“A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this observance of Holy Innocents comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the second chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ: Rachel is weeping. She weeps this day, so soon after the rejoicing of Christmas. The angels have departed, the shepherds have come and gone back to their flocks, the Magi have returned by another route. Even the holy family has fled. The nativity scene is empty, and all that remains is Rachel, weeping. She weeps for her children, young and tender, the toddlers and infants of Bethlehem. She weeps for her children, who have yet to take a breath, the unborn of a nation. She weeps for those innocent of any crime, yet struck down in cruel violence. In the evening, they rest safe in their cradles, safe in the womb, the safest places any child should be; in the morning, the cradle is empty and so is the womb, but the graves are full. She weeps, for her children have become martyrs, witnesses, not like the great martyrs in the centuries of the Church, who bore witness by confessing the faith, but martyrs, witnesses still. They witness not by their words but by their death, and Rachel weeps. She refuses to be comforted, for her children are no more.
They have paid the ultimate price as a witness, a witness to the reality of evil in this world. She weeps, for Rachel’s children have given a witness to the world of man’s hatred of God. She weeps, for her children witness to the rejection of the Messiah. Her children die because this world hates Jesus, because Herod hates Jesus. The cute baby in a manger, adored by the shepherds, worshiped by the Magi, and acclaimed by the angels, is to him a threat, a threat that must be destroyed, whatever the collateral cost. “Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.” Rachel weeps, for her children have proved that man will do anything to destroy the threat of Jesus. For Jesus is a threat; a threat to our schemes to earn our own salvation, a threat to our pretentions to not need a Savior, a threat to our desire to live apart from God, to seek heaven by some other path.
All who are associated with this child, even the ones who are the same age and live in the same zip code, come under the murderous hatred of the world. Rachel weeps, for her children bear witness that this world does not condemn death as an enemy, but embraces it as a friend, as a tool to be wielded to clean up a mess, or to get adults what they want. Her children witness to man’s hatred of the Fifth Commandment. Certainly, every society in the world condemns murder, but in our nation at least, these are just words, and Rachel’s children pay the price when they stand in the way of adult desires. She refuses to be comforted, for the cradles and the wombs are empty, her children are no more.
They have borne witness not by their words, but by their death, to man’s love of self, an all-consuming love that drives sinful humans to do anything to get what they want. Rachel weeps, for her children witness to Herod’s love of his throne. When he hears of the Christ child, the one born king of the Jews, he is troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when the Magi return home by another route, Herod smells conspiracy, and the man who had no regard for the Fifth Commandment, who killed most of his sons and his wife, did not hesitate to show that he would do anything to protect his throne. Now Rachel weeps, her children are no more; they bear witness to the supremacy of adult interests.
Man’s love of self drives him to do anything; it leads him to break each and every one of the commandments, but especially the first. Satan’s enticing words haven’t changed: “You will be like God.” You can decide between life and death, you can make up your own ethics. The desire for cures leads to the creation of life just to be destroyed in research, the desire for children leads to life left frozen and often forgotten. The desire to finish school, to find a better time, better finances, or a more appropriate parent, leads to life destroyed in one of the safest places on earth. You may never have brought tears to Rachel’s cheeks, but the same desire for self-preservation, for protecting your own interests, the desire that dwelt in Herod’s heart, dwells within your heart as well. You and I are not above breaking the commandments to get what we want, and Rachel’s children, the children of Bethlehem, and the children of our nation, bear witness against us. She refuses to be comforted; forty-one years and millions of her children later, she still has tears to cry, for her children are no more.
But one child was spared. Rachel weeps for all her children, but God acted to deliver one of them from the slaughter. “Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Rise, take the child and His mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy Him.’ And he rose and took the child and His mother by night and departed to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.” Rachel’s children witness to the reality of evil; this child, the Christ child, witnesses that evil is impotent. The Christ child bears witness that while evil can—and does—rage in a world fallen into sin and corruption, it cannot defeat God. Evil will not triumph, though it certainly does its damage, though it brings great tears to Rachel’s eyes. Herod’s bloody plans failed; he died, and no one wept, but as Rachel shed her tears, the Christ child lived, He was delivered from death.
In humiliation, He did become an exile, He was driven from His home, and the God of the universe, laid in a manger, was cast out even from that humble beginning, living as a foreigner and alien in Egypt. But He did not remain there. “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my Son.’” This child bears witness that the new Exodus has come; He is the new Israel, come to triumph where Israel failed, come to triumph where you and I failed. He, like Israel, is exiled in Egypt, He, like Israel, is brought forth from exile. Like Israel, the Christ child does battle with Satan in the wilderness, engaging in combat with our ancient foe. Like Israel, like you and me, He is tempted to seek His own interests, to seek only His own good.
But He triumphs where we so often fail, He is without sin. Rachel’s children are called the ‘Holy Innocents,’ but while they were certainly innocent of any crime—other than standing in the way of adult interests—they were not innocent of sin. Her children were infected with the same disease that afflicts us all. But this Christ child, is the true Holy Innocent. He is holy, true God begotten from eternity and born into the world in our time and space as God in the flesh. He is innocent of any crime, yet, as Rachel’s children bore witness, He inspired the murderous hatred of the world, who sought to destroy Him. And destroy Him they eventually did, in God’s own time and according to His own purposes. For the Christ child walked this earth in the place of Israel, in your place and mine, and while He committed no sin, He bore all sin unto death, even the sins that bring tears to Rachel’s eyes. He lived our life—perfectly—and then He died our death. The Holy Innocent died in the place of the guilty, in your place and mine. God delivered Him from Herod’s wrath only to deliver Him up at the proper time to destroy evil forever.
The Christ child, spared from the slaughter of Bethlehem, returned from exile as God’s answer to the weeping of Rachel; He came because such tragedies occur in this world of sin. The resurrection of the Christ, as God brought Him out of the exile of death, bears witness that even death is overcome, that on the Last Day no child will ever die again. God comforts the weeping Rachel with these words: “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work, declares the Lord, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future, declares the Lord, and your children shall come back to their own country.”
Rachel’s children died for Jesus so that He could return and die for them and all children, born and unborn, as the true Holy Innocent; He even died for those who put them to death. The Christ child dies for Herod and his soldiers, He dies for every person who brought tears to Rachel’s eyes, from the doctor who caused the death, to the mother who asked for it, to the father, friends, or parents who pressured her into it. He dies for them all, and His forgiveness is given to them all, to bring an end to their mourning, to give them a hope for their future, to bring them back from the land of the enemy. His forgiveness is greater than your sin, even your sins against Rachel’s children; God forgives your every sin for the sake of Jesus, the Christ child who came out of exile to give up His life for you.
Rachel’s children bear witness by their death; witness to the reality of evil in this world. The Christ child bears witness by His death; witness to the impotence and final defeat of evil. His cross, His empty tomb, bear witness that your every sin is forgiven, that death itself is conquered, that the children of Rachel have not borne witness in vain. You and I may one day be called upon to bear witness by our death, but even now, we are called upon to witness with our lips. We are called upon to bear witness for those who cannot speak for themselves, standing up for all of Rachel’s children who are threatened by death. We bear witness that our God is a God of life in word and in action, providing for those who carry children in difficult situations, giving of ourselves for their physical needs. And, finally, we are called to comfort those who mourn, to speak not the Law to the broken, but the sweet word of the Gospel, which forgives every sin, which drives away guilt and brings eternal peace. That peace is yours through the Christ child, the Holy Innocent, who stood in your place, even unto death. In His Name, Amen.