Topic: Biblical Verse: Matthew 2:13–2:23
The First Sunday after Christmas
December 28-29, 2013
What’s it like to be a refugee? What’s it like to flee from your homeland because of war or persecution? What’s it like to leave everything behind and start life over again in a strange land with customs that you’re not familiar with? Over the years, I have known a number of people who have been refugees and you probably have also. We have people in our congregation who have been refugees. They are real people who have families and stories, hopes and dreams, just like us. “In fiscal year 2012, the U.S. government admitted 58,236 refugees to the country. Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, headquartered in Baltimore, was privileged to welcome over 8700 of these refugees, working with them to establish new lives in American communities… [There are] three different stages of refugee resettlement – protection, stabilization, and integration – [and] community engagement is critical” (http://lirs.org/refugee-resettlement). Learn more about the work of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services by going to www.lirs.org.
In today’s Gospel lesson, we see the Holy Family as refugees, fleeing their home in Judea in order to escape persecution and death. But let’s not forget that Mary and Joseph had already been uprooted from home in Nazareth and traveled some 80 miles to Bethlehem where Jesus was born. In a sense, they were already refugees. The warm candlelight and cozy comfort that we imagine with Jesus’ birth in a manger stall now gives way to the harsh reality of this little family having to run for their very lives. This is a tragic story, made more tragic by the fact that it has continued to be repeated in the lives of countless people around the world since Joseph took Mary and Jesus and fled as refugees to re-settle in Egypt. On this First Sunday after Christmas, we focus on this account from Matthew’s Gospel under the theme “Christmas Refugee.” May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
Travel is part of life for refugees – not because they necessarily want to travel, but they must in order to escape from persecution and to find a better life. And so it is with Jesus and his parents. Today’s Gospel lesson is organized around four legs of a travel itinerary, and taken together, we see what Jesus went through at a very early age for our sake. These four legs consist of Bethlehem, Egypt, Judea, and Nazareth. In all of this, the Lord God used this experience to fulfill the Word of Scripture in his own Son.
The first leg of our journey is Bethlehem – the city of David, the place of Jesus’ birth. Even the court priests of Herod knew that this little backwater village would be the place of Messiah’s birth (Matthew 2:6, Micah 5:2). With this knowledge, they informed Herod, who instructed the traveling wise men to go on ahead and find the Child who would be king. When they had found him, Herod told them to come back and let him know so he might go and honor the baby born to be king. Herod planned to honor the baby by killing off this rival to his throne. And then the slaughter of the innocents – a mass killing of all male children 2 years old and under in and around Bethlehem. Each year, the Church remembers these Holy Innocents, the first martyrs for the newborn King, on December 28. Rachel, beloved wife of Jacob, died in childbirth and was buried in Ramah, just north of Jerusalem (Genesis 35:16-20). Centuries later, the prophet Jeremiah pictured Rachel weeping for her people exiled in Babylon (Jeremiah 31:15). These Old Testament stories of suffering anticipated the suffering caused by Herod. The sound of weeping was heard again when Herod slaughtered the infant boys of Bethlehem. Jesus escapes this slaughter at the hands of Herod so that He would later die upon the cross for us all.
The second leg of our journey is Egypt. It’s ironic that Joseph would be instructed to flee to Egypt. In the Exodus story (Exodus 1:15-22), male Hebrew infants were slaughtered by order of the king of Egypt, Pharaoh – just like Herod’s decree for Bethlehem. God raised up Moses to rescue his people from slavery in Egypt and they become refugees traveling to the Promised Land. But now, God’s people – Jesus, Mary and Joseph – flee to Egypt as refugees to escape that massacre in their own land. The land of bondage and slavery in Egypt becomes a place of refuge and safety.
The third leg of our journey is Galilee. With the death of Herod, who had sought to kill the Christ Child, it was now safe to return for Joseph and Mary to return home with their Son, Jesus. Or was it? It seems that Joseph planned to return to Bethlehem, but God had other plans. Herod’s son, Archelaus, was now ruling Judea, Samaria and Idumea in his father’s place, but he was even more brutal and cruel than Herod. Change of plans! God directed Joseph north to Galilee, “Galilee of the Gentiles,” as it was called (Isaiah 9:1-2). This area had never really recovered its reputation since falling to the Assyrians centuries before, and was now overrun with foreigners. Galileans were considered by the Hebrews to be only a step above the despised Samaritans. As most refugees do, Joseph and Mary must have really wondered about where God was leading them.
The fourth and final leg of our journey is Nazareth, Mary’s hometown (Luke 1:26ff.), the place where she was visited by the angel Gabriel and told that she would give birth to Jesus. So things had come full circle and that little refugee family came back to where they had first started. Nazareth was so small and insignificant that it’s not even mentioned in the Old Testament. Because Nazareth was despised, someone coming from Nazareth would also be despised. This is the background behind Nathanael’s snarky comment when Philip tells him that they’ve found the Messiah. Nathanael retorts: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). And the answer is yes, something unbelievably good did indeed come out of Nazareth: Jesus, born of Mary in Bethlehem, Son of God and Son of man, who began his life as a refugee and went to the cross to suffer and die for all who are refugees and exiles from our home with God. And we are all refugees and exiles from our home with God. That twisting and perversion of God’s gracious plan and purpose for our life, what we call sin, is what has cast us out from our home with God. Jesus has come to bring us back home.
What happened to all the glory and wonder of that first Christmas – the heavenly host of angels singing “Glory to God in the highest,” the adoring shepherds, the magnificent star that guided the Wise Men with their costly gifts? Where did all these go? Bethlehem, Egypt, Galilee, Nazareth – all of the forced travels of Jesus reveal a God who identifies with the helpless and vulnerable in the world. Jesus did not fit the description of the long-expected Messiah. Instead of flaunting glory and power, He stooped down very low to become humble and small, a refugee. Why? Why would God do this to his only begotten Son?
Why would God allow his Son to “humble himself and become obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8)? The answer lies in the very Name of Jesus itself. Before Joseph was called by the angel of the Lord to take his family and flee to Egypt, Joseph was instructed by the angel about what to call his Child’s Name: “You shall call his name, Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). And that is what Christmas is; that is who Jesus is: Savior. He is Savior for us all. Amen.