Strangers in a Strange Land

Scriptures: Deuteronomy 10:12-19 & Matthew 2:1-23
Given on September 10, 2017

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”  Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. Now after they 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.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”  When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.  Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:  “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

She pressed her infant child closer to her chest, his tiny body wrapped in shredded and torn cloths that still had golden-brown strands of hay stuck to it the way hay always sticks to things. The heat of the day had dissipated and the chill of the night air had started to cut through every part of her body as she offered whatever warmth her slight and worn out frame had to the baby suckling at her breast. The baby was in that place where the newborns find themselves where the comfort and nourishment offered by their mother’s milk brings about feelings of contentment and well-being and as he drank he drifted in and out of sleep, unaware that at this moment, he, along with his parents were on the move, trying desperately to get out of a country and a civilization that had been their home, their ancestral home for as long as anyone could remember and then some. Now, that home, that civilization seemed to be collapsing all around them. The father was there, too. His countenance, his cadence, his gait betraying the seriousness of the moment. While his partner had the luxury of riding on the back of a donkey as they made their way into the darkest part of the evening, he was tasked with leading the animal where he needed it to go. And perhaps on a normal occasion, this might have been a leisurely activity. Donkeys, we all know, only have one speed and trying to rush them along really only brings about more consternation for the guide and an increased degree of stubbornness from the animal. But, on this night, the baby’s father was having none of it. From the time that he was a boy it had been instilled in him that it was his job, his duty, his only purpose in life, to protect his wife and offspring from any and all who would do them harm. He was, of course, to provide them with a roof over their head, the resources that come with a honest day’s work, the guidance that comes with being a father and the head of the house at that time in history. But before all that could take place, could have any sort of lasting meaning, he had to protect both mother and child. On this night, the threat had arisen from a brutal ruler who seemed willing to stop at nothing to gain and maintain his power. He had first heard this from those visitors who had traveled from the east to see and adore the child now being carried by his mother. They had warned him of the coming threat to his child’s life, to the life of the child’s mother, to his own life. Upon hearing this news, he began to pack their meager belongings and prepare his family for a trek to a land where they didn’t know a soul, didn’t speak the language, didn’t have a job. Traveling with a newborn makes for an exceedingly difficult journey and this was made all the worse by the knowledge of what the ruler of the land was planning to mete out onto his people. Soon throughout all the land, the silence of the moment would be broken with the shrieks of mothers and fathers mourning the violent loss of their children—those who didn’t know to get out, didn’t know to run, didn’t have any sense of where to go if they did run. But he didn’t need to know where exactly they were heading, he didn’t need to know where they would stop, put down new roots, work, worship, all he knew was that it was no longer safe for him and his family and so he walked as fast as he could manage with donkey and wife and child in tow, trying as hard as he could to set his face towards the fading light of the sun that had disappeared sometime ago, as orange, then pink, then gray, then finally black enveloped the whole of the firmament before him. It was now night and though his body was weary, sleep would have to wait for another time. The darkness of night would provide all the cloak that he would need to begin to move his newly formed family to safety. He would hopefully find somewhere safe to rest when the light of the morning began to awaken the sky that was firmed behind him now. As he walked he let out a long and plaintive sigh that signified both his frustration and his acceptance with his current lot in life. As a sign of love and affection towards the woman who had brought his son into the world he reached his free hand out and rubbed her leg. She, for her part, allowed her mouth to curl upwards ever so slightly before returning her gaze to the baby in her arms.
Sitting atop the donkey, she was well aware that the trip on which they had left departed would not ever be easy. In traveling, they had to reverse their days and nights and while to an outside observer this might be challenging, anyone who had ever been the parent of a newborn baby knows that this switch happens regardless of whether you are on the back of a donkey or in the comfort of your own home. So it was that periodically throughout the night, the baby would rustle and reach out into the darkness for the warmth of his parent and his mother would in turn pull her son in closer and he would slowly and silently drift back to sleep. Lacking anything to lay him down on was not ideal and as she held him hour after hour she could feel the muscles in her arms strain, and then burn, and then cramp, until, eventually, she couldn’t feel anything at all and yet, the greater threat to her and her newborn son lay in stopping, in putting him down, in taking a break. So with whatever energy she had she gripped him all the tighter and they pressed on into the dark and cold night.
