Peace Lutheran Church, Hastings, Nebraska (First Sunday after Christmas)
IN NOMINE JESU
It's hard to believe that the celebration of the birth of the Christ Child has already taken place, already three days ago. It also does not seem possible that we are four days away from entering the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand Nine. This final week of the calendar year is always a most interesting one. Often we reflect on the past year, as well as the Christmas just celebrated. So let us give some thought to the events of Christmas Day. Do you remember where you were that day? Do you recall if you attended Divine Service that day? Can you think of whether you visited or hosted people or both? Are you able to recollect what gifts you received that day—and from whom? Do you remember the Christmas story—not the one with a sleigh but with a manger? We have heard the story, often told in Christmas programs and on Christmas Eve. We recall the birth of the Savior, who lay in a manger because there was no room in the inn. What is not so easy for us to relate is the outrage and hatred that would later ensue by way of an ultra-paranoid tyrant named Herod the Great.
It is easy for us to overlook the martyrdom, the murder, of these innocent infant boys. As we look to the Scriptures, we do not see a lot of information about them. Yet, had the Holy Spirit deemed the details to be important, He would have inspired St. Matthew or someone else to give us more information. We don't know who these babes or their parents were. We know nothing of the social standings of their respective families. We do not know even how they were killed or how many of them in number perished. We can be certain that, in that little town of Bethlehem, the number of babies slaughtered would be relatively low. However, that low number by no means diminishes the treachery of Herod's decree or the murders committed by his Roman soldiers. This martyrdom of the Holy Innocents is indeed the forgotten Christmas story. Also easily lost is why these baby boys are called martyrs. Their blood was shed—poured out—on account of Jesus. That is why the liturgical color for this day is red. They had not done or said anything to anger anyone, but Herod, out of his paranoia over this infant King and his fury over being tricked by the Wise Men and their going home by a different route after receiving a divine vision to do so, demanded that blood be shed at the expense of these infant boys. It is a most gruesome account in our text, and for that reason many of us choose to make this the forgotten Christmas story. However, theirs is a story that must be told.
You see, we like to keep the story nice and neat, like the nativity scene. All is calm, and all is bright, and we like to keep it that way. The mere thought of babies being killed on account of Jesus we find repulsive, as we should. That is not to say, though, that we ought to ignore this account completely because it needs to be told; it needs to be remembered. We also think of martyrdoms in terms of events happening centuries ago to people we have never seen. Such was the case two days ago, as the Church remembered the martyrdom of St. Stephen, a first-century deacon and the first martyr of the Church. We fail to realize, due largely to a lack of media reporting, that many people around the world today, children included, are perishing on account of Christ and the Gospel. And as long as someone else's blood is shed, our hands are clean—or are they?
King David wanted to build a temple for God, but the Lord said no, on account of the blood on David's hands from wars waged and the murder of his lover's husband. King Herod had blood on his hands from all the people he had executed, including one of his own sons. But what about us? As a society we have permitted nearly 50 million babies to be killed before exiting their mothers' wombs. We have neglected the elderly among us, and many of them die alone. How often have we ignored the poor and needy among us, as if we echoed the words of James: "If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,' but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead" (Jas. 2:15-17). By ignoring those who are perishing and not loving them as Christ has loved us, we share in the guilt, and through our willful ignorance of their plight, their blood is on our hands.
Also on our hands is even more blood, the blood of Christ, the One whose birth we just celebrated. The blood of the Babe of Bethlehem is on our hands on account of our sins…and His dying for them. You see, it is our sins—sins of commission and sins of omission—that put Christ on the cross. It was there on the cross that Jesus shed His blood—for you. His blood is not just on our hands; it is all over us, for we have been covered in the blood of Christ shed for us. His blood is our atonement cover. This is literally our cry in the Kyrie: Lord, have mercy upon us. More accurately, we are crying out, "Lord, be our Atonement Cover for us!" He covers us with His own blood so that, when our heavenly Father looks upon us in judgment, He sees not our sins but the blood of His only-begotten Son. The shedding of blood has been crucial to the spiritual well-being of the people of God for thousands of years. Even in prescribing the liturgy of the Tent of Meeting, the Lord said, "the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul" (Lev. 17:11). In the liturgy that is the Lord's Supper, our Lord says to us, "Take, drink; this cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins." Our Lord also says to us, "Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day" (Jn. 6:54).
Even as the blood of the Holy Innocents was shed for the life of the Christ child, His blood was shed for us, that we would have life in Him who is the Resurrection and the Life. This blood, along with His body, is our Savior's gift to us this day, a gift we get to receive in a few moments in the Divine Service, thanks be to God!
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
SOLI DEO GLORIA
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