A sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on the feast of the Holy Innocents, 2 January 2011, by Pastor Charles Varsogea.
Text: Matthew 2: 13-23
I’m not from here. Which means that I need you to answer the following question for yourselves. Do you think of yourself as a country at war? You’re shrinking the Ministry of Defense and your Navy has given up fixed wing aviation for now, which aren’t the kinds of things warring nations do, yet Herrick 14 is about to begin. In a few months Royal Marines, young Englishmen, people, are going to begin dying. At home the death toll is a constant presence. The names of the dead are solemnly read on the news at the end of each week and yet we Americans still need to be reminded that ours is a nation at war.
This has been such a long war and so unusually fought that we’ve begun to get used to it. My youngest children have never known even a day during which their country was not at war. They have no idea whether peace is any different. They have to take it on faith that there is something other than war, some other way to exist. The same is true for many children in the world and for most of those children it is a much more personal and terrible experience. The war is waged in and around their homes and they are far too often casualties themselves. Once you get used to waging war though it is easy to forget what your goals are. It can be difficult to remember what victory is. All you want to do is get through the current misery and find some comfort before the next wave of fighting starts.
We’ve gathered here this morning, a bunch of nice people with kind hearts, to encourage one another and to worship God. This hall belongs to the Boy Scout, the very epitome of neighborliness and helpfulness. We’re all busy trying to stay well and pay our bills and keep our families together. It doesn’t feel like were at war. But even if the Taliban were to suddenly blink out of existence and all of our soldiers and sailors and airmen and Marines could home we’d still be at war. Today’s Scripture lessons all serve to remind us of the endless war that the devil, the world and our flesh wages against God , His Word and, alas, His people.
When you hear today’s Gospel lesson what is the one thing that jumps out at you? It’s the injustice isn’t it? How could Herod murder all those little boys. They were babies. What had they ever done to anyone? We even call them the Holy Innocents. It’s hard to hear this section of Matthew’s Gospel without getting indignant and even a little angry. Do you feel a bit angry when you hear about those baby boys being killed? Who do you feel angry at? Herod? Probably not. The devil? Maybe. Search your hearts… This story makes you angry at God doesn’t it? It does.
If you weren’t mad enough with God already about the murder of these little ones, here’s an even more inflammatory truth. You and I may consider them Holy Innocents but God didn’t. As far as God is concerned those boys were squalling, selfish little sinners, just like you and me. They were born in sin and perpetuated their sinful condition each day of their sinful little lives. God’s Law is absolute and unrelenting. They were sinners and they deserved to die. That is the Law of God and Scripture is clear. If that doesn’t make you hate God I don’t know what will.
On top of all the hostility we feel toward God about the kind of suffering He allows, as exemplified by the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, this question arises in our minds. Where is Jesus while these families are being devastated? He’s hiding safely in Egypt having been warned by one of His angels to flee for His life while the other children of His town were put to death.
I would like to say that these are unfamiliar thoughts to us, that we are not used to being angry with God, that doubting His goodness was alien to us and that blaming Him for our unhappiness was something new and different. It isn’t though. This is the age old reaction of the sinner in the face of God. Guilt and shame always blame. When confronted by God we will blame Him for our inadequacies. Who else can we blame? We certainly won’t blame ourselves. And the devil has made sure that we don’t even think of Him when something goes wrong. We are so sinful that we can’t even see the world around us the way it actually is. It has been so long since there really was peace on earth and good will among men that we have forgotten what peace looks like and we can no longer recognize victory when we see it.
Let me ask you this, not as a stranger but as a fellow sinner. What is victory for the Christian? Is it living without sin? Is it the perfection of our virtues? Is it some form of sanctity or piety? What is it you came here hoping I could help you with? Do you want me to help you be content or happy or wise or right or something else? What if I tell you that victory for the Christian is being aware of God’s benevolent, gracious and fatherly presence? We were created to be with God and to be His friends. He created us to love us and to be in our lives.
