To Bethlehem and Beyond

Matthew 2:13-23

Now after the wise men had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”

   Matthew 2:13-23

Like the kings of Jesus’ day, we, too, like to take a count.  We like to hear the numbers.  We want the census report, and we want analysis and infographics.  We want to understand the world around us and how we fit in.  As you’ve likely noticed, it’s that time again – time for year-end reviews, annual reports, and lists compiling everything that happened in 2013.  Times magazine even has a list of top 10 lists for 2013.  We love our top 10 lists.

Looking at our 2013 highlights reel, there are some big highlights we won’t be able to forget – like the government shutdown and endless conversations tagged ObamaCare.  It’s time to consider all the stories that got tucked away into the last twelve months, the joys and the sorrows, the surprises and the inevitabilities.

Humans and nature collectively caused chaos across the world, with tornadoes that ravaged Oklahoma and southern Illinois, floods that swept Colorado, and a typhoon that devastated the Philippines.  A factory crashed to its knees in Bangladesh, and a fertilizer plant exploded in West Texas.  From outer space, a meteor exploded over Russia, and the Voyager 1 left our solar system.

Among the world’s peacemakers, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Junior’s “I Have a Dream” speech and mourned the passing of Nelson Mandela, while a new voice rose up towards peace, when Malala Yousafzai, the 15 year old Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by Pakistani Taliban, spoke out globally about her vision for the education of women and children in Pakistan and around the world.

Among celebrities, biking legend Lance Armstrong confessed to doping, while Paula Deen, whose only crime had been cooking with too much butter, admitted publicly to racist slurs.  In pop culture and media, 2013 saw Walter White’s meth empire come to an end, and Ron Burgundy returned to the news desk.  We asked “what does the fox say?” learned the Harlem Shake, and wondered how Sharknado could possibly have become popular.

In the hard places of the world, violence and unrest remained the norm.  There were chemical weapons in Syria and a deposed president in Egypt, nuclear talks in Iran and nuclear tests in North Korea, protests in Turkey and gunmen at the mall in Kenya, bombs at the Boston Marathon and gun violence radiating across the city of Chicago.  2013 has brought changes in our personal lives, too: losing a loved one, welcoming a new baby, supporting a couple as they exchange vows, moving to a new home, changing jobs, becoming part of the community in a new way.

It has been quite a year, and now, in a few short days, we will say goodbye to 2013 and welcome in 2014.  The New Year offers us a fresh start, ushering in resolutions and commitments and plans to live differently.  These are liminal days, standing on the threshold between Christmas and New Year, some of us taking a break, some of us traveling, some of us up to business-as-usual.

But, although we ourselves may have been traveling, our holiday adventures have been nothing compared to the journey of Mary and Joseph this season.  For, while Joseph might once have assumed that Mary would give birth to Jesus at home, and that they would raise him there, Joseph was ushered quickly away from his home, first to Bethlehem for the census, and then to Egypt, fleeing for his life.  King Herod, catching wind that an infant-king was born among the people of Bethlehem, was uncomfortable with even this pint-sized power-struggle lingering on the horizon.

Herod, as you might imagine, never felt completely secure in his role as king, having been appointed by the Romans in 40 BCE, fighting for several years to even gain and maintain control of his kingdom.  He kept his own private security forces and had fortresses all around his kingdom “so he would never be far from a defensible refuge.”  Killing his rivals was commonplace for this king, and even his family was not immune to his violent insecurities – he killed his wife and son after suspecting trickery.

This scene with Herod is heartbreaking: children killed, innocence lost.  Rachel’s lament tucked within this passage cuts deep into our own understanding of loss in a world where violence and political unrest remain the norm.  Scholar Frank Thomas reminds us that “while there is no other record of the slaughter of innocents at Bethlehem, it is nevertheless consistent with what we know about Herod.”  And, while we do not know how many children might have been killed, we know that the city of Bethlehem was a small village, so the number would likely have been around twenty children. (Frank Thomas, Feasting on the Word, Year A).

To me, this story reiterates the emotion from Madeleine L’Engle’s poem that we read at our Quiet Christmas service last week, which says, “God did not wait till the world was ready / Till… nations were at peace. / God came when the heavens were unsteady / And prisoners cried out for release. / God did not wait” (Madeleine L’Engle, Imagining the Word, Vol. 1).

Jesus was born Prince of Peace, not in the midst of peace, but in the midst of violence, in the midst of innocents being slaughtered, and kings killing anyone who threatened their rule.  God came in the midst of the messy, pained laments of Bethlehem and is with us now, in the messiness of our own lives.

