When we hear that Gospel, I suppose there’s not a one of us who doesn’t ask in his heart: “Why, God? How could you let such an awful thing happen? We’re so thankful that Jesus wasn’t killed, but what about those others, those little boys? Didn’t You care about them? What about their poor mothers and fathers, refusing to be comforted because their children were dead – butchered before their eyes – and without a clue as to why? O God, did it have to be that way?”
Such thoughts show that we have trouble coming to terms with some very important truths that God teaches us in His Word. From start to finish the Bible reminds us that this life is not permanent, that this world is not our home, that we are a people on pilgrimage.
Further, the Bible bears abundant testimony – and we experience it in our own lives too – that God does not guarantee anyone a certain length of time for that pilgrimage. Some have a very short journey through this world – their breath snuffed out like that of the Holy Innocents. Others live to gray hair and see great-grandchildren. Many end their pilgrimage somewhere in between. But this much is true: the pilgrimage comes to an end for all, and that end can come at any time and in any way.
Neither to you, nor to your parents, nor to your children, nor to your grandchildren, nor to any relative or friend, has God promised anything about the length of pilgrimage or the manner of death.
“You’re being rather morbid today, pastor” I hear you say. No. Just being realistic. I think it was the same realism that inspired the Church to set the feast of the Holy Innocents just three days after the Nativity of our Lord – a poignant reminder of why our Lord took on flesh and blood.
You see, if life in this world is a pilgrimage and it has an end, it does not at all follow that that is the end of us. Rather, the Bible reveals the startling truth that like it or not, every last one of us is going to live forever. And the Bible reveals that we will live forever either in eternal joy and bliss, or in never-ending regret, sorrow and pain. That is, we’ll all end up in either heaven or in hell. What makes the difference?
Not how you live during your pilgrimage. Those who spend their pilgrimage trying to be good people, thinking that by keeping God’s laws they will curry his favor so that he will have to let them into his heaven – they haven’t got the first clue.
The Law of God, when we really hear it, demands of us a perfection we simply cannot come up with – no matter how hard we try. The Law doesn’t tell us that if we give it our best shot, God will pat us on the head and say: “Good try. Come on in!” The Law cuts no deals; compromise is foreign to it. The Law demands that we love the Lord our God with every ounce of our being and that we love our neighbor as ourselves. That we do so from the heart – that means, wanting always what brings glory to God and blessing to our neighbor. That we do so without fail. “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” James 2:10 And “All who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’” Gal. 3:10
The Law was given through Moses, but grace and truth through Jesus Christ! Jesus took our flesh and blood, was born of Mary for us. Because every last one of us was by nature headed toward never-ending sorrow and pain, eternal separation from God, the endless regrets of hell. Because God never wanted a single soul to know the agony of an eternity without Him.
He came among us as the true Holy Innocent. His conception was holy. His birth was innocent. His life was without sin. HIS heart never deviated once from all His Father’s law demanded. He kept it whole and He kept it for you and me. And then on His cross He suffered the punishment that was our due. Thus He secured a perfect redemption. When His Father raised Him from the dead, He declared that His Son’s sacrifice offered only once, availed now for all time and for all people. Jesus rendered hell needless; no one ever need suffer it. The only way to get into hell is by stepping over the dead body of God’s Son – by telling Him: “No thanks, I don’t need your blood or your forgiveness. I can handle my sins on my own.”
That is unbelief – the refusal of the gifts of God. It’s opposite is faith, being given to, receiving from Christ what He would give. And it is precisely such faith that makes the difference between landing in heaven and hell.
The Holy Innocents were called that not because they didn’t have sin. No, they would have confessed had they but a little older, exactly what the Scripture says: “Behold, I was conceived in iniquity and in sin my mother bore me.” They were holy innocents, not by nature, but by grace. Enfolded into the covenant God made with Abraham when they were circumcised on the 8th day of their lives, wrapped in the promises of God, they were put into a life of faith, waiting for the redemption of the coming Savior. Thus, when their pilgrimage ended, they left as “sweet flowrets of the martyr band.”
And you too get to be holy innocents in much the same way. They had the Old Testament sacrament of circumcision and looked in faith to coming Redeemer. You have the New Testament sacrament of Baptism, and you look in faith to the Redeemer who has come, who has kept the Law for you, who has thereby secured for you and all people an eternal redemption. As you simply believe it, it’s all yours. Thus, you are holy and innocent with the holiness and innocence of Another.
Such holy innocence He reaches to you at the altar in the gift of His body and blood – the very same body and blood that fully kept the law on your behalf and that answered for all your sins upon the tree. He reaches to you what He offered on your behalf as His pledge and guarantee, as you trust it, that when your pilgrimage is ended, He will bring you to the place of overflowing joy and blessedness, the home He has prepared for you. He reaches it to you that even now it might begin to work in you obedience and love toward God. Thus God quiets our unrest and fears.
This life is after all, only a pilgrimage; death ends it for each of us at a time we can’t guess and sometimes in ways that are ghastly. But our Jesus has opened a Kingdom beyond death; He has prepared for us an everlasting home – and for that to Him with the Father and the Holy Spirit be all glory and honor, world without end. Amen.