Matthew 2:13-18; Revelation 14:1-5; Jeremiah 31:15-17
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
An angel of the Lord warned Joseph that evil was coming. He offered no explanation as to why there was evil, or why God would permit evil to happen, but only the stern warning stating the prescient reality of evil, “Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy Him.”
What is striking in this horrific account of evil in the first years of our young Lord’s life is not the fact that evil exists, but that God provided the Holy Family advance warning. The children and teachers in Sandy Hook Elementary School were not so fortunate. There was no advance warning that evil was coming, but, as one pastor put it, “Herod shot his way into the school two weeks ago. Well not the Biblical Herod, but the evil that he represents, that evil filled a person and shot its way into the classroom.” Evil came to Newtown on Friday, December 14, 2012. There was no advance warning. Twenty children, most about the age of six, and six adults were murdered, and two were wounded, and, seemingly, God permitted it to happen.
Yes, God permitted it to happen. That is the correct conclusion to draw. It is not that God is unable to prohibit evil, if it is His will to do so, nor is it that God is not good and does not desire to prohibit evil, and nor is it that God simply doesn’t exist. Rather, God is in control of evil, though He is not its creator or source, and He prohibits it, and He permits it, in accordance with His holy will.
The cry of the flesh into the heavens is, “How can a good and loving God ever permit evil, suffering, and death to befall His creatures?” Luther referred to this as God’s alien work. In His alien work, another pastor writes, “God destroys things, He creates calamity, and He lays waste to our idols and to us, because we have turned our own lives into idolatry. He lays waste to us and to all that we have placed before Him seeking to save us.” This is to say, Luther understood God’s alien work to be discipline, not punishment, meted out in love to destroy all our idols, all that we have raised up before and above Him, all that gets in between Him and us. Truly, it was idolatry that introduced evil and death into the world, something feared, loved, and trusted more than and above God by our First Parents, and by Satan himself. Since the fall, every imagination of the thoughts of man’s heart is only evil.
It was God’s will to spare the infant Jesus from Herod’s murderous evil. However, it was God’s will also to surrender His Son unto evil on Good Friday that, through death, He might destroy the sting of death. But, what about the Holy Innocents in Bethlehem? What about the innocents in Newtown? Why did God permit them to be overcome by evil and slaughtered, without advance warning or seeming purpose? Here the answer, once again, is God’s alien work, that He permits evil, that He even sends evil, though He is not the source of evil, to save us all from evil.
One of the best passages from Scripture to illustrate this truth comes from the Prophet Isaiah: “The righteous perish, and no one ponders it in his heart; devout men are taken away, and no one understands that the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil.” From man’s perspective, there is evil, and then there is Evil with a capital E. We look at the wanton slaughtering of young children, both in Newtown, and in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago, and we call it Evil with a capital E. However, the fact that over 16,000 children worldwide die each day from hunger-related causes, we blithely consider to be evil, not to mention the fact that 3,200 babies die each day from abortion – that’s a child every 32 seconds and 54 million children since 1973 when abortion was legalized in the United States.
Truly, sinful man has no sanctified ground from which to judge evil, with or without a capital E, but only God does, and He prohibits evil and permits evil according to His divine and holy, proper and alien will. He worked to prohibit evil from befalling Jesus in the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, but in His alien work He gave Jesus over to death on the cross. Surely diseases, natural disasters, and wars do not have their source in God, but they are according to His permissive will, His alien work, under His control and according to His divine goodness, holiness, and righteousness. Even those horrors which have their unquestionable source in man’s sinful corruption, abortions, murders, massacres, and wars, God permits, controls, limits, and directs as His alien work for a good we cannot usually see, know, or understand.
What about those innocents in Newtown? What can we possibly say about that? What good could God possibly bring from permitting evil to happen in such a way as that? My dear Christians, I will be the first to tell you that I do not know what good God in His infinite wisdom sees and will bring from this horror, but that He has certainly knocked down and destroyed many a man’s idols. For too many, life itself is an idol, separating us from God, stealing our fear, love, and trust which belong to Him alone. If such sudden and horrific evil and death can fall upon such young and innocent souls as those in Newtown, or in the shopping mall in Oregon, or the movie theater in Colorado, then it can certainly fall upon us as well. Your God is a jealous God. He is not jealous as you are jealous, envious, and covetous of your neighbor’s material goods, spouse, and blessings, but He loves you with a perfect and holy love that will not share you with any other thing that He has made, which you have fashioned into a god of your own design. He will have you for Himself every day of your life, and He will have you for Himself for eternity, which is greater by far.
