Sermon for the First Sunday of Christmas, Series A, December 29, 2019 (Matthew 2:13-23) – “Everything Sad is Going to Come Untrue”

“Massacre of the Innocents” (1565-1567), by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (ca. 1526-1569). Windsor Castle. Public Domain.

Originally preached at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Herndon, Virginia.

Sermon audio from Good Shepherd Lutheran Church

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Imagine with me, if you will, the little town of Bethlehem, royal David’s city.  Once it had been graced by a silent night and heavenly peace, but not this night.  This night, an cry of anguish rent the air.  Then another and another, and soon a whole chorus of wailing, screams, and loud weeping could be heard rising up from the little town, intermingled with the shouts of soldiers, the squalling of babies, and the horrified cries of fathers and mothers having their children torn from their arms.  The sounds of dogs barking furiously, of hobnails and horseshoes clattering on cobbled streets, of doorposts splintering, of soldiers bursting into homes, of breaking pottery and cursing.  The crying of children.  And after a time, the screams and wails of parents gave way to sobbing and long, inconsolable groans.  That night in the little town of Bethlehem, what had begun as a still night ended in one of terror and blood, a night where deep and dreamless sleep was replaced by a shell-shocked wakefulness and the horror of a living nightmare.  At the end of it all, some twenty infants, all boys below the age of two, lay dead in Bethlehem, murdered on the orders of a king driven mad with fear and jealousy.  Soon all such children in the surrounding hamlets and villages would meet a similar fate.  An entire generation wiped out in an evening, the cries of their mothers inconsolable.  The cries of Rachel, the mother of all Israel, weeping for her children, unable to be comforted because her sons are dead.

Massacre of the Innocents” (1611), by Guido Reni (1575-1642). Pinoteca Nazionale Bologna. Public Domain.

And how did it come to this, that these infants, these innocent babies, were massacred by the ruler of their land?  What had they done?  They were collateral in a campaign of fear.  Some time before the massacre, Herod the Great, king of Judaea and client of Rome, had been visited by a group of scholars and wise men from the East who had, by their astrological calculations, come to discover that a king had been born in Judaea, and that his birth had been marked by a star that pointed to where he was.  “Where might we find him?” they had asked Herod, and the king was shocked.  He had clung to his throne for nearly forty years, holding his kingdom together by means of violence and threats.  His whole reign was marked by blood, not only by that of the people he governed, but even by that of three sons and a wife, all of whom he believed had conspired against him.  And now Herod, in his waning days, his body riddled with gangrenous sores and in constant pain; Herod, who had taken four years to fight his way into his capital and who had endured threat after threat to his kingship, who had sacrificed even his family in order to hold onto power, found himself facing yet another challenger to his dominance, another perceived claimant to the title “King of the Jews.”

“The Journey of the Magi” (1894), by James Tissot (1836-1902), Minneapolis Museum of Art. Public Domain.

So, Herod sent these wise men off to find this princeling and to report his location to him so that he could end the threat to his rule.  But the wise men never returned, and Herod, angered by their apparent duplicity, sought to work out his wrath and his fear.  The old prophecy spoken once by Micah came into his mind:

“But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah
Too little to be among the clans of Judah,
From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. 
His goings forth are from long ago,
From the days of eternity.” (Micah 5:2, NASB)

And with this verse held firmly in his fevered brain, Herod sent his soldiers into Bethlehem  to hunt down this challenger to his rule, and there they went about their bloody business.  A king who did not even spare his own sons from the sword slew the sons of his subjects.  He slew these sons in hopes that he would slay a certain Son who was proclaimed by the Scriptures to be the true king of the Jews, and the mothers of the nation—even the nation itself—wept.

“Murder of the Bethlehem Children,” Codex Egberti, Folio 15v (10th Century), Stadtbibliothek, Tier. The Yorck Project (2002). Public Domain.
“Toppling of the Pagan Idols (The Flight into Egypt): Isaiah 19:1, Pseudo-Matthew 22-23” (1423) by the Bedford Master. Public Domain.

But in his violence, Herod failed to kill the one who threatened his throne.  He did not know that the royal child, of a far more august lineage he, had been in a different town.  Though he had been born in Bethlehem on a chilly December night two years prior, he had been in Nazareth, to the north, when the wise men came searching; and, because an angel sent by God had warned his earthly father of Herod’s intentions in a dream, he was on his way to Egypt where he would be outside the reach of Herod’s jealous hands.  And so the violence visited on Bethlehem was truly senseless in every way.

