(A sermon based on Matthew 2:13-23 for the First Sunday after Christmas)
I have never been a refugee and you probably haven’t either. There have been times for many of us when we “had” to leave home but we did so because we chose to get an education or to take a job or because our parents told us it was time. Oh, there is a sense in which many of us feel a restlessness and rootlessness and feel like we are on a constant quest for home. But the facts remain that we have never been driven from our home or from our hometown or from our homeland because of warfare or famine. We have never been driven away because of our ethnicity or our politics or our religion; we have never been forced out or forced underground because we are a threat to those in power.
Millions of people are refugees, though. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, there were at the end of 2012 15.4 million refugees—people who have fled their country for another because of war or persecution—in the world. In addition, there were 28.8 million internally displaced persons or people uprooted from their homes but still living in their own country. In 2012, 23,000 people per day left their homes due to violence or persecution. Pakistan hosts the most refugees of any country at 1.6 million. One out of four refugees worldwide is from Afghanistan. 46% of refugees are under eighteen; 48% are women and girls (http://www.unhcr.org.uk/about-us/key-facts-and-figures.html. Accessed 12/26/13).
If I was a refugee, it could prove meaningful to me to discover that the Son of God was at a very early point in his life a refugee, too. And he was a refugee for the same reasons that other people are refugees: he and his family were at risk due to violence that occurred because they were perceived to be a threat to someone’s power.
The danger arose when the Wise Men arrived in Jerusalem on their quest to find the king whose birth they believed the star foretold. As they asked around the capital city about the location of the child, word got back to Herod, who was the Roman Empire-supported ruler of the province of Judea, and, being a person in authority, he didn’t appreciate talk of a new king being born. So, pretending to want to pay his respects to the new king, he asked the Wise Men to let him know when they found him. Find him they did, but when they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod—and you have to figure that, being Wise Men, they were already suspicious of his motives—they took the bypass around Jerusalem and went back home.
And then the horrible stuff happened. Joseph was warned in a dream that Herod was going to try to kill the child Jesus and was instructed to take his family to Egypt to escape the danger. Joseph did. Then, when Herod, who was a notoriously vicious man, realized that the Wise Men had proven wiser than he was, he ordered that all the children in Bethlehem two years old and under be killed. It was to escape that threat that Jesus and his family became refugees in Egypt.
Perhaps the most important thing we can learn from this terribly sad story is that God is with those are displaced.
As I said earlier, a refugee could be encouraged by the fact that Jesus was a refugee, too. Now I want to add to that observation this one: refugees need the people of God to be there with them and for them, too. Let’s not forget that many of our ancestors were political and religious refugees; that’s why they come to this land. Let’s also not forget that their coming here created other refugees. Let’s not forget the refugees and displaced persons of our world; let’s pray for them and help them in any way we can. God is with them and we as the people of God should be with them, too.
Even though I said at the beginning that we had never been refugees, the truth is that if we are followers of Jesus we are in fact refugees. Jesus was a refugee early on because he was Jesus. We assume that he had a fairly settled life during his growing up years but once he struck out to carry out his mission he, by his own testimony, had no place to lay his head. And he would be pursued by the powers until he finally was killed by them.
He was, though, a refugee who had a home—his home was with his Father; his home was in doing his Father’s will.
Jesus said that if we are to follow him we have to take up our cross and follow him; we have to be willing to lose our life if we are going to find it. We are to live in ways of love and grace that run counter to the flow of the world. If we live that way, we will find that we usually don’t feel at home and even that we are being set upon by those for whom such living amounts to a threat to their power. The theologian Tom Petty once said, “You don’t have to live like a refugee.” But if you’re a Christian, you do.
Remember, though, that we are refugees—we are wanderers and we are pilgrims—who have a home that we take with us wherever we go. Our home is with God because God has chosen to make God’s home with us …