Don’t Be Surprised
December 28, 2008
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
On this fourth day of Christmas, we wish you all once again a very Merry Christmas! Unfortunately we must also remember today the slaughter of the Holy Innocents. Christians have been doing this for hundreds of years. But why continue to dreg this up?
14,000 Children Killed
On this day we remember how King Herod, long ago, just after Jesus was born on the first Christmas day, in a furious rage, killed all the male children in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16). And he did so to try and kill the newborn Jesus whom he feared had come to take away his throne. Not knowing where to find him, he decided to kill all the little boys in the area – hoping that somehow Christ Jesus would be included among those slaughtered. Even though the New Testament does not tell us how many were killed, the church has estimated that there were around 14,000 slaughtered! [see P. H. Pfatteicher, Festivals & Commemorations (1980) p. 470]. What a travesty! Ghastly beyond measure, we would all agree. No wonder Rachel, “weeping for her children, refused to be consoled” (Matthew 2:18; Jeremiah 31:15). We get her point.
And it only gets worse as the plot thickens. Why, we ask, was Jesus and his family warned of this slaughter so they could escape into Egypt and be saved, but the other 14,000 were not (Matthew 2:13)? Why did God allow them to become collateral damage, as contemporary military parlance puts it these days? They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time – at no fault of their own. Why let these little ones be mowed down so mercilessly?
Well, there are a couple things to say – unsatisfactory though they may be. And the first is that this happens so we’ll know that Christ’s coming at Christmas is not for the purpose of ending all sorrow now. 1 Peter 4:12 therefore tells us “not to be surprised at the fiery ordeal” that is to come. For while Christmas promises peace (Luke 2:14), it will have to wait (Luke 12:51). Worldly peace will have to wait until Christ’s second coming in glory (Luke 21:27; Acts 1:11; Hebrews 9:28). Then, and only then, will the wolf dwell peacefully with the lamb, and all tribulations come to an end (Isaiah 11:6). But before that, we will have to learn how to endure misfortune because it’s not going away until Christ returns – long after his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension.
Luther spells this out, in breathtaking detail in his Large Catechism – telling us just what we’ll have to learn to endure:
The devil.... cannot bear to have anyone teach or believe rightly.... Therefore, like a furious foe, he... rages with all his power and might,.... in order to hinder us, put us to flight, cut us down, and brings us once more under his power.... Therefore we who would be Christians must surely count on... the devil with all his angels... inflicting every possible misfortune and grief upon us. For where God’s Word is preached, accepted or believed, and bears fruit, there the blessed holy cross will not be far away. Let nobody think that he will have peace; he must sacrifice all he has on earth – possessions, honor, house and home, wife and children, body and life. Now, this grieves... the old Adam, for it means that we must remain steadfast, suffer patiently whatever befalls us, and let go whatever is taken from us.... [So] the devil and all his host [will surely] storm and rage furiously against the [Gospel] in their attempt utterly to exterminate [it] [The Book of Concord, ed. T. Tappert (1959) pp. 428-429].
In the face of this massive assault, our goal must be to confess with St. Paul (2 Corinthians 4:8-9):
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed...
So no complaining or despondency. Instead we are to be resilient under pressure and buoyant under duress (Hebrews 12:12-13). Once we know that our life on earth is not supposed to be a rose garden, but the very “vexation of life” (Luther’s Works 8:114), then we can lower our heads and move forward, knowing what lies ahead. Once we know what race we’re in, we can run it to the end (2 Timothy 4:7) – tough though it may be (1 Corinthians 9:24).
The Big Test
And secondly these tribulations are here to test us to see whether we can believe in God even though he allows such horrible things to happen – including the slaughter of the Holy Innocents (1 Peter 4:12). Can we believe in him for who he is, rather than for what he does? That is our biggest test. Can we believe that he is a loving God when what we see happening under his watch is so horrible?
That is our test (Genesis 22:1; Psalm 66:1; 1 Peter 1:7; 2 Corinthians 2:9; James 1:12), and our penchant is to flunk it. That is because we care so much for our immediate physical welfare in this life. So we’re very reluctant to say that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). We instead are like the fool who wants to take his “ease, eat, drink and be merry” (Luke 12:19). We want our reward now, in this life. We want uninterrupted peace and prosperity now. We want health and satisfaction now.
