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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
The text for this first Sunday after Christmas is Matthew 2:18: “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.”
So, how was your Christmas? I dare say, far better than Rachel’s. Far better than the mothers of Bethlehem who grieve the death of their baby boys. So, whose idea was it to put this dreadful text into our readings for this Sunday? Where’s the quiet pastoral scene with adoring shepherds, and lowing cattle, and the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay? The wise men bearing gifts for the Child? Where’s the peace on earth, good will toward men? The tidings of comfort and joy?
Alas, Rachel weeps! She refuses to be comforted, because her children are no more. Worse than that, the Rachel here is not one, but many. Rachel was the wife of Jacob, the father of Israel, and her grave lies near Bethlehem. As a mother of Israel, the women of Bethlehem are poetically her daughters; and who will comfort them now that their children are no more?
I will tell you this right away, lest you be disappointed. This is a haunting text, and this is a funeral sermon for the worst of situations. It will be hard to comfort these mothers, and they will still be mourning when we leave them. But when we are done, though they mourn, it will not be as those who have no hope.
The story is as straightforward as it is grotesque. Herod is king of Judea, a deranged tyrant consumed with keeping his throne. He was married once upon a time, and his lovely wife gave him two sons. To make sure that they would not overthrow him, Herod had all three put to death. The evil of this act alone has led Caesar Augustus to say, “I would rather be Herod’s pig than his son.” Even though Herod is not really a Jew, the pig has a much longer life expectancy.
The wise men come to Herod and say, “Where is He who is born King of the Jews, for we have seen His star in the East.” This is what Herod dreads most—a potential rival to the throne. He is troubled, and therefore, so is all of Jerusalem with him. Herod interrogates the wise men, commands them to find this king and report back. When they flee the country he is furious. That’s when he makes his choice. His own life will be better if this Baby does not live. So he’ll kill every little boy in Bethlehem less than two years old just to make sure.
The soldiers go out and do exactly that, and it’s all perfectly legal, because Herod makes the law. And if it’s legal, it’s got to be all right, right? But Herod fails to kill Jesus, because Jesus’ time has not yet come. An angel warns Joseph and by the time the soldiers arrive, Baby Jesus is safely on His way to Egypt.
But that is little consolation the following day around Bethlehem. A voice is heard—weeping and loud lamentation as these daughters of Rachel weep. They refuse to be comforted, and what shall we say—“Don’t cry” “It’s going to be okay”? Such phrases are so trite and futile as to be patently offensive. It’s not going to be okay. They weep for their sons who are no more.
There is no comfort that will take away their mourning; but there is comfort that will give them hope even as they grieve. The “Slaughter of the Innocents” fulfills the prophecy from Jeremiah 31:15. But don’t miss the two verses that follow: “Thus says the LORD: Refrain your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for your work shall be rewarded, says the LORD, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope in your future, says the LORD, that your children shall come back to their own border.”
“Your children shall come back to their own border,” promises the Lord. But how can this be? It can be because this Child is chosen by God for the world’s redemption. His journey to Egypt is part of His journey to the cross, so that, despite the sin and evil of the world, there is the hope of eternal life after death.
But not all are saved, so how can these mothers be sure that God’s redemption is for their sons? The answer may surprise you. For them at that time, the answer is circumcision. In the Old Testament, the Lord declared that baby boys were to be circumcised on the 8th day of life; and that mark meant that they were part of Israel, part of God’s holy people (Genesis 17:10f). So, in the midst of that unimaginable grief, there was this hope of the mothers: “My son was circumcised, and there God promised that my son belongs to Him. Although he is not here with me, I’m sure that my boy is with the Lord.”
And what if, Herod’s soldiers happened to kill a baby boy who was less than 8 days old? There was still hope. David and Bathsheba’s first son died on the seventh day, yet David said he would go to be with him (2 Samuel 12:23). You see, while the child might die before the Lord’s plan for man could go into effect, God is not helpless or uncaring. The people would commend the child to the Lord’s mercy, because God is a merciful God. There is no way to make this text into a cheery one, for nothing can remove the horror of Herod’s slaughter. But there is hope. Even on that day of death, the Lord was faithful to those sons; and He was faithful to them for the sake of His only-begotten Son.
