Posted by: Johnold Strey | December 28, 2008

Sermon for the Commemoration of the Holy Innocents

1. A king’s jealous rage could not be stopped
2. The Lord’s gracious plans would not be stopped

Text: Matthew 2:13-18


There is an old German saying: “Mann denkt, Gott lenkt.”  The English translation doesn’t sound quite as elegant: Man thinks, God directs (or steers, draws, drives, etc.).  We have a saying in English that essentially means the same thing: Man proposes, God disposes.  Whether you prefer the German or English proverb, the point is the same.  Human beings will make plans, but nothing will ever come to fruition unless God permits it.

Man proposes, God disposes.  The truth behind that saying can be seen in the Gospel for today.  Church calendars designate December 28 as a day to remember the “Holy Innocents,” the little boys in Bethlehem who were killed by order of King Herod, who hoped to kill Jesus in the process.  The term “Holy Innocents” is the name commonly used to refer to these children, but the term does not mean to imply that these children were sinless.  Rather, they were innocent of any sort of wrongdoing that would have merited such a lethal response from King Herod.  And Christians rightly remember these little babies as the first martyrs for Christ.

The Commemoration of the Holy Innocents has been observed since at least 505 A.D. in North Africa (The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship, 1990, ed. Peter Fink, p. 207).  The connection of this event to Christmas is pretty obvious, since it follows Matthew’s accounts of Jesus’ birth and the visit of the Wise Men, but the somber nature of this occasion might seem like an odd thing to consider on the fourth day of Christmas.  But the fact remains that these little boys were martyred in connection with the infant years of Jesus’ life, and the Holy Spirit recorded these words on the coattails of the Christmas and Epiphany stories for a reason.  There are many lessons and truths we can draw from this account-as is the case with any section of Scripture-but let’s concentrate on this particular lesson today: Man proposes, God disposes.  We see that truth in the Holy Innocents account because King Herod’s jealous rage could not be stopped, but in spite of that the Lord’s gracious plan would not be stopped.


The Gospel for today’s service actually comes after the story of Epiphany, which is traditionally observed on January 6, bringing an end to the 12 days of Christmas.  The Magi from the east had come to see the baby Jesus.  Anywhere from a few months to two years had elapsed since Jesus was born.  Innocently enough, the Magi came to King Herod’s palace to ask where this newborn king was living.  The Magi wanted to worship the baby Jesus, but after Herod learned about this newborn king, he wanted to take Jesus out of the scene.

That’s where the old saying applies in our story: Man proposes, God disposes.  “When [the Magi] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up,’ he said, ‘take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt.  Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’  So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod.  And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.'”

Those who know their ancient history aren’t surprised to hear about this incident from the reign of King Herod the Great.  It would not be going too far to say that he was the Saddam Hussein or Adolf Hitler of his day.  He killed three of his own sons because he was afraid that they were after his throne.  He killed a number of other people who were suspected to be after his throne, in one case killing the entire family of the suspected individual.  Herod’s reign was characterized by events like these.  He reigned with a terrifying iron fist, and as far as he was concerned, no rival king predicted by God’s prophets was going to pose a threat to his reign.  His jealous rage could not be stopped.  “When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious.” The actions that followed show us just how ruthless Herod was.  “[Herod] gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.”

Over the past several months, my wife has been working on a Strey family history project.  She discovered a number of interesting facts about the Strey line of which we are a part.  My father was the seventh of eight children; his father was also from a family of eight; and that father (my great-grandfather) was from a family of 13.  I never met my grandparents let alone my great grandparents, but of my great grandfather’s siblings (12, plus himself), only five lived to adulthood.  Five!  I cannot even begin to imagine how awful it would be to bury eight of your children before any of them could reach the age of 18.  We live in such a germ-free, sanitized, medically knowledgeable environment, that we forget that this was life just a few generations ago.  Luther knew that too; two of his six children died before they were adults.  And I’m pretty sure that high infant mortality rates were a problem in Jesus’ era too.

How awful, how absolutely shocking and appalling, in a world where infant mortality rates were high and children were treasured by their parents so dearly, that the jealous rage of King Herod would take out a bunch of little boys in diapers in his attempt to take out Jesus.  Given the population of Bethlehem and the surrounding area, it seems that the number of boys killed was probably around 20.  Some have suggested that thousands were slaughtered, but that figure is simply impossible given that Bethlehem’s total population might have been around 1,000 people.  But does not change the tragedy that happened for those people of Bethlehem and its bordering cities.  It is sad enough when children have to bury their parents.  But it is emotionally horrible when parents have to bury their children, and even more so when there was no good reason why those children should have lost their lives, save for the murderous jealousy of a ruthless ruler named Herod the Great.  But Herod’s jealousy could not be stopped in his thirst and greed and lust for power.

Who could be so cold as to end the life of innocent children just for personal convenience’s sake?  (Pause)  Does the list of people who fit that description only include Herod?  Or did the silent pause make you think of our own world today?  For personal convenience, millions of unborn children, with their own distinct DNA code testifying that they are distinct, individual people, have been needlessly killed, not to protect the life of the mother, but for personal convenience.  And our nation has proudly elected politicians who make no bones about the fact that they don’t have a problem with that.  Is that not appalling?  Who would be so cold and selfish as to put personal plans and preferences over the will of God?

