Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Holy Innocents, Martyrs 2008

“Rachel's Comfort”
Matthew 2:13-18

December 27-28, 2008
The Holy Innocents, Martyrs
Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church
Girard, Illinois
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

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas day 2008 9:00 a.m.

“The Christmas Invitation”

Luke 2:12-20

25 December 2008

The Festival of the Nativity of Our Lord

Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church

Rev. Keith E. GeRue, Pastor

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Dear Baptized,

Just as the shepherds of old who were “out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night,” so also the faithful assembled here last night to hear the Gospel of God heard the Christmas Decree. “Fear not; for behold, I bring you Good News of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, Who is Christ the Lord.” Amen.

Well, what is that? In truth, those two verses really speak of the historical truth that was brought about by the LORD God and which is intended for all people. While it is true that we would never have known this Good News of a great joy had it not been revealed to us in God's Word or told to us by angels, pastors, teachers or parents, it is also most certainly true that we still need to know where to find this gracious Savior and then to trust such Incarnate Word of God. For it is also most certainly true that, of ourselves, that is by our own reason or strength we would not know where to find the Savior and we could not come to Him. We need not only the promise from God, but also the gift of faith to believe such Word of God, for indeed, “without faith it is impossible to please Him (God)” (Hebrews 11:6). Where in the world is this gracious God?

For example, consider the shepherds who had heard the Good News of the Lord's Birth. But exactly where was this newborn Savior to be found? Where should they go in Bethlehem ... probably to a glorious house, the best place in town, right? Or maybe to an inn? Where would Christ the Lord be sleeping and what would He be wearing ... likely in purple finery and snuggled down in a golden cradle, wouldn't you think? And another thing, should one not be required to possess and present a royal invitation to visit Christ the Lord in the City of David ... especially if one is a smelly shepherd with dirt under his fingernails? Indeed, the shepherds have heard the Christmas Decree from the angel of the Lord. What they need now, in this time and place, is ...

... The Christmas Invitation

Who would have ever thought it could be so? An angel of the Lord declares the Christmas Decree to some common men out in the fields, and with this announcement is the proclamation seconded by the choir of angels that the Highest of heaven is come to the lowest on earth, and with the proclamation is the invitation for those particular overseers of sheep to visit the newborn Savior Who is Christ the LORD, and with this invitation there is that sign directing these specific shepherds to Immanuel, to “God with us,” to Peace on earth Himself. “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

Had these shepherds not been given either the invitation or the directions, they would have, at best, wandered through the streets of Bethlehem and inquired among the houses in the City of David asking where to find Christ the Lord Who had just been born. Imagine the number of doors that would have been slammed in their faces at such an inquiry. Without the Divine directions, where would the shepherds look? Where in Bethlehem is the Savior? In fact, would they even realize that they had an invitation if they had been given no directions? Where in the world is this gracious, Incarnate Christ? Isaiah speaks for all mankind ... for himself, for shepherds and for us ...

“Therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not overtake us; we look for light, and behold, darkness, and for brightness, but we walk in gloom. We grope for the wall like the blind, we grope like those who have no eyes; we stumble at noon as in the twilight, among those in full vigor we are like dead men.” Isaiah 59:9-10

Thanks be to God that He did not leave us in such a condition in which we would all be lost for ever and ever. Micah, of the goodly fellowship of the prophets along with Isaiah, had received the Lord's special revelation and he wrote God's Word, including a prophesy that announced and promised that Bethlehem would be the place of the Lord's first Advent ... this King “Whose origin is from of old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2).

Suddenly the angels are gone and it is quiet once more and the night is still. What should the shepherd do? Certainly these men of the field are not offended that God is in a manger, or that the Christ is an infant, or that the King is wrapped in rags, or that their Savior's overnight abode will be in a barn-like place and in a smelly atmosphere where animals eat, live, move and have their being. “The shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”

These men make the most of this opportunity and they are not offended at the angel's invitation. The LORD has come to them and has given them the way to find Him. Though it was the messenger who spoke the Word, it was the LORD Who made this thing that has happened known to them. Truly, God the Savior “has exalted those of low degree” (Luke 1:52).

Are you offended at this Savior Jesus Who lies in such mean estate ... the King of creation cradled in a manger as the Word made flesh silently intercedes for you? If you are, then you will be offended at the Infant Redeemer Who will begin shedding His Blood for you when He is eight days old. If so scandalized, then you will have no use for a King Whose throne is a cross-beam, Whose crown is one of thorns and from Whose face and hands streams the holy Wine of God and the sweat of the Divine, and from Whose side, as His heart is pierced, flows “Blood and water” (John 19:34). If you areoffended at this King of the Jews then you will look at the crucifix ... at the corpse on the cross and view it as an ungodly curse and declare it a bloody miscarriage of Justice.