Another example of this same problem is when Jesus castigates those following him after he miraculously multiplied the loaves (John 6:11) since they were only looking for “food which perishes” (John 6:27). Never mind that this bread was miraculous – it still was just temporary! Christ would rather they cared about the bread “which endures to eternal life,” which he himself was. So he says “I am the bread life,.... I am the living bread which came down from heaven” (John 6:35, 51). On this contrast between time and eternity, common bread and heavenly bread, Luther writes:
Today the Gospel finds disciples who imagine that its teaching affords nothing but a gratification of the belly, that it brings all manner of earthly delights, and that it serves solely the wants of this temporal life.... They [have] no other interest than... to indulge their selfishness.... It is quite common to regard the Gospel as a belly sermon.... [But] that is not the purpose of the Gospel. Yet people still cling to this illusion,.... that Christ came into the world solely for the sake of our physical well-being.... [Christ however wants] to turn the people away from such an illusion..., to draw them from the belly to the Spirit.... But when the people hear that Christ wants to direct them away... from the field and the earth to heaven, they are displeased.... For flesh and blood is interested only in bodily nourishment.... The entire world seeks nothing but money and goods, food and drink.... [But this food is] only a perishable food, which does not endure eternally. The term “perishes” connotes contempt for such food. For this food is destined to perish; it is used up; it is of no help.... Then why should you despise the imperishable food and eternal life, and rate it lower than the perishable bread...? Isn’t that madness... on your part?.... Yet it is customary in the world to be concerned only with what is ephemeral and to disregard what is eternal.... Thus we senseless fools make bold to defy God. But in the end we shall see who will be the loser... [So] the Lord wants to teach [us] not to cling so tenaciously to temporal goods.... Christ tears the hearts and ears of us all away from all bakeries and granaries,... yes, from all labor, and directs them to Himself.... He is the true Chef and Miller, who supplies us with a different kind of corn from that commonly found in the world.... People are good evangelicals so long as... the Gospel will... enrich them.... But when they hear that through its message they will be delivered from sin, death, and the power of the devil, they... despise the Gospel.... [But] God does not have His Gospel proclaimed for the sake of the belly, but for the... salvation of our souls.... The Christian adheres to such a foolish message and believes in that stupid God (LW 23:5-13).
So resist the pull of temporal goods – necessary though they may be for this life. Cling instead to Christ – knowing that when you have him you have everything (LW 23:55). Resist all the Christmas glitz. Cling to Christ – even when everything else is falling down all around you. Do not let that collapse rob you of Christ.
This is the same test Job had. In Job 13:15 – that great verse which translators have repeatedly tried to mangle [see D. J. A. Clines, Job 1-20 (1989) p. 313], Job says “though God slay me, yet will I love him” (KJV). What he says in this powerful verse is that he will love God for who he is – the source of all human goodness – regardless of what he does or allows him to suffer. Job lost everything – except his life and wife. He could have become bitter – and almost did. But he finally entrusts his life to God’s safe keeping – even though God himself has caused him to suffer so much. Let us then be like Job. Let us pass the test with flying colors as he did.
But to do so will take a faith that is “exceedingly arduous” (LW 29:185). This is a faith that knows its fair share of despair and restlessness (LW 40:241). Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), that Danish lover of Luther, describes it well. Faith, he writes,
expressly signifies the deep, strong, blessed restlessness that drives the believer so that he cannot settle down at rest in this world, and therefore the person who has settled down completely at rest has also ceased to be a believer, because a believer cannot sit still as one sits with a pilgrim’s staff in one’s hand – a believer travels forward.... Their way through the world is not as light as a dance but it is heavy and hard, although faith for them is still also the joy that conquers the world [1 John 5:4]. Just as a ship as it lightly proceeds at full sail before the wind at the same time deeply cuts its heavy path through the ocean, so also the Christian’s way is light if one looks at the faith that overcomes the world, but hard if one looks at the laborious work in the depths (Kierkegaard’s Writings 15:218).
This is as it should be, for faith draws us away from the temporal, in which we are so deeply enmeshed, and directs us to a heavenly, eternal life with God. As a consequence, we do not sail through this world unscathed. Again Kierkegaard explains this well:
Christianity does indeed proclaim itself to be a comfort, cure, and healing – that being so, people turn to it as they turn to a friend in need.... And then – then the very opposite happens. They go to the Word to seek help – and then come to suffer on account of the Word. And with this suffering it is not as when one takes a medication or undergoes a treatment in which healing can involve some pain, to which one submits and in which there is no contradiction. No, tribulation and persecution come upon one because one has turned to Christianity for help.... Now the understanding is brought to a halt... What is Christianity, then, and what is it good for?.... The help looks like a torment, the relief like a burden.... Now the issue is: will you be offended or will you believe. If you will believe, then you push through the possibility of offense and accept Christianity on any terms. So it goes; then forget the understanding; then you say: Whether it is help or torment, I want only one thing, I want to belong to Christ (KW 20:114-115).
