Sunday, December 28, 2008

Sermon: Holy Innocents and Baptism of Emma Althage

28 December 2008 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Matt 2:13-18 (Jer 31:15-17, Rev 14:1-5)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

While the world is “moving on” from Christmas and retailers are already gearing up for St. Valentines Day, the Christian Church lingers in the holy festival. For Christmas is a twelve day feast, and today is only the fourth day. And though this is a time of celebration and joy – as this is the ongoing feast of our Lord’s being born into human flesh, even as today marks the spiritual birth of Emma Althage and the placing of the divine name upon her – today is nevertheless a bittersweet day.

Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, as Christians around the world remember the infants of Bethlehem who gave their lives as a ransom for the Ransomer.

For we Christians are in a war. It is a war that good has won, that right has triumphed, that our Lord has crushed the head of the old evil foe by taking on our flesh, dying in our flesh, rising again in our flesh, and giving His flesh and blood to us as gracious gifts to being us into communion with the Holy Trinity anew. But as in any war, there are casualties.

Even in triumph, there is the sounding of “Taps.” Even in victory, there is mourning of those who gave their lives for the cause.

And this cause, dear brothers and sisters, is greater than any worldly state or political battle. This cause, the cause for which the Holy Innocents died, is the cause of the final defeat of evil. Satan fought desperately to try to extinguish the Light of the world, the very fire that will burn him. The devil sought to commit divine infanticide and thus deny salvation to the world by extinguishing our only hope. And though the angel of the Lord warned St. Joseph, the guardian of our blessed Lord, to whisk mother and child away to Egypt for safety, Satan’s wrath still raged against the infant boys of Bethlehem for the sole reason that they had commonality with our Lord.

And on that terrible day,
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
Lamentation and bitter weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children,
Refusing to be comforted for her children,
Because they are no more.”
And though the ancestral Rachel refuses to be comforted for her descendants, there is still hope in the form of a divine promise:
“Refrain your voice from weeping,
And your eyes from tears;
For your work shall be rewarded, says the LORD,
And they shall come back from the land of the enemy.
There is hope in your future, says the LORD,
That your children shall come back to their own border.”
Even though these children were to become casualties in the ancient belligerence between God and Satan, these children are promised not only a resurrection, but a renewed life in the nation of God’s people. They will be reunited with their mothers and their ancestral grandmother. Their sacrifice is not in vain, nor will these youngest of soldiers ever be forgotten in their ultimate sacrifice for their King and His kingdom.

It is easy for us to question why the Lord allows any casualties in this battle. The Church honors her martyrs by the thousands. But His ways are certainly not our ways. His thoughts are not our thoughts. We cannot fathom God’s will or discern why He chose, in His infinite wisdom and mercy, to recall these little warriors from their mother’s breasts are take them to Himself. But all we can do is praise God for His glory and thank Him for securing this victory for them and for us.

And lest we forget, the greatest sacrifice of all came in the form of our Lord’s death on the cross. For the Babe of Bethlehem is the only True Holy Innocent. And like the Holy Innocents whose blood was shed by a wicked king named Herod, a later Herod, in cooperation with the priests, scribes, and Romans, would also inflict a mortal wound on the cause of justice – only in this case, mortal would only be for a short time, as immortality was to swallow up mortality for all time. And the holy innocence of the Redeemer would grant Holy Innocence to the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem. Their innocence is truly His innocence.

And it is indeed only in light of this gift and in the certain hope of the resurrection that we can be joyful and thankful for these Holy Innocents whose lives continue to testify to the malignance of Satan, who continues to tempt us to doubt and fear. For as vile as the Serpent is, the Seed of the woman is greater.

It is also in this certain hope, in this basking of victory, that we can rejoice with little Emma, for today, she has likewise become a “Holy Innocent,” a saint who has died to sin and rose to life again with her Redeemer in a second birth. And though her blood was not shed today, her Savior’s blood was indeed shed – for her and for all of us. And that saving body and blood of our Lord is given to us here in this holy place, to strengthen us for battle and to mark us as “Holy Innocents,” protected like the homes marked with the blood of the Passover Lamb, rendering the angel of death harmless – for the blood of Christ has already defeated Satan and won life for us.

For this Passover Lamb has Himself come back from being sacrificed, and now, according to the holy Apostle John, is “standing on Mount Zion,” not lying in death nor humbled and kneeling, but “standing” along with those “having His Father’s name written on their foreheads.” Of course, according to our Lord’s command and promise, we baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. And notice what John hears in his vision: “a voice from heaven, like the voice of many waters.” John also hears the redeemed singing praise of their Redeemer, “who follow the Lamb wherever He goes. These were redeemed from among men, being firstfruits to God and to the Lamb. And in their mouth was found no deceit, for they are without fault before the throne of God.”

What a remarkable vision of the Church, dear friends. These Holy Innocents are “redeemed,” that is ransomed, bought back by the Lamb Himself, and notice how the ransomed ones act – “they follow the Lamb wherever He goes.” They do not wander off or seek to escape. Where He goes, they are sure to follow, like a flock of lambs themselves, who know the voice of their loving Shepherd.

And even though many of these redeemed suffered on this side of the grave, many giving their lives in martyrdom for the cause, for the sake of the kingdom, and for their Redeemer-King Himself, they now find happiness and glory, serving the Lamb and singing His praises unto eternity.

Even in the time of Christmas joy, even as we welcome our dear little sister through the miracle of baptism, and even as we sing a new song unto the Lord, let us not forget that we are at war. There is a good reason we sing “By All Your Saints in Warfare.” There have been, and there will continue to be, casualties. We will have hardship and suffering as do all soldiers and men under orders. But let us never forget that the ultimate victory has already been won. The struggle against sin, death, and the devil has already been settled by our Blessed Lord, the Holy Innocent of all holy innocents, who fights for us, who prays for us, who atones for us, and who makes us “without fault before the throne of God.”

We are the victors. Emma is the latest in our band of victorious warriors, a little “Holy Innocent” herself, cleansed by the blood of the Lamb and by the washing of regeneration. The Holy Innocents were likewise washed in the Lamb’s blood, and it is He, the Lamb, the Redeemer, the King, the Son of David, the Son of God called out of Egypt, who has won the war and declared eternal peace with God, for the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem, for Emma, for us, and for all who are baptized and believe, now and unto eternity. Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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