By Jared Warner
December 29, 2019
Matthew 2:13–23 (ESV)
13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, 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 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” 16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: 18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” 19 But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” 21 And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. 23 And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.
For most of us we often stop the Christmas story after the gifts presented by the Magi. I really do not know why, but that is just how our cultural expression of our Christian faith. Last week during our celebration of Christmas, it was discussed that many of our Friends from other nations include the flight to Egypt and the slaughter of innocence in their nativity celebrations. I found this very intriguing.
The interesting thing about Christ is that He truly is God with us. The theological concept surrounding this idea is something that makes my heart leap. If God is truly with us that means that He understands the various things that we face. God understand the pain our stomach gives us when we eat just a bit too much. He understands the joy of marriage, the incredible grief we feel when we experience the loss of a loved one. God understands. But there is one area of life that I do not understand, the senselessness of the suffering during war.
When the Magi come to Jerusalem and announced their quest, fear pulsated throughout the region of Israel. Why exactly were the people of Israel afraid of the announcement of a king? Probably because there was already a self-proclaimed king currently occupying that position. This person was not exactly a benevolent leader, even though the leader did inspire greatness within the nation. This king commissioned the building of the greatest religious facility known to humanity. And the religious leaders knew that their lifestyle was dependent on the pleasure of this tyrannical benefactor. If the king is happy the nation is happy. But when an authoritarian individual is plagued by paranoia, fear permeates all those around because those in authority use fear and violence to maintain their authority.
As I considered the traditions of Christmas I am reminded of the various histories of the locations, and since our meeting has a significant population of families that immigrated from Congo, the tradition of incorporating the some of their traditions is important. But what is their history?
As in many areas, Africa has a long history of colonialism. One might take a couple of views of colonizing areas. You might see it as progress, but there is another view one of oppression. Congo is a nation rich in natural resources. This nation is so rich in these resources they could stabilize the economies in all of Africa. But there is a problem, for centuries people have come into their lands and established control over those resources. At times the control over those resources was held by an authoritarian hand that held an entire nation in slavery. Then there have been various waring factions seeking to gain control over the riches of nature. The people of Congo have experienced oppression and exploitation of some of the worst. They have been involved in the longest war in human history, yet many people in the world know very little about those that call that land home. I myself am not an expert.
Today’s passage though speaks of a nation in fear, because their leader was introduced to a threat to his power. And all of Jerusalem was in fear too. The magi came and went, with the instructions of Herod to come to tell him where the child was to be found. But the magi did not return to Herod, and the great man was furious. These wealthy and wise men from the east did not respect his authority. They did not listen to what he had to say. They treated his decree as something optional instead of law.
This is the time and place the prince of peace first made an appearance, in a nation filled with fear and abuse of power. Abuse of power in the religious sense and in the secular realms. The story does not stop with the birth of Jesus, it does not stop with the visit of the shepherds, or even the gracious gifts from those wealthy academics from schools of magic. Right after the gifts were given Joseph was warned in a dream to run. He was warned to run because the life of the child and the family was at risk. The Holy family were faced with a decision to stay among their people and to live in a nation rule by paranoid tyranny, or run away to find a place in a foreign land where they might possibly find peace and a place to be free to raise their blessed child.
I have thought of this passage the past few weeks. I have considered it for most of my adult life. My oldest son was born in 1999, nearly his entire life our nation has been at war. My youngest son was born on Patriots’ Day, the day of remembrance established to remind us of why we have been at war for nearly twenty years. We have been fighting a war for my entire adult life. We look at those wars as being far away, until families begin to find their way to our nation who are attempting to flee from the dangers those various wars have caused. I am not saying that we did not have just cause to enter these battles but there is a cost. A great cost.
Wars are fought, and human lives are lost, damaged, and in many ways broken. These lives are not only lost among those involved in the fight, but the bombs often fall on those whose only offense was that they were born in a nation whose leaders oppose that of another. These families often stay, they have no desire to leave their home, but eventually the threat becomes too great. Eventually the adults must face the reality that they can stay and potentially face death, or they can fly to another place and attempt to start over with whatever they might have available to them. This is a story that has been with us in all human history. Wars, famines, persecutions force people from one area. The story is one that can see in the movies. One of my favorite movies as a child was “An American Tale” it was a story of a family of mice that fled their home to start again in the land of opportunity America.
We like the stories of rebirth, the emergence of something great out of the ashes of life, but what about those that have lived in the lands not of opportunity but fear? Where is God in those places, where people seek to destroy you because you believe differently, or you look different, or speak a different language. Where is God when those that have authority over others seek to rid the world of those individuals that seem to threaten their ability to rule? There are many faces and names for these people. In my grandfather’s generation the world dealt with one of these authoritarian individuals that wanted to blame all their problems on one group of people. Another movie, “Hotel Rwanda” speaks of another instance of one group of people seeking to blame another for all their problems. Where is God when those of Jewish heritage face death simply because they were born to a Jewish family. Where is God when the Kurdish people living between Turkey and Syria face death because two nations seem to hate them. Where is God when corporations buy land in Latin America from the governments in power and the people living on those lands are forced to find a new home after living on the land for generations? Does God know the plight of the refugees fleeing nations in fear of their lives?
Herod was furious, because those wise men from the east did not return to tell him where the child was. The result of that fury was the death of every male child in Bethlehem and the surrounding country under the age of three. Imagine soldiers entering a quite village and entering every house with weapons raised grabbing the child from your arms. What happened if you resisted? What would happen if you did not resist? We do not often reflect on the slaughter of the Innocents; we do not reflect on it because it is not a pretty image to have in our minds. What could possibly drive this sort of madness that the fury of a ruler would be imposed on individuals that literally have no voice of their own?
Where is God? God is with the refugees, because God was one of them. God is with the refugee; God called his son out of Egypt to fulfill our salvation. God is with those that live in fear of those in authority over them because it was from one of those individuals that God found protection from in a foreign land.
How often do we really consider this flight of the Holy family? Have we ever imagined ourselves in this portion of the story? Have we ever considered if the lives that we live support or oppose the flight of the innocent?
I sat with this image in my mind over the past few weeks. I have thought about the various responses that people have made throughout history. What would our response be to those people from Ireland who made their way across the ocean when the famine struck? What would your response be to those people of Jewish decent that sought safety from the camps? What would our response be to so many people fleeing from one area of the world to another? Do we respond with authority or compassion?
In this era of history expressing ideas of charity are often met with shouts and curses. Often, we want to place the blame of all our problems onto those that we see as being the cause of all our problems. How quickly we do forget. My family came across the ocean for the same reason that people of Latin America come north, they came for the same reason that my friends from Africa boarded a plane to an unknown destination in a country on the other side of the globe. My family came, because they feared for their lives or feared that they could not live the life they desired. They came because they had hope that there was a land where they could live life without fear. They came because God is with the refugee, he is with them providing hope in the hopeless situation. God is with those that have lost everything. God is with those that welcome the ones that flee, and God will call his children out of those lands to fulfill his plans.
Let us remember who we are this during this Christmas season. Let us remember that God is with us, even in the darkest times of our lives, and that God is calling us to bear the light of hope in a world of darkness.