Adam and Eve walked in the Garden with God. Adam took care of the Earth with God’s help and in His company and Eve took care of Adam in the same way. They walked among God’s trees in His fellowship and it was from those trees that they were exiled when they sinned. As we speak our homes are filled with Christmas trees, what are those trees doing there other than to remind us that Christ has come to invite us back into the garden, back into His good graces and His personal company. Our Christmas Trees remind us of the Tree of Life.
All of Christianity is about being with Christ, learning to live in the awareness of God’s saving presence. To be a Christian is to be blind and to know it. Unbelievers are blind and don’t know it. We are blind and aware of our blindness. Think about that for a moment. What are the virtues of the Christian life? Trust, humility, and above all faith. We navigate a world of which we are only dimly aware and we rely entirely upon the help of Him who sees all. When do we get into trouble, when we refuse to admit our blindness and behave as if we could really see.
Let’s revisit our Gospel lesson but with the humility of the Christian this time. What happened to those little boys so cruelly murdered by Herod? They went straight to paradise where they beheld and still behold the unveiled glory of the God who loved them into existence, earned their salvation with His own unjust death, and shields them from ever feeling any sorrow for the rest of eternity. And what happened to their poor desolate, heartbroken parents, left here on earth? God Himself joined them, in their world, in their day, in their town, in their sorrow and with His own hands, born of Mary and spared from Herod’s sword, wrestled His way to into their lives, ate at their tables, preached the Good News to them, healed their sicknesses, feed them in the wilderness and finally suffered and died for the forgiveness of their sins so that they could join their precious little ones at the throne of God in the fullness of time.
The biggest difference between heaven and earth is that in heaven we will see God face to face and here we must believe that He is with us. How different would our lives be if we could see that God is with us? Would you bother to get angry at your husband or your wife when he or she turned out to be as human as the rest of us if you knew that God was standing right there, hands out, ready to take perfect care of both of you? Would you resent your masters if you could see for yourself that they were in God’s hands as surely as Herod who lived and died, not according to his own will, but according to God’s schedule and in order to fulfill God’s will?
How much of the pain and suffering and unhappiness and dissatisfaction in your life is self-inflected? Not all of it, but an awful lot of it is. Isn’t it? It is when we forget that God created us to be served by Him AND to serve our fellow men that we get in trouble. It is when we forget that God has order our lives and placed people over us and people under us that we fail and fall down. It is when we forget God’s promise to be with us always, even to the end of time and space, that we start looking elsewhere for help and become obsessed with food or money or control or self-esteem or any of the other things that the world tells us we can’t be happy without.
So here we are, room full of sinful people blinded with doubt about the goodness of God and deafened by the temptations of the devil. How is God going to reach us? Well, first of all He’s here and secondly He’s determined that we know it. My job this morning is to tell you to close your blind eyes, pluck it out if you have to. Ignore the devilish chatter of the world and your flesh. Instead, feel the body of Christ on your lips. Taste the blood of Christ as we share in the cup of blessing. You don’t have incense here but in many places we would smell the incense as it rose with our prayers to the God who is present to answer them. Feel God’s forgiveness as you move your arms to make the sign of the sign of cross, in remembrance of your Baptism.
Jesus Christ is here with us this morning, in Spirit, in Truth, in Flesh and Blood, in every way possible. He is here to forgive our sins, to secure and protect our eternal fellowship with Him, to reunite the grieving with the saints in glory, to redeem every sorrow and to transform every ugly circumstance into an opportunity for thanksgiving and joy. God went to Golgotha to give Himself for us. But He is here this morning to give Himself to us. God has come to be our servant so that we can have the strength to serve our masters. He has come to be our master so that we can properly rule over those entrusted to us. God is here that we might live fully.
The challenge for us is remember that and to live accordingly. Let us gather together and eat His Body and drink His Blood. Then let us go to our homes and jobs knowing that God is not only within us but that He is with us; with us to save us and bless us and give us grace and strength.
The devil, the world and our flesh will do all they can keep us in the dark about God’s victory in Bethlehem and of His triumph on the Cross but even though the battle rages, the war is won. Our Champion is with us and He moves from success to success on the battlefield. We are at war but the war is won. It is only a matter of time until the victory is indisputable. All we need to do is remember what victory looks like, being at home in the company of our Father. Amen.