The Church has historically commemorated the massacre of the Holy Innocents on December 28 during the Christmas season, and when we hear it recounted, we see what the power of sin in this world looks like.  Herod, a man motivated by greed and paranoia and hate, murders children because he fears losing all that he has to one of them.  A powerful man, a king, takes the weakest of all in cold blood.  It’s an act that doesn’t make sense.  It’s a horrendous, vicious, horrible thing that doubtless destroyed the lives of the families he attacked just as much it destroyed their children.  And we ask ourselves “Why would God allow such a thing to happen, especially when it was his Son that Herod was hunting?”  Because that’s who Herod wanted to kill—he was hunting for the Christ child, the Son of God born to the virgin Mary, the one called “Immanuel”—God with us—the true king of the Jews and, indeed, of all creation.  These innocents died on his account; Herod martyred them because he believed that Jesus was among them.  Why did these children have to die? Surely the mothers of Bethlehem cried this out in their rage and their sorrow and their tears.  “Why did our children have to die?  What did we do to deserve this?”

“The Tower of Siloam (Le tour de Siloë)” (1886-1896), by James Tissot (1836-1902). The Brooklyn Museum. Public Domain.

Scripture shows us that the reason for evil and suffering cannot always be discerned, but we do know the root of it.  When Pontius Pilate mixed the blood of a group of Galileans with their sacrifices, or when the tower of Siloam fell down and killed eighteen people, it was not because of anything they had done to deserve such a fate.  No, on the contrary, our Lord says in Luke 13 when discussing these things, it was on account of sin’s power in the world.  The devil, going about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour, someone to destroy.  The power of sin, ushered in by Adam and Eve when they were deceived by the old serpent and ate of the fruit God had commanded them not to eat, has corrupted the very fabric of the Creation, from the highest mountain to the tiniest quark, and now horrors are commonplace—horrific accidents, deliberate acts of violence, children mindlessly slain—and we cannot say why.  And though we are tempted to ask why God let them happen, we rarely, if ever, get an answer.

In light of this, it may be tempting to despair, to join the voice of Rachel crying out in Ramah, refusing to be comforted because her children are dead.  But come with me to another time in Judaea, where new rulers had come to power, and where the Son who escaped Herod’s violence ultimately faced the violence of a world gripped by sin head on.

Not long after Herod massacred the children of Bethlehem, he died festering in agony, the victim of a hideous illness that rotted his body from the inside out.  But before his death, he split his kingdom into fourths, giving each part to one of his surviving sons.  To his son, Archelaus, he gave control of Judaea.  He was a man of similar temperament to his father, so when the Holy Family returned from their sojourn in Egypt, they returned to Nazareth which was outside of Archelaus’ rule and where the young Jesus could grow in wisdom and stature and grow to manhood.

“Crocifissione” (ca. 1610), by Giovanni Battista Caracciolo (Battistello Caracciolo) (1578-1635). Museo di Capidomonte, Naples. Public Domain.

Some thirty years later, however, after other kings rose and fell in Judaea and Rome had taken control, on a dark Passover night, the King of the Jews was arrested as he prayed in a garden in Jerusalem and was led away to be tried by the secular and religious authorities for claiming to be who he was.  Despite his innocence, he was found guilty by a kangaroo court and a fickle crowd who had days before lauded him as king.  He was stripped of his garments, beaten and scourged.  The courtyards echoed with his cries of pain, the sharp crack of the whip against his back, the jeers and laughs of the soldiers as they beat and taunted him.  And he was led, staggering with the weight of a crossbeam—the very instrument by which he was going to die— on his shoulders, through the crowded streets of the city, some onlookers wailing in sorrow, others jeering and pointing, the rhythmic clatter of the soldier’s hobnailed boots sounding a death march like a snaredrum.  At the end of the journey, he was brought to the top of a hill outside the city where he was crucified, nailed to the cross.  He was left there, exposed, naked, bloodied, subject to the jibes of detractors while his mother and friends sat at his feet, weeping and wailing, refusing to be consoled, their weeping giving way to groans.  And as the sky turned black when the King breathed his last, a soldier nearby seemed to have joined them in their grief.  Looking up at the body hanging there, he took off his helmet.   “Truly,” he whispered in awe, “this was an innocent man.”  Another innocent Son murdered senselessly by jealous rulers who feared he would upend their power, driven by sin and greed.