But that is not you, is it? Indeed, you are here this morning and you do rejoice in the Festival of the Nativity of your Lord. So, will you join the shepherds and “go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened?” You may like to do so, but you can not for this promise was not given to you. While the promise is of “Good News of a great joy which will come to ‘all' the people,” includes you, the promise to “find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” was given only to the shepherds, and even then, it was only for a specific place in Bethlehem and for a particular evening some 2,000 years ago. Had they decided to go to the inn they would have missed out being in the Presence of the Lord Jesus. Had they waited forty days before visiting the manger site, the shepherds would have not seen Christ the Lord. But they didn't wait; not at all.

“They went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger.” In the darkness of that night, the shepherds were guided by the Word of God, the Word delivered by a messenger, directing them to the one place where their Savior was and those men entered into the very Presence of the Savior Who is Christ the Lord and became part of the holy family assembled around the altarized manger. “And when they saw it they made known the saying which had been told them concerning this Child; and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.”

Is there a promise for you ... a time for you to be in the gracious Presence of the LORD? Yes and fear not for “behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2). Is there a promise for you ... a place for you to be in the gracious Presence of the LORD? Yes, for the Lord Jesus has promised, “Where two or three are gathered in My Name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). We began in that Baptismal Name this morning when we gathered together in and invoked the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. So listen, all of you who are baptized, especially you little children, we are gathered here in the Presence of the Lord.

“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9) and in the absolution the called messenger of the Word announces that forgiveness which is for the children, for any visitors who might be gathered in this holy place as well as for the confirmed members of the congregation. You are invited to hear this Word of cleansing as you “come into His Presence with singing” (Psalm 100:2).

Then there, or rather here, in this Bethlehem ... in this House of Bread is that special, sacramental, real Presence of the Lord; that Gift of Himself to His Church where Jesus says, “This is My Body; this is My Blood.” The confirmed members of Trinity, those who are prepared for reception of that same Body born of Mary and of that same Blood shed on the cross, are invited to participate at and in this Christ Mass.

What is there left to do after hearing this Christmas Invitation? Two specific things come to mind this day in the City of Truth ... in the Cities of Virden and Girard ... namely, to be like Mary and to be like the shepherds. What did these do? Listen to the Word: “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” Amen.

Christmas Eve candlelight Service 2008 11:00 p.m.

“The Christmas Decree”

Luke 2:10-11

24 December 2008

Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church

Reverend Keith GeRue, Pastor

Dear Baptized,

In the unstable darkness of a still night in this fallen world a small band is assembled to protect those whom they are charged to oversee ... it is their vocation to tend, protect and care for those entrusted to them by challenging and warding off any and all intruders who might be lurking in the shadows seeking to devour, as well as making certain that not one under their stewardship wanders from the congregation. So the shepherds stand on the higher ground “in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8).

By all accounts this evening would be an ordinary night with the same dangers in this valley of the shadow of death and the same thoughts occupying the hearts and minds of the old Adam. These shepherds were no different that any one of inheritors of the Fall from God's grace and presence. Each one of the children of wrath sits in the darkness of sin and anticipates that greater darkness called Everlasting Death. What earthy shepherds and you have in common is the need for a Savior from sin and Satan, a Deliver from destruction and death, and we absolutely need this Redeemer before the latter day darkness covers over our eyes. This is the decree of death.

We - both the shepherds in those days when a decree went out from Caesar Augustus and today when the decrees of death are listed in the obituaries across the land - we need the Gift of the Savior and the salvation He brings to be decreed. What is the decree that is heard from God? The decree that directs us to depart from Him into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels? (Matthew 25:41). Or will the decree be that there is a Savior?

Well, as for those shepherds outside that little town of Bethlehem - for those men who were “keeping watch over their flock by night,” well “an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear” (Luke 2:9). A decree was coming. Had this angel been sent from the LORD God Almighty to gather “all causes of sin and all evildoers, and throw them into the furnace of fire; where “men will weep and gnash their teeth” (Matthew 13:41-42) - that the godless may be “thrown into the fire and burned” (John 15:6) ?

To know the answer to that all important question, we turn the pages of history to the Gospel of St. Luke, the 2nd chapter, the 10th and 11th verses where an angel of the Lord speaks and the shepherds hear ... ... The Christmas Decree

“Fear not; for behold, I bring you Good News of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, Who is Christ the Lord.” Thus far the Word of the Lord our God.

“Fear not” you shepherd. Though I am an angel of the LORD, and though you are a man of the dust, do not be afraid. Though I am come from the very Presence of Perfection and Life Himself, and though you are sinful man who may not see God and live, fear not.

