Below is the text prepared for our Christmas Eve service this year. I hope it is helpful for those of you unable to make it to worship with us.
He would be born in a stable, and he would be called out of Egypt, and he would be born in the City of David, and he would be called a Nazarene. And he would travel borough to borough with his young family, and he would be left behind in the temple at twelve-years-old. He would tell his mother that of course he would be there because it was the only home he really had. And he would walk the dusty road from Galilee to Samaritan lands, through the wilderness, from mountain to mountain, synagogue to synagogue, tax collector’s house to homes of prostitutes and homes of busybodies, and rooms where children lay dead to upper rooms where it seemed the whole dream of a Kingdom was dead too. From no place to lay his head to tears of blood to nowhere to run: from Herod to Agrippa back to Herod, to the loneliest place on earth, the cross on the hill of the Skull outside the city, where all the bodies were buried. Jesus was a refugee.
And that information might seem to be nothing more than a CV, a resume. It may be just the historic detail of a life lived two thousand years before your life, unless we are able to see between the lines of our own lives, between the lines of business and anxiety. Unless we can see between the lines of hopes we have and the way those hopes are frustrated. Jesus’ refugee status is only meaningful if we can see that in our world we never seem to have a place to lay our head either. Unless we realize that the way of life in this world is to never get too comfortable because around the corner is the next thing, the next season, the next threat, the next election, the next diagnosis or the next challenge. It is all intermingled with good things of course; we have learned that we can make camp in all kinds of places, and in the midst of some pretty challenging stuff. But if not refugees in full - like the 60 million people displaced by violence in our world - we are at least refugees in kind, carrying with us wherever we go our bundled up dreams and little faiths. And so it matters greatly that Jesus too was a refugee because in his itinerancy he has carved out for us a place to make camp that is our truest home.
How was he a refugee for us? This is the question really. How was his flight from place to place good for us? How was it sacrificial and loving that he had no place to lay his head?
He made a place for us. It would be easy to think in this life that the boundaries for blessing are the same ones that separate our neighborhoods and cities; the divisions that mark us as worldly successful in business or in life. It would be easy to think that the right image, the right family composition, the proper color of skin, the last name that can be easily pronounced, the pristine family background, the lack of significant suffering define us. It would be easy to think that the lines of blessing follow those same lines, but if that were the case we would have to say that Jesus himself is not blessed, is not loved by God, is not valuable or relevant or significant. Because let’s look at the evidence here in the text: born in a stable, hunted by the same power that pacified the known world, a political refugee with no family money that we know of, from a one-stoplight town in the hills, the Bible even tells us that if he truly is the Messiah he won’t be much to look at. If those are the lines of blessing then you would have to call Jesus an enormous disappointment and the least-likely to succeed. And so it matters that even by virtue of his life in this world he shattered the laws that we thought governed us. He was a refugee for us by showing us that real value and significance lie elsewhere. That God gets to decide himself who is truly value or relevant.
We need to hear that because we are becoming an increasingly inhospitable world. The boundaries we use to define the beautiful and the important and the valuable are becoming narrower - we are becoming quick on the draw to label each other as the enemy. Internet comment sections are filled with suggestions about who the idiots and the retrograde people are in this world. Our homes welcome less and less people who do not look like us or who do not already agree with us. It is a terrifyingly homogeneous society in which we are living. And this means that while the church may have the poor reputation of narrow-mindedness and exclusivity, the church that is biblical is the one that welcomes a greater diversity than her city. The church that is biblical tells a contrary story: that the lines of blessing run as wide as the love of God for the poor and the humble, the meek and lowly, those who love wisdom and mercy more than money and power. Those who have open doors and welcome like God himself welcomes. These are the blessed; those that know God's grace has opened a door to the world around them that they cannot shut. Part of Jesus’ mission as a refugee was to expand the boundaries for those who are welcomed by God. Matthew, as an evangelist, helps us to see Jesus as one who experiences what we experience, the one who carves out among our difficult worlds, a place of blessing for us.
Jesus is a refugee for us As Jesus’ family hides him by fleeing first to Egypt and later to Nazareth, in lieu of Judea, his descendants’ land, Herod does the next best thing to killing Jesus; he makes his name a curse by striking down every two-year-old in the land. If you did not lose a child you knew someone who lost a child. If Herod could not destroy Jesus he would destroy his name, poison his reign before it ever started. Jesus is forced to forsake the land of his descendants and flees to Egypt, then Nazareth. He is even more displaced, even more disconnected from his heritage. Anonymity and estrangement is precisely what Jesus experiences in his first years of life. A child of immigrants. But in order to understand how Jesus’ anonymity and estrangement was for us we have to get the point of his flight.
Whereas most refugees have little control over where they go, or a definite path or definite end to their travel, this is not the case with Jesus. Jesus had a definite end. His traveling, while degrading and sad, was still planned. His path was marked out for him. He was already moving in the direction of the cross. Whereas refugees by definition flee toward a refuge, even Jesus’ time in Egypt was under the shadow of the Cross - the Bible says, this is planned. And his refuge in Nazareth - this is planned. He is at every turn fleeing toward not his own eventual refuge but ours. Because the last place he will be displaced to is the Cross. And what finally happens in Christian theology at the Cross is that Jesus is able at that one place, to put evil, and death, and the reason for all of our displacement, to death with him. He puts flight to flight. Jesus on the Cross wins for us our freedom, not from harshness or struggle; not from pain or difficulty in the life. He frees us from condemnation. For those who have placed their faith in Jesus he is the way to a future without pain, death, fear, or that homesickness that moves us frantically from one thing to another. Jesus was a refugee along a path carved out for him by God’s love for you.
He fled toward the Cross, he pursued it doggedly. When his own apostle peter tried to keep him from it he rebuked him. He fled toward it like it a refuge, but it was not his refuge; it was your refuge and mine. The child born into this world was born to run for your sake. Born to live and die for your sake. So that you may live, and put away the displacement of others. So that you might carve out a refuge for a world with no place to lay its head.