The countries and citizens of the world continue to make decisions about whether and how to accept refugees from Syria. Syrians certainly wish they could stay there in their own homes, surrounded by friends and family, in the culture they know and love. But so many have to make the horrible choice that it’s safer to risk a perilous sea crossing, to live in a refugee camp, to be uprooted from what they know and love, than to stay where their children may not survive another day.
Over 80% of white evangelical American Christians voted to elect a president who wants to keep these refugees out of the U.S.
That makes this exactly the right time for us to consider the passage in Matthew where Jesus becomes, with his parents, a refugee. In a story that is as ancient as human culture and as modern as tomorrow’s news, they flee a tyrant who doesn’t care if children live or die.
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.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and 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.’ [from Matthew 2]
This first Sunday after Christmas, we’re not allowed to dwell on any nostalgic, lovely picture of a baby in a manger. This first Sunday after Christmas, we already have a weeping and suffering God.
This is not the kind of reading and sermon we want to have while most of us still have our Christmas trees lit. Please! Let us think about the smiling faces of children playing with their new toys, of communities in harmony, of peace on earth and good will to all.
But how many of us, in our secret moments, even at Christmas, have stood over the bed of a sleeping baby—a child, grandchild, niece or nephew, special friend—and thought of both the promise and fears of the future. We’ve wished we could take away all the pain that child might know. All the danger. All the evil. We have dreaded the day when some evil would enter her world that we could not keep away.
In every newborn baby there is the promise of a future, yet the hovering of danger, illness, evil.
If this had not also been true for Jesus, then he would not have been one of us. It is scandalous that the God of the universe would allow the tyranny of some little worm of a king like Herod, and that the child of promise would have to be carried away 200 miles to a foreign land to be hidden.
It is scandalous that children in our own town are hungry, neglected, abused, afraid.
It is scandalous that the world stands by as children in other countries, often brown-skinned and of a different religion from ours, suffer deeply from hunger or from the triumph of evil.
In Jesus, our ancient Christian doctrine says that God has taken on humanity in all its forms. Delight and wonder as the child discovers his toes, says his first words, runs to his parents’ arms when he is afraid, plays with wood shavings in his father’s shop. Then his life is threatened by a dangerously insane ruler, and his poor family is on the run, desperate, terrified, hiding, determined to survive.
Some of his earliest memories may have been sensing the fear in his parents’ voices as they tell him not to play outside, as they hide him until they are beyond danger. Poverty and homelessness are not strangers to him.
As the little family survives, they surely experience grief over the children who are not saved, perhaps some of them friends.
Are Joseph, Mary, and Jesus warmly received in Egypt? That’s highly unlikely. As they and other refugees arrive, their Egyptian neighbors and officials surely complain about “those people” who dress differently, observe a different religion, shop for special hard-to-find foods, have strange holidays, don’t understand or respect local customs. That carpenter is going to take someone else’s job. They need to learn our language!
I find it probable that these early life experiences, and the stories recounted by his parents, help to shape Jesus’ later ministry to the people on the margins – those who are set aside or who by illness or race are ostracized. We see him warmly accepting people from other places, religions, and races. He eats with them, laughs with them, and welcomes the outsider. This is true incarnation.
The incarnation holds many levels of meaning for the person of faith.
When we find ourselves at the pinnacle of Christmas joy, we experience Jesus as a boy delighting in every new discovery.
When we know difficulty, illness, or loss, we experience Jesus as one who knew deep suffering.
When we wonder who cares about all the forgotten people, we experience Jesus as a young boy whose family was forced to flee an evil regime to survive.
This is the radical truth and beauty of Christmas.
As the season fades, its complex story lives on in you. How will you reflect its light? Be a companion to the lonely? Someone who fills backpacks with food for children? A person who cares for family, friend, neighbor? A courageous soul who supports all refugees who flee from tyrant, despair, and fear into a land of safety and hope?
We have to choose whether to be ruled by faith or by fear of the other. Our choice is aided by remembering the entire Jesus story. Without the difficult parts it’s only a sweet fairy tale. Recognizing and owning the harshness of life—including the life of Jesus the refugee—gives our faith reality, meaning, and purpose.
Anecdotal evidence from refugee settlement organizations indicates that since the election, and especially when anti-refugee rhetoric and acts occur, these charities receive sudden upticks in both donations and volunteers.
When we allow our faith and courage to surface, we open ourselves to receive all the benefits of welcoming new people into our communities and our lives.
© 2016, Melissa Bane Sevier