Repurposed for Life
In many areas of life people repurpose things. The grown child's room is repurposed as a den; cities repurpose landfills as parks; businesses repurpose closets as break rooms. Today I'm repurposing a church festival appointed for December 28th as Life Sunday. I've had 25 years of Life Sunday services. Twenty-one years ago a pro-life magazine had a painting of the murder of the Bethlehem babies on the cover with the headline "20 Years of Roe v. Wade: the massacre of the innocents" (Family Voice, Jan. 1993). Since then I've wanted to repurpose that tragedy for life.
A 1,700 year old church festival can be repurposed for what is going on in society today even though that festival has a checkered past. It can be traced to the 300s when it was celebrated in Bethlehem. By the end of the 5th century it was observed everywhere in the western church. Germany, France, and England turned it into a popular holiday known as Feast of Fools. A boy was elected as bishop, evil smelling incense burned, and the liturgy was parodied. It was banned in 1473 (Reed, Liturgy, 473).
The Feast of Fools was banned but the slaughter of the innocents was kept on the calendar. The martyred St. Stephen was remembered on Dec. 26th, the exiled St. John on Dec. 27th, and the murdered babies on Dec. 28th. Three holidays in a row marking gloomy events in the life of the church were celebrated after the high joy of Christmas. This was done on purpose as an antidote to the excesses that the celebration of Christmas had begun to take on.
Perhaps we could use a little bad news today. Our lives remain largely untouched by the millions of babies murdered in the womb and the creep of euthanasia, mercy killing, and assisted suicide as if these great evils weren't happening here. No the real killing is happening in Africa, in Iraq, in India. Someone once observed that the difference between post WW II America and England was this. In the US consumption became a way of life while in England it was still a dreaded disease (The Last Lion, III, 974). Crimes against humanity, nature, and the innocent aren't just a dreaded disease overseas in dark corners of the world; the bright streets of America are ill with them too.
A 17 hundred year old church festival can be repurposed for life today because it can show us the depths of sins against life have been plumbed before. You know even though the text says Herod killed all the boy babies not only in Bethlehem but in the vicinity, scholars assure us that was only 20-30 babies. O is that all? We don't say that, do we? One would be too many. If it was our baby, it would be unbearably too many. Look on the internet; see the various paintings of the massacre of the babies. How could soldiers do that, even under orders? The same way that doctors, nurses, mothers, fathers, and children abort, euthanize, and murder today.
Ignoble paganism has always demanded human life, usually babies, to sacrifice to their gods. The gods of Canaan were like that. I saw a Lutheran Hour video years ago showing a large cave found around Jerusalem with hundreds and hundreds of clay pots in it. There was a baby skeleton in each one. How could they do that? Their gods, their religion, their faith called for it. The common gods of America, personal security and happiness, call us to make human sacrifice too. A baby really is a burden to a woman's life. An old person really can take away from someone's happiness. And what a threat to financial security and day to day happiness a sick person is. "Sacrifice them; sacrifice them," the gods of security and happiness call.
The false gods have always called for human sacrifice with the promise that your life would be better. What has changed is that people who call themselves Christian support the taking of inconvenient life in and out of the womb in the name of preventing further suffering. Their religion doesn't see any way suffering or a malformed life can serve God. "No, no," these new Christians' say, "God is a God of mercy and love. He has no problem with difficult painful, lives, in or out of the womb being terminated, ended, put to rest. O not for my sake, not for my personal security and happiness but for the sake of my malformed baby or terminally ill loved one."
This 17 hundred year old festival can be repurposed for life today because it can show us the depths of sin against life has been plumbed before and that even at the bottom of them you can find God in Christ for life. That's a long sentence but it essentially means what Patty Lovelace sang 20 years ago in "Here I am." She sang that the boyfriend who dumped her shouldn't keep looking for her at the bottom of a whisky glass because he would indeed find her there. Of course, the point of the song is that's a bad thing, and my point is a good thing. Christ Jesus is present in the depths, even at the very bottom of the sins against life. He was there at the massacre of the innocents in Bethlehem, and He's here now.