So before we go on, we note a few things from this text. First, Scripture clearly teaches that rejection of the Lord leads to death; and truly, death awaits us all. However, it is also true that the more one rejects the Lord, the less one values His gift of life; and the more one is apt to permit, even pursue, the death of others. Hideous though it be, Herod chooses to kill little children to make sure that his life and throne are not jeopardized, even though Christ was never a threat to him.
Second, it is important to note that although God allowed this evil deed, He did not purpose it, nor is He ever the cause of evil. That is why Matthew writes: “Then was fulfilled what was spoken…” (2:17) instead of his usual formula: “that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled (2:23).
“The only other time Matthew writes this way is in 27:9, regarding the money paid Judas for betraying Jesus—another evil deed that God foreknew, but did not purpose” (Matthew 1:1-11:1, Gibbs p.143). God is not the author of evil, but nevertheless is able to use all things for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purposes. This includes the death of our loved ones.
Third, we note the remarkable faithfulness of God. Herod’s crime is despicable beyond words, but not at all uncommon. Anyone who pictures biblical times as the “good old days” is seriously mistaken. Wars were fierce, conquerors were brutal, and sinful man put little value on human life at any stage. Yet, true to His promise, God still sent His Son into the world, knowing full well that sinful man would crucify Him, too. And then, the Lord used His Son’s death not as further justification for destroying mankind, but for man’s salvation.
With that in mind, we remember this day the “Holy Innocents, Martyrs,” those little boys who were victims of Herod’s sin. They are innocent in the sense that, though conceived and born in sin, they committed no crime against Herod that deserved death. They are martyrs, because their deaths testified to the hatred that sin has for life, and more importantly pointed to the Innocent One who would die for the world’s sin. And because of Jesus’ death, they are holy. They are redeemed, forgiveness surely given them in the Old Testament rite of circumcision.
Rachel still weeps as we leave the text, but she is not without hope. For the sake of Christ, there is hope…hope that her children shall come back to their own border, the kingdom of heaven, where they will live forever.
There’s nothing worse than the death of a child. The grim horror of death is never more terrible than when it takes a young life, and it is something I don’t even like to talk about. Still, it does happen; and it would be foolish to pretend that it doesn’t. But we speak of it for a better reason: Even when death strikes, we have hope to offer those who grieve—hope that will not disappoint.
It is here, dear friends in Christ, that you and I give special thanks for Holy Baptism. Circumcision was of the Old Covenant, and that mark upon baby boys pointed to the seal of Baptism for both boys and girls. By Holy Baptism, the Lord washes away the sins of even the smallest infant. He shares His death and resurrection with that child; and no matter how long or short that child’s life in this world, the Lord has already given him or her eternal life.
There is no command to wait even eight days, and one can be baptized as soon as he or she is born. That’s why I encourage parents to have their children baptized as soon as possible. Because, no matter how hard we try to protect our children, we don’t know what tomorrow brings. This is why I give thanks for the gift of Holy Baptism. No matter what happens today or tomorrow, the Lord has given my children and grandchildren forgiveness and faith and eternal life by water and the Word. I’ve no doubt that a tragedy of that enormity would shatter me for life; but that hope of Christ’s Word and promise will stand for eternity.
This is the comfort and hope that we gently offer to those who suffer the loss of a child: Christ was born to redeem all nations—little children included. He promises forgiveness and faith and life, and He gives these gifts in Holy Baptism. Are you baptized? Then He has given them to you. Do not forsake this precious gift, for there is eternal life. This is why, as soon as possible in this unpredictable and dying world, we urge parents to get their children to the baptismal font.
