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Death of a Conscience (text)

August 19, 2012 Speaker: Allen Snapp Series: Gospel of Mark

Topic: Christian Living Passage: Mark 6:14–29

* Note: Due to a technical error, the audio to this message was not recorded. 

In Edgar Allen Poe’s short story The Telltale Heart the narrator tells how he just murdered the old man he shares a house with. He didn’t kill him because he didn’t like him or in a fit of anger or for his wealth. He killed him because the old man had one eye that resembled a vulture’s eye – pale blue with a film over it – and when that eye fell on the younger man, his blood ran cold. So he creeps into the old man’s chambers just after midnight, but the old man wakes up and knows someone is in the room and is so frightened that his heart begins to beat loudly enough for the younger man to hear it in the dark. He kills the old man and his eye and conceals his body under the chamber floorboards.

Soon two policemen show up to investigate a shriek a neighbor heard come from the room, and the murderer is so confident that his crime won’t be found out that he places chairs right over the floorboards where the body is and chats pleasantly with them. But then he begins to hear something. It’s faint at first, but it grows louder and louder. The two policemen keep smiling and talking as if nothing is wrong, but the guilty man is sure they hear it too – they are just mocking him. Finally the sound gets to him and he confesses everything, telling the officers to pull up the planks and stop the sound – the beating of the old man’s heart.

A guilty conscience can make us see and hear things that aren’t there. In Mark 6, as Jesus’ fame grows people begin to speculate about who he is: some people think he is Elijah returned to earth, others think he is a great prophet sent by God, but King Herod’s speculation is fueled by a guilty conscience and he fearfully concludes: “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” His guilty conscience looked at Jesus and heard the beating heart of John.

God has given us a gift called our conscience. Webster Dictionary defines the conscience as the sense or consciousness of the moral goodness or blameworthiness of one's own conduct, intentions, or character together with a feeling of obligation to do right or be good. The conscience is kind of like a built in voice that tells us when we are about to do wrong or when we have done wrong, and it urges us to do right. Our conscience isn’t perfect, and we’ll talk about that in a minute, but it is a gift from God that we need to pay attention to. King Herod ignored his conscience to his own peril, and this morning we’re going to look at four steps that led to the death of Herod’s conscience, not as rubberneckers curiously looking at the wreck he made of his life, but as students learning from the warning his life provides.

Our conscience is fallen and needs to be cleansed by the blood of Christ

Before we look at the four steps towards a dead conscience, we need to know that we are born with a fallen conscience. First of all that means we are born with a flawed conscience. Man was created with a conscience that was perfectly calibrated to God’s commands and will, but sin knocked our consciences out of sync with God’s will and our consciences are now unreliable guides apart from God’s word. What that means is that the conscience is a helpful counselor but it isn’t the ultimate judge, God is. Just because we don’t feel guilty about something doesn’t mean we aren’t guilty before God – God’s word, not our conscience needs to be the standard.

Secondly, because of sin, we all have a polluted conscience. We have all broken God’s commands and fouled our consciences and there’s nothing we can ever do to achieve a clean conscience. We are guilty in the sight of God and the only way to have a clear conscience is through the blood of Jesus Christ. Hebrews 10:19-22 says:

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 

On the cross, Jesus paid the full price for our guilt and sin so that all those who place their faith and trust in Jesus can be forgiven. God gives us a clean conscience through the washing of Jesus’ blood. Nothing else can remove the stain of our sin, but Jesus’ blood shed for us is more than powerful enough to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

So when Paul tells Timothy in 1 Tim 1:19 to hold fast to faith and a good conscience, he isn’t saying be such a good person that you achieve a good conscience. He is showing the vital connection between faith (in Christ) and a good conscience (good because it’s been washed clean). But he is also urging believers to hold fast to their faith in such a way as to guard that clean conscience. The biblical prescription for guarding a clean conscience is, first of all, don’t sin. As 1 John says, “I am writing these things so that you may not sin.” As children of God, obey God, walk in the light. And when we do sin, confess that sin. Repent – which means turn from that sin. The two steps for guarding a clean conscience for the believer is obedience and repentance. With that in mind, let’s consider the four steps Herod took towards a dead conscience.

