We all know the Christmas story. We’ve heard it many times in the last few days. This morning’s Gospel is, as Paul Harvey would say, “The rest of the story.”
The shepherds had gone back to their flocks. The angel choirs were quiet and the wise men, having been warned by angels to avoid King Herod, had slipped out of the country.
King Herod, according to historical and biblical accounts was a cruel and evil man. He was appointed “King of the Jews” by Anthony the Roman Emperor (you know – Anthony and Cleopatra). Some accounts say he bought the position. He was not of the royal lineage of David and was hated and feared by his subjects. He had good reason to be worried when he was asked by the wise men of the East where they would find the “King of the Jews.” He was insecure about his control of Israel and trusted no one. It is said that he murdered his wife’s brother and three of his own sons – as well as anyone else he suspected of conspiring against him. He is even said to have killed his favorite wife in a fit of jealousy and rage. Roman historians say that Herod, when he realized he was dying, commanded that a large number of Jewish leaders should be killed at the time of his death to insure that Israel mourned rather than rejoiced that he was gone. So for him to conspire to hunt down and kill this new “King of the Jews” about whom the wise men asked, was not unbelievable. Historical accounts of Herod’s reign do not say anything about the murder of all the baby boys two years old or younger living around Bethlehem. But then Bethlehem was a small town. There would not have been a large number of children that age and considering the number of atrocities committed by Herod and the Romans, the event could easily have been overlooked by scholars who have written about the time.
God knew what was in Herod’s heart and when he sent the angels to to warn Joseph in a dream.
If you remember, this was not the first message Joseph had received in a dream. He seems to have had a strong faith and was willing to listen to the messages sent to him. Not only did he listen to the dreams, he acted on them. When he found out Mary was pregnant, he listened to the dream which told him it would be ok and he married her in spite of what people might have thought. In today’s gospel he listens again and hurries off in the middle of the night with Mary and the baby. Joseph and his young family retrace another Joseph’s path to Egypt and to safety.
The trip was not an easy one. They traveled more than 200 miles on foot, possibly with the help of a small donkey, taking only what they could carry with them. They feared for their lives and traveled to a place they only knew of from tradition and from studying the Old Testament.
Mary and Joseph’s trip to Egypt was not so different from the journeys that many people are forced to make even today.
Our twenty-first century world in many ways is not so unlike the world of Jesus’s time. There are corrupt and cruel governments. There is greed and lust for political power which cause whole families to be murdered and villages to be destroyed. In Africa, the Middle East, South and Central America, Indonesia, Eastern Europe, people are forced to leave their homes and look for safe places for their families.
According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, the global refugee total, which a year ago was 19.5 million, had as of mid-2015 passed the 20 million threshold for the first time since 1992. Asylum applications were up 78 per cent (993,600) over the same period in 2014. And the numbers of internally displaced people jumped by around 2 million to an estimated 34 million.
Indications from the first half of the year suggest 2015 is on track to see worldwide forced displacement exceeding 60 million for the first time. In a global context, that means that one person in every 122 has been forced to flee their home. An average rate of almost 4,600 are being forced to flee their countries every day.
Twenty million people have packed only the bare essentials – or less – and left their home, their country, families and friends to save their lives.
Twenty million people. That would be like taking more than all of the people who currently live in ND, SD, MN, MT, NB, WY and ID and moving all of them someplace else. Remember what it was like during the flood of 1997 when the city of Grand Forks was evacuated? That is a city of 50,000 people. Moving that many people out of their homes, away from their jobs and out of their community had devastating effects not only on the people, but on the economics and social structures as well.
In the country of Sudan alone, CARE USA estimates that there have been more than a million people displaced. That is a number equal to twenty cities the size of Grand Forks. Imagine the effects the disruption of so many people and villages must have on that country. What is the impact on the whole country’s food supplies when hundreds of thousand of farmers are forced from their land and have their livestock stolen? What effect does a million people moving to other communities have on those communities? How are they housed? How are they fed? What happens to the sewage and water systems?
Mary and Joseph and the expected baby Jesus went from a quiet life in a rural village in Galilee to a cold barn in the crowded city of Bethlehem. They went from having adoring shepherds and kings stopping by to see their tiny baby to becoming refugees in a foreign land.
In spite of the desperation and fear that must have accompanied them on their way, Mary and Joseph were not alone. The trusted God enough to follow his orders to leave and go to Egypt. They trusted him to take care of them when they got there and they knew he would tell them when it was time for them to go home.
The Bible doesn’t say anything about what their lives were like while they were in Egypt. The life of a refugee in a foreign land is often very difficult. Right now the US Committee on Refugees estimates that the average stay in temporary refugee camps around the world is 17 years. Living conditions in these camps is primitive, crowded and unsafe. Displaced families, fathers, mothers, children who know no other life, wait for peace. They wait for word that they have been accepted to live somewhere else. They can’t do anything but wait for what must seem like a hopeless eternity.
Mary and Joseph trusted and waited for God’s message for them to return.
Again Joseph had a dream in which God appeared and told him that those who sought to kill the baby were dead and that it was safe for them to return home. Again Joseph trusted the dream and took Mary and the now seven or eight year old Jesus and returned to Israel. When they got there Joseph found out that Herod’s son, a man nearly as cruel as his father, was the ruler of Judea, the region where Bethlehem, Joseph’s home town, was located. Again he and Mary listened to the voice of God and went instead to the region of Galilee and the tiny, insignificant town of Nazareth.
Time after time in this Christmas story we are reminded that God is with us. The author of Matthew quotes a prophesy from Isaiah 7:14 which says, “..the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel.” Immanuel means “God with us.”
God was with Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus and he is with us. He is with us because Jesus became human and lived as a human. Not only did he live as a human, working for his living as a carpenter in a small insignificant town like “Nekoma,” or “Wales,” or “Langdon,” he experienced some of the hardest parts of human life and suffering. God knows how hard life can be because he lived it.
So woven into the fabric of this story of terror and unspeakable cruelty is a continuous thread of hope, faith and comfort, the “Good News” for everyone. Joseph and Mary had a great faith in God and in his word given to them in dreams. Not only did they believe that God was looking out for them, they acted boldly on that faith. We too must have faith and be willing to fearlessly act when God sends us. We have been blessed and are called to share the Good News and to see “God with Us” in the faces of those who have been, like Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, forced to flee their homes. We are God’s hands and feet, called to be Good News to others.
We, too, are not alone. We don’t need to be afraid. Immanuel, God is with us.
Copyright © 2015 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains