I’ve been working on a “slaughter of the innocents” sermon for the last few weeks. On the liturgical calendar, Holy Innocents Day falls on December 28th. The gospel passage for that day is Matthew 2:13-18:
13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ 14Then Joseph* got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men,* he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.* 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18 ‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’
While I know why this is the passage that is used, I actually think that it is more about Herod’s paranoia and abuse of power, so for the sermon I’m working on my main scripture passage would be this:
29 Then the spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh. He passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. 30And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, ‘If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, 31then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt-offering.’ 32So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them; and the Lord gave them into his hand. 33He inflicted a massive defeat on them from Aroer to the neighbourhood of Minnith, twenty towns, and as far as Abel-keramim. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel.34 Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing. She was his only child; he had no son or daughter except her. 35When he saw her, he tore his clothes, and said, ‘Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.’ 36She said to him, ‘My father, if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the Lord has given you vengeance against your enemies, the Ammonites.’ 37And she said to her father, ‘Let this thing be done for me: Grant me two months, so that I may go and wander on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, my companions and I.’ 38‘Go,’ he said and sent her away for two months. So she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity on the mountains. 39At the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to the vow he had made. She had never slept with a man. So there arose an Israelite custom that 40for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite. (Judges 11:29-40)
Why this passage from Judges? Partly because Judges is one of those books that tends to be avoided in churches (along with Joshua, Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles and most of the minor prophets). Partly because in avoiding Judges, there are many stories of the human experience that get overlooked.
The longer I’ve thought about it, the more these two passages are a good juxtaposition. Nobody says that the children in the Matthew passage aren’t innocent. But they aren’t the only innocents.
We are eight days into the new year, and if Chicago local news is to be believed, the death by guns total is 14 so far. Eight days, fourteen people.
We don’t know if those who have died are innocent. And I don’t really care if any of them were. What we do know is that any chance for redemption or continued innocence is gone. What we do know is that the cumulative and slow-moving tragedy of places like Chicago or St. Louis or Philadelphia or New Orleans doesn’t capture the national conscious the way that one tragedy in Connecticut does. And we are the worse for that. Just as we the worse for not looking at the Judges story of an innocent’s slaughter when we look at the Matthew story of innocents slaughtered.