Sunday, 29 December 2019 11:00
Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod (Matthew 2:14)
I hope you had a happy Christmas. That’s what it’s supposed to be - happy. If you watch the adverts on the television there’s supposed to be lots of smiles and presents and food and drink and tinselly things for Christmas and the day should be merry and bright. Unless you’re watching Eastenders. I don’t watch it myself, but I do see the trailers and they do seem to involve a lot of shouting. Christmas seems very dark in Albert Square - and maybe that’s as it should be. For some, Christmas isn’t entirely merry. For some - for most of us, probably, - there will be some darkness. Perhaps someone is ill, or missing from the family gathering. Some have no home at Christmas; no food. That’s why Christmas is a midwinter festival. It’s a festival of hope in the presence of sadness; a festival of light in the face of darkness.
Things don’t get much darker than this passage from Matthew’s gospel. Filled with fear and jealousy by the Magi’s reports of a newborn king, Herod orders the slaughter of every boy under the age of two in Bethlehem. Forewarned by a message from God Joseph ups and flees with Jesus and Mary to Egypt. Jesus will spend his early years - we don’t know how many of them - as a refugee.
There are those who say that this is simply a story - a story made up by Matthew or those he’d listened to designed to get Jesus from Bethlehem, where prophecy insisted the Messiah had to be born, to Nazareth where it was clear Jesus had actually grown up. That’s as maybe, though I’d have thought that, “Joseph heard there was work in Galilee and moved to Nazareth would have done that job more economically. They say too, though, that this massacre of the innocents never happened - that it would surely have been recorded in the written records. The population of Bethlehem was about 300 so we’re talking about maybe 5 - 10 deaths among the poor and the unimportant. Such things have happened and gone unnoticed by the world more times than we would like to think.
Whatever the case, if we take scripture seriously - and I do - then we should be attentive to this passage because it has things to tell us. Jesus’s early years were spent as a refugee, his family fleeing in fear from the threat of violence and bloodshed. He spent his early years as an outcast from his own country - driven out by fear and hatred and greed. In some ways he would always be an outcast; in some ways he would continue to excite hatred and fear and these would eventually take him to the Cross.
Jesus was a refugee. Let us hold that thought for a moment and recognise that the world has not been short of refugees over the last two millennia since Joseph gathered his little family together, got them packed for a journey on a dark and troubled night and turned his back upon their home as they headed into exile in Egypt. Millions upon millions have made those same arrangements - clandestine or otherwise - and have walked that same road into exile. And often for the same reasons.
Consider Herod. Why does he do this dreadful thing? Because he is determined to hold on to what he has - to power and to the wealth that has allowed him to build fabulous palaces and the magnificent Temple complex. He is worried that he might be overthrown and, in his turn, be forced to flee. If you think that Herod’s actions are too extreme to be believed, I’d invite you to consider the actions of Bashar al-Assad of Syria. How many innocents have died as a result of his desire to hold on to power and wealth at all costs? How many children perished when Saddam Hussein crushed risings among the marsh Arabs and among the Kurds during the 1980s? Or when, with our earliest aeroplanes, the UK carpet bombed villages in Iraq where, it was believed, sedition was rife?
And still today, on the borders with Turkey, with Lebanon and Jordan, huddled masses of mikrons of men and women and children freeze hungrily in makeshift tents, surviving on the gifts of food the world sends them. I want you to imagine Jesus among them. Why? Consider the reading from Hebrews that speaks of Jesus suffering. The point of Jesus suffering, the writer says, is that others suffer and he would share in the ordinary suffering of men and women and children; that the Son of God can identify with humanity because he suffered like any other human being. And perhaps, if Christ identifies himself with those who suffer, we should identify those who suffer with Christ.
And so I want you to imagine Jesus among the refugees of the world - especially on the borders of Syria; but also on the Northern coasts of Africa. And why not? At this time we celebrate the birth of Jesus, but we also think toward his coming again. Suppose, though that that’s already happened. Suppose Jesus has been born again, somewhere in this world. Would we know it - people didn’t last time. Imagine Jesus, born again into this world, driven from his home by the need of a tyrant to hold onto power at all costs, and once again a refugee. Imagine Jesus were a child in one of those refugee camps, and we could pick him out. What would we not do to rescue him, to give him the care and the shelter he needed? Would we not welcome him among us?
But we wouldn’t be able to tell him from all those other children, would we? No more than Herod could. And we can’t let them all in, can we? But then again, why not? No space? One and a half million refugees in Lebanon - a country half the size of Wales - and across all the wealthy countries of Europe and North America and beyond, there’s no space? Really? Or is the real reason that we do not allow them to come to our countries fear? Fear that we will be a little less wealthy? Fear that we will not be able to afford all the things we presently have if others come to our country? Are we worried about holding onto our own little bit of wealth and power?
This is the Church of Jesus Christ - of the refugee and the outcast that was also the Son of God. This place - this building and the company that fills it; that fills the churches across this country and across the world - this place should be the place where the refugee can find salvation and sanctuary. It should be the place that points to a better world, where children and their families will no longer be driven into exile for fear of violence and bloodshed. It should be a place where all those who feel estranged and exiled - all who find they are cold-shouldered and ignored by the world - can find a welcome.
For this is what this time of year is all about. Yes, there is darkness in the world, but in a stable in Bethlehem a light shone that can never be extinguished - the light of the world that is God’s blessing on all humanity, his coming into the world for all humanity, his love for all humanity. And in that light we welcome Christ, the refugee and the outcast who was the Son of God. May we do as much for his other children, and if that means standing at odds with the ways of the world, if it means standing in the face of two thousand years of inhumanity and proclaiming, “No more!”, then so be it. The birth of a child is about new beginnings and new hope.
Lord, your son was a refugee, growing up in exile. May we show others what it means to protect the refugee and welcome the exile - to be the voice and the hands of the prince of Peace
Preached at Gretna Old parish church