Holy Innocents

Can you feel it? The buzz of Christmas is mostly over.

For some of us, there’s a let-down that comes after Christmas. Just as our company has left or is leaving soon, as we catch up with the Christmas story from the scriptures, the wise men have left the Holy Family in their little stable. And the wrapping paper from their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, has been put out with the recycling.

But whereas our lives may seem to more-or-less go back to normal, the wise men have been warned of news that will upset all of Judea, throwing everyone into a panic! They’re told not to return to Herod, and when they fail arrive and Herod realizes he’s been duped, he is furious. Now he is sure that the prophecy the wise men believed is true, and a boy who will become King of the Jews has been born right under his nose!

So, in a rage he orders all male children of Bethlehem less than two years of age murdered. Joseph, however, is warned in a dream of this tyrant’s intentions and faithfully takes Mary and the infant Jesus to Egypt, out of the clutches of the Herod.

If we look at the precious faces of the children around us and wonder what kind of person could be so neurotic and power-hungry as to kill other people’s children to secure his throne, we may be more surprised to learn Herod ordered the execution of three of his own sons whom he thought were getting too excited about succeeding him. Herod was so cruel, in fact, that he left strict orders: upon his own death, soldiers were to kill one member of every family in his kingdom. Josephus, the first century historian, recorded that Herod said, “When I die, the nation really will morn, whether they wish it or not.”

Herod really was Great  - in some ways - Israel became prosperous and secure thanks to the ports and fortresses he built, and he rebuilt Jerusalem's Temple in fabulous style. But his paranoia took over.

There is no doubt that mothers and fathers alike were choking on their own tears, as Herod’s henchmen came to Bethlehem to slaughter their innocent sons.

We may not have a perfect government, and our elected leaders may not be all that we would desire them to be, but tyrants like Herod are unfamiliar to us. In fact, we can’t imagine this scene on our own streets. Unfortunately, there are people in the world who have known tyrants like Herod.

Just two weeks ago, Taliban militants in suicide vests laid siege to a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, massacring 132 children and 10 teachers during eight hours in which gunmen shot indiscriminately into crowds killing children one by one.

Everyday Christian children and adults are persecuted – Most zealously in North Korea, Somalia, Pakistan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, but over much of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Churches are burnt and people are tortured, or in the case of Palestine, the place of Jesus’ birth, today’s small Christian minority is detained behind a concrete wall, which cuts off all freedom to the outside world.

What can we do? These are our sisters and brothers! The theologian Karl Barth said that to clasp our hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising in the world, and so today we pray for those first Holy Innocents, and we expand our prayer to include all innocent victims. Families torn apart and hearts broken.

We pray for God to frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and to establish peace in the world through Jesus Christ, The Innocent Victim. Our hope is in the Innocent Victim, Jesus Christ, whom Herod could not stop from becoming the King of the Jews, but who Herod completely misunderstood.

The True King of the Jews was to wear a crown of thorns, taking our sins on himself, and taking our sins to the cross. Our sins died with him on the cross, but he was raised to new life, leaving our sins in that empty tomb where they are still dead.

We heard God’s word of forgiveness right here at the font, where we know we are joined to Christ and made part of God’s family forever. We now live in God’s Kingdom, and he rules us with kindness and friendship and love, even if the world lives outside his rule.

The slaughter of the Holy Innocents began the season of martyrdom in the church. For the first three centuries of the church, it was a given that one could be killed for their faith.  The Roman occupying forces burned people at the stake, fed them to lions, and crucified them in the Coliseum and by the roadsides.

icon-of-holy-innocents

At other times throughout the centuries it has been just as dangerous to be a follower of Christ. During the holocaust, as an example from the 20th century, Christians who opposed the terror of the Nazis were sent to concentration camps with everyone else.

For us, this is hard to imagine but Our Lord asks us to be ready to die for him, saying, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” And case we are not asked to die for him, like so many others, we are asked to live for him – whatever our circumstances may be.

You may know, there is a man in this congregation who knows what it is to live for him: He has cancer but is always joking and bringing laughter to others – not in a way done because he can’t face the truth of his sickness – but because he has faced his sickness and has given it to God. It doesn’t define him and he has joy knowing the Lord is with him.

You may know, there is a woman in this congregation who knows what it is to live for him: who lost her child and now lives her life serving young people to make their lives richer. While she still grieves, and will always grieve her son, she has also allowed her grief to co-exist with joy, which comes from her relationships with young people as she nurtures their faith.

We all know in many and various ways that God does not always stop bad things from happening to us. God does not always prevent evil, malice, torture, murder, sickness, or the many other causes of our grief.  Tears sometimes streak our faces and sometimes we choke on our grief.  God does not always give us what we want.

The birth of God into our lives doesn’t make our lives perfect. But the birth of God in our midst does change our lives, because we know he has come to be with us in the midst of our grief and suffering – to take it on himself and to know it completely.

Jesus Christ has been born into the world to bring a joy that is as wide and deep as the river flowing from the throne of God, where on either side of the river is the tree of life and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations…and the leaves of the tree are also surely for the healing of the children.

Jesus Christ has been born into the world to bring a love which comes from our Father, the creator, who is faithful to the promise to reveal his glory at the last.

Jesus Christ, has been born into the world to bring a life that never dies. The crucified and risen one stands at the edge of history, calling us, and the whole creation, to the place he has prepared for us, into the Father’s arms of love.

Beneath the coming and going buzz of holidays, our rising and falling enthusiasm, our comings and goings, the high festivals and low Sundays of our lives… This joy, this love, this life remain with us as our strong and secure foundation.

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