his friends. That’s pride.

How many of us have gotten suckered into doing things, just because the crowd was doing it, and we didn’t want to back down? How many of us have agreed to do things we knew, we absolutely knew, were wrong, and would lead to terrible consequences, but it was less painful to look at consequences later than it was to look at the sneering faces of our supposed friends right now?

How many young people have been gathered into gangs and violence, not because they were truly violent people, but because it was the gang’s ritual and the gang’s expectation? How many weak-willed whites put on Klan robes and burned crosses, if not churches, because they read the expectations of their peers? How many of us just fall in with the atmosphere of the day, because we cannot and will not resist the mood of the hour?

How does a person lose his head? By promising half of his kingdom and then having to make good on the promise. By pinning his ego to the cries of the crowd, which all too often cries for blood.

It’s easy to lose your head. It’s easy to react to stress by lashing out. But it’s destructive. It’s not only destructive to others; it is ultimately a loss to your own soul.


But enough of Herod. There are other players in the story. There are others who lose their heads, and they teach us too.

John lost his head, literally and physically. Who else, besides King Herod, lost their heads, spiritually?

Consider the women in the story: Herodias and her daughter, Salome. Consider how they lost their heads amid the tossing of their curls and the pouting of their pretty lips.


Consider Herodias, the king’s niece, sister-in-law, wife, all rolled into one. I say Herodias too lost her head, because she let her anger seethe. She went to bed on her anger, and let it build. She did not reflect on it, deal with it, get rid of it. She lost her head, not in a fly-off-the-handle kind of way, like her husband. But she lost her head, way back there a long time ago, and let that anger build and build until she could express it with cruelty.

"Herodias had a grudge against [John] and wanted to kill him, but she could not ... but an opportunity came." "An opportunity came". It reminds me of the phrase, "don’t get mad; get even."

I see sister Herodias as the classically angry person. Deeply, chronically angry. Long-term anger. And we can see why. You just think about how she has been used. First, she is the wife of one brother, a petty king, and she is seduced by her brother-in-law. You can say all you want about how she made her own bed and must lie in it, but if you know anything about the place of women in those days, you know that she had very little choice in the matter. She had no strength to fight off Herod. I don’t just mean physical strength; I mean political strength. All he had to do was to denounce her and she was a goner. So Herod used her even before she married him. That was a source of anger.

And then there was John, preacher John. John is running around the countryside thundering about God’s law. He is a fanatic for God’s truth. And his number one example, his favorite sermon illustration, is the stuff going on in the palace. John could scarcely help himself. It’s so obvious, it’s irresistible. Just as probably half the preachers in England this Sunday are making comments on the latest news about the divorce of Charles and Diana. It’s hard to resist so obvious a target.

But Herodias didn’t like that either. She didn’t like being used. She didn’t like being a powerless victim of somebody else’s actions. But what was she going to do with her anger? And so she put that resentment away in her heart, she tucked it in as if it were next year’s Christmas presents, to be hidden safely until the right time. And then, says Mark, "an opportunity came", and she struck! She struck hard! Like a caged tiger, she turned around and struck.

And who knows? Maybe Herodias not only wanted to kill John, but also wanted to hurt King Herod?! Who knows but what she wanted to embarrass her husband as well as to behead the Baptist? You see, bottled up anger is like that carbonated drink that you shake and shake; you may not see from the outside that anything has happened, but pull off the top and see what spews out! It gets everybody in its wake!

Watch out for long-term anger. Watch out for the resentment that has been building for years. The day of opportunity will come, and you won’t be able to resist using it. Your anger will lash out and splatter everybody in sight. You may think you’ve had your day of revenge, because your tormentors are injured. But on that day, who really lost her head?

It’s easy to lose your head. It’s easy to react to stress by lashing. But it’s destructive. It’s not only destructive to others; it is ultimately a loss to your own soul.


Yes, consider Herodias. But consider the other woman, consider Salome as well. Salome too lost her head. Salome also lost her bearings, and in her brainlessness, her dramatic brainlessness, she added insult to injury for John. And she also gave herself a place in history’s annals as a stupid, empty bimbo.

How did Salome lose her head? Salome lost her head because she did not think for herself, but rather exaggerated someone else’s thoughts. Salome lost her head, her soul, because she did not take responsibility for her own actions, but, at the same time, she bought into what she was asked to do, and then blew it up, she exaggerated it, out of all proportion.

The daughter asked her mother, ’’’What [gift] shall I ask for?’ She replied, ’The head of John the baptizer’" Now Salome had some choices, you know. I can imagine her saying, "A bloody head!? You’ve got to be kidding!. What am I going to do with a thing like that? Ain’t no boyfriends going to come see me with that staring at them. Hunh-uh, I’d rather have a diamond necklace or seven new veils." She might have rejected this. There wasn’t really anything in it of value for her. But since she did not know her own mind, and since she did not accept responsibility for her actions, she not only took Herodias’ counsel. She heightened it. She exaggerated it. She made it worse.

Oh, the text is so rich if you read it closely "She rushed back to the king and requested, ’I want you to give me at once ... ". At once. Her mother hadn’t said anything about "at once", but Salome decided to up the stakes. "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter." "On a platter"! Not even Mom had thought about making this into a grisly horror movie! Where does Salome come off making a major show-stopper out of this? A head on a platter? Give me a break!

But, do you see, when we lose our heads, it means we have not only quit thinking for ourselves. It means that we take the bad advice we get and we play it to the hilt. We exaggerate it. And then we say, "I didn’t do it. She did it. The devil made me do it. Not my fault. Hunh-uh."

You see, sometimes people tell you just what they think you want to hear. And most of the time, they shape things so that they get what they want rather than helping you figure out what you want. Now if we just swallow bad advice, hook, line, and sinker; if we abdicate responsibility for our own decisions, then we are like loose cannons on deck, and an awful lot of people get hurt.

The consequences are tremendous when you lose your head. John lost his head, physically.’ But who lost his head, emotionally? Who lost her head, spiritually?

It’s easy to lose your head. It’s easy to react to stress by lashing out in. But it’s destructive. It’s not only destructive to others; it is ultimately a loss to your own soul.


Consider Herod; consider the women, Herodias and Salome. But also consider John. John who told the truth and paid for it with his head. But there was one thing John did not lose; he did not lose his integrity.

Consider John, John who knew his own mind and spoke it, and lost his life. But there was one thing John did not lose; he did not lose his soul.

Consider John, John who set aside all the blandishments of false friends, and who lost his freedom for it. But there was one thing he did not lose; he did not lose the love of true friends, who came to place his body, gently, in a tomb.

Consider John, John who would not change his tune to suit even a king or his mistress, and whose death bore witness to their sin. John, you say lost everything? No, not at all. One thing he did not lose; one thing they could not and did not take from him. And that was his witness. His witness to the one who must increase after him; his witness to the one who is here, greater than he; his witness to the Christ whom they also bruised and crushed; his witness to the Lord who three days later would rise again to everlasting life.

For, you see, truth crushed to earth shall rise again. You may lose everything else, but don’t lose your head.