The Holy Innocents
Dear friends in Christ. On this 4th day of Christmas the sights, sounds and smells of Christmas may begin to lessen, they’re still here. “Christmas cheer” is still in the air. The Christmas Gospel still resounds within us: For unto you is born this day… a Savior, Christ the Lord as we, like Mary, ponder all the events of that first Christmas in our hearts. We still hear the song of the angels: Peace on earth, goodwill toward men.
But today we come to church and hear of this most gruesome of events—Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. It doesn’t seem at all to fit at Christmas and yet here it is staring us in the face. But this, dear Christian, is the reality. This is precisely what happens when Jesus appears on the scene. He tells us [Mt. 10.34]: Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. Our text is a wake up call away from the sentimentality of Christmas to what Christmas is really all about—the coming of God Himself in human flesh to destroy the works and kingdom of the devil. Would the devil allow his kingdom to be destroyed without putting up the greatest possible struggle? St. John describes it [Rev. 12.4]: And the dragon [that is, the devil] stood before the woman who was ready to give birth, to devour her Child as soon as it was born.
As we once again hear and ponder the Christmas Gospel, may we remember the reason that Jesus had to come was to destroy sin, death, devil and hell. We miss the whole point of Christmas if we look into the manger and see merely a cute, innocent baby. Instead, let us look a little more closely into His manger, into His cradle and there we will see a cross. We, first of all, see the cross of Jesus’ suffering, on which He suffered and died for the sins of the world to destroy the devil’s works and kingdom. We then also see coming brings the cross of suffering of His Christians, who suffer trial, and hardship on account of their faith in Him, who suffer because He has come.
1. When looking into the manger, the cradle of Christ, and seeing the cross, we shouldn’t expect anything different. Our text: Now when they [the Wise Men] had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.” Since Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil, the devil would do all in his power to destroy the One who would destroy his kingdom. Jesus [John 12.31] calls the devil the ruler of this world. Through the Apostle, the Holy Spirit calls him [Eph. 2.2]: the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience. Of course, the devil would rouse his allies to destroy Jesus. In this case, it was the wicked king, Herod, whose wickedness was even noted by Roman historians.
Herod had heard from the Wise Men that the King of the Jews had been born. Since Herod was the king only by the Rome's favor, he feared for his position, so he tries to destroy the competition. Perhaps he rationalized it in his mind this way: if I wipe out the infant king now, I will avoid a rebellion and revolt when he is older with much more bloodshed.
Herod shows that the world does not understand what kind of King Jesus is and what sort of Kingdom His is. That’s why the cross is already in the cradle—because Christ cannot expect the favor of the world—nor can His Christians. Jesus did not come to be a king in a worldly sense, ruling over a people in a certain geographic area, which is all that the world knows. Jesus Himself tells Pilate [John 18.36]: My kingdom is not of this world. Jesus’ kingdom is His rule in the hearts of His dear Christians wherever they may be and whenever they may live. Thus His kingdom is an invisible and eternal one.
The world won’t balk too much at Christmas that a Baby is born; it won’t balk about the idea of peace on earth and goodwill toward men. But it will reject and raise all kind of unholy horror when it is said that that Baby born is the Savior of the world, which means that all people are sinners who had better repent of their sin and put their hope for forgiveness and eternal life in the work that Baby, Jesus, would do. The world, deluded by Satan, likes its life of sin and doesn’t want to give it up. It doesn’t want peace and reconciliation with the true God, which Jesus brought by life, suffering and death and proclaimed by His resurrection.
Since the unbelieving world does not want to hear anything about its sin and need for repentance and a Savior, we, our Lord’s dear Christians cannot expect anything else from the world but rejection, laughter and ridicule, and even persecution. When Christ came, He brought the cross of suffering and sorrow in the world also to His Christians. Let us not think that once we’re Christians we can expect nothing but earthly joy and blessings. In fact, we should expect the opposite. Look at Christ Jesus, the very God Himself. Almost as soon as He came into the world, He had to suffer and flee. The cross of suffering had already been placed in His cradle.
B. The very fact that the cross of suffering was in Jesus’ cradle, that the infant Jesus had to flee for His very life into a foreign country, is a picture of Jesus’ whole life of humility and suffering on earth. Jesus is the true God, but He did not make full use of all His divine glory and power. He concealed it for the most part. He did it so that He could be our Savior. When Jesus came to earth, He placed Himself under the Law of God for us in order to keep it for us perfectly. His life on earth was one of perfect obedience for us, because we don’t keep the Law of God perfectly, as He demands of us and requires of us to enter heaven. So greatly did Jesus, the true God, humble Himself—to keep the Law of God for us! Part of His humbling Himself and suffering was His flight to Egypt as an infant.
This whole event of Jesus enduring this cross of suffering, of fleeing and being a refugee, is a fulfillment of prophecy: Out of Egypt I called My Son. The Son of God had to be called out of Egypt, but first He had to flee there after being born in Bethlehem to fulfill another prophecy. Jesus shows His perfect obedience, that He is the very Son of God, by coming when the Father calls Him!
Again, it was not only Christ that suffered by having to flee, it was also those closest to Him—His mother and Joseph. In the same way, today our Lord’s dear Christians suffer because of Him, because of their close connection to Him, their faith in Him. Many Christians throughout the world today are suffering great bodily persecution on account of their faith and confession of Christ. We, too, should not be surprised if we are called upon to suffer with Christ. In our case, it most likely won’t be bloody persecution, but it may be something very painful to us personally such as brokenness and hostility in family or with one-time friends; it may be a few snide remarks or ridicule. But whatever it may be, we shouldn’t expect anything different for when Christ comes, He also brings us the cross of suffering.
Whatever the Lord may call on us to endure, especially on account of our faith and confession of Christ, we can be assured that He will lead us step by step, safely through it all. The Lord comes to help us at just the right time, precisely when we need it—just like He did with the Holy Family: Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him. Joseph’s faith was tried because the Lord told him no more than absolutely necessary. So too, with us! Our faith is often tried because the Lord doesn’t reveal to us the reason why something happens to us as it does; He doesn’t fill us in on every detail, but He does promise to guide and lead us and protect us, and to work great spiritual blessing to us and our faith by the sufferings we endure. That is what we in faith cling to.
2. With both horrific events— Jesus having to flee and the slaughter of the innocents— there is the great comfort: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet. These things didn’t happen because the Lord was caught unawares or unable to stop them or to help the situation. They happened according to His counsel and will. These events happened to our Lord and the Innocents because somehow, someway, they would serve for the glory of God and the salvation of the world. Will we understand the how or why of these events and the crosses of suffering that we will endure in our own lives? Certainly not! But we do know that the Lord is in control and working all things to His glory and for our spiritual good.
Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from 2 years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men.
We can neither ask nor answer the question of why God allowed Herod to kill these innocents, probably around 20 in number. All that we can do is to say with Abraham [Gn 18.25]: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right? That Judge of all the earth is the God of all grace in Christ. That is also the vital question for us to keep in mind when we are under the cross of trial and suffering, when we think that God has forgotten us, when we ask: Does God really care? Why doesn’t God do something about…?; when we pray and the heavens are shut. The answer: The God of all grace in Christ, Who is beyond all our understanding, will do what is right. Therefore we best heed the words of the Holy Spirit in the Psalm 46.10: Be still and know that I am God.
As we see in our text, these children were killed so that Jesus could live to die. With their deaths, Herod thought he had wiped out the rival for his throne. Thus Jesus could live so that He could in every way obey God’s holy Law for us and die for our sins and so be our Savior. Yes, the blessed result of the innocents dying was that Jesus’ life was here spared so He could be the Savior of the world. These boy infants gave up everything for the sake of Jesus—even their very lives. That’s why the Church has regarded them as the first martyrs for Christ, the first to lay down their lives on account of their faith in Jesus. As infants they had faith. They were male Jewish babies who had undergone the OT Sacrament of circumcision on the 8th day. In that OT sacrament, they were, by the word, brought into the covenant; they were made dear children of God. Although they didn’t have reason, the innocents had faith worked by the Holy Spirit in the Word, faith in the Coming Savior. By that faith they were saved and by that faith they willingly laid down their lives for Jesus, the long-awaited and now arrived Savior.
A true, great mourning throughout the land: A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted because they were no more. There was no earthly comfort for these parents. Their sufferings were real. But their mourning would eventually turn to joy because Jesus lived, not only this day, but as He rose from the dead conqueror of sin, devil and death. Jesus destroyed, undid death, what took these children from their parents. Trusting in that coming Savior, they would one day be reunited with their children for all eternity. These children died so that Jesus could live and die and rise again and give them, and all believers, a share of salvation.
A cross was placed in Jesus’ cradle, a cross of suffering for Jesus and for all His dear Christians. But there were blessed results—by his suffering Jesus brought about the salvation of the world. By what we suffer the Lord is working great spiritual good so that we share His holiness. INJ Amen.