TEXTS: Isaiah 63:7-9 Matthew 2:13-23
TITLE: You Don’t Have to Live Like a Refugee
“God with” us means that we are cared for and guided wherever we may be.
There are so many people living as refugees in the world today: East Africans in the Democratic Republic of Congo; West Africans in France and Spain; Eritreans in Libya: Syrians in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, & Europe: Afghans in Pakistan, Sudanese and Iranians in Papua New Guinea & Nauru. Rohingya people from Myanmar in India. Sometimes refugees are forced out of one place (as the Rohingya of Myanmar), other times they elect to leave for good reasons (as do the Eritreans). When children are part of the refugee groups, they have not made the choice themselves. They have either been forced out with their parents, sent out by their or have followed their parents into exile. Wherever they end up, 1) resettled in Europe or Canada, 2)in concentration camps like the Afghans in Nauru, or 3) dead on a beach like that child in Greece whose picture was all over the newspapers in 2016, children become refugees innocently.
There are lots of aspects to refugee status:
- When “home” means a set place where one lives safely, then being a refugee means being away from that place for a long time.
- When people have left home because of a natural disaster, or war, or to escape exploitation, they often do so in a hurry and under force, typically making a dangerous passage to the place where they temporarily reside as refugees. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is common among Afghan refugees in Nauru.
- Because they are not “local”, refugees are often exploited by those who “receive”them or are tasked with their care. Child labor, child soldiers, and sexual exploitation of young girls are not uncommon in West Africa.
- Being a refugee means to lose one’s freedom. Teenagers fleeing violence and poverty in Central America find themselves prisoners in “detention centers” in the USA.
In a few places on the gospels it is written of Jesus that he was at home in the town of Capernaum, but even there, he was known as “Jesus of Nazareth”, which shows that he was regarded as an outsider. Mainly we read of him wandering around from Galilee to Judea and back, sometimes stopping off in Samaria on the way. He was a man without a fixed address.
At this time of the year we hear the name “Emmanuel” a lot, and we’re told over and over that it means, “God is with us.” Refugees, especially child refugees, have the right to question that. People like many of us, who living away from home and family, might also question whether or not God is with us here. We’re going to look for some responses (even if they don’t amount to answers) in the scriptures we read this afternoon.
I: CIRCUMSTANCES SEND US AWAY
Jesus was a refugee child even before he was born. His pregnant mother carried Jesus from her hometown of Nazareth to Bethlehem. Then he was born. We celebrated that last week. He was born there NOT because his mother wanted to give birth in a better hospital than the one in Bethlehem, or because his father wanted him to have a passport from and citizenship of a better country than Galilee, but because an emperor declared a census, and a husband had to be registered in Judea.
But then another king made it necessary for Jesus as a very young child to become a refugee in Egypt, a third country, where he certainly wasn’t one of the local folks and where he and his parents were as likely as not unwelcome.
There are many circumstances that make people residents of places far away from home. Not all of these circumstances necessarily make a person into a refugee, but people are far from home. For instance, my wife, Charlene, teaches at Chang Jung Christian University. Last week she had a conversation with an international student from Sarawak, in Malaysia. She learned that this woman and her sister, who studies at a university in Kaohsiung, are in Taiwan because entrance to public university in Sarawak is extremely difficult and the private universities there are very expensive. Circumstances have forced them into temporary exile from home.
I came to Taiwan 40 years ago when there was an American military base in Tainan. The base had a chapel with regular religious activities for American soldiers and civilian government employees, but some felt more comfortable having a church of their own outside. They lovingly invited everyone to attend English language worship on Sundays. I went a few times. But it seemed to me that everything in that church was centered around a people far from home, waiting until they could leave Taiwan, and in the meantime seeking God’s help to be Christians while they were here. The soldiers and civilian employees of the American government had been sent here by “a higher power”. They were far from home. Their feelings were legitimate. But that wasn’t me. I had volunteered to come here and was excited about almost everything I was experiencing. I wasn’t “just waiting to go home”. So it wasn’t long before I found somewhere else to worship in English.
Whether we are students residing here temporarily, long term overseas residents by choice, or refugees from some oppression not knowing when or if when we will ever get home again, like Jesus in Mary’s womb on the way to Bethlehem or riding on her back on the way to Egypt, we can be sure that Emmanuel (God with us) has not forsaken us, and for the sake of others who do not have our confidence, we can be “God with us” for people feeling sad and distressed away from home.
God’s people have been refugees over and over throughout history. But whether at home or on the move, as we read in Isaiah 63:7 this afternoon, it is God’s love and mercy that redeem and carry us along.
II: CIRCUMSTANCES TREAT US CRUELLY
Jesus was a refugee in Egypt. We’ve been looking at pictures of that escape today. It’s been a popular subject for those who do religious art for centuries. The time in Egypt was not of Jesus’, or Joseph’s or Mary’s choosing. We read that an angel spoke to Joseph in a dream, ordering them to get out of town. In Jesus’ case, the alternative to being a refugee was being dead.
Emperors, kings, governors, presidents, mayors, whatever title any one of them may hold, have enjoyed pushing people around for centuries. Herod, the king of whom we read this afternoon, went a step further. He ordered that people be killed. They died NOT because of anything that they had done (only the boys under 2 years of age were killed) and NOT for any purpose that would benefit a greater population (as is sometimes considered the reason in societies that practice human sacrifice for religious reasons). They died because by continuing to exist, one among them might threaten this king’s continuing to be in charge. The angel’s order that came to Joseph in his dream, “Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you:…” was more compelling, more forceful, than the earlier imperial command to “go from your hometown in Nazareth of Galilee to Judea to the city of David to be registered because I order it so.”