The problem is you have a hard time seeing this because our text ends with Rachel weeping and in great mourning for her children and refusing to be comforted. And this isn't one of those readings where the ending has been clipped. Nope this is how the text really ends: with Rachel weeping for her dead children as we do for ours.
But this is not where Matthew leaves it. First, he sets this Old Testament reference apart from the one about His son being called out of Egypt. You can't see this in translation, but it's there in Greek. He says that Jesus went down and came back out of Egypt "in order that" the Word of the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled. His citation of Jeremiah 31 doesn't read that way. It just says, "Then what was spoken was fulfilled." 8 out of the 10 times Matthew cites the Old Testament he sees the purpose of God behind what happens. Only with the slaughter of the Bethlehem babies and with the betrayal of Judas he does not. Scripture was fulfilled but Herod's slaughter and Judas' being the betrayer were not God's purpose (Gibbs, 130, 143).
The slaughter of the babies of Bethlehem wasn't fulfilling some deep seated purpose of God and neither are the millions being slaughtered today by abortionists and euthanists. God in Christ is still at the bottom of this glass even though along with Patty Lovelace what's in the glass burns us just like a brand, and Matthew ending the text how he does wants to show us Him.
Matthew is pointing us back to Jeremiah 31 where he got the words about Rachel weeping in great mourning for her lost children and refusing to be comforted. This one verse is the only downer in all of Jeremiah chapter 31. In the very next verse Jeremiah immediately jumps to hope, then moves on to deliverance, to the New Testament, to the forgiveness of sins, and to that precious promise, "For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more." The evil, murderous King Herod and the world that went along with his orders weren't at the bottom of the glass. God bringing hope, deliverance, and forgiveness through the New Testament of the Body and Blood of Jesus were.
Likewise, we are not to think the wicked world and a fallen government that won't protect life at either end are at the bottom of this glass. Jesus is. But He is here in ways that confound human reason and are wide-open to the ridicule of unbelief. He is here like He was in the text fleeing to Egypt in weakness while not stopping the murders in His wake. He is here in normal looking Water, weak sounding words, and plain Bread and Wine while Sin, Death, and the Devil stalk the earth murdering the unborn, the defenseless, the malformed, and the weak.
But what did you expect from a God who comes into the world through a virgin's womb? What did you expect from a God who takes on the whole world's obligations and sins? What did you expect from a God who deals with the problem of human suffering and evil by suffering helplessly on a cross at the hands of evil? Look to the very bottom of this cup of suffering, blood, and death, and there you will see Jesus at the bottom. He dealt with our breaking of the 5th Commandment in thought, word, and deed by keeping it in our place. He dealt with the sin of spilling the blood of babies, of the sick, of the elderly by spilling His own blood to cover those sins.
See all the way to the bottom of the glass. There He is. Herod meant to stop Jesus from being King, and Satan meant to stop Jesus from being Savior. Murder Him before He can keep all the Laws of God; kill Him before He can drain the cup of wrath against your sins; do away with Him before He can reach the very bottom of hell's damnation, so all of God's Laws remain accusing you; so all of God's wrath is aimed at you; so all of hell's damnation waits for you. But neither Herod nor Satan stopped Jesus from declaring it is finished, and God the Father declaring in thunderous response, "You bet it is!" by raising Jesus from the dead.
Keep on looking to the bottom of this holy day on which we remember the slaughter of the innocents and see that is has a purpose still today for your life. The welter of blood, of evil, of death that is accepted by many if not most in our society wants to cause you to despair of God's power, grace, and purpose. To cause you to despair of the forgiveness of your sins because sinning still goes on, to cause you to despair of the God of salvation for a God who does what you think He should in every situation, to cause you to despair thinking evil triumphs because the God of goodness doesn't quash it immediately.
Repurpose this holy day for life. Let the God of this festival, God in Christ, deliver you from a world that is so hopeless it can't see hope even in new life and from a world that is so meaningless it can't find meaning even in old life, to a world of miracles where God not only walks with man but is Man and so is able to give you hope and meaning not just in spite of suffering but even in the depths of it, even at the very bottom of the glass. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Holy Innocents, Martyrs (20140119); Matthew 2: 13-18