But there was something different about the death of this innocent Son.  His death, as senseless and horrible as it was, was not in vain.  Despite the gore, the violence, the horror of it all, his death destroyed the power of sin, violence, and senseless pain in creation.  All the terror and sorrow of all generations prior and since was brought to an end.  Death had no power then on that hill outside Jerusalem, or anywhere else for that matter.  For in his death, the Son of God and King of the Jews destroyed death.  Three days later he rose from the tomb, and he sealed away its finality forever.  All the horror, all the pain and sorrow, was robbed of its strength, and the promise was given that all that is terrible, everything that is sad, will one day come untrue.  It all already came untrue, there, on that hill, on that rough, wooden cross.

 “Everything that is sad will one day come untrue.”  That phrase comes from Tolkien, specifically from his book, The Return of the King, and it’s originally part of a question Samwise Gamgee asks the wizard Gandalf when he wakes up following the destruction of the evil Ring of Power.  “I thought you were dead!”, he exclaims, “But then I thought I was dead myself.  Is everything sad going to come untrue?  What’s happened to the world?”[1]  That’s a question we ask in these latter days when we hear of Christ’s death for us, too.  Will all the sin, the hurt, the sorrow, the fear, and the sickness that pervades our fallen world be brought to nothing?  Will those things in our lives that we regret, or the pain that continues to dog us, be taken away?  Will everything that has gone wrong in this world be made right?  Will all those sad facts that define us—our pains, our fears, our misdeeds, or addictions—be made untrue?

            That day on Golgotha, Christ’s sacrifice redeemed all the terror and death of all the ages—that day, to quote Gandalf’s reply to Sam, “a great Shadow ha[d] departed” the world.[2]  Christ’s sacrifice redeemed deaths of the innocents slain in Herod’s jealous madness.  The deaths of those killed by Pilate and crushed by the tower.  The grief of parents who have lost their children, of those who have lost loved ones in terrible accidents or to horrible diseases.    The anguish of those who have lost a father or mother or sibling to the horrors of war.  The pain of those who have been abused, of those who have been victims of random violence.  The pain of those who have lost a child to abortion, and the deaths of the aborted.  The deaths and pain of all who have been victims of the caprices of this sinful world—the deaths and pain and sorrow of all time were redeemed there, on that cross.  When we ask ourselves, “Why would God let these things happen?” we cannot give an answer as to “why,” but we can look to the One who redeems it all, who gasped out, “It is finished” from the cross, and who will bring it all to right when he comes again.  Senseless evil cannot last.  Sin’s power over creation has been ended.  Christ, the true King of the Jews and the King of Creation, has brought it to pass.  He has ensured for us that all that is sad is going to come untrue.  It is coming untrue.  His death and resurrection have made it so.

So at this Christmastime, if you are suffering from the agony and grief of a world still ruled by the violence and injustice of sin, or are feeling more personally the pain and sorrow of a Rachel or Mary, trust in your Lord who heals your wounds and eases your pain.  The young child who fled with his parents into Egypt and who grew to manhood and died on the cross and rose again so that we might be children of God will bring all to rights when he comes again on that glorious day when all weeping shall cease, when he shall wipe every tear from our eyes—indeed, it is finished!  He has done it for you.  Amen!

[1] Tolkien, Jonathan Ronald Ruel, The Return of the King (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993): 246.

[2] Ibid.

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Epiphany, February 10, 2019 – “We’re Not Worthy!” (Isaiah 6:1-8)

“Isaiah’s Vision” from Luther’s Bible, 1534 (Lucas Cranach)

This sermon was originally preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia.

In the name of Jesus, amen.

When it comes to comedies, I personally enjoy films that have a good degree of absurdist humor mixed into them, and one of the weirder ones in my list of favorites is 1992’s Wayne’s World starring Mike Meyers and Dana Carvey as the eponymous Wayne Campbell and his hapless buddy Garth Algar, respectively.  In probably the best scene in the film, circumstances find Wayne and Garth being given backstage passes to see Alice Cooper and his band play in Milwaukee.  When they go to meet Alice (or Vincent Damon Furnier, to use his Christian name), he gives them a short spiel on the history of Milwaukee, leaving Wayne and Garth confused and speechless.  When Wayne and Garth figure they’d better get going, Alice stops them. “No, no, no,” he says, “stick around, hang out with us.” Wayne and Garth, overwhelmed by star power, fall to their knees and prostrate themselves in a worshipful pose before him, crying “We’re not worthy!  We’re not worthy!”, while Alice holds forth his hand toward them, like some sort of Louis XIV in black mascara, entreating his subjects to kiss his ring.

