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Second Sunday after Christmas, January 4, 2015

Life can change in an instant. A cancer diagnosis can send one into the unknown world of chemotherapy, hair loss and radiation treatments. Actor Christopher Reeve’s fall from a horse left him paralyzed from the neck down. A death in the family can change our plans for weeks. A child’s problem with an addiction can change life’s focus to helping the child recover. A sudden sickness can mean a move to care for an aging parent. The suffragan bishop of Maryland’s life has been forever changed by the car accident she was involved in that killed a bicyclist and her subsequent leaving of the scene.

Mary and Joseph were established in Bethlehem when suddenly three wise men appeared at the door wanting to see her Son, born the king of the Jews. They offered him priceless gifts and worshipped him. Life was good, and the future looked promising. But suddenly all that changed. The wise men go home by another way and do not return to tell Herod where the child is, as they had been asked. Since Herod wanted to get rid of the threat of Jesus, “born king of the Jews”, he flew into a murderous rage and ordered all children under the age of two in Bethlehem to be killed. An angel warns Joseph in a dream to flee to Egypt immediately. Joseph obeys, and all of a sudden the family has become refugees. They cross the border into a country that once held them captive under oppressive conditions. They know no one. Though we are told nothing of the conditions in Egypt, it is probable that Joseph had a hard time finding work, feeding his family, practicing his faith or doing anything he would have done had he stayed in Israel. Mary was raising a child on her own with no help from the females in her family. They were scared all the time, frightened that Herod might find them after all and kill Jesus and them as well.

When Herod dies, they are sent another dream, telling them to return to Israel, but because Herod’s son Archelaus is the same kind of vicious and oppressive ruler as his father was, they are sent to Nazareth – an internal exile if you will. Here though, Joseph is among his own people. He finds work and begins to build a new life with his family. He has returned as close to home as he will ever get.

Yet in all this displacement, God is present with God’s promise, that Israel’s desire for a Messiah will be fulfilled. God’s promise is shown in the wise men coming to see Jesus. They were sent by a star and were open to its leading. Gentiles, they come to Judea to ask Herod about the new king. They followed the star to Bethlehem and the Holy Family, revealing that Jesus was indeed the promised one. God used the pagan religion of astrology to point to the promise, to show that Jesus was the Messiah for all people, Jews as well as Gentiles.

God’s promise is shown in the many dreams God sends to bring the messiah to birth and to safety. Joseph has already followed a dream to take Mary as his wife in spite of her pregnancy by the Holy Spirit. A dream is given to the wise men to return home another way, so that the child Jesus might be saved from the horrible fate that will befall the children in Bethlehem. Joseph is told to flee to Egypt, told to return to Israel, told to go to Nazareth. The wise men and Joseph are open to obeying the dreams. If they had not, the situation would have turned out much differently.

God’s promise is shown in Matthew’s pointing to fulfillment of the Scriptures. Hosea 11:1 says “Out of Egypt I have called my son’. God was reminding God’s people that God had liberated them from Egypt before through Moses, who was saved from Pharoah’s intent of killing all the baby boys of the Israelites. Jesus is the fulfillment of this prophecy, Matthew tells us. He has been saved from the anger of a fearful king, afraid of losing his power, to be the Son called out of Egypt, as Israel was so many centuries before. Jesus and his parents go to Nazareth based on another prophecy.

We cannot read this passage without wondering where God’s promise was when all the children of Bethlehem were killed. Why didn’t God warn those parents, we say? Why couldn’t they all flee? Why did God leave devastating grief behind to save one child? We don’t really have any answers except to say that when Jesus was born the world did not immediately become sinless. There were still people who would do anything to get what they wanted. Violence and domination were the norm and are still the norm in the world we live in. God still allows free will to operate. Rwanda and Kosovo show us that the killing of innocent children is still very much a reality.

Also very much a reality in this day and age is the flight of people from their homes to escape governments and groups who are intent on their destruction. Yulia, Kostiantyn and Valerie recently fled the Ukraine amidst all the fighting and displacement. Kostinantyn is Jewish and would not let the Washington Post reveal his last name for fear of people left behind being hurt. They arrived in Israel last Monday with virtually no resources through the auspices of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. They are some of the lucky ones because they are in Israel, which has the means to support them and help them support themselves. But they are still far away from home and know no one. The Ukrainian Jews who have emigrated to Israel are part of the 500,000 people that have been internally displaced by the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. For them, the options are not so good. They too are refugees even if they are still in their country.

In Iraq, Ammar Younes, a former trainer with the Iraqui army is among more than 1.7 million Iraquis who have fled their homes for other parts of the country, according to the Washington Post. He had to flee from his hospital bed in his medical gown when Islamic State fighters invaded the city of Irbil. He is now living in a frigid tent in Kurdistan, with many other displaced Iraquis as well as some of the more than 3.2 million Syrians who have fled the war there. And the list goes on.

In our own country, children from many lands are being sent across our borders, hopefully to be taken in and avoid the violence in their own countries. The battle rages over what we are to do with this new wave of immigrants. As Christians we have to take into account the status of Mary, Joseph and Jesus as refugees into our thinking. Where would we be if Joseph had been stopped at the border and told to go back to Bethlehem and take his chances? Where would we be if the Holy Family had not been able to get enough food and water to sustain them (Shelly Matthews)? We don’t know what the Egyptian religion taught about treatment of strangers, but we do know that in spite of the probability that they were met with fear and hostility because they were different, they were allowed to stay. And we know God’s command to treat the stranger and alien in the land as our neighbor.

As long as there is war, famine, disease and a host of other ills, there will be refugees running to escape intolerable conditions. But as Matthew is at pains to point out God’s promise is still with us, and in that we can hope. Jesus, God with us, brought us new life and the power of the Holy Spirit to help us discern and follow God’s will for our lives and for the world at large, just as Joseph followed his dreams. We may not see visions, but we get nudges to do the righteous thing, to follow God’s lead into new and unfamiliar territory. Wherever we go, whatever happens, whatever we feel called to do, we are upheld by the living God. We move from our past and become refugees seeking God’s future for us, a place we can call home if only for a while, like Mary and Joseph. May we let the Spirit be alive in us as we deal with the fallout of war and violence and with our own life situations and know that God goes with us.

Amen

     - Rev. Ann Barker

Work Cited:
Shelly Matthews, “Commentary on Mathew 2:13-23”, Working Preacher. Blog post