Sermon for The Holy Innocents 28 December – Years A B & C

NB: I preached this sermon on 28th December 2008 and it contains some topical references which can be updated.

 Matthew 2:13-18
Look at the baby, lying in the manger. How can he be a threat? He’s very obviously helpless and vulnerable. He’s absolutely dependent on others for his care. He’s apparently weak – easily damaged or broken.

But he is powerful too. All babies have a power in what they represent:

She might be very much wanted and loved.
She is new life and hope for a better future.
She draws a family together.


Caring for her is very demanding, tiring.
She might be an object of jealousy to another child or even a partner.
She might be an object of fear to someone who hasn’t learned good parenting.


Whatever the baby represents, however people react to him or her, one thing remains absolutely true:

A baby is utterly, completely unequivocally innocent

And so it is that when babies and small children are abused the crime is especially horrific. Evil deeds stand out more starkly when carried out against innocence. We’ve seen or heard about too many examples this year:

Baby Peter; Shannon Matthews; a 13 year old used as a mobile bomb; Rhys Jones

What’s more, for every child we know about there are unknown numbers of others
whose suffering remains secret. And in today’s climate is it impossible to believe
that there might again be a slaughter of children in Bethlehem?

Jesus is born innocent. God is present in his conception and birth, however we understand that. His birth is proclaimed by angels, greeted by shepherds and wise men and he is God’s Messiah.

For Herod, though, Jesus is already a threat; Herod stands to lose his position, his power, his authority. Herod wants to hang on to those things come what may. He’s even prepared to order the slaughter of infant children.

Jesus is born to live among us and he is at risk and as vulnerable as we are.

And all this re-awakens for me some of my deepest questions about God.

Why is one child born into welcoming love, warmth and security while another is born into conflict, danger, lack of food or medical resources?

Why do some people escape injury or death while others are killed?

In the wake of incidents like 9/11 or the July bombings in London there are often stories of people who would normally have been in the places affected but weren’t for some reason. Some use the phrase “there but for the grace of God go I” and I don’t know what that means.

If the grace of God saved one, why hasn’t it saved all?
If the grace of God caused a traffic jam in London so I missed the train that was bombed, why couldn’t he have prevented everyone from catching it?

If God could warn Joseph in a dream that Jesus was in danger, why couldn’t he warn others in dreams so no child died? Why should all those children die and Jesus escape?

These are huge questions about the nature of God and his relationship with us, how far he can choose or is able to intervene in our lives. They’re not questions with straight forward, easy answers. They are questions many of us struggle with in our journey of faith.

Jim, Tricia, Jeremy and I[1] are reading a book called “The Shack” by William Paul Young. It’s sold over a million copies in the United States and it’s in Waterstones’ top ten paperbacks. It’s the story of a man who, 4 years after his 6 year old daughter is abducted and brutally murdered, spends a weekend in a shack with God wrestling with these very questions:

What sort of God creates a world where this can happen and why didn’t God prevent it? How does he deal with the anger he feels towards the murderer (who is never caught) and how can he possibly be expected to forgive? Where is his little girl now and is she happy?

I recommend the book, not because it gives answers – it doesn’t – but because it explores questions we’ve perhaps all had at some time or another.

The fate of the Holy innocents is terrible and it’s hard to reflect on it, nothing can make it anything other than what it is: a terrible brutal act of murder inflicted because of the fear, insecurity and greed for power of a man who could make it happen.

But from even this most terrible of events God can sow the seeds of hope and redemption which we can accept and nurture in ourselves.

So I’d like to end with three positive thoughts which may offer some hope and encouragement as we approach the New Year.

In my experience, people who have had a brush with death or disaster or who have suffered terribly are often people who also carry with them an attitude of thankfulness and wonder that they are still alive.

Life is precious to them and each day is special, not to be wasted on things that don’t matter. They seem to live in the present, without regrets for the past or fear for the future. I’m sure it’s possible to live in that way without having lived through tragedy and pain, I’m sure it’s the way God wants us to live, trusting in his love and strength to carry us through our lives.

This morning is an opportunity to think about who we are when we come to take communion and to kneel before this baby in a manger. When we meet with Innocence we are known for who we really are and Innocence offers forgiveness and healing.

As we look forward to the New Year perhaps today could be a time for renewing our commitment to this baby, and to all innocents, that we will work to make this world
a safer and better place for them to live in.

[1] Clergy and Readers at time of preaching