First Sunday after Christmas (A)
Dec. 29, 2019
Text: Matt. 2:13-23
Herod is unquestionably the evil villain of the Christmas story. When he encounters the wise men and hears of this One born King of the Jews, he is troubled, and all Jerusalem with him (Matt. 2:2-3). Why is he troubled? Because this Baby is a threat to his kingdom. Herod the Great ruled Judea as the vassal King of the Roman emperor. He wasn’t technically Jewish, though he vastly expanded the Temple during his reign. He was an Edomite, a descendent of Esau, from Idumea. Given to fits of paranoia, Herod had family members put to death on suspicion of conspiracy against his rule. So the last thing he wants to hear from these wise men of the east is that a new King of the Jews has been born, that a star has appeared, indicating fulfillment of the ancient prophecies. So troubled was Herod, he consulted the clergy. Where is the Christ to be born? “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet” (v. 5; ESV).
By the way, it is fascinating, isn’t it, that the religious leaders hear the report of the wise men and identify the place that Messiah is to be born… they hear that He has come, but they don’t immediately drop everything and run to Bethlehem? They don’t even move a muscle. What the matter with them? I suppose we must confess, we do the same thing when we don’t run eagerly to the altar at every opportunity to meet Christ where He has promised to be for us. Here He is, the Lord Jesus, right here, right now, the Savior of the world, as real as you and me, giving out precious gifts of eternal consequence, but, you know… it’s not like we won’t do this again next week. Repent.
At any rate, Herod has the wise men do his dirty work. He feigns piety. “Go to Bethlehem and let me know what you find out. I want to come and worship Him, too.” Lies. Villainous lies. The wise men go. They find the Child with His mother, Mary, and they worship Him, and give Him their gifts: Gold, frankincense, and myrrh. “And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way” (v. 12). And that’s where our Holy Gospel this morning picks up the story. Joseph is visited in a dream of his own. “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him” (v. 13).
And that’s when the real villainy begins. With Jesus safely on the midnight road to Egypt, Herod unleashes the soldiers on the boys of Bethlehem. Every boy two years old and under is ripped from his mother’s arms and mercilessly slaughtered before her eyes. We call these children the Holy Innocents, not because they are sinless, but because they’d done nothing to earn Herod’s ire. Circumcised on the eighth day, these boys were covenant boys, God’s boys. And so now they are safe. They are with God. They rejoice that they were counted worthy to be the first to suffer for the Name of Jesus. Two years or less in this vale of tears, they are comforted now and for all eternity in the bosom of their heavenly Father. Their brother Jesus has escaped for now, but not for good. His time is coming, in thirty years, give or take, when He will be executed. The charge? Once again, a threat to worldly power: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19). And so we come full circle.
Our Holy Gospel this morning is hard to take, though, isn’t it? I mean, these poor children. These poor mothers and fathers. How could God allow such a thing? Why didn’t He warn other fathers in their dreams to flee for their son’s lives? I don’t know. A certain humility is necessary here on the part of the Christian. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is. 55:8-9). We cannot discern the hidden will of God. Nor is it our place to call His righteousness into question. Faith clings to what He has revealed in His holy Word and leaves the rest to Him. For as Moses wrote to us, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever” (Deut. 29:29). God has revealed what He wants us to know in Scripture. But that leaves the question why God allows children to be slaughtered, whether in Bethlehem, or sitting in school, or their own mother’s womb, unanswered. Faith confesses, in the midst of grief over tremendous evil, that God is working it all for the good of His people, for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28).
It makes for a struggle, though, within the Christian between the old sinful flesh and the new creation in Christ. Because, while that new creation in Christ clings to Him in spite of all the evil it sees and experiences, the old sinful flesh whispers doubt and clings to unbelief. You know what your real problem is when it comes to the slaughter of the Holy Innocents? You don’t want to let God be God. You think He made a mistake in letting those poor babies suffer, those poor mothers with their aching, empty arms. You would charge God with injustice, or, at the very least, incompetence. Beloved, don’t you see that you’ve fallen for the same old lie of the devil? “Did God really say? God is holding out on you, withholding a good that you deserve. He’s jealous. He doesn’t want you to have too much. But you can be like Him, you know. You can be in control. You can rule yourself and your world. You can be a god, too.” Lies. Villainous lies. And when you believe them, you are Herod. You are unquestionably the evil villain of the Christmas story. You see God, you see Christ, as a threat to your rule over yourself and the world around you. And so you must kill Christ, the real One, who escapes while the blood of Bethlehem’s boys runs in the streets, and you must put in His place a christ of your own making, who does and says what you want Him to do and say. Repent. Your old Adam, the Herod in you, must die.
And he has, in Baptism, where your sinful flesh is daily drowned to death and you are daily raised to new life in Christ. The truth is, you have no control over yourself or the world around you. But Christ does. He knows every breath you’ll ever take, every beat of your restless heart, and He’s redeemed it all by His dying breath and static heart on the cross. Grief? He knows it well. “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Is. 53:4). “In all their affliction he was afflicted” (Is. 63:9). We aren’t told when or how, but sometime before His earthly ministry, our Lord Jesus had to bury St. Joseph. We see how He wept at the tomb of His dear friend Lazarus (John 11:35). Do you really think He didn’t know the sacrifice of the families in Bethlehem, that He didn’t care, that He doesn’t even now console those babies and their mothers and fathers in Paradise? For He “is mindful of them; he does not forget the cry of the afflicted” (Ps. 9:12). Do you really think He doesn’t know or care about you in your grief? He has redeemed you even in your grief. He has sanctified your grief for a holy purpose. That you recognize that your arms are empty and can be filled only by Him. He alone can fill you. He alone can comfort you. And He has done something about your grief and your sorrow, something very concrete. There, on a hill outside Herod’s Jerusalem, our Lord was nailed to the wood and lifted up, naked and bleeding, suffering and dying. His mother’s empty arms ached as the sword prophesied by Simeon pierced her own soul (Luke 2:35). And His Father, God… well, He gave His only-begotten Son into death for the boys of Bethlehem and their mothers and fathers, for St. Mary and St. Joseph, for the wise men, for Herod and His murderous soldiers, for you.
The boys of Bethlehem rejoice today to have shed their blood as a witness to the Savior who would shed His blood for them, for their redemption. They rejoiced that first Easter when our Lord burst forth triumphant from the grave with the promise that He will raise them, too, on the Last Day. They rejoiced when they beheld our Lord’s ascension into heaven and enthronement at the right hand of the Father. They rejoice before His throne today as they eagerly run to join us right here at the altar of Christ for the unending heavenly Feast. So do all the Christian children who died too early. They join us with their mothers and fathers who died in the faith, with Adam and Eve and Mary and Joseph and the wise men, and who knows? Maybe even some of the soldiers, if they came to faith. Rachel weeps for her children, refusing to be comforted (Matt. 2:18). Until she sees them again. Now she is comforted and rejoices with them, as she, too, joins us at the altar. The Lord may not give you to see the secret things that belong only to Him. But what He has revealed is enough to sustain you and comfort you in this fleeting life and bring you into the next, which is eternal. Jesus is your King. He rules over you and the whole world. He rules all things for your good, even the evil things. You are precious to Him. For He has purchased you with His own blood. And even if you are called upon one day to shed your blood for His sake, you rejoice, and rest secure. For every drop of your blood has been redeemed by His. And in the End, you will stand with the boys of Bethlehem before His throne, and you will sing. Merry Christmas, beloved. Come and join the Church in heaven at the Christmas Feast. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.