|"Rest on the Flight Into Egypt" by Luc-Olivier Merson, 1880|
Scripture can be found here...
Well, it’s finally happened: The much-loved TV show “Friends” is now streaming on Netflix, and millions of fans are wondering: will we ever leave the house again? Does anyone remember “The One Where Old Yeller Dies”? For those of you uninitiated into this show, the episode centered on the character of Phoebe, who is at once incredibly wise and naïve, street-smart and oblivious, a truly delightful collection of personality quirks and warmth and beauty. In this episode Phoebe learns, to her horror, the real ending of Old Yeller, in which it is discovered that he has rabies, and his owner is forced to euthanize him. Phoebe’s worldview is shattered, because she never heard or saw the end of the story before.
We are nearly two weeks on from Christmas, and today, we hear the end of the story of his birth and infancy. Today’s gospel passage is only in the lectionary every three or four years, and no wonder. Who wants to hear about the murder of children by a vicious king while the lights are still sparkling on the tree? Who wants to hear that the Holy Family is forced to run for the life of their child, across the border to another country? But that is the piece of the story we have today.
We start with Herod. He is the consummate villain. What can you say about a king who gained the throne by conquest, and who held onto it by means of secret police, with a personal bodyguard of 2000 soldiers, a policy of violently putting down protests and demonstrations, and a habit of murdering family members—including his wife and two sons? Herod is a very, very bad guy. And when the traveling astrologers (also known as the Magi) tell him that a king has been born, he does what he usually does in these situations. He sends out someone to kill off his rival. In this case, thoroughness dictates that his henchmen target all children in and around Bethlehem, under the age of 2 years.
A quote from Jeremiah (31:15) underscores the horror of the tragedy: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” And in the midst of a story of political power turned deadly, we are asked to take a moment to recognize that mothers are weeping. People are heartsick and sorrowful, because children have been lost.
I don’t think I need to enumerate for you all the stories of loved ones lost to violence that splash across our newspapers and computer screens on a daily basis: from a school in Newtown, Connecticut, to one in Peshawar, Pakistan; from a refugee camp in Syria to a police cruiser in Brooklyn; or from a crosswalk in Missouri to a Walmart in Idaho. And because so many incidences of violence are connected to loud national arguments about things like public policy, and personal safety, and issues around race, and guns, and the nature of policing, we sometimes forget the simplest, the most basic fact at the heart of each tragedy. Someone is weeping. Someone cannot be consoled, because the one they love has been lost.
A friend preached on Christmas Eve, “Christmas comes into the world just as it is; Jesus is born, not into a perfect world, but into the world as it is.”[i] And that means that Jesus comes into a world where, every day, children of God are lost and other children of God are crying rivers of tears over it. I have a hard time imagining that God isn’t weeping right along with us, over all these losses, every face that will never smile again, every voice that will never again be heard, every pair of arms that will never again give a hug. I believe in a God whose love and compassion for us mean that God weeps right along with us.
God travels with us, too. Joseph is warned about Herod’s murderous plans, and is able to escape with his wife and child to Egypt. Our Christmas stories tell us of a Jesus who is displaced, who is a refugee to a country not his own. A Texas professor of the New Testament reminds us of this “sobering fact: if Joseph had received the dream to leave his endangered village and take refuge in a foreign country with his family in global-political circumstances similar to our own, he would likely have been turned back at the border, told to wait it out and hope for the best in Bethlehem.”[ii] When we read of displaced people—when we hear the stories of the hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children in camps in Iraqi Kurdistan, or in Chad, or in Jordan… it’s good for us to remember that Jesus was a refugee, and one who found welcome in an unexpected place.
I said on Christmas Eve that the story of Jesus’ birth is the whole gospel in miniature. All the big themes. All the important ideas. And that holds true here as well. Jesus comes into a world in which powerful forces are afraid of (and lash out at) people and ideas that threaten their power. And Jesus comes into a world where there is tragedy and loss and conflict and grieving.
But that is not the end of the story—it’s not even the end of the story of Jesus’ birth. There’s more to that passage in Jeremiah. God continues to speak:
Thus says the Lord: Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work, says the Lord: they shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future, says the Lord: your children shall come back to their own country.
~ Jeremiah 30:16-17
Jesus returns to the place that will be his home, to Nazareth. And isn’t that the marvelous work of the Savior on our behalf as well? Jesus comes to bring us home, too. In Advent we sing a melancholy song of exile—
O come o come, Emmanuel
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
The deepest longing of the one in exile is simple: home. Just as Jesus and his family find a home in the land of Israel, Jesus-followers find a home in him. He is our home, because he knows what it is to weep and grieve, and keeps vigil with us in our grief. He is our home, because he knows what it is to be a wanderer, and he walks the road with us while we wander. He is our home because he invites us in, again and again, to gather around a table, and to find an unexpected welcome, balm for our soul, light for our eyes, and food for the journey. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] The Rev. Gord Waldie, Pastor of Saint Paul’s United Church, Grande Prairie, Alberta, Canada, and blogger at “Following Frodo.”
[ii] Matthews, Shelly, “Commentary on Matthew 2:13-23,” Narrative Lectionary Commentary, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2262.