When calamity, horror, and evil death befall you and those you love, or your neighbor you do not know, we have God’s Word that “the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil.” What evil? Is not being slaughtered by a crazed gunman at the age of six an evil to be spared from? No, for there is a greater evil than even horrific and untimely death, eternal death in hellish separation from God’s gracious presence and life. This, your heavenly Father will permit many evil things to happen to you to preserve you from, because He loves you and will never leave you or forsake you for the sake of His Son, whom He gave over unto evil death to secure for you salvation and eternal life.
Interestingly, a related theme emerges in the propers appointed for The Feast of The Holy Innocents which might seem to run against the grain of orthodox Christian doctrine concerning our justification and reception of the gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ. In our Old Testament reading the Prophet Jeremiah actually speaks of a work which will be rewarded. He says, “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work, declares the LORD, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future, declares the LORD, and your children shall come back to their own country.” These words of comfort and hope were spoken to Rachel, the beloved wife of Jacob and mother of Joseph and Benjamin, who had died a thousand years earlier. Speaking prophetically of the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities in 722 and 586 B.C., Jeremiah pictures Rachel weeping bitterly for her distant offspring, the children of Israel, refusing to be comforted as though they were dead. Jeremiah tells Rachel to not weep, for there will be a reward for her labor of bringing her children into the world. They would come back from the land of the enemy, to their own country. A remnant would return.
In his Gospel, St. Matthew writes that this prophecy was fulfilled in the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, thereby connecting the return of the remnant, not only the children of Israel’s return to the promised land, but the spiritual children of Israel’s return to the promised land of heaven. The work, of which Jeremiah prophesies, which will be rewarded, is much less the labor of childbirth than it is the work of martyrdom for the sake of Jesus. The Holy Innocents of Bethlehem were slaughtered, not because of anything that they had done, but because of Herod’s murderous attempt to kill the infant Jesus. They died because of Jesus, the result of evil they had not committed, so that the Holy Family would flee back into the land of Israel’s historic enemy, to Egypt, that the prophecy would be fulfilled, “Out of Egypt I have called my Son.” As through Moses, God long ago called Israel, His son, out of bondage and slavery in Egypt, into the good land of promise, so through His Son Jesus, the new Moses and the new Israel, God would once again call His children forth out of slavery and bondage, not to Pharaoh, but to sin, death, and Satan. All God’s children must pass through death. But, God’s own Son, Jesus, has suffered evil and death in our place and has passed through death, destroying its sting, into free and eternal life for all who trust in Him and follow Him in the way that He has blazed.
God does not spare you death, for His own Word of warning has made it a necessity, “In the day that you eat of [the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil] you shall surely die.” However, He has suffered death for you, in your place, and He has given you His Word of promise, “[you] shall come back from the land of the enemy,” “your children shall come back to their own country.” When death comes, all Christians die as martyrs, for death is an enemy, your enemy and God’s enemy, and you too are His Holy Innocents, made innocent, holy, and righteous in the blood of His Son, Jesus, whom He has called out of Egypt, the land of the enemy, death, hell, and Satan.
Your life in this world is like everything else in this world, a gift of God over which He has made you managers and stewards. Therefore, your life belongs to Him alone. The best that you can experience or imagine in this life is but a dim shadow of the life that is to come in communion with God, in the presence of His holiness and glory. Likewise, the worst that you can experience or imagine in this life is but a dim shadow of the death-like life that is separation from God’s gracious presence. Thus, Jesus has taught you to refrain from making your life in this world an idol saying, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”
What good comes from evil? Your idols are shattered, even those you didn’t know you had, and Christ alone is revealed as the one thing certain, the one thing needful and necessary, and God is glorified. Today He provides you the fruits of His death that, in the midst of death, you may have life – a foretaste of true and eternal life, on the other side of death, in communion with God in Christ Jesus.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.