Do not suppose that death has got the upper hand, nor that death will have the last word. For out of Egypt God has called His Son: the same Son, Jesus Christ, who has come in the flesh to bear your sins and be your Savior. He has shed His blood and died for you, and God has raised Him from the dead. Therefore, death has no power over Him; and neither does it have any power over you, who are baptized into Christ and belong to Him, now and forever.
And yet, despite all that, it would appear that death is still winning. How many examples abound! One hesitates anymore to read the news, when each new day seems to bring some new calamity. The events of the past fortnight alone have been staggering: young children gunned down in their school rooms; firefighters shot while responding to a fire, deliberately started for the purpose of luring them to their death; and Christmas shoppers randomly killed in a Portland mall.
“In the very midst of life, death has us surrounded.” And the fear of death, under its many guises, enslaves and tyrannizes you, and drives you to sin. It is at the heart of all your selfishness and greed, your covetousness and idolatry, your deception and manipulation, and both your laziness and legalism. For death has come into the world because of sin, and sin increases all the more in the fear of death. It is a vicious cycle, which erupts here and there, within and without, sometimes with cold calculation, and then again with aimless outbursts of violence.
Sometimes, like King Herod, you get angry, and you fight back and defend yourself with force; as though you were a god, with the power and authority of life and death.
At other times, like Rachel, you despair of any help or consolation; you weep and moan, refusing to be comforted; as though there were no God, no Savior, and no hope.
Such fear of death, such anger, and such inconsolable grief are all sinful and unclean, because they are contrary to faith and to the love of God.
I tell you, then, repent of your misplaced fear, of your violent temper, and of your hopeless despair.
Wait quietly and patiently upon the Lord, and rise up at His Word to do what He calls you to do. No matter how daunting, difficult, or discouraging the task at hand may be, get up and go in the hope of His grace, mercy, and peace. Precisely as St. Joseph of Nazareth does in caring for his wife and for her Son, in fleeing with them to Egypt and waiting there upon the Word of the Lord.
But, yes, about that story set before us on this day: Again it would appear that death has got the upper hand, and that everything is out of God’s control. After all, the little Lord Jesus has to be rushed away to safety in the middle of the night, while the innocent baby boys of Bethlehem are slaughtered in His wake. Where is the justice or the hope in any of this?
To point out that everything actually unfolds according to the Scriptures, seems, on the surface, only to make matters worse. For why on earth would God permit such atrocities to happen?
Why, indeed, does God permit you to suffer?
And why does God permit you to hurt and harm your neighbor?
In fact, God does respond and deal with evil, with sin and death, with fear and anger and despair. Only, He does so very differently than you would do. He is different, too, than Rachel and Herod. He does not react with force, nor retaliate with the raw unbridled power of a temper tantrum. He has no need to get “defensive,” as though He were backed into a corner and desperate for some way out. Nor does He panic and throw up His hands in frustration. He does not give up the fight.
True enough, there is a day of reckoning, a day of judgment, when God vindicates His people and punishes the sons of disobedience. He does get glory against Pharaoh and the armies of Egypt, who are drowned in the depths of the Red Sea. Herod also dies and is judged by the Lord.
But the Lord God demonstrates His almighty power over sin, death, the devil, and hell, chiefly by showing mercy to sinners, and having compassion upon them, and forgiving them all their sins. He is patient and long-suffering, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. He establishes His righteousness in the midst of the nations, not by punishment to start with, but by redemption. Else we should all be lost, completely and forever, and then there really would be no hope at all.
As it is, the Lord our God is faithful in His mercy, and He is righteous in His forgiveness of sins. Therefore, Herod’s treachery does not triumph, because death does not get the last word. Herod’s slaughter of the innocents is no less sinful and wicked on that account, but neither does it win.
God does not fail or neglect the children of Bethlehem, but He calls them to Himself and rescues them from every evil, unto the life everlasting in body and soul. Their little bodies are cruelly butchered and put to death, but God gives them rest, and He shall raise them in glory at the last.
