The Holy Innocents
Rev. Rolf Preus| December 29, 2002| Matthew 2:13-18
The celebration of Christmas among Christians has become so intertwined with the celebration of Christmas among pagans that it is almost impossible to disentangle these mutually contradictory celebrations. We celebrate the most joyous event imaginable: God joins us sinners as one of us in order to bring us back to Himself to enjoy His love forever and ever. The world celebrates a Christmas that only seems to last forever. It begins in late November and has now, mercifully, just ended. I am not really sure what the purpose of the secular Christmas is. It might be to provide a boost to the economy by a frenzy of junk buying. Well, that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with providing a little energy to a bear market. After all, we’d rather be self-sufficient when we’re old so the children won’t have to worry too much about our welfare.
But even if the market falls and our pensions are irretrievably lost, I am sure we’d all rather have our children than our money. Aren’t the fruit of the womb more valuable than the fruit of our labors? Surely the little ones God gives to us are signs of a love much deeper than any Christmas gift bought by money or even crafted by skill, time, and tender care. Forgive me for being personal from the pulpit, but I must share with you what a joy it was for me to see every single one of my children during this holy season. While my wife doesn’t like to be called Dorothy, she most certainly is Dorothy, that is, a “gift of God,” and so is every one of the children God has given to us.
They cost money. They wreck things you really like. They bring you heartache when they are little and after they are grown. They complicate your life to where you cannot imagine life without them, though you think perhaps that now and then a little break from parenthood wouldn’t be a bad idea. Somehow we learn that as much as we cherish and value our children, their value doesn’t come from us, but from God. We love them, care for them, pray for them, yearn for their safe return when they are away, and thank God for keeping them safe. Yet they don’t belong to us as if they are our possessions. They belong to God.
We bring them to God when they are little and He makes them His own. By means of Holy Baptism, God places His own name on our children and He makes them Christians. Now, of course, He could easily make them into Christians without baptism. God is almighty. He could if He so chose raise up children from the rocks of the ground, as St. John the Baptist once said. Baptism is not necessary for God. It is necessary for us because God has joined His own honor, authority, and almighty power to save sinners to the washing of Holy Baptism. When we bring our babies to God, trusting in His willingness and ability to keep them safe in His grace, we are also confessing that these children belong to Him.
And how He loves them! You and I cannot imagine how much God loves them. If God did not love the babies, why would He choose to become a baby? If God did not love the babies, then why did Jesus say to his disciples, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God”? (Mark 10:14) Nothing God could have said would have more powerfully declared His love to the world than the incarnation of His eternal Son. The fact that God the Son became a little baby within the Virgin’s womb is more than a wonderful mystery of our holy Christian faith. It is a public declaration to the entire human race that our God loves the little children. Why else would He have become one?
If our blessed Lord and Maker hated men would He then be of flesh partaker?
If He in our woe delighted, would He bear all the care of our race benighted?
Since it is manifestly true that God loves the little children, it is also appropriate that God’s church should observe the feast of the Holy Innocents. On this day we hear of how an evil King murdered many innocent little children in his mad designs to destroy the newborn King of the Jews. Herod’s irrational jealousy led to the slaughter of every male child under two years old in the vicinity of Bethlehem. Herod wanted to take no chances in eliminating any threat to his own power. Another king was simply unacceptable. And it wasn’t just an idle rumor. The Wise Men had come to Jerusalem in search of what the Bible had promised. King Herod cared little about biblical teaching, but he cared much about political power. He falsely assumed that the promised Christ would be a political threat. He refused to tolerate such a thing and ordered as many children murdered as would ensure the destruction of this potential rival.
God did not stay Herod’s hand. He rather intervened only to save the Christ. The holy innocents were murdered. The Holy Innocent was spared. He was spared only for the moment. First, He had to go to Egypt and remain there in the land where Israel had languished as slaves. Then God would call His Son out of Egypt, even as He had called Israel out of Egypt centuries before. Just as Israel was called out of Egypt to serve God in the Promised Land, Christ was called out to Egypt to serve God in holiness all the way to the cross. By that holy living and innocent suffering He would purchase for all people that Promised Land where no murder or death can ever enter.