Step One: The conscience is stirred 

Herod had committed the sin of marrying his brother’s wife Herodias, and John confronted them about the unlawfulness of their marriage. That infuriated Herodias and she insisted Herod throw John in prison which he did, but he would not let Herodias kill John. In fact, Herod would come to listen to him frequently. Verse 20 tells us:

Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.

Herod was bothered by John’s message, he was perplexed by John’s fearlessness, but when he heard him, something stirred inside him – it was his conscience telling him, this is right, this is good, listen to him. This was the closest Herod would ever come to repentance and a changed life but in the end, he never acted on what he heard so it didn’t do him any good and soon he would be in a far worse place.

To listen to truth, to appreciate truth, even enjoy it is a great beginning, but it’s only that: a beginning. It’s not hearing only, but responding to God’s word that evidences a genuine faith. We must not make the mistake of thinking, because I’ve heard God’s truth, I’ve acted on God’s truth. When God stirs our conscience, we should make a resolution to act quickly on that stirring and obey God’s word.

Step Two: The conscience is violated

The day came when Herod threw himself a great birthday party with all his top men there, and Herodias had her daughter Salome dance for the men. Normally women of rank such as Salome would not dance at a party like this – that was reserved for the hetarai – the court dancers and prostitutes. But Herodias had been plotting and now she sees her chance and sends her daughter Salome to dance a sensuous dance that pleases the crowd and Herod rashly and publicly promises his young step-daughter anything she wants up to half his kingdom. Guided by Herodias, Salome asks for John’s head on a platter.

Herod knew immediately that he had a dilemma. It was a clear line: violate his promise or violate his conscience. Mark tells us that Herod was exceedingly sorry. Very, very sorry. But in the end he is more concerned about what his top men think than what’s right and he immediately sent an executioner to behead John. You almost get the sense he wants to do it quickly before he can think about it too much. Herod stepped over that line and did what was wrong, violating his conscience.

There are times when we will be tempted to step over a line that violates our conscience. That’s the nature of temptation – and we all know the internal tug of war of “I want to do that”, “it’s wrong to do that” – “but I want to do it!” Young people – you will be tempted to violate your conscience to go along with the crowd, to look cool, to be accepted. And you will have to decide what you are committed to hold onto and what you’re willing to lose. Will you hold onto your image at the cost of your conscience? Will you hold onto people’s approval at the cost of your conscience? Or maybe it won’t be external pressure – it might be the internal pressure of something you want badly but know it’s not what God has for you –it violates your conscience. Will you hold to God’s promises and give that thing up? Or will you run from God’s promises and hold that forbidden fruit tightly? What are you committed to hold onto and what are you willing to lose?

If you have stepped over that line, if you have violated your conscience in some way – don’t ignore it, don’t deny it, that is the road to a dead conscience. Confess it to God and repent of it (which means to turn from it). Jesus’ blood can wash clean the foulest stain, but we need to repent of it and turn from it.

In the light of eternity, it is never wise or good to throw away one’s conscience for any earthly pleasure or any amount of human approval. May we ask God for a heart to obey Him, and repent quickly when we sin.

Step Three: The conscience calls

The third step is found in the opening verses of this passage. Herod’s fear that Jesus is John the Baptist raised from the dead is an irrational fear – it’s like hearing the beating heart of a dead man under the floorboards. But Herod’s conscience is calling – he knows what he did was wrong and it’s haunting him. Even now Herod could have repented and sought forgiveness from God, but he doesn’t. And his conscience takes one more step towards non-existence.

When conscience calls – listen

Years ago I sat with a pastor who had just been caught in a long term immoral sin. He wept as he realized he would have to confess his sin to his wife and to the congregation. It would end his pastoral ministry and take a terrible toll on his family. Through tears he shared how often he had wanted to confess his sin to a friend so that he could have helped him. What a very different story it would have been if he had listened to the call of his conscience. When you step over a line and your conscience calls – cultivate listening ears.

Years ago Janice and I had run up some debt that for us was fairly significant. It wasn’t through impulse buying or anything – mostly because of various unexpected expenses that we weren’t prepared for. But I was reluctant to talk to Janice about the full scope of the problem, not because there was anything I was guilty of or wanted to keep secret, but I was concerned about her being upset and anxious about this debt.

