Sermon for the Sunday after New Year
Isaiah 42:1-9 + 1 Peter 4:12-19 + Matthew 2:13-23
The hymn we just sang (TLH #115 – O Blessed Day When First Was Poured) was about the circumcision of Christ, on the eighth day of Christmas, January 1st, the first blood shed by our Savior and the first reminder that Jesus did not come to escape our pain and suffering, but to embrace it as His own. Even so, the pain that accompanied circumcision was minor compared to the joy and celebration that also accompanied it; another son was added to Israel, another offspring of Abraham—in fact, THE offspring of Abraham who was the true heir to the throne of Israel and to the Old Testament itself. God had kept His promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. So pain was accompanied by joy for the holy family. And blood was mixed with hope—not unlike the birth of a child. Both cross and comfort accompany Christmas.
That theme is pursued even further in today’s Gospel, where we hear of the horrific massacre of the little boys of Bethlehem—the Holy Innocents, as they’re sometimes called, slaughtered by that monster, King Herod, not to mention the fear of the holy family as they got up in the middle of the night and fled to a foreign country, to Egypt, to escape the massacre. All of which is tempered by the joy and comfort of seeing God’s hand, guiding the events in this story, protecting the Christ-Child and keeping Him safe from harm, for now, so that the Child could grow up and die a “proper” death, on a cross, for the sins of the world.
We’re confronted here with the stark reality of who God is and how He governs the affairs of man. He is not the God who prevents Herod from carrying out his massacre. He is not the God who always steps in and spares the innocent from suffering. Sometimes He does. But not always. He is the God who sometimes allows wicked men to carry out their wicked plans, and who, in most cases, does not tell us the reason why.
What do we know about this case as it’s laid out in today’s Gospel?
First, we know that God foresaw this event, even as He foresees all that happens in our universe, every event, every decision, every act by every man. We’re told specifically that the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem was prophesied by the prophet Jeremiah. God knew ahead of time what Herod would do.
Second, we know that, although God knew what King Herod would do, the one responsible for the wicked slaughter of Bethlehem’s children was King Herod and he alone. The wise men were not to blame. Jesus, Mary and Joseph were not to blame. And God did not wish for it to happen, nor did God intervene in human history to cause it happen, to make Herod do what he did. Wicked King Herod alone, spurred on by the devil, of course, was responsible. He alone is to blame. He caused it to happen, by his own wicked will, together with the soldiers who carried out his wicked orders.
And third, we know that God not only foresaw, not only allowed, but also caused to happen the holy family’s flight to Egypt, and the preservation of His Son there, and the return to Israel, to the city of Nazareth after Herod’s death, as prophesied in Holy Scripture. God foresaw the protection of His Son and He also intervened in human history to make it happen. He sent His angel to Joseph three times to warn Joseph and to guide him, to see to it that he would protect Jesus. Not only that, but, as we’ll hear this coming Wednesday in our Epiphany service, God saw to it that the star of Bethlehem would guide the wise men to where Jesus was, which, on the one hand, so that Jesus might the gifts of the wise men which would pay for the expenses of their flight to Egypt. And God also saw to it that King Herod would die an excruciating death not too long after the holy family fled to Egypt, ensuring that Israel would again be a safe place for God’s Son to live.
Those are the facts of the story.
Now, some people would say that, since God is omnipotent and the sovereign Ruler over all things, He could have intervened to stop Herod from slaughtering those little children, and therefore, God is ultimately to blame for Herod’s massacre, that God is at fault.
The truth is, it’s very easy to blame God for everything that goes wrong in this world, isn’t it? Because He could step in and prevent it from happening, right? But God’s sovereignty is really just a convenient excuse for the real cause of human pain and suffering and death. That cause is human beings, including you and me.
God didn’t intervene to stop Herod, just as He practically never intervenes to stop people from dying of old age. Why? Couldn’t God stop it? Couldn’t God give us a fountain of youth and a cure for every disease? Of course He could. In fact, He did. It grew in the Garden of Eden. It was called “the Tree of Life.” But He took it away from our race when our parents, Adam and Eve, sinned, just as He warned them ahead of time He would do. But they sinned anyway. So God’s reason for allowing death by old age is the same reason for which He allows all the pain and suffering that men endure, including wicked men who carry out their wicked will and bring harm to others, even to God’s believing children: mankind is under a curse.
Do we deserve our curse? Yes, we do. Even little children? Yes, they do. Couldn’t God remove the curse from mankind? Well, yes, He could. But there’s only way in which He could do it. By sending His Son into this world and making Him a curse for us. As St. Paul writes to the Galatians, Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”), that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. The blessing of Abraham, when God said to him: in your Seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed. That’s what we celebrate at Christmas, isn’t it?, and at the circumcision of Christ, and also in the flight of the holy family to Egypt: the unfolding of God’s plan to send His Son into the world to remove our curse from us and to bring the blessing of salvation to us through His death on the cross.
Christ suffered for our sins and has removed God’s curse from all who believe in Him. He hasn’t yet removed us from this world with its curse or freed us from the outward effects of that curse. But He has forgiven us our sins and given us eternal life in Christ, so that, no matter what bad things happen to us in this world, they are temporary hardships and crosses for us to bear, but they are not permanent, and they are not punishments from an angry God. Even death is not final. There’s the comfort that accompanies the cross.
And soon God will completely and permanently remove the curse of sin and death from all who believe in Christ. Soon God will intervene to stop all the wicked men who seek to bring us harm, and they will not only be stopped. They will be judged and condemned. Soon. Not yet, but soon. There’s the comfort that accompanies the cross.
Even now, God reigns over human history. He preserves and protects, directs and defends us, and sometimes He intervenes even now, not always allowing wicked men to get away with their schemes. Sometimes He intervenes with punishment for the wicked and with miraculous deliverance for the godly. We have the assurance from Holy Scripture that all things must work together for our good, and that the sovereign God will not allow anything or anyone to harm us beyond the limits set by His wisdom and by His fatherly will, as He demonstrated in the deliverance of the Christ-Child from Herod’s wicked hand.
The Christian celebration of Christmas is neither shallow nor cutesy, like the world’s pretend celebration of Christmas. We don’t ignore the reality of pain and sorrow and suffering in this season when we celebrate the birth of Christ. On the contrary, we know very well that the cross accompanies Christmas. But pain is accompanied by joy. And blood is mixed with hope. Both cross and comfort accompany Christmas. And so, as St. Peter says, we rejoice to the extent that we partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, we may also be glad with exceeding joy. Amen.