Epiphany 3 – "The Holy Innocents, Martyrs" – Matthew 2:16-18

January 22nd is not a day of observance on the Church’s calendar unless it happens to fall on a Sunday. And yet it is a day that many churches in the U.S. have observed since 1973.

It is a day in this nation’s history that has scarred us in an even deeper way than April 12th which marks the beginning of the Civil War, July 28th which marks the beginning of WW1 or December 7th which is Pearl Harbor Day, if only because those terrible days are a part of our past, and we lament that they happened, while the practice of abortion is a present practice now for 43 years that continues to be carried out among us and that continues to be defended and funded as an inalienable right to end more lives than the Civil War and WWI along with the Revolutionary war, WW -2, the Vietnam and Iraq wars combined.

The transference of the observance of the Slaughter of the Innocents which appears on the Church’s calendar on December 28th, to the Sunday closest to January 22nd seems like the appropriate thing to do, since it takes us far beyond the recent history of our nation into the ancient history of Israel and the life of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

“Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old and under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah; ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

The church calls these little children who were slain, ‘the Holy Innocents,’ and gives them the title of ‘martyr,’ because they were the very first to loose their lives for the sake of Mary’s baby – Jesus Christ. The hymn that we just sung was written in the 4th century A.D., and for at least that long, they have been called, “Sweet Flowers of the Martyr Band.” Such a beautiful name for such a terrible thing.

We are told that there were probably no more than twenty babies killed in Bethlehem and the surrounding vicinity by Herod’s soldiers. We have become so calloused by the statistics of death that we’re hardly moved by a mere twenty babies. But love does not work by statistics. Each mother and father in Bethlehem bore the entire burden of grief at the loss of their child. For them to know that theirs was only one in twenty or one in 58 million does not lessen their sorrow one bit.

But our commemoration of the Holy Innocents has no point to it if it’s only purpose is to feel sorry for those little boys slaughtered in Bethlehem and the terrible grief of their parents. Much better that on this day, we observe what their death tells us about what sin is really like and what God is really like and repent.

Today we stop to take particular notice of the nature of sin as it moves us to do harm to one another. Herod is just the example of us all really. Herod loved Herod. Herod wanted what Herod wanted, power, control, security, and it didn’t matter what it might cost others. This is what the ‘sinful nature’ is like and how it acts if it is not kept under control.

When we let our sinful nature have its way, we put ourselves first and everyone else comes second. Herod had the power and authority to do whatever was necessary to maintain his control over others.

Most of us don’t have the kind of power that Herod had, and so the damage that we do to others in putting them second to ourselves is not so spectacular as his was. But the basic principle of sin remains the same. When people get in our way, we know how to get rid of them.

There’s no benefit for us in looking at Herod and saying, ‘what a wicked man he was.’ What’s beneficial for us is when we see that there is a little Herod in each of us and see the damage that we have done to others in the name of keeping ourselves number one and cry out against ourselves and repent.

But even this is not the worse of it all. As long as we only see the terrible damage that our sin has done between us and others, we’ve avoided taking stock of the terrible damage that our sin has done between us and God. If sin is only what harms my neighbor, I can manage that. I can do whatever I want as long as it doesn’t hurt someone else. Isn’t this the argument that we hear so often. “What does it matter how I live or what I do as long as I don’t hurt anyone.”

But where is the consideration for God and how our behavior is received by Him? Have we forgotten that we are first and foremost creatures of God whom He made for Himself, and that our whole life, not only our deeds, but also our words and our thoughts are known and heard and felt by Him? Or do we simply ignore the fact that we are His creatures and that, like it or not, believe it or not, our whole life is lived “corum deo,” before God?

And maybe now we can begin to understand why we sin against one another so freely. If I fail to recognize myself as a creature of God, then I also fail to recognize my neighbor as a creature of God. Then I do not value my neighbor and deal according to how it might please God but only according to how it pleases me.

But just because we refuse to recognize that ‘we are all God’s creatures’ doesn’t change the fact that we really are. Reality is not determined by perception. It is what it is.

When I harm my neighbor, whether that be his body or his health or wealth or reputation, I do harm to a piece of God’s workmanship. I harm what belongs to God and is precious to him just as I myself am precious to Him and therefore my offense is against both God and my neighbor.

When Herod killed those children in Bethlehem, he did terrible damage to them, their parents, the community, to himself, and TO GOD – all in the one action. And not only because they were human creatures of God, but also because God became a human creature and dwells among us as one of us.

In killing the baby boys in Bethlehem, Herod is just as guilty of killing Jesus as was Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas, and me and you, because as Jesus would later say, “Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these, my brothers, you did it to me.” (Mat.25:40)

This is why, when we come before God in worship, we confess that we have sinned against one another and in so doing, we have sinned against God.

When faced with our sin and the terrible suffering and pain and even death that we have caused, we are faced with yet one more, insidious way in which sin works in us.

Rather than repent, we try to shift the blame off of ourselves and plead our innocence. With Adam, it was “the woman that you gave me…”

With us it is usually that we have been put in a difficult position, or we were under great pressure, or we never knew any better.

If all else fails, we blame God who let it happen when He could have prevented it – why didn’t He?

The answer to that question comes to us in what happened in a stable in Bethlehem, 2000 years ago. God could have sent His angels to defend the babies from Herod just as He could have called a legion of angels to defend His Son from Pontius Pilate. But if God destroyed everyone who puts themselves first, He would have destroyed the whole human race.

Instead of coming in power, He came to us in love. Jesus did not put Himself first. He put you and me first.

The change that He has come to us to work in us is not worked by force. The only thing that that can really change us is love. Force only deals with the outside of a person. Love changes us from the inside. Love changes the heart so that it now desires love God and one another by putting others before ourselves.

God’s love is no mere sentiment. It is a power that the neither the sin of the whole world nor all of the Herods and Hitlers put together can stand against. Try as they may, no tyrant, no terrorist, no bomb, no evil foe, can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

God carries out His plan through His baby Son. As Herod works to destroy Mary’s baby, God escorts the holy family to safety. Jesus still had His great redeeming work to carry out. Joseph takes Jesus and Mary to safety in Egypt and in this, Jesus becomes one with refugees who must flee their homes and depend on the charity of strangers.

The other babies in Bethlehem who did not escape entered into their glory even before their Lord. The parents who for mourned their children didn’t see how their deaths fit into God’s plan. Maybe 33 years later when Jesus was crucified, those parents said to one another, ‘If he had lived, our boy would be as old as that Jesus is Thank God he didn’t ever have to face anything like this.”

They may have come to understand and even rejoice in how the death of Jesus was for their baby boy. Or they may have never understood any of it and only had God to rely on until they themselves got to heaven and saw how it all fit together.

You and I know the baby for whose sake the baby boys in Bethlehem were slaughtered. We understand that His death on the cross was for our salvation and for theirs. And we know that if God did this for us, then no power of sin or the world or Satan can ever separate us from the love of God.

We may have to suffer and our suffering may be bloody and even deadly. But even if it is not so dramatic as that, we know that we will all have to suffer the pain of denying ourselves for the sake of others.

And in this, we walk with the holy innocents of Bethlehem and with all the martyrs and with all the saints of every age, as one, holy, Christian church, led by our Lord and Savior who leads us from this church militant into the church triumphant where Rachel and all her babies are comforted.


Help from Norman Nagel

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