Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Holy Innocents, Martyrs
texts: Jeremiah 31:15-17; Matthew 2:13-18
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
This world is not safe for children.
It’s a terrible indictment on all of us adults who ought to make it safe, but it’s true. Children are regularly victims of war they don’t cause, poverty they were born into, hunger they can do nothing about, ambitions and power they have no control over, victims of even their own parents and families. There are too many examples to bear.
This world is not safe for children. We don’t want to run from our shock and horror hearing this story of Bethlehem so soon after Christmas. We need to hold it longer. This thing Matthew relates happens so often we barely register one before the next comes; eventually we hardly pay attention to any. Feeling them all is more than we can bear, so we choose to feel none.
This world is not safe for children. Not even for the Son of God. Immediately this barely-arrived baby is threatened with death. Others suffer tragically in his place. “A voice is heard, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted, because they are no more.” How many mothers weep today, refusing to be comforted? More than we can bear to think about.
This world is not safe for children and it’s not just the fault of the villains.
There is so much danger and wickedness, but we avoid facing our own part in it. We always look to the perpetrators, as if that’s the answer. Evil villains serve a useful purpose if we wish to avoid self-reflection.
Herod did awful things, that’s true. He murdered his own sons, he murdered his own wife. He tried to arrange a mass-murder for the day of his death so there would be someone who mourned on that day. Herod had power, and he wanted control of his life, his reign, his kingdom. So he used his power. This decision to kill the children of Bethlehem took very little thought or energy.
But the problem lies deeper than finding a person to blame. Whenever we have such a tragedy the bulk of our time is spent trying to figure out why the person did it, as if there’s ever a reason that makes sense. If we can call the perpetrator evil, deranged, wicked, “not us,” we think we can move on untouched.
Yet this world remains unsafe for children, while we pretend these are isolated incidents.
When will we admit our own guilt in this unsafe world?
We don’t have Herod’s authority, and we say we don’t seek the death of others. But we do like things comfortable, we like things our way, and we’re often careless about the expense of it all, while others pay that expense.
If our way of life pollutes this planet and depletes resources at an alarming rate far out of proportion to our numbers on the planet, what do we care? We want what we want. It’s too big a problem for us to solve anyway. And so this world is not safe for children.
If our American spirit leads us to unchecked distribution of weapons and more and more prisons, what do we care? We want what we want. It’s too much effort to spend money ensuring all children get good health care and head starts on life; we’ll just pay far more in massacres and in more incarcerations than anyone else. And so this world is not safe for children.
If our way of life leads our businesses and corporations to exploit people around the world, cause resentment and bitterness among whole nations of people, perpetuate patterns of hunger and oppression, what do we care? We want what we want. We can always use our weapons to clean up the messes we leave around the world. And so this world is not safe for children.
Are we not Herod in every way except that we’ve left the final orders in the hands of others who do what our polls demand, our consumer hearts require?
There were no glib answers for the mothers and fathers of Bethlehem, and there are none for us, either. This world is not safe for children.
We can’t sit in our comfort and prosperity and pretend all is well. That if we don’t hear stories like this, or if we ignore them, they aren’t real. Or they don’t affect us. We can’t sit in our comfort and prosperity and pretend we have nothing to do with all this, either. These children of Bethlehem, and Pakistan, and countless schools and villages and cities here, cry out for someone to care, to stand with them.
Maybe Rachel refuses to be comforted because she’s afraid this will never stop. That others, that we, will continue to make decisions that affect her life, her children, but won’t stop because they, we, don’t care about collateral damage.
It should break our hearts. It certainly breaks God’s heart.
That’s the whole point of this birth in Bethlehem. God looked at the pain and misery and despair we’ve made and decided to come into our midst, as one of us. Unwilling to use divine power and might to stop all this, for then God would simply be another Herod, only far worse, the Triune God who made the stars became a helpless infant whose fate rests in our hands.
Do you see what God has done? We have made this world unsafe for children, so God came to us as a child. God gave us the authority to decide if we want this God-with-us, this Emmanuel, in our midst. To decide if children could be safe here.
There was no need for the manger to lead to the cross, unless we persisted in our selfishness, violence, and destruction. We could have welcomed this child, heard his teachings as an adult, and followed, making the world a place of grace and life for all. We still could.
Or we could reject him and kill him. Jesus escapes Herod as a child, but only for a time. The Herod in all of us finally catches up to him and puts an end to the nonsense about a way of love and peace between neighbors, between us and God.
Yet God’s answer to the mighty, to us, is always to be weak and vulnerable.
Our Prayer of the Day has it wrong. We prayed, “by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace.” We should have prayed, “by your vulnerability lived out in our lives,” do these things. That’s the way of Christ.
God constantly goes to the only place worth going: to be with the children of Bethlehem and Jerusalem and Damascus and Pakistan and Africa and America as they are killed. The Son of God enters the brutality of the world we have made and lets us kill him. And something astonishing happens.
Life happens. God raises Jesus from the dead, and everything is changed. God shows that the path that walks alongside the children, the path of weakness and vulnerability, is the only path that leads to life. Standing in the way of power and letting it do what it will is the only way that saves anyone.
So ironically, the only way to ensure safety for others is for us to take the path that is not safe. The only way to avoid trampling someone else is to allow ourselves to be trampled. The only way we can avoid harming someone else is if we are willing to be harmed ourselves. When enough of God’s children walk this way, walk with the least of these, risk everything for the sake of the other, step aside from anything that harms others, the world starts to change. Life begins to happen.
God risked being a child to begin to make this world safe for children.
Will we join God’s way of healing and hope for this world? Or will we remain on Herod’s side?
There is comfort for the Rachels of this world, even for us, when we begin to understand this path that lies before us now, the path that leads from the manger to the cross. When we are willing to walk that path, we begin to see hope come to this world, and to us.
God’s reign of justice, love, and peace for which we prayed is the only hope for the children of this world. Jesus has shown us the path to that reign: our own vulnerability and loss. For the sake of all the children, let us pray the Spirit’s grace that we find our way onto that path and soon, and into the life God hopes for all this world’s children.
In the name of Jesus. Amen