One night as we were going to bed, Janice asked me a question that, answered honestly, would have revealed the extent of our debt and without thinking, in a moment I blurted out an answer that wasn’t truthful. I lied. We went to bed, and I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t get that lie off my mind. It was the call of my conscience and I finally woke her up and told her that I hadn’t been truthful and told her where we were at. I still remember us getting up in the middle of the night and going through all our credit card bills to understand how we got there and then putting a plan together to get out of debt.

I don’t know what might be going on in your life right now – maybe you have closets in your life that no one knows about, things that you are doing that you know are wrong, and even right now your conscience is being stirred. That is a good thing – the stirring of the conscience is a good thing. Here’s the warning from Herod’s life: listen to it. Don’t shake it off, don’t ignore it, don’t put off doing something about it for another day.

When our conscience calls to us – especially after we have violated it – it’s a defining moment. Will we listen to it? Will we repent and turn from it or will we hold onto it no matter what the cost? Will we shut our ears to God’s word and the call of the Spirit? Let’s listen to our conscience and repent and obey. No matter what the cost. God will honor our step of faith, forgive us, and (it may not be easy) help us through.

Step Four: The conscience is seared

We see this fourth and tragic step in Herod’s life in Luke 23:7-12:

When he [Pilate] 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. 9 So he questioned him at some length, but he made no answer.10 The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. 11 And Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him. Then, arraying him in splendid clothing, he sent him back to Pilate.

This short account of Jesus being sent to Herod, only contained in Luke, might at first seem like an odd but unimportant detail, but it’s actually a terrifying moment, not so much because of what happens, but because of what doesn’t happen. Herod, who once saw in John the prophet something that he both feared and heard gladly, now has Jesus the Son of God before him… and sees nothing. He sees Jesus as a miracle working entertainer and when Jesus doesn’t deliver, he has nothing but contempt for him. The conscience that once was stirred by John has become seared in the presence of Jesus.

What’s more frightening is that Jesus sees nothing in Herod. Jesus says nothing, doesn’t answer Herod a word, doesn’t acknowledge him - nothing. There is a point when the conscience stops talking. The Bible calls it a “seared conscience” or a calloused conscience (1 Tim 4:3). When a person has a seared conscience, sin doesn’t bother them anymore. They don’t feel guilty about sin because their conscience has stopped talking to them. The guilt is still there, but they have no idea that it’s there. Worst of all, God has stopped talking to them. It is a dangerous place to be.

I don’t believe a Christian can reach this point, but a person who is moving toward Christ and having their conscience stirred by God can. A person can “hang around Jesus” by going to church and adopting the lingo and enjoying Christian stuff for a while and then by the steps we’ve looked at violate their conscience and eventually harden it to God.

But even for Christians, warnings like this in the Bible aren’t meant to make us think, “ah, that could never happen to me so I can ignore it.” They are meant to press our souls to think, “I don’t even want to take one step in that direction – Lord, help me to guard a tender conscience.” Let’s hold fast to our faith and a good conscience. Keep it tender, keep it sensitive. If you are being tempted to violate your conscience in some way – turn away from that temptation and obey God. He will give you strength to do it as you step out to do it. Don’t expect the strength first – take the step first and God will fill that step with strength.

I have felt that this is an important message and that God wants to speak to some of us in specific ways here this morning. If you have violated your conscience through some sin, your conscience has probably been banging away at you throughout this message. Here’s what God is calling you to do – repent. Confess that sin to God and turn from it. It’s not repentance if there’s not a turning away from it – that’s what repentance means.

If you’re not a Christian, please don’t try to be “good enough” to please God or make it into heaven. You can never be good enough – none of us can. Come to Jesus Christ and believe in what he did on the cross, paying for the sins that we are guilty of. Believe in him, ask him to forgive you, save you, and be your Lord. Follow Jesus, and he promises to cleanse you of all your sin – including your conscience – and save you from judgment. That promise is held out to you this morning – will you take hold of it?

As we sing, this isn’t just about giving up sin, it’s about what we treasure. We cling to what we treasure. God isn’t asking that we just let go of something, He’s calling us to hold onto something – Someone. Jesus. To treasure him above all things – reputation, wealth, pleasure, comfort, sin, even life itself. So as we sing these songs, surrender your sin by letting go, and take hold of the treasure that Christ is.

If you want prayer, please come up to the front while we’re singing. We would be happy to pray for you.