December 27-28, 2008
The Holy Innocents, Martyrs
Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church
Rev. Keith GeRue
Who will comfort Rachel in her bitter weeping? She refuses to be comforted, because her children are no more. Worse than that, the Rachel here is not one, but many: Rachel was the wife of Jacob, the father of Israel, and her grave lies near Bethlehem. As a mother of Israel, the women of Bethlehem are poetically her daughters; and who will comfort them now that their children are no more?
I will tell you this right away, lest you be disappointed: This Gospel lesson is a haunting text, and this is a funeral sermon for the worst of situations. It will be hard to comfort these mothers, and they will still be mourning when we leave them. But when we are done, though they mourn, it will not be as those who have no hope.
1. The story is as straightforward as it is grotesque. Herod is king of Judea, a crazy tyrant consumed with keeping his throne. He was married once upon a time, and his lovely wife gave him two sons. To make sure that they would not overthrow him, Herod has had all three put to death. The evil of this act alone has led Caesar Augustus to say, “I would rather be Herod's pig than his son.” The pig has a much longer life expectancy.
It is to Herod that the wise men come and say, “Where is He who is born King of the Jews, for we have seen His star in the East.” What's this-another King of the Jews? This is what Herod dreads most; he is troubled, and all of Jerusalem with him. He interrogates the wise men, commands them to find this king and report back. When they flee the country, he is furious; and it is in that fury that he conceives his plan, makes his choice. His own life will be better if he is the only king, so any potential rival must be dealt with. If he can't find the specific Baby around Bethlehem, then he'll kill every little boy less than two years old. The soldiers go out and do exactly that, and no one can charge that it's illegal. It's perfectly legal, because Herod makes the law. It is also a fulfillment of prophecy, from Jeremiah 31:15: “A voice was heard in Ramah, Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, Refusing to be comforted, Because they are no more.”
But Herod fails to kill Jesus, because Jesus' time has not yet come: He has much to do and fulfill and endure before He dies. An angel warns Joseph of what Herod is up to; and by the time the soldiers arrive, the Baby Jesus is safely on His way to Egypt.
But that is little consolation the following day around Bethlehem. A voice is heard-lamentation, weeping and great mourning as these daughters of Rachel weep. They refuse to be comforted, and what shall we say-”Don't cry” “It's going to be okay”? Such phrases are so futile as to be clearly offensive. It's not going to be okay. They weep for their sons who are no more. There is no comfort that will take away their mourning; but there is comfort that will give them hope even as they grieve. The “Slaughter of the Innocents” fulfills the prophecy from Jeremiah 31:15; but do not neglect the two verses that follow: Thus says the LORD: Refrain your voice from weeping, And your eyes from tears; For your work shall be rewarded, says the LORD, And they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope in your future, says the LORD, That your children shall come back to their own border.
“Your children shall come back to their own border,” promises the Lord. But how can this be? It can be because of the Child who is whisked to Egypt. The King of the Jews who is born in Bethlehem is chosen by God for the redemption of the world. His journey to Egypt is part of His journey to the cross so that, despite the sin and evil of the world, there is the hope of eternal life after death. The One who escaped death that night will go to the cross and suffer the eternal death of all who die.
But not all are saved, so how can these mothers be sure that God's redemption is for their sons? The answer may surprise you: For them at that time, the answer is circumcision. Throughout the Old Testament, the Lord declared that baby boys were to be circumcised on the 8th day of life; and that mark meant that they were part of Israel, part of His holy people (Gen. 17:10f). So, in the midst of that unimaginable grief, there was this hope of the mothers: “My son was circumcised, and there God promised that my son belonged to Him; and although he is not here with me, I am sure that my boy is with the Lord.”
What if, perchance, Herod's soldiers killed a baby boy who was less than 8 days old? There was still hope: David and Bathsheba's first son died on the seventh day, yet David said he would go to be with him (2 Sam. 12:23). You see, where the child would die before the Lord's plan for man could go into effect, God was not helpless or uncaring. The people would commend the child to the Lord's mercy, because God is a merciful God.
There is no way to make this text into a cheery one, for nothing can remove the horror of Herod's slaughter; but even on that day of death, the Lord was faithful to those sons; and He was faithful to them for the sake of His only-begotten Son, carried to Egypt on His way to the cross. So before we turn to some application, we especially note a couple of things from this text. FIRST, SCRIPTURE CLEARLY TEACHES THAT REJECTION OF THE LORD LEADS TO DEATH; AND TRULY, DEATH AWAITS US ALL. However, the more one rejects the Lord, the less one values His gift of life; and the more one is apt to permit, even pursue, the death of others. Hideous though it be, Herod chose to kill little children to make sure that his life and throne were not jeopardized, even though Christ was never a threat to him. SECOND, WE NOTE THE REMARKABLE FAITHFULNESS OF GOD. Herod's crime is despicable beyond words, but not at all uncommon. Anyone who pictures biblical times as the “good old days” is seriously mistaken. Wars were fierce, conquerors were brutal, and infanticide was simply a given in times both of war and peace. Sinful man put little value on human life, and this foul stench reached the Lord in heaven. Yet, true to His promise, God still sent His Son into the world, knowing full well that sinful man would crucify Him. And then, the Lord used His Son's death not as further justification for destroying mankind, but for man's salvation.
