Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Holy Innocent and the Holy Innocents

Sermon on Matthew 2:13-18
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
December 29, 2013 (Holy Innocents)

There are several places in the Church Year that end up being a little backward.  There’s nothing wrong with that fact, but it is a reminder that the Church Year is a human construct.  The Church Year is useful to keep order in the Church (as well as keeping pastors away from dwelling on their own pet ideas to the exclusion of the rest of Christian doctrine – or to try to, anyway), as well as give everyone a bit of structure as we consider the most important events in our Lord’s life and our salvation, and so the fact that it’s a human invention doesn’t make it wrong to follow it.  But, since the Church Year is, properly speaking, a human invention, it does sometimes do things in a bit of an illogical way.   For example, we observe the tragedy of the killing of all the infant boys in and around Jerusalem by Herod before we celebrate the arrival of the wise men whose news about a newborn King sent Herod into that murderous rage.  We remember the sacrifice of those infant boys today, but we won’t celebrate the arrival of the wise men until next Sunday.  It’s backward, I know.  But it’s how things developed over the centuries, so if we’re going to follow the Church Year we sort of just have to deal with it.

But there’s another way in which this particular festival is unusual.  Most of the days in the Church’s calendar that are devoted to specific saints, are days which observe the lives, ministries, and deaths of individuals who did great and noteworthy things for the Kingdom of God as adults.  But today we remember a group of infant boys, killed even before they were old enough to know what was happening.  What we see in today’s Gospel lesson is nothing less than the full fury of the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh against God and His gift of salvation and eternal life to us.  It’s not a pretty sight.  We normally tend to avoid thinking about the fact that we human beings are even capable of such brutality and viciousness.  But it happens just the same.  Just as the thousands of innocent victims in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the hijacked airplanes of September 11th are remembered by our country as heroes, even though many of them did nothing more than be in the wrong place at the wrong time, so also these children, the victims of an earlier and less complex (and more officially sanctioned) form of terrorism, are remembered by the Church as heroes as well, since their deaths were directly related to the coming of the Son of God in the flesh to save us from our sins.  So also the innocent children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary a little more than a year ago.  So also ought we to remember especially the millions of unborn children that have been murdered in our nation since 1973 simply for the sake of selfishness and convenience.  Just as the blood of Abel cried out to God regarding Cain’s guilt, so also cries out the blood of the Holy Innocents, that of the victims of abortion, as well as victims of every other act of violence and murder which has resulted from Cain and Abel’s parents falling into sin.  It’s been said that September 11th, 2001 was the bloodiest and deadliest day in the history of the United States.  Well, it’s not true.  There have been countless days since 1973 which were truly deadly to far more Americans than September 11th ever was.  And we only have to look at the horrors that came to light during the Kermit Gosnell trial to see the ugly reality of what has happened to these innocent children during that time.

As their blood cries out to God, we add our voices to it and cry to Him as well: “How long, O Lord, how long?”  Why don’t You do something about it?  The answer, however, is not as simple as we’d like it to be.  You see, if God were simply to wipe out all those who murder and are prideful and want to have things their way, there would be nobody left on the earth.  The attempt to deal with sin the way we want to deal with it, always has unintended consequences, because it is not just our enemies who are selfish and sinful.  We all have the same sin in our hearts as Herod and Hitler and Stalin and, yes, even Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, and even Kermit Gosnell.  We may not have acted on that sin in the grossly destructive ways that those men did, but our hearts are no different, neither as individuals nor as a nation.  And so if God were to do away with evil in the world by doing away with all the evil men, we wouldn’t like the results.  He’d do away with us, too.

Instead, God deals with evil in the world in a way that preserves His creatures while cleansing them of their sins.  He does it by taking all of the evil and the selfishness and the pride and the lust and the boastfulness and whatever else is involved in the stain of sin on our hearts, and applying it to His own Son.  That’s why Holy Innocents is celebrated as a festival as one of the 12 days of Christmas.  It stands as a reminder to us of why Christmas happened.  Christmas happened so that Good Friday and Easter could happen.  Christ entered the sin-filled world so that He could take that sin upon Himself and in return give us His perfect and holy life.  He was declared guilty so that we could be declared innocent.

In fact, Jesus is the One who truly bears the title of “Holy Innocent.”  Even those babies in Bethlehem were born sinners like the rest of us, so that even their untimely deaths were not more than they deserved.  But He is the only one that is truly innocent, so that His death sanctifies them and their deaths.  And so, since those Old Testament Christian babies, who had been made part of God’s people and been given faith in the coming Messiah through the sacrament of Circumcision, died in that faith, they too were Holy Innocents, not because of their own righteousness, but because of what their Lord would do for them some 30 years later on the cross, and because of the faith in Him that had been granted through the Old Testament Word and the Sacrament of Circumcision.  And thus their deaths were sanctified by Christ to become for them the gate of eternal life.  And their blood cries out, not just of the sin of Herod, but also and more importantly of the salvation of Him who shed His blood for them on the cross.

The same thing is true of you.  Even though you bear the guilt of sin, not just of original sin but also all of the actual sin you have added to it during the course of our lives, you now carry the name of “Holy Innocents.”  Christ’s perfection has become yours.  You have been baptized into Him and have heard His Word declaring you “not guilty,” and you will soon eat His body and drink His blood which was shed on your behalf.  Therefore your death, whenever it comes, will be a testimony not only, not even primarily, to your sin or the sin of those around you.  Rather your death will proclaim to all the world the salvation which Christ has given you.  Death for Christians has become the gate of everlasting life, where the evils of this present world will no longer trouble us or cause us to weep any more.  Rachel will no longer weep for her children, for there will be no more sin, sorrow, or suffering.  Christ the Innocent One has made all of us Holy Innocents with Him, and we will all share in that blessedness with Him forever.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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