Because the Lord Jesus does not “run away” in fear from danger and from death, but He proceeds in faith to the death of His Cross, which shall be at the time appointed by His Father in heaven. No one takes His life from Him, but He lays it down willingly when that Day and that Hour come.
Unto that purpose, He grows up — from infancy, through childhood, into adulthood — in order to redeem the entirety of human life. He lives in faith and love, from the first to the last, on His journey to the Cross. And as true Man, He learns to refuse the evil and choose the good. That is to say, He learns to live by faith in the Word of God, even in the midst of sin and death; so that He goes to His death, not as a helpless babe in His Mother’s arms, but as the Perfect Man of God.
In all of this, He does not escape the trials and tribulations of this life — which the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem are spared (though their mothers and fathers are not). But He submits Himself to every bit of the Great Tribulation: for you, and for your salvation, and for the sake of all people.
He enters Egypt, in order to rescue and redeem His Israel from Egypt: in the confidence that His God and Father will call Him forth by the new and greater Exodus of His Cross and Passion.
Not at Herod’s whim, but in fulfillment of God’s holy will, the Lord Jesus lays down His life in the hope of the Resurrection, trusting the Scriptures of the Prophets, the promise of His Father.
He thus becomes the Passover Lamb, who is slain in place of beloved Isaac, and in place of the sons of Israel, and really in place of all the children of men. He is pierced for our transgressions, wounded for our iniquities; and by His stripes we are healed. He is crucified, dead, and buried.
But now, behold, He lives! For He is raised by God to life again, which is our justification, our righteousness and holiness before God in heaven. And so does He return to His own territory, to the Right Hand of His God and Father.
Beloved of the Lord, you now follow this Lamb, Jesus, wherever He goes, so that you are with Him where He is: First of all by your Baptism into His death, and so also by the eating and the drinking of His true Passover Feast, which is His Body given and His Blood poured out for you.
So shall you be with Him forever, alive with His Spirit in body and soul, holy and righteous in the presence of His Father, residing in peace on the heavenly Mount Zion.
This is your future, and in the Resurrection of Christ Jesus, it is your sure and certain hope. Amen, Amen, it shall be so! As it was for the believing baby boys of Bethlehem when Herod put them to death, but he could not rob them of their life, which is in Christ Jesus.
To be sure, your time now under the Cross — in the wilderness to and from Egypt — is not easy; whether you must care for your neighbors in hardship and adversity, or mourn for those who die. It was neither easy for St. Joseph and the Holy Family, nor for the grieving fathers and mothers of Bethlehem. And let us not make light of the Cross that is thus borne in this poor life of labor.
But the truth remains: For Christ has died, and Christ has risen from the dead. And He has written His Name — the Name of His Father — with the sign and seal of His Cross upon your forehead.
Therefore, God also calls you out of Egypt in His Son. Indeed, you are His beloved son in Christ!
Have no fear of death, for it has been undone. Restrain your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for your sins are all forgiven. The devil, who sought your life, is defeated; he cannot harm you anymore forever. You are ransomed and redeemed by the Lord your God, and you are taught the New Song of the Lamb, who has purchased and won you with His own Blood.
Even now you sing His Song in the strength of His Resurrection, which is the surety of your own resurrection from the dead; because He has become your Salvation, evermore and evermore.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A sword in the hat is better than a foot in your mouth. All the better if it is that double-bladed sword that slices and dices between bone and marrow. But I have always liked to sort things out by thinking out loud with friends and colleagues. And since my opportunities to do so are limited, I figure I can multiply my thinking and sorting here.
Married 31 years, my wife and I have had ten children born to us (six boys, four girls); we have another son and daughter by marriage (and will soon have another daughter by marriage), a son who went ahead of us to heaven from the womb, six grandchildren and counting. I was ordained in 1996, and have been the pastor of Emmaus since then. I have a Ph.D. in Liturgical Studies from the University of Notre Dame (2003), and an S.T.M. from Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana