Second Sunday after Christmas
January 2, 2011
Emmanuel Lutheran Church—Dwight, IL
January 4, 2015
Trinity Lutheran Church–New Haven, MO
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In our romanticized and sanitized versions of the Christmas story, we often forget that the birth of Christ was the doom of scores of infants in the region of Bethlehem. All of our nativity sets have displayed the wise men for weeks (well before we actually celebrate their arrival on Epiphany), but you’d be hard pressed to find a nativity set that features Herod’s soldiers massacring the innocent children in Bethlehem in order to put an end to Jesus.
Why does St. Matthew record this story of lamentation in the middle of one of most joyous stories ever told?
The massacre of the Holy Innocents, atrocity though it is, does not register very highly among the mass killings of world history. It was probably only a handful of young boys that were actually killed, which was nothing compared to some of Herod’s more inventive assassinations in order to protect his throne. One early writer by the name of Macrobius reports that, “When [emperor Augustus] heard that among the boys in Syria under two years old whom Herod, king of the Jews, had ordered to kill, his own son was also killed, he said: it is better to be Herod’s pig, than his son.”
Even though this particular event did not rate highly enough to make it into some of the more prominent histories of the time, St. Matthew includes it to teach us something about Jesus. It’s to remind us that being identified with Jesus always seems to result in persecution and suffering.
There are many preachers in our day who make a very fine living off of falsely promising that all of your worldly troubles can be gone if you just ally yourself with Jesus (and put a few more bucks in the offering plate as well). But it is clear from today’s Gospel that, even from His earliest days, those who were with Jesus were in constant danger of persecution and death.
Why is this? Martin Luther cites Bernard of Clairvaux in one of his Christmas sermons that says that it was the Incarnation of Christ that caused the devil to fall from grace. The Holy Apostles make it clear that God had predetermined before the foundation of the world the way in which He would bring salvation to mankind, that is, that He would become flesh, suffer and die. The fact that God would choose to become man, who is far below the angels in power and awe, caused the greatest envy in Satan.
I’m inclined to agree with Luther and Bernard, because the devil’s first attack on God’s creation wasn’t on beasts or fish or seas or stars, but on man. And from that first sin, he has ever been on the attack against humanity.
Behind every evil work of every evil man, behind every natural disaster and misfortune lies the rage of the devil and his evil angels. He is the origin of sin and the author of death. It should come as no surprise that those who make themselves friends of Jesus will find the devil to be a bitter enemy.
It is odd to find this story of the persecution and suffering of the Holy Innocents in the middle of one of the most joyous stories ever told. Yet for us who hear in faith, we know that Jesus has come precisely that we would be identified with His sufferings.
“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Pt 4:12-13).
Christ Has Come So that We Might Share in His Sufferings and His Glory
It doesn’t seem right that God would allow the devil to continue to cause pain and suffering when He certainly has the power to utterly destroy him. Yet we also have in this Gospel a reminder that God’s wisdom often appears as foolishness in our eyes.
To escape the wrath of Herod, the angel of the Lord told Joseph to take the Holy Family to Egypt. But St. Matthew tells us that this journey was much more than an ancient witness protection program. “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’” (v 15).
This prophecy was first fulfilled in the people of Israel. Our Old Testament Reading recounts the journey of Israel (or Jacob) to live in Egypt. But recall why they were going there. The sons of Jacob had sold their brother Joseph into slavery, but he had risen in the ranks of Egypt (by God’s grace) to become the second most powerful man in the land. When a famine struck, the sons of Israel came to Egypt to find food. Joseph forgave his brothers and brought his whole family to live with him in Egypt.
Later, when Jacob had died, his sons feared that Joseph would take his revenge. But Joseph said this: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” (Gen 50:20a). Part of the good was to keep many people alive during the famine, but the greater good was to bring Israel into Egypt, so that we might know who Jesus is. “Out of Egypt I called my son” (v 15).
Through the evil deed done by Joseph’s brothers, God accomplished His good will. In the same way, God uses all of the evil of the devil to accomplish His will.
For it was through the suffering, pain, and death inflected by the devil through the hands of evil men that God accomplished His greatest work. It is the suffering and death of Christ that saves us from our sins.
God identifies our suffering with the suffering of Jesus through the lens of Holy Baptism. In the font, we take our share of the sufferings of Christ.
The preachers who direct you to false promises of prosperity—if you would only believe hard enough—fail to understand this central aspect of the faith. “If anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name” (1 Pet 4:16).
What the devil, the world, and sinful human flesh mean for evil, God intends for good. He uses them to accomplish His will.
Therefore, those who take their share of Christ’s sufferings will also have their share of Christ’s glory, when it is revealed. Now we endure in faith, but we look forward to the day when Christ returns in His glory and the dead are raised just as He was raised. On that day, all of the enemies of God, who have attacked and oppressed His people, will be dealt their final blow. Death and the devil and all evil people will be put away. “Therefore, let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (1 Pet 4:19).
In + Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Jacob Ehrhard
 Ambrosius Theodosius Macrobius, Saturnalia, book II, chapter IV:11. Accessed at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
Massacre_of_the_Innocents#cite_note-13; 21 December, 2010.