Wayne’s World, 1992

“We’re not worthy!”  Goofy behavior in a goofy scene in an even goofier film, but the sentiment expressed by Wayne and Garth in the face of greatness brings to mind what Isaiah says to God in this morning’s Old Testament reading.  “Woe is me!  For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!” (Is 6:5).

“Isaiah’s Vision” (12th Century), Meister der Predigten des Mönchs Johannes Kokkinobaphos,
Bibliothèque nationale de France

Isaiah is not overwhelmed by star power when he says this— no, instead, he is overwhelmed by the glory of God and the fear it induces.  Imagine the scene. Isaiah finds himself in the Lord’s throne room— he calls it the Temple, but whether or not Isaiah finds himself in the Holy of Holies or in heaven is unclear— regardless, Isaiah is standing before God, who is seated in front of him, the train of his robe filling the space.  And positioned above God’s head are the seraphim, six-winged angels that perhaps look like fiery serpents, calling back and forth to one-another in booming voices. They cry, “kadōsh kadōsh kadōsh YHWH Sabaōth, m’lo chol ha’aretz  ch’vōdō” – “holy, holy, holy is YHWH of Hosts, the earth is full of his glory,” and their words shake the room and cause it to be filled with smoke.  It’s an apocalyptic scene that calls to mind descriptions of the Day of the Lord in other Old Testament prophets, especially Amos and Zephaniah, who proclaim that God’s judgment will be accompanied by quaking, darkness, and fire.  Says the Lord in Zephaniah 1, “The great day of the Lord is near…A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements….In the fire of his jealousy all the earth shall be consumed; for a full and sudden end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth” (Zeph 1:14, 15-16, 18b).  With this smoke and shaking, is God going to mete out his judgment?  It’s a scary place, the throneroom of YHWH, and Isaiah shouldn’t even able to witness this alive.  No man living can withstand seeing God in all his glory, and yet here he is, seeing God face-to-face in his fullness.  What does God want with him? How can he stand here?

“King Uzziah Stricken with Leprosy” (1639), by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669), Old Masters Drawing Cabinet, Chatsworth House

In the face of God’s pure glory, seeing his Lord as he is (some commentators even think the three “holies” refer to three persons of the Trinity), Isaiah becomes painfully aware of his inadequacy.  In fact, even more than that, he becomes painfully aware of his sinfulness and his uncleanness. He knows that God cannot abide sin— he cannot let sin coexist with his glory and ultimate goodness. Sin must be wiped out, and Isaiah, a sinful Judaean among sinful Judaeans, is on the target list.  His people had forsaken God and did not wish to hear God’s word for them or follow him. Isaiah, prior to this meeting with God, may have been like them in that way, too. King Uzziah, who had died the year that Isaiah received this vision, had been struck with leprosy when he tried to usurp the authority of the priests and attempted to offer incense to God in the temple.  If anyone was a good mascot for a people of unclean lips, it was he. His father, Amaziah, had set up the idols made by the people of Seir and worshiped them, and King Ahaz, Uzziah’s grandson, even burned his own sons as offerings to the idols of the Ba’als. The people saw their kings’ examples and copied them, following, as the chronicler says, “corrupt practices” and seeking false gods (2 Chron 27:2).  The kings and people of Judah were wicked in thought, word, and deed. How could Isaiah, one of their number, ever hope to stand before God, being party to such wicked inclinations? Had God made himself known to Isaiah in this way because Isaiah was going to experience his wrath? “Woe is me!  For I am lost” indeed!

But God has a surprise for Isaiah son of Amoz.  One of the angels, one of the seraphim, flies to the altar and takes a glowing coal from it with a tongs and places it against Isaiah’s unclean lips.  This seraph proclaims to Isaiah: “Behold, this [coal] has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for,” or as it is in another translation, “your sin has been forgiven” (Is 6:7).    Isaiah’s sin no longer counts against him.  It is gone, wiped out, forgotten. He has received God’s forgiveness, and he can stand before the Lord his God without fear.  Furthermore, he can stand before God and God can entreat him to do work that is pleasing to him. In the sight of God, Isaiah is no longer unclean in any sense.  Instead, Isaiah has been justified, he has been made righteous, and he is now worthy to be in God’s presence.  He can do the good work God has set up for him to do as a prophet. No longer does he need to say, “woe is me! For I am lost!” God has saved him from his sins.  Isaiah is found.