But that’s the underlying problem.  Herod’s real problem was that he put his plans above God’s plans.  Those who promote abortion today put their plans for life above God’s plans.  And when we diagnose the problem and the sin that way, suddenly we cannot stand on our self-righteous soapbox and arrogantly point out all the nasty sins of the so-called pro-choice movement, even though what they say is clearly against the will of God.  Because is there any one of us here today who hasn’t operated with the same motives — putting our plans before God’s plans?  God’s calls us to honor those in authority over us, but our plans permit us to gripe and grouse about everything we can find wrong.  God calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves, but we add the footnote that it only applies to the neighbors we like.  God calls us to honor his design for sex within marriage, but our plans say that God is too outdated for the modern world.  God calls us to speak well of others, but our plans know that trash talk about someone else is the first step toward advancing in our world.  God calls us to take his Word seriously, but our plans are to pick and choose what suits our palates at this particular moment.  Is that not appalling?  Who would be so cold and selfish as to put personal plans and preferences over the will of God?  Who would do that?  We would, and like King Herod, we have!  And God’s hellish judgment stares us in the face because we have!


Man proposes, God disposes.  Even Herod’s jealous rage could not change that fact.  God was in control, and we can see God’s control of the situation in two ways.  For starters, the Old Testament predicted that such an event would take place.  Matthew, who writes for a Jewish audience, quotes the Old Testament generously in his Gospel, for his audience would be well acquainted with it.  Matthew writes, “Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.'”

We heard Jeremiah’s words in the First Lesson (Jeremiah 31:15-17) for today as well.  The immediate situation that Jeremiah had in mind was the Babylonian captivity.  Jeremiah’s words prophesied the impending captivity to his ancient audience in Judah.  But Old Testament prophecies often contained a double fulfillment, and that’s the case with Jeremiah’s words.  The Lord used Jeremiah to predict two tragedies that would occur in Judah’s future: the immediate tragedy of the Babylonian captivity, and the tragedy in the distant future of the slaughter of the holy innocents.  And neither tragedy could have taken place without the Lord allowing it to take place.  This is not to suggest that God is the author of evil; he is not.  But a loving parent will allow his or her children to face the consequences of their bad decisions, and our loving God permits us to endure the consequences of sin on this side of heaven.  But he is still in control, and the prediction of this event centuries earlier shows us that he is still in control.

But the greater evidence that God is in control comes at the front of the story.  Man proposes, God disposes.  Herod proposed to kill the boy Jesus, but the Lord’s gracious plans that were embodied in Jesus would not be stopped.  “When [the Magi] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up,’ he said, ‘take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt.  Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’  So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod.  And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.'”

Herod’s jealous rage would not stop God’s gracious plan.  The birth of Jesus put God’s plan into motion, and no death threat was going to change that plan.  Because the time for Jesus’ death was not now, but some 30 years later.  First came an escape from Herod’s sword that took Jesus’ family to Egypt and back.  Then came growing up as a child and showing obedience to his parents-and obedience to his heavenly Father on our behalf.  Then came a baptism by John where Jesus identified himself as the Savior for you, me, and the entire human race for whom he had come.  Then came the temptations in the wilderness that he faced successfully and perfectly.  Then came a gracious ministry and battles against his opponents.  Then came submission to his Father’s will that sent him to the cross, where his holy life was given in exchange for our sinful lives, and where his punishment freed us from our punishment for sin.  And finally came the victory of all victories, his defeat over sin and death that otherwise would have kept us from union and communion with God.  And no egocentric King with a jealous vision was going to stop God’s gracious plans in their tracks.

God’s gracious plan even extended to those baby boys who became victims of a raging king’s raging jealousy.  God had already adopted those little boys through the Old Testament sacrament of circumcision.  We don’t often think of it this way, but circumcision was, in a sense, the Old Testament equivalent to Baptism.  Circumcision reminded God’s Old Testament people that the Savior who was yet to come would come from their own offspring, their own seed.  God used circumcision in the Old Testament the same way he now uses baptism in the New Testament.  One pointed people forward to the promise of a coming Savior who would be one of us, and the other points back to Jesus’ completed work of washing away our sins in his blood.  Both brought people into faith and a relationship with God-one for one era, and one for this era.  Both were part of God’s plan to adopt people into his family.

Baptism has also been a part of God’s plan for you.  For even though our sinful heart plans to run away from God the moment he approaches us, God’s plan was to adopt us into his family at the font.  There the plan of salvation centered in Jesus became God’s plan to save you.  There the forgiveness won at Christ’s cross became your forgiveness.  There the age-old promises of God recorded in Scripture became God’s promises to you.  There the life-long certainty that nothing can separate you from God’s love in Christ became yours.  There the promise of eternal life after this life became yours.  And no wicked plans of sinful human beings can change God’s gracious plans and promises to you.


I don’t know about you, but it was a little hard to sing that hymn before the sermon.  The poet’s imagery of those little martyrs playing with crowns and palm branches in heaven is enough to choke up even the toughest among us.  But even in a tragedy like that, even in the sinful plans of a wicked king, God’s plan to save those little boys and his plan to save the entire world in Jesus Christ won the day.  Man proposes, God disposes.  When push comes to shove, God’s plans always win!  Amen.



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