With that in mind, we remember this day the “Holy Innocents, Martyrs,” those little boys who were victims of Herod's sin. They are innocent in the sense that, though conceived and born in sin, they committed no crime against Herod that deserved death. They are martyrs, ones who testify, because their innocent deaths testified to the hatred that sin has for life, and more importantly pointed to the Innocent One who would die for the sins of the world. And because of Jesus' death, they are holy: They are redeemed by His cross, forgiveness surely given them in that Old Testament rite of circumcision. Rachel still weeps as we leave the text, but she is not without hope. For the sake of Christ, the Word proclaimed through Jeremiah is true: There is hope in your future…that your children shall come back to their own border. Their own border is the kingdom of heaven, freely given by their faithful Savior. There, they live forever.
2. There is nothing worse than the death of a child. The grim horror of death is never more terrible or maddening than when it takes a young life, and it is something I really do not relish even talking about. Still, it does happen; and it would be foolish of us to pretend that it does not. But even more to the point, we speak of it for a better reason: Even when death strikes such a cold blow, we have comfort and hope to offer those who grieve-comfort and hope that will not disappoint.
It is here, dear friends in Christ, that you and I give especial thanks for Holy Baptism. Circumcision was of the Old Testament, and that mark upon baby boys pointed to the seal of Baptism for boys and girls both. By Holy Baptism, the Lord washes away the sins of even the smallest infant. He shares his death and resurrection with that child; and no matter how long or short that child's life in this world, the Lord has already given him eternal life. There is no command to wait even eight days, and one can be baptized as soon as he is born.
Because, no matter how hard I, or any other parent, try to protect our children, we don't know what tomorrow brings. I have an inkling of the hideous grief that would come with the death of a child, and the inkling is enough for me not to explore the thought further. This is why I give thanks for the gift of Holy Baptism. No matter what happens today or tomorrow, the Lord has given my kids forgiveness and faith and eternal life by water and the Word. I've no doubt that a tragedy of that enormity would shatter me for life; but that hope of Christ would not disappoint. This is the comfort and hope that we gently offer to those who suffer the loss of a child: Christ was born a little baby in Bethlehem, to redeem all nations-little children included. He promises forgiveness and faith and life, and He gives these gifts most certainly in Holy Baptism. Are you baptized? Then He has given them to you. Do not forsake this precious gift, for there is eternal life. This is why, as soon as possible in this unpredictable and dying world, we fervently urge parents to get their children to the baptismal font. As soon as possible.
Still, there will be parents who must grieve the death of a child who never had a chance to make it to the font. I speak of a child who is miscarried or stillborn, or one who is born but dies unexpectedly before Baptism. We make clear this news as well: There is still hope for such children as these; as we mentioned with the son of David and Bathsheba earlier, the Lord is still able to save such a one. He binds us to His means of grace, but He does not limit Himself to them. Therefore, when a child dies before Baptism is possible, we commend such a one to the mercies of God. This is part of His unsearchable judgments (Ro. 11:33), and we have no clear Word from the Lord. However, the Lord is merciful; and while David certainly could not call in any favors from the Lord because of his own righteousness, he still declared that he would go to his son, whom the Lord had saved by His mercy alone. Those who have lost a child before birth or Baptism may still look forward with hope to meeting that one in the Lord's presence. However, where you are able to baptize the child, then by all means baptize the child. It is far better and more sure to say, “My child is certainly forgiven by means of Baptism” than, “As far as I know, the Lord will have mercy.”
The Lord is merciful, and the Lord is faithful. That is the hope that will not disappoint. As this sermon draws near to an end, you may feel a bit more saddened than when you arrived here, and may thus view this preaching as a great disappointment. The sadness, however, is not the fault of the Gospel; it is a recognition of the death wish of the world. But where sadness comes, cling to the Gospel all the more, for it will not disappoint. Not now, not ever. Even should we be given to endure the grief of a child's death, Christ's life remains for such little ones and for us. Death will, at times, strike the cruelest of blows; but death is already defeated in Christ, who raises both young and old to everlasting life. That life is given to the people of God, to you and to your children, with such simple words as these: “I baptize you-and thus forgive you all of your sins-in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” Amen