“Profeta Isaia” by Antonio Balestra (1666-1740), Castelvecchio Museum

We also, like Isaiah, are members of an unclean generation, and by reason of our sinful natures, we, too, are people with unclean lips and unclean hearts.  Our rulers, however you want to define them, are no moral paragons— we’ve seen enough of that demonstrated in the news concerning state politics this week. Our magistrates try to usurp the place of our priests, legislating new moralities that we are to live out rather than that which is the will of God— I am looking at you New York, and you too, dear Commonwealth.  We may not have made an altar to the Ba’als like Ahaz, but we certainly are trying to offer our sons and daughters as tribute to the god of convenience and eugenics. And we ourselves chase after the false gods of sports, sex, fame, and the almighty dollar. Just this past weekend we all spent a good three hours watching the Superbowl. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy watching football, but we all know why we really watched the game.  It wasn’t for the Pats or the Rams— it was for the advertisements! (And Roy, I think you were cheated since they didn’t include you in the 100 Years of the NFL ad!) We spent three hours waiting for little videos of people trying to sell us stuff to pop up on the screen. Would we were so excited about the word of God or spending time in church. But I digress. The main point I wish to make is that just like the Judaeans, our priorities are confused.  We are inclined to seek for things other than God, to do things contrary to his will, even when we know what he would rather have us do. And think, just think, what would it be like if God were to reveal himself to us, right now, in this place as he did to Isaiah, sitting on the altar, with his robes flowing down the dais and smoke filling the sanctuary? Would any of us measure up to his statutes? Would any of us be worthy of being in his presence? Would any of us be able to stand before him on the basis of our actions and our sinful nature?  Not likely. Certainly, none of us can stand before God in this way on our merits. In our sins, we deserve the sort of destruction Isaiah, Zephaniah, and other prophets foretold.

But we don’t stand before God on our merits.  How could we?  We are not worthy to stand before him in his presence.  Instead, God covers us in his merit in Christ.  God desired to bring humanity back into a right relationship with him and so he became one of us in order to turn a whole species with unclean lips into a people who could live with him.  When Christ died on the cross and rose again on the third day, his sacrifice made a new covenant between God and man. He atoned for the sins of mankind with his death and redefined man’s relationship with God.  Christ’s blood works just like the seraph’s glowing coal— it washes away the stain of sin, bringing purification and righteousness. The promise of Christ’s death and resurrection given to us in faith and in our baptism justifies us before God, just like Isaiah.  Christ makes us his own, and he makes us worthy to stand in the presence of God because he forgives  us our sins.  Even though we are still plagued by sin and its barbs in this life, Christ’s forgiveness declares us “not guilty.”  His righteousness helps us to stand before God without fear.

“Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”
“The Miraculous Draught of Fish” (1886-1894) by James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum

Furthermore, Christ doesn’t just make us able to stand in God’s presence by forgiving our sins— he comes to us and invites us to live with and in him.  This is how Christ approaches Simon Peter when he realizes that he is in the presence of God and says “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, o Lord.”  Christ comes to him in spite of his unworthiness, and he invites Peter and his companions to join him— not merely to hang out with him, as does Alice Cooper, but to be his disciples and to be his redeemed children.  This is the invitation Christ gives to us.  He may not call us to necessarily be fishers of men like Peter or Andrew or James and John; he may not call us to be prophets to a people who won’t hear us like Isaiah, but he does call us to be his friends, his brothers and sisters, and his children.  We are all called to be his, and as his we have life and worthiness.

“Disputation of the Holy Sacrament” (1509-1510) by Raphael (1483-1520), Vatican Museums

You know how I earlier asked— perhaps rhetorically—  if you could stand before God like Isaiah, sinners that you may be?  What if I told you that you have done this every time you have come to the altar to receive the Lord’s body and blood?  Our God has forgiven us, calling we who are sinners saints, and invites us to stand before him and receive his gifts to everlasting life.  And when you struggle with sin; when that Old Adam who lives deep in your bones entices you to do that which you know you should not do, remember that God calls you to this table for forgiveness of your sins and the medicine of eternal life.  Run to it! Here, we receive the love of Christ, and he makes us worthy again. He has made you worthy, and in him you are not lost! Amen.