‘It’s sometimes been said that if someone came up to you in the street and whispered, ‘They’ve found out! Run!’, nine out of ten of us would.’ These are the words which Rowan Williams began his Enthronement sermon as Archbishop of Canterbury in 2003.
I want to begin there because I think that by the time Kind Herod reached the end of his days he had come to embody the kind of paranoia that sees people out to get him at every turn. When he thinks that every conversation in hushed tones is part of a plot to overthrow him.
And so stripped of all his defences, mindful of the choices he made to protect that power, I think we can be pretty sure that if Herod were in the shopping centre at Crossgates and someone crept up behind him and said run – he would.
We meet him this morning as he begins to hear rumours about Jesus, another threat to his power. No doubt the order he gave to murder John (to preserve his popularity after a foolish promise) has worried him, so in his paranoid state he thinks ‘John whom I beheaded has been raised’.
History tells us that the traits which defined Herod have defined despotic leaders ever since. Even today we can look around the world and see those who will do almost anything to protect their power. But in some small way we all know a bit of what it is to be paranoid, to be anxious and fearful to think that others are talking about usand plotting our downfall.
In contrast to Herod’s paranoia that defines the Gospel St. Paul in our Epistle gives a different vision for life. A life lived ‘so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live to the praise of his glory.’ Paul invites us to live in hope.
And as we think of his words I think we know enough about Paul to know that he wasn’t immune to worry and anxiety, those things which left unchecked lead to paranoia, rather his security wasn’t bound to what other people thought of him.
Whereas Herod seeks to maintain his power and popularity ‘out of regard for his oaths and for the guests.’ Paul reminds us that our security flows from knowing we are beloved children of God who in Christ have received forgiveness not through anything we have done or deserve but ‘according to the good pleasure of his will.’
Paul reminds us then to live in hope, to hope for the best as followers of Christ defined not by paranoia and fear but by hope and joy.
And yet, and yet, I’d want to say hang on a minute that is easier said than done, we all in some way get drawn into the popularity stakes by which we measure our lives, we all have those moments of doubts and fear, get a bit paranoid that people are talking about us.
Indeed if we think about history again we know that’s how oppressive states thrive. In the old East Germany for example, the secret police the Stasi, had some half a million informers so that conversation was never free.
That state was sustained by that flaw in our character typified by Herod and described by Rowan Williams where we think everyone is talking about and out to get us.
Consequently we need to find and cultivate ways of reconnecting with our true self, to make Paul’s beautiful words our own, to live hope and not just talk about it. That’s where returning again and again, to Paul’s and other words in the Bible help sustain us.
A few weeks ago, I’d had a particularly demanding day, I turned up to Evening Prayer thinking I’d really prefer a stiff drink and to curl into a ball.
And there before me were the words to Psalm 27, it begins ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation’ and ends ‘Wait for the Lord; be strong and he shall comfort your heart; wait patiently for the Lord.’ It was just what I needed, I had to hold back the tears.
We all know that life is a demanding business sometimes, we have all sorts of pressures to do this or that, to look this way and have that. We’re not immune to the fears and anxieties of modern life yet they’re not the whole story. Indeed Sunday by Sunday we come here to be reminded of the truths which define us as beloved children of God.
When I prepare couples for marriage I invite them to printout the words of the vows at the heart of the service and put them on the fridge or some other place where they will see them every day. To help them make those beautiful words their own.
Perhaps this week we could do the same for these words from St. Paul at work or at home and be encouraged for these are words of love, words of hope, inviting us amidst all the mess of life that we ‘might live for the praise of his glory.’
In our collect this morning we remembered as we prayed how God has prepared good things for us and that his promises exceed all we can desire. Growing into that truth isn’t always easy but living it is a daily discipline that shapes and forms us.
The choice before us this morning is stark between Herod’s kingdom defined by fear and paranoia or to heed Paul’s words and live in hope. I know which one is for me.
The American author J. D. Sallinger once wrote ‘I am kind of paranoid in reverse. I suspect people plotting to make me happy.’
Now there’s a lovely thought, let’s be paranoid in reverse and seek to make each other happy to the glory of God and in the name of Jesus Christ.