Two years ago, the Gospel text was the story of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents by King Herod, the same as for the Feast day today. Here is my sermon for that text, offered as a possible help in your meditation on the meaning of this Feast, and that true text of terror. May all the holy innocents in our world, especially those waiting to be born, never be forgotten or abandoned by those who claim salvation in the name of the One truly innocent one who bore our sins upon the cross.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In an odd twist of the calendar, we are hearing the end of the story first this Sunday, and won’t get the first half of the story until next week. That’s because January 6th, the date of the Feast of the Epiphany, falls on a Sunday, next Sunday, and then you will hear the story of the Wise Men following the star to seek the newborn king. This week, we get the aftermath of that adventure, the part of the story when Herod uses his power to act out in rage, eliminating any and all who would threaten his right to rule in Judea.
In a week in which the assassination of Benazir Bhutto of pakistan has filled the headlines and news-blogs, we recognize the temptation to remove rivals to power by force and violence. Herod is enraged. When the Magi come to Jerusalem, they ask where is the King of the Jews. The answer should be obvious: Herod is the King of the Jews. When it becomes known that there is another claimant to Herod’s position, he has only one thought, one response: get rid of the threat. And if the threat is an infant, a helpless child? So much the better: eliminate him before he can grow up and cause real trouble.
This part of the story of Jesus’ birth is usually presented as an add-on. In fact, people often react with anger when this story is brought up during the Christmas season. “Why do we have to listen to this? Don’t we get enough of this kind of blood and gore out there? Please don’t spoil Christmas with this awful story.” And I can understand that reaction, those feelings. Christmas is a time when we want to feel good, if only for a little while. Our nativity sets make such a pretty picture; can’t we be allowed to enjoy it without this ugly story crashing in and spoiling things?
But this story is not an add-on, a diversion. This is the center of the story of Jesus’ birth, of why he came and why it so important that we know that this child is Emmanuel, God with us. He is the sign that will be spoken and acted against. He is the stumbling block that convicts the world of sin. He is the one that strikes fear in the hearts of all those, Herod and us, that want to keep life safely under control and our situation one that is stable and supports our want s and our ambitions.
Herod is afraid of the baby in Bethlehem because this baby threatens Herod’s ability to go on being king. But don’t we all want to keep on being king too? We want to be king in our own little kingdoms: our lives, our plans, our futures. What wouldn’t we do to ensure that our plans will be carried out just the way we want, that our lifestyles will continue to develop in the way we are counting on? It isn’t that we can’t cope with changes that life brings, but we all know there is change, and then there is CHANGE. Our resistance, our deceptions, our manipulations in order to remain in charge and avoid changes that would take that away from us is the stuff of every television drama, of every book and movie plot.
I was reading recently the story of a family, a husband and wife and their two daughters, who had been driving home from a day spent together on a clear August evening in the Twin Cities, when their lives literally were turned upside down when the 35W bridge collapsed. The mother nearly died, all were injured. They are recovering physically, but their lives will never be the same. The plans they had, for that week, for the coming year, were all brushed away. I read of their feelings of being helpless in the face of events that they had never even imagined.
That family had no choice: the bridge collapse was an event they could not foresee or change. But sometimes we are given a choice on how we will handle an unexpected challenge. An pregnancy occurs: the time isn’t right, the situation isn’t right, maybe the marriage is rocky, maybe the expectant parents aren’t married, maybe they’re too young, maybe they’re too old. What to do: take responsibility, even in the face of a situation that isn’t what anyone wanted, or decide to sweep this inconvenient, threatening child away? Or we see a child, not our own, we don’t know this child very well, but the child shows signs of neglect, of not being cared for very well, or perhaps there are even signs that the child is being struck or abused. It is so much easier to not do anything, to figure someone else will react, that it is too complicated and inconvenient to make a fuss, and look what trouble we’ll get into, can’t we just leave things alone? Or we know a friend has been drinking too much, they really shouldn’t get behind the wheel when it is time to leave the party, but it will cause a scene to take the car keys away, and it will make real trouble if you call his parents, and so rather than run the risk of getting him mad you do nothing.
Like Herod, our fears can cause us to do nothing, or to do the wrong thing, that has real, permanent consequences on the life of another. Even the consequence of death. Can the presence of Jesus, God with us, in our lives, in our world, make a difference for us? Can he change us into people who will take risks to help and save others? Can he find a way to bring us forgiveness, even when we have let our fears lead us into hurting or neglecting someone else? I believe he can, and he does. He is our savior in all our distress, in his love and in his pity he redeems us. May his grace give us forgiveness in all our sins and failures; may his presence lead us in following him, and in choosing to care for others as he has taught us, casting our fears on him. Amen.