When you are pregnant for the first time, every moment is alive with newness. From the moment that you realize that you are carrying a child to the moment that he erupts into the world, each twist, each kick, each flip makes you aware all the more that there is something bigger than yourself going on inside of you and that you have to do whatever it takes to protect it. And then there are the worries. What if the baby doesn’t make it all the way? What if he has some sort of congenital issue that you will learn about the moment that you set your eyes on him? What if he can’t see or hear or speak or any number of ailments that you know that it is technically possible for babies to be born with. After birth, all that changes. The awareness of everything that can go wrong in utero changes to the knowledge of all that can wrong in the outside world. The awareness that there was a time when your own body could protect your child and now all that was left are your two hands and your chest and so you pull your baby in close to you and vow to yourself that nothing will ever do harm to him as long as you have air in your lungs and you will do anything it takes to protect him.
On this trip, in the darkest and deadest part of the evening, when everything but bats and owls have gone to sleep, this mother treasured all these different things and pondered them in her heart. She knew that each baby is a precious child of God but hers seemed somehow different, somehow special, somehow destined for something more. She allowed her thoughts to traverse back to the previous evening. She still had that glow that new mothers get when they have seen all their hard work come to fruition and they are able to hold the fruits of their labor in their hands. Since his birth there had really been very little time to have to herself. But she had faith. Since her own birth, she had been taught the faith of her parents, to give everything over to God even when all hope seemed lost, even when it seemed that God was asking her to bear more than he young life could possible be expected to carry. From that moment in which she discovered that she was going to be pregnant and bringing a baby into a world that was crying out for relief. Relief from occupation and oppression. Relief from being under the foot of a tyrannical government. Relief from not being allowed to live their life with any degree of self-determination. How could she be expected to bring a baby into that world? And with each passing day, she relied more and more on the faith of her childhood. But this latest demand felt like a bridge too far. To have brought a baby into this world only to see her entire world crumble under its own weight. To hear the wailing and lamentations of the new mothers, like herself, who would have to live the entirety of their lives without the one thing that would give them meaning, that would teach them to love, that would be their singular source of joy. Such a pain was too great to carry, but this was her only option. To go to a new land. To seek a new life. To try and exist in a place that was completely foreign to her. That she only knew of because of the stories of the faith that told her that Egypt was not safe for Hebrew people. That in Egypt they had enslaved the Hebrew people’s ancestors and yet, she was getting there as swiftly as humanly possible. Egypt represented the closest thing to safety that she could imagine. A place outside the reach of the ruler systematically executing all the boys that looked like her precious child. Wrapped in swaddling clothes, held tightly in her arms, safe, secure, asleep. There was nothing in the world that she wouldn’t do to keep him that way. Even if it meant going to a place where she didn’t know a soul, didn’t speak the language, didn’t dress the same, or worship the same, eat the same foods, wear the same clothes. From this moment forward, until she knew it was safe to return, she would be an outcast, a refugee, an immigrant, a stranger in a strange land. And the darkness seemed to swallow both of them as they wearily made their way to their new life.
I wonder what that couple, what that baby, would look like today? I wonder if they are out there still, wandering from one land in which the simple act of living life in safety and security, in which the taking care of children, in which the hopes and dreams that all people in all places a born possessing, all seem like absurd pipe dreams, and to a land flowing with milk and honey, to a land that represents the last bastion of hope, to a land that provides a degree of protection from governments that abuse their people, to a land where all people are presumed to be equal just because they were each made by a singular maker. I wonder where we would find Jesus on this day. Where we might sense the Spirit of the Most High passing over the way it passed over the waters of chaos at the beginning of time. I wonder where we as a church, as a faith tradition, as a free people, as members of the human race are called to be and what we are called to do once we get there. Jesus told his disciples that at the end of the age all the nations will be gathered in front of the throne and he will separate the sheep from the goats and usher the sheep into heaven saying that any act of kindness, from the greatest to the most minute, done for the least of these in the world was done unto him. At this time, on this day, I wonder who the least of these are and how might we serve them. I wonder. Alleluia, amen.

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