The Holy Innocents, Martyrs – Matthew 2:13-18

With thanks to The Rev. Dr. Norman Nagel for much of what follows. Soli Deo Gloria!

Amid all the joy of Christmas, there is a reality check today. Not long after the birth of Jesus according to the flesh, King Herod trembles for his throne. He has heard of a pretender king named Jesus somewhere in Bethlehem. The way you deal with a pretender king is to kill him. Since you know he’s out there somewhere, but you don’t know exactly where, you might as well cover all your bases. Herod sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.

These children murdered by Herod were the first to lose their lives for Mary’s baby. The church has sung of them for more than 1,500 years as “sweet flowerets of the martyr band”, as we did in the Chief Hymn. We have been so calloused by the statistics of death pouring from Chicago, Saint Louis, and other places, that we don’t think much about this incident at all. Bethlehem was a small town. There probably weren’t too many male babies under two years old. Some historians have already begun to rehabilitate Herod by saying he is innocent of the murder of the Innocents.

Each mother in Bethlehem bore the whole weight of the loss of her child that she loved. If you’ve been to a wake of an infant or a young child, you know the weight of the loss. Perhaps you have borne that weight yourself. You walk through the receiving line, offer your condolences, and leave. You might think of the family from time to time, but their loss doesn’t affect you as if it was your loss. Tears are not enough for them. Tears are not enough for the Holy Innocents either.

There’s no point to commemorate the Holy Innocents if we merely feel sorry for the children and the parents. There’s something far more sinister at work here. You see this clearly with King Herod. Herod loved Herod. He wanted to be big and powerful. He would stop at nothing to protect his livelihood, even if it meant killing innocent children.

See yourself in King Herod. You put yourself first. Everyone else comes second. Herod has the power to subordinate people to himself. Most sinners don’t have that much power. Yet the basic principle of sin remains the same, though its expression may be limited. When people get in our way, we may not have Herod’s sword, but we do know how to get rid of them.

Granted you may not be King Herod, but you certainly are as hideous a sinner as he was. If sin is only what hurts my neighbor, then it’s not really a problem. I can do what I want as long as others aren’t hurt. That’s the way of the world these days. That’s also pure rebellion against God because it excludes God. We become god instead. You can’t push almighty God like that and get away with it.

When Herod killed those children, he was doing fearful damage to them, to their parents, to himself, and toward God. In each baby that Herod killed, he was guilty of killing Jesus. Herod intended to get rid of Jesus. He killed many more children than necessary. Therefore Herod is guilty of doing away with creatures of God. So he does away with God by doing away with them. Consider also that God is born a man in Bethlehem. God became each one of them and of us. After Jesus takes on flesh it is clear that to harm or damage any person is to harm and damage Jesus. Because He became each one of us, what we do to one another is done to Him.

So why doesn’t God put a stop to it? Why not run interference on Herod and not allow such a travesty? If God is an almighty and loving God, why did He let those babies perish by the sword of Herod? Why does He let innocent children today be slaughtered in their mother’s womb not only in our country, but all over the world?

What happened in a stable in Bethlehem gives the answer. God could have come with a vulgar display of power and slain Herod and all like him. But if he slaughters everyone prepared to put themselves first, there wouldn’t be one of us left. God comes in the way of love. God comes in the way of knowing that we are not made better by force. Force deals with the outside of a person. When God came to save us from sin, He used love instead of force. He used love that brought Him to a stable and to a cross.

Jesus did not put Himself first. He was there for us. His whole life was love, a love that fulfilled the will of God. He lived the life expected of us. He died the death that was coming to us for our sin. Sin is overthrown and answered for in Jesus. In Him alone is there victory over sin.

God could have done away with sin by a proclamation from on high, or even by brute force. Instead He sends His Son to suffer and die for sin. He sends His Son on a journey to Egypt to flee a mass murderer wanting to keep his earthly throne. The Child Jesus returns from Egypt to Nazareth, grows up like any other child except without sin, and begins His ministry to pay for your sin and rise triumphant over death and hell.

Remember those Holy Innocents as you bask in the Savior’s birth. Jesus died for them as well, for they were sinners in need of a Savior as you are. The murdered children of Bethlehem proclaim Jesus is Lord with their blood. Where there is blood, there is life. Because Jesus lives, you live, even if you never shed blood for Him. They, and you, are witnesses that God has arrived to put an end to death forever. Believe it for Jesus’ sake.

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