July 12, 2015 – Born in Dysfunction
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Having a large family, we had extra kids in our house a lot of the time. And one of the things I have noticed about our children’s friends is that as we got to know them, we could tell a lot about the household they came from. Some of these young friends had a kindness and cheerfulness that you could tell came out of being raised by loving parents, in a secure home. Some of our kids’ friends were so polite and thoughtful that they were a good example even to the adults in our household. But there were some young visitors to our house who you could just tell were shadowed by troubles in their own household. You could see them carefully trying to navigate a dangerous world. We could always tell they were trying to say what they thought we would like to hear rather than simply speaking from the heart. Our kid’s friends were all nice kids and we loved them all, but some of them always remained a little unreachable, living within a shell of smiles and politeness and keeping their fears and shame tucked deep inside.
And this terrible story about King Herod and the murder of John the Baptist reveals a man who was trapped in that kind of shell of pride and fear and desire from which he was not able to escape. We actually know quite a bit about the dysfunctional household of Herod’s family. It’s kind of tricky to keep all the Herods in the Bible straight. The Herod we read about today was called Herod Antipas, and he was the son of Herod the Great, who was the King over Palestine when Jesus was born. It was Herod the Great who ordered the slaughter of all the little boys under the age of two because he was so threatened by the rumors of Jesus’ birth. Herod Agrippa the I, who was the grandson of Herod the Great, was King of Palestine after Herod Antipas. It was Herod Agrippa I who put James the brother of John to death. And it was his son, Herod Agrippa II, who was King of Palestine after Agrippa I, who heard Paul’s case. Like Herod Antipas, Agrippa was attracted to Paul, and he and his wife listened Paul gladly. He even recognized Paul’s innocence, but he did not dare take the authority on himself to set Paul free. Instead, he sent Paul on to be condemned and imprisoned. This was a deadly dysfunctional household to grow up in.
And notice the way Mark reveals something to us of that legacy of dysfunction – the struggle between dark and light inside of Herod. Mark says that Herod’s wife hated John the Baptist for exposing the immorality of their marriage arrangements, but that “Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him.” Mark says that when Herod heard John, “he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.” There was something in Herod that was drawn to the light of John’s message, even though John’s words condemned Herod just as much, or even more than, they condemned his wife. He capitulated to his wife in having John thrown in prison, but until the day of his big birthday party he had guarded John’s life.
But on that day, when he had almost certainly had too much to drink, pleased by his admiring guests and proud of the beauty and talents of his stepdaughter, and enjoying the glory of his power as King, he sealed John’s fate, as well as his own, with his rash promise to Salome: “Ask for anything, up to half my kingdom, and it’s yours.” When Salome made her mother’s vicious request, it grieved Herod to the heart, but with everyone watching, he just couldn’t bring himself to do the right thing and refuse her. So the guards were sent down to the dungeons, and John’s head was delivered to his wife and stepdaughter on a platter. Deeply grieved, the King was powerless to overcome his pride and his desperate need to please the people around him, and he could not escape the slavery of sin.
You’ve heard the song from the “Lion King” about the “Circle of Life.” This story is about the “Circle of Death.” Herod’s life was already shadowed by the guilt of taking his brother’s wife. He heard the words of John when he preached repentance, and he was drawn to it, desiring to hear John’s words even thought they condemned him. But in the end the pride of his power and his intense need to please man rather than God had the upper hand. He added murder to the list of his crimes, and the death of John closed the circle of guilt and death around him until there was no escape.
But here’s the thing: we all – sitting here centuries later and half a world away – we all came out of the same household as Herod. We’re not part of the Herodian dynasty, of course, but we were all born into that family of man that has been shadowed by sin and death ever since the Fall of Adam and Eve. And if we’re honest, don’t we recognize our own struggle in the struggle of Herod? Don’t we all feel the pull towards what is good and right, and don’t we all end up, time after time, choosing to give in to our pride and the need to please man rather than God? To be the one who speaks for compassion or mercy or grace when all the voices around us are mocking or criticizing or condemning; to do what is right when everything and everyone around us is demanding that we compromise: we know that battle. And we don’t always win it.
It’s part of the heritage of our old household, that dysfunctional legacy of fear and self-preservation and shame that still haunts all of us. Paul talked about it in chapter 7 of Romans: “I don’t understand my own actions. I don’t do what I want to do, but I do the very thing I hate…I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. I don’t do the good I want, but the evil I don’t want is what I keep on doing..Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” We have to know that sin isn’t a matter of breaking some list of rules – sin is that legacy of death that dwells in every one of us who was born in the dysfunctional family of mankind: not just Herod, but Paul, and us.
But if we continue reading what Paul has to say, he goes on to give us the answer, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Here’s the good news: we don’t belong to that household anymore. We aren’t slaves anymore. We know that we still fight the battle every day, but our victory is already assured – not because we are good people, who are more virtuous than Herod, but because Jesus Christ has come to secure our adoption into his own household, and no other power can snatch us away from him. “Neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” If you have any doubts about the power and love of Jesus Christ, read Romans chapter 8. It reassures us of the good news that John the Baptist came to proclaim, that he was sent to prepare the way for the one who would break the circle of death once and for all and bring us into his household of life forever.
I have nothing whatsoever to say about Herod’s final fate. His salvation, and the salvation of every person, is entirely in the hands of God. But one thing I will say, and that is this. I believe with every fiber of my being that Jesus’ death on the cross and his Resurrection from the dead, the sacrifice of the life of the Son of God, has the power to save any and every man or woman or child that has ever lived or ever will live. Even Herod. Even Hitler. Even you. Even me. That’s the glorious hope whose coming John the Baptist came to announce to the world. That’s the light that even Herod was drawn toward. We were called out of the same household of slavery that held Herod trapped like a fly in a spider’s web, so that he did the very thing that he did not want to do. But in Christ we have been adopted out of the household of death into the household of God. We have been set free from slavery to sin: free to choose the light though the whole world should condemn us, free from all guilt and all shame and all fear – and even free from the power of death itself. Amen.