Though I abide and bask in the pure Light that is from above and before the foundation of the world, and though you dwell in and grope about the lightless gloom, do not be afraid. Truly at this point, any honest shepherd might reply, “Fear not!” Why? From these statements that I acknowledge and confess to be absolutely true, why should I not fear? The angel of the LORD continues with the Christmas Decree and why the shepherds should not fear. “Fear not; for behold, I bring you Good News of a great joy.”

The angel has not come to the shepherds in order to assist Jehovah with in that awe-full hour when those end-time events will take place on Judgment Day. Not this holy night! Instead the angel - this messenger of and from God - has come bearing the Good News of a great joy ... the Gospel declaration ... the Incarnate Word promised by the Inscribed Word of the prophets ... this Good News of a great joy is the Christmas Decree spoken to the shepherds. You ask what is this? Listen.

“To you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, Who is Christ the Lord.” Listen to the Good News, you shepherds, “to you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, Who is Christ the Lord.” There is a Savior from your sin, from your death, from your self; there is a Savior from the devil's hell and the lake of fire, from the demons' nether gloom and the second death, from eternal suffering and everlasting darkness, from cries of pain and tears of sorrow.

Oh shepherds, you have a Savior! He is born this day. He is born and that means He is truly human with body and blood, a Savior Who will know what it means to feel pain, whose blood will flow, who will know temptation and yet, if He is a Savior, will not fall to it as the first Adam did, who will behold the cup of sin that awaits and yet, if He is a Savior, will not sin as all other children of Adam have. He is “true Man of the substance of His mother, born in the world” (Athanasian Creed).

But there is more to the Christmas Decree, oh shepherds, for you have a Savior “Who is Christ the Lord.” This Savior, this newborn Baby is the Christ of God, the Divine Seed of Eve, Abraham's Great Shield, the God Who wrestled with Jacob, the Cloud by day, the Fire by night, the wilderness Rock, the Prophet like unto Moses, Job's Redeemer, the Lion of Judah, the Messiah of the prophets, the Virgin's Son, Simeon's Promise, Anna's Ransom, the King of Creation, the Word made flesh, the Incarnate Son of God, “God of the Substance of the Father begotten before the worlds” (Athanasian Creed) - “the only begotten Son of God ... God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten, not made, Being of one substance with the Father, By whom all things were made; Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary and was made man” (Nicene Creed).

Dearly beloved shepherds, behold this is the newborn Savior “Who is Christ the LORD” Who “is born this day in the City of David.” The little town of Bethlehem is the place where the Infant Ancient of Days will draw His first breath. This Bethlehem, which means “House of Bread,” is the host for the Manna from above. Indeed, “the Bread of God is the One Who comes down from heaven, and gives Life to the world” (John 6:35) and that One is the Show Bread in the Temple Who is born in Bethlehem.

So, dear friend, you sit here in this church on this night and you hear these words and perhaps you say to yourself, “But I am not one of the shepherds. Everything seems to be for those who were in the fields watching over their flock that night. Not only was I not near Bethlehem that night when the Savior was born, it would be nearly 2000 years later before my birth took place. So I was not there and I did not hear the angel of the Lord. Does any of this Gospel apply to me? What is there for me?”

Then it came to pass on this night that a messenger of the Lord spoke to a few people who congregated in this darkened place. And the messenger announced the Christmas Decree: “Fear not; for behold, I bring you Good News of a great joy ‘which will come to all the people.’” Do you not hear these words? The Good News of a great joy is intended for all the people.

The Good News is intended for all, for ...

shepherd and inn-keeper

scribe and Pharisee

Mary and Joseph

Herod and heretic

mine-worker and secretary

Pilate and pilot

farmer and executive

male and female

slave and free

Jew and Gentile

mother and daughter

wealthy and poor

dictator and counselor

judge and jurist

husband and wife

prophet and evangelist

maid and matron

boy and girl

father and son

magi and majesty

Zechariah and Elizabeth

widow and widower

old and infant

grandfather and grandmother

employer and employee

parishioner and pastor


Dearly beloved, this is your Savior, the God-man, conceived by the Holy Ghost in the town of Nazareth of Galilee, born of the Virgin Mary in the town of Bethlehem of Judea. Some thirty years later, the King of kings would suffer under Pontius Pilate. Jesus the Christ would be crucified for the sins of the world, would die for the life of the world, would be buried in the tomb of the world. He would descend into hell to proclaim victory over death and Hades. The third day He would rise from the dead and ascend into heaven and be enthroned at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From there Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Therefore, “Fear not; for behold, I bring you Good News of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, Who is Christ the Lord.” Amen.

This, dear friends, is the Christmas Decree. What is next? Well, there is for you and for me part two of the Christmas Story. The messenger of the Lord invites and encourages you to be here tomorrow morning at 9:00 am to hear ... ... “The Christmas Invitation.”