Still, there will be parents who must grieve the death of a child who never had a chance to make it to the font. I speak of a child who is miscarried or stillborn, or one who is born but dies unexpectedly before Baptism. There is still hope for such children as these, too. As we mentioned with the son of David and Bathsheba earlier, the Lord is still able to save such a one. He binds us to His means of grace, but He does not limit Himself to them. Therefore, when a child dies before Baptism is possible, we commend such a one to the mercies of God.
This is part of His unsearchable judgments, and we have no clear Word from the Lord. However, the Lord is merciful; and while David certainly could not call in any favors from the Lord because of his own righteousness, he still declared that he would go to his son, whom the Lord had saved by His mercy alone. Those who have lost a child before birth or Baptism may still look forward with hope to meeting that one in the Lord’s presence. However, where you are able to baptize the child, then by all means do. It is far better to say, “My child is certainly forgiven by means of Baptism” than, “As far as I know, the Lord will have mercy.”
The death of unborn children leads us to one more subject that we cannot ignore, given the story in the Gospel lesson today. In our own nation, millions of innocents are robbed of life by medical procedure before they are ever born. I speak, of course, of the wickedness of abortion. Boiled down to simplest terms, the justification for abortion is much like Herod: “I don’t want this child, and I choose to have my life without this child.” Now, with the “morning-after pill,” abortion is available without prescription at your local pharmacy, along with cough drops and aspirin. Infanticide is available over the counter, off the rack. If it was better to be Herod’s pig than his sons, it is apparently much safer to be a whale or spotted owl than it is to be an unborn human being these days. Lord, have mercy.
“That’s different!” you might hear. But not all that different. In both cases, the law of the land permits the taking of innocent life. And perhaps our current situation is more reprehensible, besides the sheer numbers involved. In Matthew 2, those boys (estimated to be between 10-20) died because of one tyrant’s madness. In 2013, over 1 million boys and girls will die in our nation alone, and it is permitted ostensibly because it is “the will of the people.” We Christians are sometimes criticized for making abortion a “litmus test” of society. That is fine with me. This issue reveals whether one sees life either as sacred or disposable, and that will have a profound effect on all that you are.
There is one other thing that makes today’s situation even worse, though you will not hear about it in the news coverage. Abortion robs its victims of the opportunity for Holy Baptism! Not only does it rob a child of life in this world, but it seeks to rob that child of eternal life. The Lord desires to share His death and resurrection at the font with each one for whom He has died on the cross; man destroys the child before he ever has such a chance.
Even then, however, we offer this comfort. Where man in his wickedness deprives unborn little ones of opportunity for Baptism, the Lord remains merciful. Once again, this is a matter of His secret things (Deuteronomy 29:29) and unsearchable judgments (Romans 11:33); but we commend such children to the merciful Lord who saved David’s son on the 7th day, praying that He would gather them into His loving arms forever as a hen gathers her chicks. The Lord is merciful, and the Lord is faithful. That is the hope that will not disappoint.
As this sermon draws near to an end, you may feel a bit more saddened than when you arrived. Perhaps you will even experience the pangs of unresolved guilt, remorse, shame, or grief. The sadness, however, is not the fault of the Gospel; it is a recognition of the death wish of the world. But where sadness comes, cling to the Gospel all the more, for it will not disappoint. Not now, not ever. Even should we be given to endure the grief of a child’s death, even if we suffer the guilt over past choices, Christ’s life remains for such little ones and for us.
You see, Christ died for all sins; Jesus is Savior for everyone. Jesus died for Rachel who weeps: the Rachel suffering barrenness or miscarriage; the Rachel who now realizes the guilt and shame and sense of loss because of her choice; the Rachel who doesn’t yet realize her loss or feel its hurt. Why, Jesus even died for wicked old King Herod, and all the other men who have encouraged the death of the little ones for their own selfish reasons. Jesus comes into such a culture of death, bringing forgiveness, salvation and life—eternal life.There is your comfort. Death will, at times, strike the cruelest of blows; but death is already defeated in Christ, who raises both young and old to everlasting life. That life is given to the people of God, to you and to your children, with such simple words as these: “I baptize you—and thus forgive you all of your sins—in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen