Matthew 2, January 7, 2018


On Christmas Eve I said that sometimes Christians recycle scripture and use it in ways that are different from when the first audience heard or read them. The whole second chapter of Matthew’s gospel is a re-telling of an old story with some added features.

The Holy Family, Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus fled what is called “The Slaughter of the Innocents,” that King Herod declared when he heard that a king had been born in his kingdom.

In fleeing a well-founded fear of persecution—in this case death—they would qualify for refugee status in today’s world. Here’s the legal definition of “refugee,” as the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees defines the term: [first slide]

A refugee is someone “who has fled and cannot return to his or her home country due to well-founded fear of persecution based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a specific social group.” Refugee Council USA

Refugees have been in the news for nearly a year, since President Trump suspended admission of refugees while the United States looked at its policies surrounded who is admitted to the nation as a refugee.

Refugees are one kind of immigrant to the United States. By definition refugees are here legally. There are 13 steps every refugee goes through prior to moving to the US. All 13 of these steps occur in a different country. It can take several years from when a family flees its home country for a second country to being admitted to any other country as a refugee. Globally, in 2017, the United States admitted .25% of the world’s refugees.

Next week at Adult Forum Tami McLaughlin, the local director of World Relief, one of the voluntary agencies permitted to settle refugees to the United States will be at Adult Forum and tell us about the local situation for refugees.

This morning I want to talk about fear, and how we can draw hope from the recycled story.

You all know this story very well. Jesus was born in Bethlehem to Mary & Joseph. Bethlehem is about 5 miles from Jerusalem, the capital. When he was born magi from the East, maybe Persia, no one really knows where they were from, journeyed to see the new king of the Jews whose birth had been announced in the stars they studied as astrologers. They made it to Jerusalem, and asked King Herod where the prophets indicated that the new king would be born. Even though Herod was Jewish, he didn’t know, so he asked the religious authorities where the Messiah would be born. The prophet Micah said Bethlehem.

He told the magi where to find the child, and asked them to come back to him and tell him where to find the Christ child, so he could also go and honor the baby. When they left Jerusalem, they were overwhelmed with joy to see the star that had first gotten their attention back home. They brought gold, frankincense and myrrh. But they didn’t return to Herod, because they were told in a dream not to.

The very next thing that happened was that Joseph was warned in a dream to flee to Egypt, because his family was in danger.

There’s another story in the Bible about a guy named Joseph who was in Egypt who was good at interpreting dreams.

Clear back in Genesis, after Joseph, son of Jacob, had been sold into slavery by his brothers, he showed a talent for interpreting dreams. He rose to prominence in Pharoah’s court and was there for his family when they were driven to Egypt to buy food to keep from starving because of a famine in Canaan.

Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams—both Josephs’ ability to interpret dreams—meant that their families would survive.

Just as the first Joseph found security for his family in Egypt, so did the second Joseph, his family became refugees and were able to live in Egypt.

It isn’t clear where in Egypt they went, or how long they stayed there. The distance from Jerusalem to Cairo is about 260 miles. Tradition holds that Jesus’ father was a carpenter, he could have supported his family that way. The family had also received some pretty valuable gifts when the magi came to Jesus’ baby shower.

They would have returned to Judea, but still had a well-founded fear of persecution, because Herod’s son was on the throne, so they settled way up in Galilee, in a town called Nazareth.
That’s a lot of travelling for a young family.
And each stop on their journey was very significant. Jesus’ early travels paralleled those of both Moses and the Jewish people. They went down to Egypt when their lives were threatened. They stayed in Egypt for a while. God acted to save Moses when Hebrew infants were being killed, because Pharoah feared that the Hebrews would outnumber the Egyptians, just as God acted in instructing Joseph to take his family to Egypt. The Lord called the Holy Family out of Egypt, just as the Lord acted mightily in history to set the people free from slavery in the Exodus.

Just a few more parallels, and these come after the lessons that Norma read: the Chosen People passed through the Jordan River to reach the Promised Land. Jesus passed through the waters of baptism—also in the Jordan River—at the very start of his ministry.

These are stories of a nation and a family who were threatened with death. God worked miracles and intervened to keep them alive. And because they survived through these perils we have their stories to tell, and we have the saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Right now, there are more than 66 million people around the world who have been driven from their homes because of well-founded fear of persecution. There are more people displaced from their homes now than at any time since the end of the Second World War.

We have been hearing about the crisis from the war in Syria for several years. In two weeks our guest preacher, Jeff Todd, will talk about the situation with our sister Presbytery in Colombia, and their hopes for peace after more than five decades of civil war.

The Pope went to southeast Asia last month and drew attention to the Rohingya people who have fled Myanmar, because the Buddhist majority in that country has been killing this group of Muslims and destroying their villages, driving this group into Bangladesh.

Right here in Oshkosh there are refugees from the Central African Republic, a nation that has endured civil and tribal wars for more than 20 years.

Refugees from these nations, and many other nations that have not been in the news, have had to leave their homelands in order to stay alive. Their stories should resonate with our stories of faith.

Last fall I drove to Appleton and picked up an African refugee family to bring them to Oshkosh so they could go to church. It was an eye-opening and humbling experience. As I drove I wondered what it would be like to leave my home on foot, only carrying what I could hold in my arms. What would I keep?

Then I imagined moving to a new place where I did not speak the language or even know how to buy food. A place where very few people look like me. A place where very few people can understand me when I try to speak English.

Then I imagined how good it would feel to spend a couple hours in worship, where I know the words to the songs, where I understand what’s going on, where people look like me, rather than looking at me.

It’s perilous to be a refugee. It’s jarring to have to live in a new place where everything is unfamiliar.

Very late in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus described what will happen when the Son of Man comes in glory.
 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory…. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food…I was a stranger and you welcomed me…I was in prison and you visited me.’
 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…and the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food…And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you…And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 
 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry…or a stranger…or in prison, and did not take care of you?’  Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’  And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
One final thing you need to notice: Jesus is not talking about individuals, but nations. It is nations who welcome the stranger who are welcoming Christ. Amen.