God hates murder. How can He not hate murder when He is love? We cannot understand the slaughter of the innocents. We turn our faces away in horror. We can’t bear to listen to Rachel’s bitter cry as she screams out her sorrow and refuses to be comforted by anyone. Her children are no more. They are gone. She’s a mother, so she mourns. Can you imagine anything more devastating?
But there is something even worse. You don’t have to imagine. Just open your eyes to the carnage right here in our own homeland. Herod murdered perhaps a few dozen children because he thought that one of them stood in the way of his political power. There is among us in America a political force that murders literally millions of babies and defies us to oppose them. They call themselves “pro-choice” because they know that the word “choice” is a word that resonates in the hearts of freedom loving Americans who believe in everyone’s right to choose. But the babies have no choice as they are systematically butchered in their mothers’ wombs. They are cut into pieces. They are injected with poison. They are tossed away in the trash. Those who promote and defend this slaughter are afraid of Christ’s church. And so they demonize Christians, as if the Christians who seek to protect the innocent from slaughter are the real enemy. Even as Herod in his evil madness imputed to the baby Jesus false designs on his power, today’s killers of the unborn impute to Christ’s church false designs on their power. We Christians don’t want to take away anyone’s legitimate right to choose. We don’t want to lay any legal or financial burden on anyone. But we cannot honor our Lord Jesus Christ who came into this world as a little Baby if we do not speak out in defense of the babies being destroyed today by means of legal abortion. When Rachel was pouring out her heart in anguish over the destruction of her children, there was nevertheless hope lying underneath her sorrow. Where is the hope for Rachel when she pays an abortionist to kill her children before they are born? Where is the hope for a nation that defends such slaughter as a matter of the right to choose?
I used to believe that the greatest argument against abortion was the argument of natural law. I reasoned that anyone with a conscience could see that killing unborn babies should be a crime. I no longer believe that the argument of natural law will work in America. We are far too callused for that. Our national conscience has been seared. It feels no pain. Rachel isn’t crying anymore. She’s on national television defending murder. Herod runs for public office and gets elected. Americans care more about acquiring more things than they do in defending and protecting innocent human life.
The greatest argument against abortion cannot be made by an appeal to an erring conscience. The greatest pro-life argument is the incarnation of the Son of God. When God the Son chose to become bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh within the Virgin Mary’s womb, God affirmed the value of human life in a manner more emphatic than the most vocal protests could ever be. God became a baby. So watch how you treat the babies! Jesus warned about offending one of the little ones who believed in Him. Herod came to no good end. Those who seek political power at the expense of the precious lives of these little ones will face a judgment too terrible to contemplate. God loves the babies. Woe to those who defend their murderers! We must pray that these people repent before it is too late. God is merciful even to those who have killed the unborn, but there is no hope for those who will not repent. For them there is only the endless sorrow of unforgiven sins.
But Jesus came into this world to save sinners. This is why he became a man-child in His mother’s womb. And there is no greater vocation than that of providing nurture and care to the little children. When the Christian mother gives herself to the task of caring for her children, she gives a service to God that is incomparable. For it is not to her child alone that her services are offered, but to the Christ Child Himself. By joining Himself to our flesh and blood within His mother’s womb, He has sanctified the vocation of Christian motherhood and He has done so permanently, that is, until the end of time. We honor this holy vocation in our day when we insist on virginity before marriage, fidelity within marriage, and bringing our children to Christ by having them baptized and by teaching them God’s word and bringing them to church.
Herod’s murder was motivated by fear. He thought that the Christ Child would take away from him what he treasured the most. But Jesus was intent only on taking away sin. Remember that. Don’t be afraid of this Jesus. When you must admit that your sins bring down on you God’s just anger and that you must number yourself among such sinners as Herod, remember that Jesus came into the world to save you. He joined Himself to your sinful flesh and blood so that by his innocence, your guilt would be forever washed away. He does not come to deprive you of your freedom, but to restore it. If God wanted to do us harm He would not have joined the human race. Since He has so joined us, we will regard all of His children as precious, especially the weakest and smallest. In so doing we will honor the Son of God who was called out of Egypt to set us free. The service we offer to His children we offer to Him. Amen.