So Christianity isn’t a life enrichment plan. That’s what makes faith in it so difficult. The help it provides isn’t basically for this life. What it does is make us fit citizens for heaven. On those terms, whether we’re protected now or not, matters little – strange though that may sound to our earth-bound ears. No, the help we receive now is of an invisible sort as Kierkegaard again explains:
Alone! When you have chosen, you will surely find fellow pilgrims, but in the decisive moment and every time there is mortal danger you will be by yourself. No one, not one, hears your ingratiating appeal or heeds your vehement complaint – and yet there is help and willingness enough in heaven. But it is invisible, and to be helped by it is to learn to walk alone. This help does not come from outside and grasp your hand; it does not support you as a kind person supports the sick one; it does not lead you back by force when you have gone astray. No, only when you completely yield, completely give up your own will, and devote yourself with your whole heart and mind – then help comes invisibly, but then you have indeed walked alone. We do not see the powerful instinct that leads the bird on its long journey. The instinct does not fly ahead and the bird behind. It looks as if it were the bird that found the way. Likewise we do not see the teacher but only the follower, who resembles the teacher, and it looks as if the follower himself were the way, just because he is the true follower who walks by himself along the same road (KW 15:220-221).
Once again the help Christianity provides looks like nothing at all – since it doesn’t provide earthly prosperity and protection. But that is the wrong conclusion to draw. Faith alone knows that.
Sharing in Christ’s Sufferings
Once said, however, faith still remains arduous. Under that weight we can stumble and fall. So we are told to rejoice when we suffer for then we are “sharing in the sufferings of Christ” (1 Peter 4:13). This may not seem like much help, but it is. You may think all that would help is to have Christ free you from all suffering, but it is not so. Instead in this sharing there is true solidarity and companionship which emboldens us. For now we know that the One who throws us into the fray, actually suffers too, right along side of us.
I once had a college instructor who took the same essay tests he gave out. When we turned in our papers he would hand us a copy of his completed exam. He was a hard man with little human warmth. But that practice of suffering with his students, if you will, gave that class an aura like no other class I ever took over my eleven straight years of college, seminary and graduate school. And what it did was motivate his students and strengthened our classroom performance. So while sharing in Christ sufferings doesn’t seem like much help, there are human analogues to suggest it deserves a second look. And when we give it a chance, we will find power in his mercy to suffer with us, along side of us.
And we also learn that his suffering with us is greater than ours. For he suffered to “die for sins... [in order] to bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). In that great feat we who believe in it are set free from the debilitating trauma of our guilt for having sinned against God and his law. Christ dies in our place, bearing the punishment for our sins, that God may bless us rather than condemn us. This is a breath of fresh air – spiritually put. And it makes us stronger than we ever could be on our own. So thank God for the Savior, Christ Jesus, and his love for us shown in his sacrifice for our sins. Rejoice and be glad that you believe in him. And then come to the altar today and receive him in the bread and the wine of the Holy Eucharist – that your faith may abound and flourish.
A Strange Comfort
Now the best good work we can do on this feast of the Holy Innocents is to “comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:4-5). This comfort is what we should strive to learn about and practice.
And it is hardly some sort of pious claptrap, without any oomph to it. Rather it is filled with dynamite. How so? Because it says we should pass on the comfort God himself has comforted us with – rather than some comfort of our own making. We do this regularly – you know. We say to our suffering friends: “You’ll be fine. Everything is going to be alright. Things will get better.” But this isn’t a Bible verse! No, this is something we’ve made up. The comfort we should give is this: Rejoice that you’re sharing in the sufferings of Christ. But that scares us. We’re afraid our friends we’re trying to comfort will think we’re being rude and cruel to them. But it doesn’t matter. This is our calling. So pray to the Lord that you might say these words the right way and at the right time. Timing can be everything. And he will bless you with an answer. For he wants you to be his powerful disciples – spreading his Word everywhere. So he’ll give you the wisdom and compassion you’ll need to comfort others as you’ve been comforted. For he loves you and wants you to share that love with others. And so today he has helped you do just that through the Holy Innocents – that in the traumas of life you will not drop a step by being unjustifiably surprised by the coming fiery ordeal. Amen.
(printed as preached but with some changes)