The Holy Family were Refugees

A sermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas Day
January 3, 2021
Preached at
Trinity Episcopal Church
In Easton, Pennsylvania

A Prayer for Refugees from Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service

Dear Lord Jesus, your family on earth knew the life of refugees when they fled to Egypt. Bless all who seek refuge on this earth. Meet their needs for safety and for home. Move the hearts of your people to show them welcome. Cause wars to cease and bring justice to the nations that no one will need to flee again. In your great mercy, Lord hear our prayer. Amen.

The early Church seems to have been troubled that there were four different Gospel Accounts—and that that these accounts appeared, at times, to contradict each other. Thus it was that around the year 165 of the Common Era, the “Christian Apologist,” Tatian, set out to weave all of the Gospel accounts into one narrative. And thus was created the “Diatessaron,” one of the most important works ever created by a Christian author.

Unlike Tatian, modern Biblical Scholarship affords us a different perspective. Rather than being afraid of, or embarrassed by, the differences in the Gospel narratives, we celebrate them—because these unique details give us powerful insight into each of the four distinct communities of faith which chose to share the “Good News,” of God’s saving, healing, emancipating, and empowering plan throughout the entire course of human history.

The Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ, literally the “Good News,” as shared with us by the Community of Matthew would not make much sense if divorced from the Jewish faith and experience of that community. Matthew is full of borrowed imagery. Jesus is seen as the “New Israel,” the “New Passover,” the “New Exodus,” and the “New Moses.” For Matthew’s community, Jesus embodies the entire experience of the People of Israel. He relives it, and gives it a new spin—tells it in a new and surprising way. Matthew likes to take well-known and commonplace themes—and then reveal them in a new and unexpected light. His listeners—and later his readers—would have begun in a world which was seemed very familiar and understandable. But, then, there would be an unexpected, and sometimes uncomfortable twist, which would cause everything to need to be rethought, questioned, and examined.

Only the Gospels of Matthew and Luke have “Infancy Narratives.” They are like an overture to an orchestra. They introduce the main themes, and sounds, which later will be developed and expanded. They introduce us to ideas, to concepts, and “set the stage” for what is to come! I am often saddened that these stories are recalled and retold once a year—and are then put away. I am tempted to ask, what would happen if we paid greater attention to these accounts? What would happen if we used them as a tool of analysis—a way to explain and reinterpret what comes later? What if they are the key to understanding the deepest meaning—and a meaning which might not always be obvious to us without these tools?

The hero of Matthew’s Infancy Narrative is Joseph. When we hear his name, we are reminded of that other Joseph the Dreamer. And yet, there is a difference, the dreams this Joseph has do not require an interpretation. They do require faith, though. When we first hear the message they contain, they do not seem to make much sense to us. How could a betrothed partner possibly be pregnant through the intervention of God? How could a powerful figure like King Herod even be aware of the existence of an insignificant child born to a simple family in Bethlehem. Yet, even though this Joseph is confused, he is willing to take the message seriously. He is willing to trust in the messenger. He is willing to trust in God. Joseph is willing to say “yes” to God. And, as a result, God’s plan unfolds.

It is a very rare thing for us to have a Second Sunday after Christmas Day. As a result, we find that the normal flow is disrupted—and that may not be a bad thing. Usually, we move from Annunciation to Nativity to Epiphany. Despite the celebration of the “Holy Innocents” right after Christmas, we normally move from Epiphany to Baptism. In doing so, we fail to properly celebrate the Flight into Egypt. What this means is that we miss an essential part of the story. We fail to understand the importance and significance of the formative experience of the newly formed Holy Family. And thus, we fail to properly understand who Jesus is—and what the “good news” of his life will mean.

Only Matthew shares this story. Only Matthew explains to us how it is that Joseph, Mary and Jesus make the incredible journey from the “City of David,” where Jesus is born to Nazareth in Galilee, where he will be raised in obscurity until he begins his public ministry.

The great irony here is that the evil king is not pharaoh. It is Herod the Great. The King of Judea is a paranoid, violent, and vicious dictator. He is the very antithesis of King David—from whom Joseph is descended. There is no corroborating evidence outside the Gospel of Matthew to support the account of the Slaughter of the Innocents. And yet, it does not seem at all out of character for an insecure tyrant who even had members of his own family murdered. Anyone Herod believed to be a threat had to be eliminated.

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were identified as a potential threat by Herod’s network. He was clearly not going to tolerate anyone who might become a rival. And so, they were expendable. Just to make sure that the threat was completely eliminated, he orchestrated a mass murder. Kill any potential threat. That was Herod’s plan.

And so, the Holy Family became political refugees. Literally fleeing for their lives, they made their way to Egypt. Like that earlier Joseph, and the whole family of Jacob/Israel, they had no alternative but to become refugees and to throw themselves on the mercy of a foreign and alien culture. Again, with great irony, they were provided with a place of safety and refuge. They were given hospitality. They were taken in by those who were considered to be their enemy. In a place where they might have feared that they would be turned away, rejected, refused, they found a home.

This family, which we call holy, was completely vulnerable. They had no legal recourse. There was no justice for them. Their lives did not matter. They were disposable! To flee quickly, and to avoid attention—in so far as that is possible—means to travel lightly. It means to take nothing with you. It means that along the dangerous and perilous way, one must rely on the kindness and compassion of others. It means that one must beg for food, for water, for shelter. It means living in fear. It means that one is identified as vulnerable. It means never knowing if one will be safe, if one will arrive at the destination intact. It is a life of fear, and danger, and worry. One is completely powerless. One lives in constant fear of being robbed, of being attacked, of being bullied.

Despite all that, Joseph guided, guarded, and shepherded his family to safety. But he was never the same. His family was never the same. in this harrowing journey, he learned to completely depend on God. And that faith, that trust, that hope was vindicated. He was warned, in another, and final dream (that we know of) that it was safe to return—but not to what had been his home. He could not return to Judea, but instead traveled to Galilee. And there he made a home for his family.

The Good News is that Jesus knew firsthand what it was to be viewed and treated as an alien, as a foreigner, as a stranger. He knew the fear, the worry, the struggle just to live in a time of chaos, hated, and violence. He knew what it was to be a minority in a foreign culture. He must have faced the daily struggle to fit in—to face prejudice, inequality, and injustice. The life of a migrant is never easy. One is always waiting for the “other shoe to drop.”

From this experience can come an amazing insight into the experience of all who are marginalized, who are vulnerable, who are oppressed, mistreated, and exploited. Thus when, in the Holy Gospel according to Saint Matthew, we hear our Lord speak powerfully of God’s love for those who are on the margins of society, we understand that he speaks—not just in theory—but from deep personal experience.

The invitation, and the challenge for us, as we begin this New Year, is to embrace our foundation as a community in which the weak, the vulnerable, the outcast, and the excluded are the very ones who are embraced by God’s love and care. In ministering to their needs, and in receiving them in love, we minister to that Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

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