Summary: This soon after celebrating Christmas we read the account of Herod’s slaughter of Bethlehem’s baby boys. What does this tragic story mean for us today?
The Holy Innocents
Matthew 2: 1-18
December 28, 2003
Two weeks ago on my drive to church, the radio broadcast some spectacular news. I had to double check the dial to make sure this wasn’t some early morning comedian telling a joke. Nope, it was NPR, and yes it seemed what they were broadcasting was true, Saddam Hussein had been captured! This was great news! I went to Pastor Poppe’s office and asked him if he had heard the news that morning. He said he had. Saddam Hussein really had been caught! I couldn’t believe it. Later that night on the local news channel there were interviews with Army officials who provided the juicy details of the capture, and political pundits offering their takes on what this might mean for our President. But the most poignant story that night was the interview with some Iraqi people who now live here in Lincoln. Amidst the joy and celebration there were tears and mourning. Many of these people had lived in Iraq under the heavy hand of Saddam’s regime. They had lost family members and loved ones to this murderous tyrant. It was a time for celebration, tempered with the sad memories of those who had been lost. An evil man had been overthrown, but that could not bring back to life their parents, their children, or their friends.
Three days ago we celebrated the joyous holiday of Christmas! We sang songs like, “Joy to the World”, we echoed the joyous strains of the angels in “Angels We Have Heard on High”, and with all the faithful we were joyful and triumphant as we sang, “O Come All Ye Faithful”. Even the secular world around us could not escape the infectious joy of the season. People seemed more upbeat. Smiles were shared with abandon, as were the greetings of “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays”. In our society, Christmas is expected to be a time of happiness and laughter, a time for merriment and good cheer, a time for blocking out--at least temporarily--all the unpleasant and painful aspects of life.
But here we are 3 days later, and the Gospel lesson reports one of the most tragic events of the first century. Every year, December 28 is set aside as the Commemoration of the Holy Innocents. If there is any event in the Bible that could be further removed from an upbeat, cheerful holiday mood, I don’t know what it is. Herod’s slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem is a singularly horrifying, brutal, and tragic story. Yet it comes hard on the heels of Christmas every year.
Our Gospel lesson today tells us everything we need to know about Herod’s slaughter of the Holy Innocents.
The background to this story is familiar enough. Matthew 2:1-2
“After Jesus is born in Bethlehem, during the days of King Herod, wise men from the east come to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is he who is born king of the Jews? We have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
King Herod hears this, and this is not the kind of stuff he likes to hear. “Another king of the Jews? What about me? Where would that leave me? I’m the only king around here. I’m not going to let some little upstart challenging me for my throne.” But Herod is a sly and crafty old crook. He’s not going to come right out and tell the wise men all this. That would scare them off. No, Herod wants the wise men to lead him right to the little king.
We see Herod’s strategy in Matthew 2:4-8,
“When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born."In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written:
"’But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’"
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him."
Of course this is a lie. Herod doesn’t want to worship the newborn King, he wants to wipe Him out. The wise men are warned in a dream not to go back to Herod and they don’t. So Herod gets stood up, and he doesn’t like that very much. Herod has no idea which of the baby boys in Bethlehem is the One. So just to make sure he gets the right one, Herod hands down a death sentence to of all of them--all the baby boys in Bethlehem, up to two years old.