Saturday, December 27, 2008

Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Innocents
Preached at All Saints' Church - December 28, 2008

You might be wondering if I grabbed the wrong vestments this morning since we are in the midst of the Season of Christmas with its glorious color white, why would one wear red on the First Sunday after Christmas? The three days which follow Christmas contain three wonderful feast days which for the most part go unnoticed. The day following Christmas day is when we commemorate the first martyr of the church, St. Stephen – one of the seven first deacons of the church. As we read in the seventh chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, Stephen delivers one of the greatest sermons ever preached, and his reward for such an effort was his martyrdom. His sermon was an exhortation against the rulers of the temple and against those who put Jesus to death. The concluding verses contain the record of his martyrdom,

Stephen, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, and said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, and cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul. And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

St. Stephen left this world with words of forgiveness on his lips. Just as Jesus proclaimed from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” so too Stephen pleads for the forgiveness for those who are putting him to death. It was Tertullian, one of the Early Church Fathers, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” On the day after Christmas, we remember one of those very martyrs who gave his blood proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ.

December 27th is the date on the Kalendar when we remember St. John the Apostle and Evangelist. John makes up a trio with Paul and Luke who penned most of the material in the New Testament. We will hear again the glorious words of St. John at the end of the service this morning as John’s Prologue is the Final Gospel with which we are sent forth from this service. Of the twelve apostles, John is the only one who did not suffer a martyr’s death and died of old age in Ephesus around 100 A.D.

This morning we come to the third feast day following Christmas. The Feast of the Holy Innocents is perhaps one of the more disturbing records in the Biblical witness, for it of course recounts one of the darkest episodes in the life of King Herod. It also begs the question, where was God in the midst of this terrible affair?

This passage of scripture is layered with multiple meanings, and I wish to shed light on two of them this morning.

First, Matthew is quite clearly painting a picture of Jesus as the new Moses, the new Lawgiver, and of course, the true leader of God’s people from exile into freedom. If we think back to the book of Exodus, a similar situation has befallen the People of Israel. Pharoah is jealous of the Hebrew people and is concerned with their growing number. He gives a decree that all Hebrew boy children are to be executed. He plans to solve his problem by breeding the Israelites out. If there are no more Hebrew boys, there will be no way for the People of Israel to continue as a race of people. The Divine Hand of God was laid upon baby Moses as he is sent down the Nile in a basket and is discovered by the daughter of Pharoah who decides to bring the child into her own home and raise him as her son. The boy Moses grows up in a house of privilege, but this does not taint his thinking nor does he become enamored by his surroundings. After he murders an Egyptian slave master, he is forced to flee Egypt to dwell in the land of Midian. Notice that Moses fled from Egypt in order to save his life, Jesus and his family flee to Egypt in order to live. In time, Moses would of course return to Egypt to confront Pharoah in order that God’s people might be delivered from bondage and slavery, and inherit the Promised Land that God intended for them to possess.

Here we have a common link between the two stories, evil rulers in both cases are so concerned about their status, their kingdoms, their power, and control that they would both go to the most extreme measures to ensure the success of their own selfish aims. Throughout it all, God remains in control even though to us it seems like He is indifferent toward the plight of those innocent children. How cruel could God be that he would allow something like this to happen? Of course, it does appear that way if we try to impose our sense of right and wrong, our sense of what is just and right upon God whose wisdom so far surpasses anything that we can ever imagine.

This brings us to King Herod - one of the cruelest, heartless, ruthless characters in the pages of Scripture. This is the man who “thought nothing of killing members of his own family, including his own beloved wife, when he suspected them of scheming against him, and who gave orders when dying that the leading citizens of Jericho should be slaughtered so that people would be weeping at his [own] funeral.”[1] It is quite amazing when ultimate paranoia takes over the mind, the ends one might go to in order to feed the disease. Herod told the Magi to, “search diligently for the child in order that I might worship him.” Of course there was never any intention of worship in his mind because earlier we heard that when news reached Herod’s ears, “he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” When the angel appears to Joseph in a dream he relays similar words as before when he warns him that Herod is planning to, “search diligently for Jesus to destroy him.” One of the most telling parts of the story occurs in this verse and one to follow. The word that the angel uses when he speaks of Jesus being destroyed is not significant because of its infrequency in the New Testament. Quite the contrary, the word or its cognates are used over 90 times. What is significant are some of the connotations that the word invokes, most particularly, that the word speaks metaphorically of devoting or giving over to eternal misery in hell.[2] The angel is conveying to Joseph that Herod is planning on utterly destroying Jesus’ very existence so much so that he might be condemned to eternal misery in the flames of hell. Herod doesn’t just want Jesus dead, he wants the usurper of his throne done away with so that he might never deal with his like ever again. He wants this child punished because of the mere thought of his ascendancy to Herod’s throne, or that someone might condescend to think that he might be able to compete for his kingship.

This is a man possessed with the sin of pride, and it comes out even more loudly when we read of Herod’s reaction to hearing that the Magi had not followed his directions and reported Jesus’ whereabouts. In the text it says that Herod became exceeding wroth when he learned that he had been mocked by the wise men. Mockery and Pride are a volatile combination, and when mixed, usually lead to catastrophic consequences. In our lesson this morning, we clearly see the fatal nature of mixing mockery with pride. Herod is not planning on leaving any chance that the child would survive to claim his throne when he orders not only the boys of Bethlehem killed, but also those in the coast lands surrounding Bethlehem as well.

Isn’t it remarkable that this was the scene that greeted the Messiah of the world? Mary has already heard the words of Simeon in which she is told that Jesus would be responsible for the rise and fall of many in Israel and that a sword would ultimately pierce her soul.[3] Jesus couldn’t have been more than two years old, and he’s already a wanted man with a bounty on his head set by a ruthless king. Yet through it all, the name Emmanuel comes through – God with us. This is how God chose to redeem mankind, and he did so in the most incredible of fashions.

Dr. J. C. Ryle summarizes this episode with these wonderful words:

Observe how the Lord Jesus was “a man of sorrows” even from His infancy. Trouble awaits Him as soon as He enters into the world. His life is in danger from Herod’s hatred. His mother and Joseph are obliged to take Him away by night, and “flee to Egypt.” It was only a type and figure of all His experience upon earth. The waves of humiliation began to beat over Him, even when He was a sucking child.

The Lord Jesus is just the Saviour that the suffering and sorrowful need. He knows well what we mean, when we tell Him in prayer of our troubles. He can sympathize with us, when we cry to Him under cruel persecution. Let us keep nothing back from Him. Let us make Him our bosom friend. Let us pour out our hearts before him. He has had great experience with affliction.[4]

As we commemorate and remember those Holy Innocents who were murdered at the hands of a prideful man, let us remember Dr. Ryle’s words as he concludes his commentary on this passage of Scripture.

Above all, let us daily strive to copy our Saviour’s humility. Pride is the oldest and commonest of sins. Humility is the rarest and most bountiful of graces. For humility let us labor. For humility let us pray. Our knowledge may be scanty. Our faith may be weak. Our strength may be small. But if we are disciples of Him who “dwelt at Nazareth,” let us at any rate be humble.[5]

[1] N. T. Wright, Matthew For Everyone, (SPCK, London, 2004), 14.
[3] Cf. Luke 2:34-35
[4] J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: Volume 1 – Matthew, Mark, (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, 2007), 15.
[5] Ibid, 17.

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