July 11, 2021, Who Put the Fun in Dysfunctional?, Mark 6:14-29 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
A good friend of mine has a magnet on her refrigerator that says, “My family puts the FUN in dysfunctional.” Family dysfunction is a little more out-in-the-open than it used to be, but it has always been one of the central places of suffering in our society. I grew up with a father who was an alcoholic, and as a child I carried around a lot of shame. For a very long time, I thought everybody in the world came from a “normal” family except me. But I have learned since then that I wasn’t alone after all, and that a lot of people, maybe even most people, grow up in dysfunctional families of one kind or another.
Today we read about King Herod, who came from a particularly dysfunctional family. We actually know quite a bit about Herod’s extended family, but it’s kind of tricky to keep all the Herods straight. The Herod we read about today was called Herod Antipas. He was the son of Herod the Great, who was the King of Judea when Jesus was born. Herod the Great is known to have murdered his own wife, along with various other family members, and he was the king 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, who was the grandson of Herod the Great (but not the son of Herod Antipas), was King after Herod Antipas. It was Herod Agrippa who put James the brother of John to death just to score points with the Jews. And it was his son, Herod Agrippa II, the last of the Herodian dynasty, who heard Paul’s case when he was arrested Jerusalem and sent to Rome to be tried. Like Herod Antipas, Agrippa II was attracted to what Paul had to say. 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 executed. This really was a deadly dysfunctional household to grow up in.
And we see that legacy of dysfunction playing out in the story of Herod and John the Baptist. Mark reveals the terrible struggle between dark and light inside of Herod. Herodias, his wife, hated John the Baptist outright for publicly condemning their illegal marriage. But Mark tells us 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 him. He had John thrown in prison, but until the day of his big birthday party he had at least guarded John’s life.
But on that day, full of wine and self-admiration, pleased by the attention of his important guests, enjoying the glory of his power as King, he sealed John’s fate, as well as his own, with his foolish promise to Salome, his stepdaughter: “Ask for anything, up to half my kingdom, and it’s yours.” When Salome asked for John’s head, Herod knew it was wrong. He was sorry, but with everybody watching, he just couldn’t bring himself to do the right thing and refuse her. So the guard was sent down to the dungeons, and John’s head was delivered to Herod’s wife on a platter.
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. He had a desire to hear John’s words even thought they condemned him. In the end the pride of his power and his intense need to please man got the upper hand and he added murder to the list of his crimes. When he heard about the miraculous works that Jesus was doing he was absolutely sure that it was John, returned from the dead, because he was haunted by his guilt.
And here’s the thing: we all – sitting here centuries later and half a world away – all of us were born into the same family as Herod. We’re not part of the Herodian dynasty, of course, but we were all born into the family of mankind that has been shadowed by sin and death ever since the Fall of Adam and Eve. And if we’re honest, we can all recognize our own struggle in the struggle of Herod. We all feel the pull towards what is good and right, but don’t we all end up, all too often, giving in to our pride or our desire, or our need to curry favor with another person? To do what is right when everything and everyone around us, and inside us, is demanding that we compromise: we’ve all fought that battle. And we haven’t always won it.
It’s part of the heritage of our old family, that dysfunctional legacy of fear and self-serving and shame that still haunts all of us. Paul talks 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?” Sin isn’t just a simple matter of breaking some list of rules – sin is that legacy of death that dwells in every one of us who was born into the dysfunctional family of mankind: not just Herod, but Paul, and you, and me.
But if we continue reading what Paul has to say, he goes on to answer his own question, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Here’s the good news: we don’t belong to that family anymore. We aren’t slaves anymore; we are beloved children. We might still fight our skirmishes every day, but our victory is already assured – not because we are good people, or more virtuous than Herod anyway, but because God has adopted us into his own familiy out of his great love for us. And no power on earth 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, have the power to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Not only that, but we read this morning that God chose us before the foundation of the world – before you or I had done a single thing, good or bad or indifferent, before we had a chance to be cute or clever or talented or pious – way before all that, he chose us to be his beloved children, holy and blameless. He chose way back then to lavish his blessings on us, blessings of grace and freedom and forgiveness. He named us in his will to be heirs of the wonders of his kingdom, signed and sealed with the coming of the Holy Spirit. All that, purely because he is crazy in love with us.
Peter wrote: “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
And what about Herod? It is very easy to make the mistake of reading this story and to assume that we know how his story ends. Here’s what we know. Herod’s salvation, your salvation, my salvation, and the salvation of every human being, rests entirely in the merciful hands of God. It’s way, way above our pay grade, as they say. But the good news of the gospel is that Jesus’s 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 and woman and child that has ever lived or ever will live. Even Herod. Even Judas. Even Hitler. Even you. Even me. No limitations or exceptions. That’s the good news whose coming John the Baptist came to announce to the world. That’s the light that even Herod was drawn to.
We were called out of the same dysfunctional family that held Herod trapped like a fly in a spider’s web. When it came right down to the moment of choice, he did the very thing that he did not want to do. And the same can be said of every one of us. But because of the surpassing love of God in Jesus Christ we have been adopted out of that dysfunctional family of death. We have been set free from slavery to sin. We have been set free from all guilt and all shame and all fear. We have been blessed with every blessing in the heavenly places. And we are, every single one of us, beloved children of God, holy and blameless in his sight.