Where God is, there you will also find Satan at work. Not because Satan wants to be where God is, but because he wants to destroy what God creates. He sows dissension in the church. He tries to lead the followers of Jesus away – whether through pleasures and cares, or trials and temptations, it doesn’t matter to him. He is working against God. Always. What God creates, Satan would destroy. A now retired pastor put it this way, “Whatever the devil gives is shoddy; he takes whatever he can get and ruins whatever he receives.” And with Jesus now a mortal, he sees his best chance to beat God at his own game. After all, Jesus may be the creator of the universe, but he’s now a helpless baby, a mortal, subject to the rules of death and decay in this world. And Satan controls the power centers of the world: Rome, Jerusalem belong to him. It takes barely a nudge from Satan to get mad king Herod to, once again, go on a homicidal rampage.
Christmas quickly turns dark and disturbing. Three days ago, peace on earth, good will toward men. Today, running and hiding, just ahead of the spear. And of the babies in Bethlehem, only Jesus will be spared. We call them the holy innocents, martyrs. A term reserved for those who, unjustly condemned for their faith, become witnesses with their own blood. Two days ago was Saint Stephens day: The first Christian Martyr. The little children of Bethlehem will pre-date that by over 30 years, and yet we still call them martyrs. Stephen is the first in the new Testament church to go to his death specifically for his faith. But these little ones are also martyrs. They do not confess their faith at the point of a sword. But the precious deaths of these little saints serve as a witness to the Savior.
They witness to Satan’s rage that God is now one of us. They witness to the rejection of our Savior by the world. Like Able, their blood cries out from the ground, not only against Herod, but for the true king of Israel. The Holy Innocents remind us of the great cost of our salvation. They died unjustly. But their deaths pale in comparison to the unjust crucifixion of Jesus. They were put to death as babies. But when we bring a baby to the font, we remember the words of Saint Paul: Do you not know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death.
Baptism is death. It is a life-giving death. And in Holy Baptism we are given new life in Christ. But there is a death. We talk of the Old Adam being drowned and dying with all sinful lusts. The last few Sundays during Advent, we had the chance to hear John the Baptist say, “Repent!” Turn away from sin. Our faith is not merely an exercise for the head. It’s not just a thought process. Yes, Repent means to grab hold of the promise by faith. But faith produces fruits in keeping with repentace.
The last few months have brought news of atrocities in the middle east. Whole villages murdered. Even recently, we hear of children martyred for their faith. Refusing to renounce Christ, and– so it would seem – being given prematurely the crown of life. But this stands as a warning to us not to neglect so great a salvation. Not to take for granted the suffering and death of Jesus. Salvation was earned at great cost – the most precious blood of Christ was shed for you. And now, that blood is offered here without cost for you to drink, so that you would be forgiven your sins and strengthened in the true faith. So that you would increase in faith toward God and fervent love to your fellow man. And so that you would face death with the confidence of one who is not afraid of that last great enemy, but who, by faith, has seen the victory over death that Jesus won.
But the sacrifice that won it was not a small one. In the Gospel reading the babies died so that Jesus could escape. In four months, we will again walk the path to the cross in the season of Holy Lent. We will hear how Satan entered Judas, and brought about his destruction, and how Judas then betrays Jesus to those who would kill him. Satan rages and foams wherever God is at work, and he tries everything he knows to destroy your faith – yes, he can even use pleasure.
We are here for matters of life and death. We must take seriously the word of the Lord that brings us the salvation Jesus won for us.
The baby was born to die. Of course, every baby is on the path of death. We are surrounded by it. But death is not the way it was supposed to be. God did not want us to die. With one exception. Jesus was born specifically to die, so that he could destroy the power of death.
Rachel weeps, and refuses to be comforted, for her children are no more. Matthew stops there. But look at what Jeremiah says next:
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.
There are moments in this world that are can only be described as horror. We have no words, only tears, only sorrow. And we are tempted to despair. But the Savior of us all has come. He has come specifically to defeat the power of death by going through it. Death will follow him his whole life, looking for a chance. And on the cross, life and death will do battle. But this time, life will overcome death.
We face death every day, and there will come a day when death will claim us in this world. But Jesus has destroyed the claim of death on you. You belonged to death. But death will no longer hold you. The cemetery is still in business – for now. Tears still flow, for now. Darkness and shadow and sorrow still come, for now. But the end of death and the grave is in sight. Jesus has overcome them, and returned to his father. And now, the time for Satan and his forces is short. They still rage. They still try and destroy the things of God. But their time is coming to an end. Death will be dead. Satan will no longer be prince of this world, for this world will be no more. And all things will be made new. Especially those who died in the sign of faith. The saints, who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb. And yes, in place of honor will be the martyrs, and joining them will be the little children of Bethlehem. They will sing for joy. We will all witness to Christ. “Glory to the lamb that was slain, for he is worthy to receive power, and riches and wisdom and strength, and honor, and blessing and glory. Amen.”