Jesus, The Refugee
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.” 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill 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.17 Then 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.”
19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”
Five years ago, Faez believed he was dead. He was walking on his way to work at a healthcare company in his hometown of Daraa, Syria. For months his town had already been a warzone. Government forces torturing and killing supposed threats on one side. And insurgents bombing and killing on the other side. Many days as he walked to work, he had to walk directly by dead bodies. He knew that even children were being taken and tortured and killed.
This morning, he made the mistake of walking to work alone. Government forces took him and three other men at gunpoint, claiming they were terrorists. Faez knew this likely would not end with him walking away alive. But in his last moment, an older woman walked by. Faez had never seen her before in his life. She was a complete stranger. But she told the Syrian soldiers, “This man is my son. And those others are our neighbors. I can vouch for them. They are no threat.” The soldiers believed her, and let all four men go. This stranger saved Faez’s life.
By that night, Faez and his wife Shaza, decided they had to take the most painful step of their lives: leave their home country. They had to leave their families, their culture, everything they knew to save their own lives, and create a future for themselves.
For their next two years, Faez and Shaza would be a family without a home, first in a reugee camp of 80,000 people in Jordan. Then with the help of others, they got into the capital city of Amman where Faez worked graveyard shifts to avoid being detected. And finally, with the help of people they never knew beforehand, they were placed by a refugee agency in America. They now live and work in Dallas, and have two young daughters. Faez and his family are alive and well today because of the actions, the hospitality, and the courage of strangers.
Jesus’ life starts in much the same way. Like Faez and Shaza, the threat of death was close by.
For most of us we stop the Bethlehem story with the visit from the Magi in the east. We stop with gifts and stars and a joyful celebration. But the Gospel of Matthew doesn’t stop with what’s comfortable and safe. It goes on and tells us the full story of what was happening in Bethlehem at the time. King Herod saw a threat, a new king who had come to claim back the citizens not just of his realm, but of all realms. And because of that from his first months, Jesus and his family had to flee.
The pastor, writer, and professor Thomas Troeger asks us to imagine these first days of Jesus’ life after the wise men visit. He invites us first to remember our nativity sets. The ones that sit on our tables in our living rooms, bedrooms, and churches. Almost all of them have cows and oxen, donkeys and sheep, shepherds and angels, wise men, and a barn.
But here, after the magi’s visit, all of that goes away. The shepherds have returned to their fields. The magi have gone back to their distant homes. There are “no visitors. No sheltering barn. No cuddly looking sheep. No friendly oxen…” There is only Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. “Just the three of them all alone, facing the terror of a brutal despot.”
That is a hard story to face. I have never seen a children’s pageant end this way. But it is how Jesus came into this world, first greeted and celebrated, but then immediately facing evil and violence and terror. It is a dark story, and a difficult piece of scripture to read. It is very tempting to pass it over and then jump to the whole family being safe and sound back in Nazareth.
But in this story, there is a hope. And there is a message for us today.
The hope is for those like Faez and Shaza, for the millions today who are still seeking freedom, seeking peace, seeking a place to lay down their heads and call home. God has not forgotten them or left them. God has shared in their story and journeyed in their footsteps. Jesus and his family made it to Egypt without any home there, without any family, without connections, without the right papers or process. But somehow they were welcomed in by strangers. They had to rely on people of another land, who were not of their own clan or religion or nationality, and for some reason these people of Egypt made a way for them to survive. They welcomed them with hospitality.
Just as Joseph was guided by his dreams to save Mary and Jesus and flee Bethlehem, God knows the dreams of people fleeing today. And God cares about those dreams. God wants those dreams to be a reality. Christ does not look at these people as lesser than, but as those he came to be just like, so that he could create a new kingdom of peace and wholeness for each one.
Our message is to join in making those dreams a reality. Our message is to welcome people and show hospitality, even those from strange lands who are of a different background from us. Later in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus will say, “Just as you did it to one of these who are least of my family, you did it to me.” It is impossible for me to read this passage and not see Jesus in the faces and stories and names of people who are fleeing today.
You may not know where to begin. I encourage you to begin in re-reading this passage at home. And then I encourage you to start simple. Show hospitality and welcome to those who are already in your life – friends, neighbors, family. Get good at it. Then maybe find a place in this community where you can meet someone who comes from a different place, a different background than you. And if you get a chance hear their story, and look into their eyes, and remember that Jesus walked this same earth they did, breathed the same air, shared the same flesh.
And from there, I believe the Spirit will guide you.
As you re-read this story, though, remember one great thing about it. This is not the end of the story. Neither Herod, nor any king, nor any power has the final say in this story. The infant who had to flee from terror will come back to Jerusalem one day. He won’t look very powerful or threatening to most. But in one week there, he will change the world forever. He will make a way for all of us – all of us who have ever felt lost, or without a home, or in need of rescue, to be a part of a new kingdom. A kingdom without terror and fear, a kingdom without war and violence. A kingdom where all nations and tongues, tribes and people will be welcomed as one family. A kingdom unlike any other.
To Herod and the powerful, this is what they fear most of all. But to us, and all people of the world seeking peace, and freedom, and life, this is the good news of salvation. This is the true Kingdom of Christ. Amen.