In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Well, are you full? Have you opened enough gifts? How many have you returned? How many have you broken? Have you put the Christmas tree on the curb yet? Are its needles dry and falling off? Do you even bother to turn on the lights anymore? In some ways, Christmas Day is like a wedding: you plan and buy and prepare for a long time, and then it’s over in a few hours. And you wonder, was that it? Did we do all that for this? But that’s the way it is with Christmas in the world: build up to it for two months and then a huge eruption of short-lived joy (or is “joy” too strong a word?). If you are not full, if you are unsatisfied (and in debt), if you haven’t found any place for the feelings that don’t fit into the hap-hap-happiest time of the year, then this is the place for you. You need the Church year and the liturgy of the Divine Service, because here Christmas has just begun. How different it is here from out in the world: to be a member of Christ’s holy Body, the Church, and to come out of Advent’s violet and blue dusk into the dawning Light of Christ! To bask for twelve days in the Light of the newborn Baby who is God Most High! To enter Epiphany on January 6th, not in the midst of a bleak midwinter, but with the full and physical assurance of the Light that shines in the darkness and reveals all the goodness of God, even to us! If in your Christmas celebration you had more than enough presents; if you’ve eaten more than enough cookies; if all of your family was together—if you did all of that and something is still lacking, then join the celebration here. Here, December 25 is not the end, but the beginning.
Let this be the beginning, then. No matter how many times you have been through the Church year—whether one or 90—there is always more for the Holy Spirit to put into your ears and your heart; more for Him to use to conform your life to the life of Christ. This is all for you, because Christ is the life of the Church, and the life of the Church is the life of each of her members. We are only ever scratching the surface of the mystery of our salvation. On the few Sunday mornings each year, plus other festivals, we barely even touch what God accomplished in the time of the Old Testament to prepare the world for the coming of His Son. Which of us has traced fully the ways of our God? Which of us even knows how to trace His ways? A thousand lifetimes would not be enough for us to open and unfold and discover and “comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:18-19, ESV). But for however long our lives last on this earth, we move, year by year, through the cycle of the Church’s calendar. In order to help us do that, those who have gone before us have built up the Church year around one primary fact: Jesus Christ, crucified, dead, and buried, has risen again. The Resurrection of our Lord, including the two days prior, is the holiest day of the year because it is the basis of our every hope and expectation. Every Sunday is a little Easter as Christ gives us His resurrection life in His Body and Blood. But in order for Christ to live and die and rise and give us His Body and Blood, He first had to have a human body, with human blood running through His veins. And so the Nativity, the Birth, of our Lord is a close second to His Resurrection. We go through this cycle year after year, generation after generation, proclaiming His birth, death, and resurrection to the whole world until He returns. But though the cycle is the same, we always go deeper, always further up and further in to this great mystery of God uniting Himself to us so that we can forever be united with Him.
But don’t just take my word for it; whatever the Church year or the liturgy has meant to you in the past, I challenge you to follow it through this year for yourself. Prepare yourself: read the appointed readings before the next Sunday; see what prayers and Psalms are assigned to the day or season; sing or read or listen to the hymns ahead of time; follow Christ from promise to fulfillment, from prophecy to birth, from birth through life, from life to death and back to life again; from Resurrection to Ascension, to the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, and into the mystery of the Trinity and the work of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in and through you. That is simply what it means to be a Christian, as we live in that story, confessing and being forgiven, rejoicing as one, mourning as one, being strengthened and encouraged and prepared for the end of the day, the end of our life, and the end of the world.
