Monday, December 29, 2008

Sermon - Holy Innocents - Matthew 2:13-18

Matthew 2:13-18
Holy Innocents
December 28, 2008
“The Blood of Many – the Blood of One”

I hope you all had a merry Christmas filled with family gatherings, good food, peace and joy, and also meaningful time to ponder the mysteries of God's love in Jesus Christ, the true reason for the season.

Today's sermon, as well as hymns and prayers, are based on the Gospel reading for the day, from Matthew 2. For at least 1500 years the church has observed this strange day in our calendar, commemorating the slaughter of the “Holy Innocents”.

And with all of the “good vibrations” of the Christmas holiday, all the syrupy-sweet warm fuzzies our culture builds into the holiday, and especially here in the church where we celebrate our Savior's birth and focus on its actual meaning.... Still, it's kind of shocking, three days after Christmas, to be faced with such a gruesome story.

We know the background – the wise men from the East came looking for the one born to be king of the Jews. But the current, earthly king of the Jews, a wicked man named Herod, took exception. Through deceit he tried to trick the wise men into leading him to this potential rival. But God intervened, and saved the Christ-child. In Herod's anger and fear for his throne, he ordered that all the newborns of Bethlehem be killed – just to be safe and sure. And once again God intervened, telling Joseph to take Mary and the child to Egypt until Herod's death.

These first martyrs, these first to shed their blood for Christ, were children of the Old Testament covenant, and part of God's family by his grace. They were saved, even from death, by the blood of that other child – the one that escaped. But Jesus would not escape God's wrath. In the fullness of time, that Christ-child, as a grown man, would stand silently before another Herod. He would shed his holy precious blood in an innocent suffering and death to save those children of Bethlehem, and all of Rachel's and all of Adam's children.

In all the grief and mourning that must have followed such an unspeakable slaughter as the murder of those children, there was still hope, because of Christ.

Perhaps your Christmas wasn't all it was cracked up to be. For most people, it's hard to meet that ideal. If even the first Christmas was beset by trouble and sorrow at the death of these children at the order of a wicked man, what makes us think our Christmas will be immune from sorrow, or even death?

But as Christians we know that nothing, not even death, can separate us from God's love in Christ. And that love was made known on earth with a little child born in the midst of a cruel and wicked world. A little child, that gives us sinners hope.

I'd like to share with you an article by Donna Marmorstein of Aberdeen, South Dakota, called,

“Can Death Obliterate Christmas? Ask Herod”:

It's a long quotation but I think you'll find it applies well to our text today, and echoes the same sentiments I've mentioned. Marmorstein writes:

Early in December, when stars seem sharper and bluer than at other times, Christmas music seems to sharpen them even more. I unpack my age-old Christmas record collection. I’ll put on “Goodyear’s Great Songs of Christmas” with Mitch Miller and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I’ll brew some cinnamon tea, light a mulberry-scented candle and write Christmas cards. Usually, when stamps, return labels, address book and cards are arrayed before me, the carols swirl up together with the tea steam, and my toes turn warm. A deep, bone-radiating satisfaction takes over. Renewing contact with friends is one of the best parts of Christmas.

But this year something went wrong. It started when I tried to write a Christmas greeting to my aunt. How can you wish holiday cheer to someone who just lost a husband to cancer? Her chance of merriment at Christmas is about nil. My pen froze in midair as I tried to think of something to write. How jolly will her Christmas be, as she tries to mix celebration with grief? And his death will mar Christmases to come. My uncle’s voice, singing every morning as he shaved, now stilled. His jokes, smiles, and positive outlook--all gone.

And what do I write to warm the spirits of friends whose youngest child drowned in a lake this summer? Merry Christmas? Right. Every mall, every shop they enter where toys just right for a 6-year-old boy sit on display will become a torture chamber. No message I write can convey joy without pain. There’s no way around it.

My address book isn’t what it used to be either. Every page has abandoned addresses now. My grandpa, long gone. My grandma, who every Christmas cooked up fudge divinity and sugared walnuts, can’t receive my Christmas greetings now. My other grandma--whose flashbulb ALWAYS malfunctioned Christmas morning--is dead, too, and I would love to feel her knobby, blue-veined hand on mine once more, and watch her “fiddle with” her camera now. Her sister, wise, warmhearted Auntie Faye, died Christmas morning in her sleep at 97. Her address still echoes in my book.

All the expired addresses accumulate, and suddenly ripples spot my envelopes. The candle flickers out, the record player grinds to a halt. Stars blur and fall. The needles on the tree all turn brown and drop to the floor. Death creeps into my address book. It grips my pen and tries to overpower my Christmas. No carol seems able to withstand its ugly claw.

But then the turntable starts up again. The Coventry carol.. [is] ..the only carol I know that mentions Herod’s slaughter of the innocents to destroy the Christ child and, consequently, Christmas. Pain, grief and fear riddled the first Christmas. This problem goes back a long time.

Herod, however, did not have this day. Death does not have this day. In fact, the whole reason behind Christmas was to overthrow the power of death and sin and hell. So when death creeps up and grabs a loved one, Christmas kicks death in the teeth and says, “You can’t keep that one. That’s mine.”

Death, where is thy sting? Stuck somewhere under the mistletoe, I suspect. The needles fly back onto the tree and turn green. Falling stars rise and shine, resharpened. My cold tea steams up again. The candle relights. Appropriate, hopeful words spill from my pen onto cards. And Christmas, if not always merry, is always, always victorious.

And I would add, Jesus is always victorious, and in him we are always victorious. Even in the face of wicked men who seek to harm us. Victorious even over death. Even in the grave we Christians rest secure, for we know the one who has brought peace on Earth and God's good will toward man – Jesus Christ our Lord. In him we are Holy Innocents. Amen


Joy said...

Beautiful, Tom. I assume you and Bren didn't lose MY address--we really missed your letter!

If I were an ELCA pastor-ette, I'd entitle my sermon "Did you have a good Christmas?" I hate that question! Did I like my gifts? Not really. No. Hideous sweaters that are too small (doubly insulting). Did I have fun Christmas morn? Hardly. I lost my temper getting the girls ready for church. Did I enjoy my visits with the in-laws? Surely you jest.

But YES! I had a good Christmas because I have a good God. Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light!

Preachrboy said...

Hey Joy!

No, we didn't lose it, we just didn't send any letters or cards this year. I was in such a bah-humbug mood myself right up until Christmas, but then inexplicably I began to enjoy myself right after Christmas Day service. Go figure.

Anyway, hope you and Pastor G and fam had a "good Christmas" - in every way - anyway. Christ is born for us!