The Holy Innocents, Martyrs, ABC, 2014 (preached December 28, 2014)
first reading: Jeremiah 31:15-17
second reading: 1 Peter 4:12-19
gospel reading: Matthew 2:13-18
***Note: I was substitute preaching for a colleague at a neighboring congregation, so I was not preaching to my regular folks. Also, the commemoration of the Holy Innocents is December 28th, and when Dec. 28th falls on a Sunday its appointed readings take precedence over the regular ones for the first Sunday of Christmas.
What a depressing day. Right after we welcome the baby in the manger, right after we can finally sing all our favorite Christmas carols, we are confronted with the slaughter of innocent children.
This commemoration of the Church brings up all kinds of questions that are ultimately unanswerable – and way too much to deal with in one sermon. And those questions bring up others that are equally unanswerable. How could God allow those little children to be senselessly murdered? How come God didn’t stop Herod? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why are innocent people sometimes punished while the guilty go free?
We can answer these questions in part, but not completely. I have often said that I have a long list of questions I want to ask God when I get to heaven, and those are some of them. There are parts that can be answered though, and it’s important that we talk about that.
Each of us has been given incredible freedom as human beings made in God’s likeness. We are not puppets to be manipulated, we are God’s children, individuals with limited, but still amazing will and power.
The freedom that God gives us at birth is a wonderful thing. It empowers us to shape our own future, and we have tremendous abilities and opportunities to help others. There are countless examples of our human capacity to be kind, generous, and giving to one another.
But this freedom can also be abused. We are given the freedom to do good, but along with that comes the freedom to act and make choices that may hurt or devastate others.
We may have countless examples of human kindness but we also unfortunately have countless examples of human cruelty.
It’s not lost on me that even as we remember the slaughter of all those innocent children by Herod, there are hundreds of parents in Pakistan who will never stop grieving their children who were murdered by religious extremists just a few weeks ago.
There are families torn apart by domestic violence, kids being bullied and degraded in schools, racism, sexism, classism, and all the other “isms” that just never seem to fade away.
All this violence and hatred I believe can be traced back to the sin of covetousness. Envy. Greed. The desire for power over others – to want the power that someone else has. Whether it’s power manifested through owning land, money, possessions, or influence over people – it’s intoxicating, it’s addictive, and it’s dangerous.
There’s a good reason that we have one or two commandments (depending on how you number them) that speak directly to coveting – wanting what someone else has. And this was Herod’s problem. Herod’s sin. He had power and he didn’t want to give it up or share it. He was even willing to slaughter children to keep it.
He saw Jesus as a threat, and since he didn’t know who or where Jesus was he just killed all the children in Jesus’ age bracket. Nice guy.
And we read the quote from Jeremiah in Matthew that there was wailing and loud lamentation – Rachel weeping for her children, because they were no more.
If there is any value to be found in the death of the children, both then and now, we find it in the phrase, “she refused to be consoled/comforted.” Rachel, a symbol of motherhood, a symbol of Israel, refused to accept the evil. Too many times when we see evil, we are too content to let it happen, too content to let it win. Either we think we have no power, or we’re too tired from fighting it.
But grief and anger are powerful. The human spirit is powerful, and the Holy Spirit working within and through us is unstoppable. It is part of our baptismal calling as workers in the kingdom in the name of the holy child, Jesus Christ, to stand against the Herods of the world, to refuse to be consoled, or lulled into complacency.
This commemoration of the Church also reminds us that life and death are intimately connected. That joy and suffering exist side by side. That Christmas and Good Friday are bound together.
It may not be a happy thing to remember. It may not give us all those nice warm fuzzy feelings we like to have at Christmas. But thankfully our faith goes beyond warm and fuzzy – our faith is down and dirty. Our faith is REAL.
Our faith does not deny pain, it does not deny suffering, it does not deny evil. Our faith denies none of those things – it CONFRONTS them. It meets them head-on, and ultimately defeats them on the cross.
The cross itself was pain, suffering and evil – Jesus all wrapped up in and nailed to the ugly sin that is the worst of our human nature. But the light shines in the darkness.
We look at the events of 2,000 years ago, and know that evil and death did not have the last word. It won the battle but it did NOT win the war. And the same is true in our day and age.
Pain, suffering, evil and death impact our lives regularly. But it is GOD who ultimately triumphs – NOT pain, or suffering or evil or death. They do NOT have the last word for us either.
They impact us, but they do not define us. WE are defined by the God who journeys with us through the dark valleys. WE are defined by the Savior who claims us in baptism and makes us his children forever. WE are defined by a cross whose intention was cruelty and death, but whose final outcome was love and life.
THAT brothers and sisters – the life and love of Jesus for you and me, has the ABSOLUTE last word – both now and forever.