So Jesus became a refugee. That’s a curse, but sometimes it’s the only way to avoid something worse. Sometimes when we’re far from home, as are many of us here, it can feel like exile. American soldiers in Vietnam in 1970 spoke of the time when their duty in the war-zone would end as the day they would “go back to the world.” The American soldiers and civilian employees I met in Tainan in 1976 seemed to feel that they were in exile. There are likely international classmates of some of us here who feel that way. Maybe some of us, here, are in that state. But we have to consider, if only for a minute, that maybe this season away from home is better than what awaited us if we had never left. Maybe God who “was” with us at home has brought us here, temporarily, for the sake of something better further along the line. Maybe.
Jesus was a refugee first because of a Roman emperor’s need to register people for taxation purposes, and then because of a local tyrant’s fear of being replaced. Consider this: St. Patrick is the patron saint of engineers because he Patrick taught the Irish how to build with concrete. If he weren’t the Son of God and our Savior, then Jesus could at least qualify as the patron saint of refugees.
Becoming a refugee saved Jesus from dying when the boys of Bethlehem his age were all slaughtered. It also saved his parents from the grief of losing their firstborn child. So refugee life saved them in some ways. God’s presence with us is saving. Whether at home or away, the name Emmanuel constantly reminds us that “God is with us.”
III: GOD CALLS US ONWARD
God was with that little family of Joseph, Mary and Jesus in many ways. 1) Getting Mary safely pregnant, 2) getting Joseph confident enough to go through the wedding, 3) getting them safely to Bethlehem and 4) getting Jesus safely born (and Childbirth is still, in 2017, not necessarily a safe or comfortable thing).
God was with them even after the birth of our Savior, and not just in that babe in arms, whose picture we’ve seen so much of already this afternoon. God whose word had been revealed to Joseph through an angel visitation in a dream in Nazareth returned the same way as Joseph dreamed again in Bethlehem, and in Egypt. God was with them as Joseph made the decision that anywhere near Jerusalem would be too dangerous for the Son of God, so took them all north, back to his and Mary’s hometown, where the child grew and became known as “Jesus of NAZARETH, the son of the Carpenter.
WE read the story already kind of knowing these things. But THEY didn’t know about them before they happened. They experienced God with them step by step, through angel visitations, dreams, visits, protection, provision and words. One step at a time they heard, and one step at a time they found confirmation of God’s presence. They had no indication of what Jesus would eventually say to his disciples, what we find written at the END of Matthew’s gospel, “Lo, I will be with you always, even unto the end of the age”.
Like us, they had to take things as they came, being able to see ahead not much farther than the tips of their noses. It’s possible that when we look back on our own stories that we, too, can identify moments and seasons of heading into the future with nothing beyond the clothes and a few other things that we have carried along. No matter how smart our smart phones may be, not a one of them, not even the as-yet-not-numbered i-phone, has or will have an app that can tell us the future.
- We may have set addresses, what banks and governments like us to register as “permanent addresses”, but our addresses are temporary. We look for an eternal home, but we haven’t yet arrived.
- Giving birth to a child, even being born as an infant, is traumatic. Though it’s natural, I recall from the experience of being in the birth room alongside my wife as she gave birth to both our daughter and our son is that she didn’t do so without a lot of work and a lot of pain. I can testify to a great personal fear of being stuck in a tight place. In fact, when I wake up from a scary dream, it’s often because IN that dream I’m in exactly that kind of place. My wife thinks that I must have had a difficult birth experience. It’s too late to ask my mother about it, though.
- Exploitation is the lot of many refugees. It’s also the condition of many graduate students and junior faculty who toil in the academic world. Some in this very room may have experienced such exploitation at a nearby university.
- And for all the talk we make about freedom, we may indeed have little of it. There was a season when Taiwan was most UNfree (from 1947 to 1990). I remember seeing a chinese language flyer for a set of Evangelistic rallies that were being held among Chinese language churches in the Philippines at that time. They had invited famous Chinese preachers from foreign places including Singapore, Hong Kong and “The Free Ancestral Country”. The title intrigued me, because the name of the preacher was a guy I knew from Kaohsiung!
Since we’re privileged to live in Taiwan, we can’t compare our condition to Eritreans living in Italy, the Syrians in camps in Jordan, Rohingya living in India the Afghans in Pakistan or the Iranians & Sudanese in Nauru. Our participation in “refugee life” or “the experience of exile”, if we can even dare to consider that title, is tenuous. But that doesn’t mean we feel totally at home. So, when you feel out of place, take heart. In the same way that Joseph, Mary and Jesus on the roads between Nazareth, Bethlehem, Egypt and back to Nazareth, God is with us.
In Isaiah 63:9 we read that God’s presence saved God’s people, that in love and pity, God redeemed those people, God lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. So also does God meet us, save us, redeem us and carry us, because God is with us, in these days of now, and forevermore.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN
LET US PRAY
Guide of the travelers, protector of the sojourners, home of the homeless and refuge of the poor, we turn to you for encouragement in our own loneliness, and we ask you to point us to people for whom we might be your presence in their loneliness.
We pray in the name of the patron saint of refugees and exiles, our Lord Jesus Christ. AMEN