The geography of Jesus’ story, his birth in Bethlehem and this journey into Egypt remind us that we cannot stay put with God. God moves us from place to place, from scene to scene in our own lives, meeting us again, reminding us in tugs and gentle nudges that we are loved, that we belong, that we can allow God to bear some of the burden of our lives.

To me, the physicality of the incarnation – the geography, the movement from place to place, the innkeeper making space in unlikely mangers, the star shining bright, the census, the political context, the rushed departure to Egypt – all these things push us to hold onto and relate to the story of God-with-us.  The physicality of Jesus’ journey invites us to move from metaphor to embodiment.  The context of Jesus’ story helps me to be grounded in the hope that God comes to us in the flesh, tangibly present, in the midst of hockey practice and doctors’ appointments, court proceedings and funeral arrangements.  God comes to us through a friend, through a gift, in a deep breath, from within a struggle.

But God’s geography doesn’t start or end with us.  What I find powerful in the story of Jesus’ escape to Egypt is that Jesus’ journey echoes other journeys.  This story has geography of its own, sitting behind and between the dreams and scripture references.

  • Matthew’s readers would have heard poignantly the connection between Joseph, Jesus’ father, who was forced to flee Egypt, and Joseph of The Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat persuasion who was forced, sold, really, into slavery in Egypt, both of whom experience God through their dreams.
  • Matthew’s readers would have heard the connection between Jesus, who was saved as an infant from a tyrant ruler, King Herod, and Moses, who was saved as an infant from a tyrant ruler, Pharaoh, both who departed and returned to and from Egypt and the Holy Lands.
  • Matthew’s readers would have heard the connection between Rachel’s lament for the innocent children slaughtered by Herod, and Rachel’s lament for the children of God who were taken captive in Babylon in the sixth century after Jerusalem was destroyed and the Jewish monarchy was overturned, and all Israelites were deported, assembling first in the city of Ramah north of Jerusalem.
  • Matthew’s readers would have heard the connection to their own context, too.  As scholars remind us, Matthew’s community likely “consisted of many Jews forced from their homeland by the Jewish Revolt of 66-70 CE when the temple had been destroyed and there was conflict between church and synagogue.”  Mathew’s readers themselves might have been internally displaced people, refugees seeking rest on their journey (Fredrick Strickert, Rachel On the Way).

Their departure and return, our departure and return, creates a holy geography.

As we hear this post-nativity story in these threshold-days between Christmas and New Years, it’s worth hearing Shirley Guthrie’s reflection that “The Christmas story is anything but the sentimental, harmless, once-a-year occasion for a ‘Christmas spirit’ that lasts a few days before we return to the ‘facts’ of the ‘real world.’”  No, he says, “Christmas is the story of a radical invasion of God into the kind of real world we live in all year long – a world where there is political unrest and injustice, poverty, hatred, jealousy, and both the fear and the longing that things could be different.”  (Shirley Guthrie, Christine Doctrine).

And as Jesus is moved from Bethlehem to Egypt and back again to Nazareth, things are no different.  There is political unrest and injustice woven in Jesus’ story, just as we see it in our 2013 recap of protests and coup d’états, slaughters and internally displaced people.  Just as God’s geography connects us to the wider narrative of God’s people, God’s geography also connects us to our own geography.  Just as Jesus’ family was from one place, yet he was born in another; just as Jesus was sheltered for a time in a strange land and then brought back home again; just as Jesus was home, but never having lived there himself, was also a stranger in his own land – so too do we find ourselves geographically planted and transplanted, displaced and replaced, in places strange yet familiar, places that feel like home, yet at times uproot us, causing us to wonder who and whose we are.

As we turn to sing Joy to the World, I am mindful that this holy geography, this journey to Bethlehem and beyond is part of our call not only at Christmas but at all times.  Jesus’ journey from Bethlehem to Egypt, from Egypt to Nazareth will continue.  He will visit the woman at the well in Samaria.  He will fish in the Sea of Galilee.  He will depart and return to Nazareth and journey finally to Jerusalem.  At Pentecost, after his death and resurrection, the risen Jesus will send us, too, saying “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”  (Acts 1:8).

We, too, are called to participate in God’s holy geography.  We, too, are called to bear God’s peace in the world, even if the world is not ready to hear our cries for peace, just as the world was not ready when God came to the manger 2000 years ago.  God comes to us on our journey.  God walks with us on our path.  Even when that path is dark – especially when that path is dark, when suffering and unrest have become the norm – God’s light comes in the darkness.  Even heaven and nature sing of God’s presence on our journey, and God calls us, too, to sing our joy.  Amen.