Holy Innocents Sermon (1997)

The Holy Innocents, Martyrs
Texts: Matthew 2:13-18;
Jer 31:15-17; 1 Peter 4:12-19


How did these lessons get assigned only three days after Christmas?! Not exactly in the festive, holiday mood, are they? Sure, this story about Herod killing the innocent children of Bethlehem follows immediately after St. Matthew’s Christmas story. But we could still choose to skip it, right? And I must confess that I was tempted to skip it for another set of lessons.

But something was nagging at me to hold onto these lessons. I think maybe it was my conviction that the Christian faith answers even the toughest of questions, like the mystery of the suffering of children. Oh, it may sometimes answer mysteries with other mysteries — certainly not quite the kind of answers one expects in math or chemistry class.

The clincher came Wednesday morning as I read the newspaper. Award winning sports columnist, Mitch Albom, chose Christmas Eve morning to begin a series of columns on heartbreaks and hopes of unsung Detroit area athletes. Mitch writes for the Detroit Free Press, and he started this series off with the heartbreak, a story of a young high school football star who was murdered this fall in Detroit. Published on the eve of Christmas, his impassioned plea was that we need to care deeply about what is happening to our children, all of our children.

And it hit me that this is what Christmas is truly all about. We often say that Christmas is especially for children. As we say that, I think we are usually picturing the smiles on our kids faces as they open presents. But what about the children with no smiles on Christmas? We can ask ourselves: is Christmas just for our children, or for all the children? It seems to me that St. Matthew’s story about the children of Bethlehem means for us to lovingly consider all the children at Christmas time. And that’s what I’d like for us to do this morning.

Let me begin with a few brief excerpts from Mitch Albom’s column. He writes:

His 17th birthday was held in a cemetery. His family, friends and teammates gathered on a cold October afternoon with gifts, balloons, even a cake. … And as the skies darkened, they sang a soft rendition of “Happy Birthday.” They sang it to a tombstone.

Let’s talk about a neighborhood where nobody walks home from school anymore, where metal detectors are at the school doors, where nearly every student has a gun or knows where to get one. Let’s talk about a neighborhood where a young football player named Kenny Baumgart, the son of two cops, took a bullet through the lung from a kid he didn’t even know, over an argument that nobody can even remember. It happened in the school parking lot. Several shots were fired. People screamed. Next thing you knew, his older brother was carrying Kenny’s limp and bleeding body into Holy Cross Hospital, yelling, “Somebody help me, my brother’s been shot….”

Let’s talk about a neighborhood that is not in the Middle East, not in the Wild West, but is right here, in your hometown [of Detroit], just a bullet trajectory across Eight Mile Road, the invisible border that separates Detroit’s city from Detroit’s suburbs — and, for many people, [the border that separates] caring from not caring.

That has to stop. We all need to care…

Albom goes on to movingly share more of the details of Kenny Baumgart’s life, and of his death. He also describes more of the violent situation that our children find themselves in, such as the fact that “Fifty-three teens … were murdered in Detroit last year.”

And finally he ends with these words:

Darrell Hagerman [Kenny’s murderer] was convicted of second-degree murder. He cried at the verdict. Kenny Baumgart was buried in his Pershing [High School] football jersey. To this day, some people say he was simply in the wrong place. The problem is, it’s all the wrong place, isn’t it? A school is no place for a gun, a cemetery is no place for a birthday party, and these streets are no place for our children. The question isn’t what side of Eight Mile Road do they live on. The question is: Are we going to save them, or aren’t we?

St. Matthew would have us ask a different question, of course. It’s not as much a matter if we will save the children — though we certainly have our part to play — as much as it is a matter if Jesus will save them. When Matthew tells this story of the slaughter of the innocents, the question becomes: Is Jesus going to save them, or isn’t he?

Two thousand years later, this is still an important question for us: Is Jesus going to save them, or isn’t he? Can Jesus save our children from the slaughter? Things haven’t gotten any better, have they?

But let’s not get into all the gory details today. It is Christmas, after all. And Christmas is for the children. All of the children. I wanted to at least raise these issues this morning to capture what’s at stake with our Christmas celebration — namely, that when we say all the children, it includes those innocents of Bethlehem and of all the times and places where children suffer and die tragically.

“How can that be?” we ask. And it is certainly always a risk to ask such a huge, troubling question, one that takes perhaps a lifetime and then our face-to-face meeting with God to ultimately answer. We can’t sew up every last detail of an answer this morning, that’s for certain. I can only invite you again to join me in Bible Study after the first of the year, where we can seek some answers of faith together in sharing and dialogue. In the meantime, let me suggest one specific goal for our ministry and then close by moving back into the liturgy.

We arrive at that possible goal for our ministry by understanding again the Cross as it relates to this text and to the questions we raised about children. Perhaps the most pithy statement about the Cross is found in Col. 2:5, where it says that “Jesus disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.”

The cross makes it clear why suffering continues for now: namely, because God refuses to use violent means to stop the violence that causes suffering. In fact, that’s precisely our problem. We do use violent means. The “rulers and authorities” that Jesus made an example of on the cross are those people we count on to use counter-violence against the violence. A king like Herod had soldiers to help keep the peace, to help stop criminals from making victims of the law-abiding citizens. But Herod also used those same soldiers to murder the babies of Bethlehem. On the cross, Jesus would reveal the flaw to our entire social order: you simply cannot use violent means to stop violence, if we ever want the violence to ultimately come to an end. So, instead, Jesus suffered the violence to make an example of it, that we might one day see the light.

What does this mean for living in the meantime? What does this mean for our ministry, our ministry to youth, for example. Consider the new juvenile prison on Memorial Drive for a moment. This is our usual way of using violent means to stop the violence. Perhaps the State still needs to do that, I don’t know. I’m one of those who wishes the State would use a bit more money for programs to help keep youth off the streets and out of trouble instead of spending lots of money to house them in a facility like the one on Memorial. But, whatever, we as people of faith can seek those other ways. And in the last several weeks we’ve begun to do so.

And now to close by moving back into the liturgy, using the beautiful liturgy of the Book of Revelation. Our Christian answer all begins with Easter, as Jesus is raised from the dead as a promise from God that such suffering and death is not in vain. God can bring New Life even out of such terrible suffering. And the Resurrection also holds out the promise that someday the suffering and death will come to an end. The Book of Revelation paints that wonderful picture for us when he says — and think of all the holy innocents as I read this:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. … Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, … “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb…. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; … for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 7:9, 13-14, 16-17)

Yes, all the children who have suffered and died will be among those who have come through the ordeal and stand before the throne of God, with white robes washed clean by the blood of the Jesus, the Lamb of God. That’s the promise of Easter.

In the meantime, what we’ve done this morning is to make it clear what’s at stake at Christmas time. Yes, Christmas is for children. It is for all the children. In fact, Christmas is for all God’s children, which means you and me, too. It is a word of hope and promise that Jesus came to save us and that one day we will be among that multitude…. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, December 27-28, 1997

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