Today, the Church has seen fit to remember the Holy Innocents, those children under the age of two whose lives were taken by an order from Herod. They are innocent not because they are sinless, but because they posed no threat to Herod—except the possibility that one of them could be the newborn King of the Jews. Today, this text from Matthew 2 begins to take us deeper into the mystery of the full salvation of Jesus. In Matthew 12, when the Pharisees want to destroy Jesus, Jesus withdraws from there (12:14). But here, the angel tells Joseph to withdraw from Bethlehem with the Child and His mother, because Herod wants to destroy Jesus. Here Jesus is helpless to save Himself. But the irony is that Herod is helpless to prevent God’s Son from carrying out God’s will for salvation. The king who appears to have all the power cannot rid the world of her true King; and the One who appears as a helpless child is, in fact, the powerful one who will save His people from their sins. Even with the promise that the Messiah was born, Herod tries to destroy Him. Likewise, the leaders of Israel later refuse to believe the promises and so conspire to destroy Jesus. Unbelief, like the murder of children, like the crucifixion of the Son of God, cannot be explained; these things are just what sinners do when confronted with the holiness of God. Jesus’ existence in this world doesn’t cause Herod to put the toddlers of Bethlehem to the sword. But behind Herod’s earthly actions is the wrath of the dragon called the devil and Satan, who stands before the woman as she is about to give birth, in order to devour the child (Revelation 12:4). Likewise, Jesus’ existence in this world doesn’t cause those who hate Him to attempt to destroy His disciples. But behind persecutors’ earthly actions is the warfare of the dragon against those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus (Revelation 12:17). This account is a reminder to us that the birth of Jesus into this world is not sealed off from the way things tend to go when the light shines in the darkness. Within months of His birth, the violence of bloodshed follows. Jesus alone escapes, it seems. But why should He escape? Why does God allow death early in the lives of those children of Bethlehem, but He warns Joseph in a dream to take His Son to Egypt? He does not tell us.
But He has not ignored the weeping of those mothers, in the figure of Rachel, the wife of Israel. What God said to Israel through the mouth of Jeremiah is about to be fulfilled: Thus says Yahweh: “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work, declares [Yahweh], and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future, declares [Yahweh], and your children shall come back to their own country” (Jeremiah 31:16-17). The sort of thing that happens as a result of Herod’s paranoia and jealousy happens all the time on a greater or a lesser scale. Whether it is the millions of children slaughtered by abortionists’ knives, or the single child lost to miscarriage or sickness, this entire creation is covered in darkness and death, weeping and mourning. The soldiers of death were instruments of the evil one long before Herod gave the order, and they are still with us. The slavery of sin, the consequences of which are always death, is never far from us in this world. You know it; you’ve experienced it; and where is your comfort? It isn’t in pretending that we live in some other world than the world of Herod and of crosses and of tragic death. Your comfort, and the comfort of those whose family members have died, and the comfort of those who will yet die is only in this: that the child who escaped the sword in those early days because Joseph carried Him to Egypt; and the man who withdrew from the Pharisees who wanted to destroy Him; is the same man whose time eventually did come, and who refused to withdraw from the cross when the crowds were persuaded to ask for Barabbas, and have Jesus destroyed.
Now, the reversal is complete: while He once escaped and those children were killed because of Him; now He is killed because of all the children of Adam, and we escape. We go free, every last one of us. He did not forget Israel enslaved in Egypt; in fact, it was through a very similar deliverance of a single baby, Moses, as other baby boys were being killed, that God delivered Israel then. Nor did He did not forget Israel in Assyria or Babylon, and He has not forgotten us who live in darkness and in the land of the shadow of death. For you a light has dawned; the Reign of the Heavens is at hand. Though death seems to have the last word, Jesus reverses death in His own resurrection. Now it is life that spreads from Bethlehem and Nazareth and Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. Let this world’s tyrant rage; his might is doomed to fail. Though life itself be wrenched away, death and hell cannot win the day. The Kingdom is ours forever! There is hope for your future for this single reason: God’s eternal Son in flesh has done what His Son Israel and the whole race of Adam did not do: follow the Father faithfully. God called Israel out of Egypt so that He could preserve the line of His Son in the flesh; then He called His Son out of Egypt, so that He could call us His sons. This is the story that we will hear throughout this coming year: a year of joy in the midst of sorrow, of hope in the midst of grief, of peace in the midst of chaos, and of life in the midst of death. So stay tuned as you wait, and watch, and worship. The Lord of life will indeed bring you, His children, back from the land of the enemy, and into your own eternal country.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/24/14