The Second Sunday after Christmas
The Rev. Mary Styles
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
January 3rd, 2015
I am sure you, like me, cannot hear those words from the Gospel about the flight to Egypt without remembering news flashes of the many refugees flooding to these and other shores in Europe.
I wonder whether you have listened to Archbishop Justin’s New Year message? It’s directed at the people of England and also applies to us here in Rome – he talks about Jesus, the refugee – and he commends the hospitality that some are offering in England – so that more will follow their example.
He shares the story of a 14 year old North African boy who fled his home and family after surviving (just) a terrifying raid on his school, he managed to get to England as a refugee.
Joseph (Mary’s betrothed) discovers their new baby, Jesus, is in danger – The cross is already looming over Jesus. They got up and fled that very night – with little preparation and I presume, with few possessions – perhaps just like a Syrian or Libyan father today?
The verses the lectionary compilers omitted from today’s Gospel reading describe the reason for the holy family’s quick exodus – the ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Herod – the massacre of the innocents – all the male children were killed.
We know that many of those coming to Europe today are fleeing similar atrocities, as archbishop Justin has told us.
We don’t hear how the holy family were received, nor where in Egypt they went, we don’t even know exactly how long they stayed. An educated guess tells us life was not easy for them, outsiders – our natural human tendency is to shun the outsider, to use them as scapegoats for our problems – we only have to see how refugees are received today.
St Matthew tells us that Joseph heard from God through angels – prompting him first to go to Egypt and then to return to Israel. His third piece of guidance in this account was to beware of the land controlled by Archelaus, and so the family ends up in Nazareth in the district of Galilee.
Why did God choose this way to protect His Son? There could have been so many other ways – causing less stress and confusion to Joseph and Mary. …..But this couple with a new baby were certainly open and searching for answers from God – they had both heard from angels before Jesus’ birth. … So it makes sense that they were searching for answers from God for what to do after He was born.
A miracle had happened in and through them, they’d had many confirmations of that – angels, shepherds, magi, a star. – Now they were in the very presence of God Himself but without the answers – the baby Jesus wasn’t speaking to them. That’s how life seems, so often, doesn’t it! I wonder if they cried out to God for help to look after this oh so special child?
I wonder whether they reflected on Psalm 84 that we heard this morning – “How lovely is your dwelling place Oh Lord!” As Jews they understood the Temple in Jerusalem to be God’s dwelling place – and yet they have Emmanuel, God with us, lying in their arms. They had always known the place to find God was the Temple – and yet God tells them in a dream to go far away to Egypt.
“My soul yearns, even faints for the courts of the Lord” says the Psalmist – and yet the Lord is sending them into exile to Egypt. God has drawn so close to Mary and Joseph and yet He seems to be sending them off into the distance.
It’s a pattern that repeats itself throughout Scripture and through people’s lives today. God calls, and then frequently directs people to leave their home – Abraham, the first, “leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you” – then later the whole nation of Israel through another Joseph go into exile in Egypt because of famine – to be led out 400 years and many generations later by Moses.
The Jews drew close to God by visiting the Temple – but in this new, mini exile to Egypt for Mary and Joseph – they take God with them – not leaving Him behind in Jerusalem. They carried Him in their arms walking away from the Holy Land. Jesus had yet to start His ministry but this journey as refugee acts out a parable pointing to the new way He inaugurates – Jesus will be with us wherever we are geographically and whoever we are, Jew or Gentile, if we make Him Lord of our lives.
God didn’t call the holy family to a long exile as Israel had first spent in Egypt – they returned to Nazareth for Jesus’s childhood – but even then, it probably wasn’t familiar territory for them – still displaced persons, to some extent – living in an occupied land – paying taxes to foreign invaders.
So what has this to do with us? Many of us here are migrants, expats, refugees – we are away from home – perhaps we are running away from danger, or from something else; perhaps we are looking for something, for work, for prosperity – or a change?
This Gospel shows us that Jesus had real experience of fleeing danger, of living as a foreigner – of being born into a world – not of peace and harmony as our Christmas card scenes suggest – but into a cruel and dark world where a paranoid king thought nothing of killing baby boys – not so different to today. Jesus’ life was one of vulnerability and we need to imitate that – Juliet Kilpin writes; “The frequent association of the church with status, wealth and force is inappropriate for followers of Jesus and damages our witness. We are committed to vulnerability and to exploring ways of being good news to the poor, powerless and persecuted, aware that such discipleship may attract opposition, resulting in suffering and sometimes ultimately martyrdom.”
Archbishop Justin says; ‘In today’s world, hospitality and love are our most formidable weapons against hatred and extremism.’ – Already as a church, St Paul’s, you are doing amazing things to welcome the stranger here at the JNRC – We as Christians need also to take this personally, taking the vulnerability of our faith that renounces power, status and wealth into our homes, work-places and out into this city. We can only do this if we carry Jesus with us.
We carry Him not as a babe in arms that we can put down whenever we begin to tire, whenever we are tempted to go the way of the world – instead, we carry Him inside us, His Spirit lives in each of us who call Him Lord.
It’s our job to fan His Spirit into flame – not to quench Him,
to listen to the small voice of the Spirit’s guidance,
to allow the Spirit to mould us and grow us into the people He created us to be.
As true disciples we will attract opposition from others and from the world at large – but our strength is in God and Psalm 84 tells us we are blessed when we draw strength from Him – and when we set our hearts on a pilgrimage closer to Him – whether that journey is one of prayer, of service or of exile – we are blessed and so very powerful in Him when we pray with the Psalmist “My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God!”
I end with a prayer for 2016 from pastor friends, Giuseppe and Julia Capuano who lead a church in Città della Pièvè, Umbria:
“Our prayer for this New Year is that the Lord will ignite the flames of His Spirit in the hearts of all those who wait for the return of Christ, so that we are not living half asleep but are wide awake and ready to share His love with this fallen world.”