Jesus the Refugee

This sermon was delivered at Union Congregational United Church of Christ in Moline, Illinois on January 1, 2017. The scriptures for this sermon are Matthew 2:13-23 and Hebrews 2:10-18.

I’m a geek.

I’m enough of a geek that, when I was traveling for work a couple of weeks ago and that latest Star Wars movie came out, I went to see what I’m pretty sure was the first showing at a theater in D’Iberville, Mississippi.

Now, I’m not going to spoil the movie for you. I’m going to tell you what anyone who follows Star Wars — and what a lot of people who don’t — already knows.

At the beginning of the original Star Wars movie, there’s a famous opening crawl: that famous yellow text floats out into space before the camera pans down to reveal a rebel spaceship running away from a much larger, much more menacing, Imperial Star Destroyer. The opening crawl sets the scene: a galactic civil war, a first victory for the rebellion, an armored space station called the Death Star, stolen plans, and so on.

It’s almost entirely unnecessary. All of the important information in the crawl is also contained in the actual movie.

But someone thought, “Let’s make a movie about the things in the opening crawl. Let’s make a movie about how the rebellion won that victory and stole those plans. Let’s have the last scene of the new movie flow seamlessly into the first scene of the original movie.”

I’m willing to bet that they also thought, “We could make a lot of money doing that.”

And it’s a good movie; it tells that story. And by telling that story, it changes the original movie. It adds depth. It adds perspective.

And I’m telling you this because Matthew is giving us an opening crawl.

You see, the nativity stories in Luke and Matthew have a problem: the prophets had declared that the messiah would be born in Bethlehem, but everyone knew that Jesus was from Nazareth.

Luke solves this problem through a story that you’ve heard. It is the basis for every public reading of the nativity:

“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered…. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.”

Joseph takes Mary from his home in Nazareth to his ancestral home in Bethlehem to be registered, Jesus is born, they go home. Easy.

Matthew does something different. Jesus is just born in Bethlehem. There’s no comment. There’s no census. There’s no journey from Nazareth. Joseph and Mary are just there.

And to get Jospeh and Mary and Jesus to Nazareth, Matthew gives us an opening crawl.

Wise men come from the East seeking the Messiah. They’ve seen a star and they know that there is a new king of the Jews. King Herod had been given the title King of Judea by Rome and he feels threatened. He begins to plot against this child.

The wise men are warned in a dream not to go back to Herod. Joseph is warned in a dream to flee to Egypt. Herod orders his men to kill all of the children in and around Bethlehem; everyone two years old and younger. But, of course, they miss Jesus, because Jesus is in Egypt.

And, when Herod dies, Joseph and Mary and Jesus return from Egypt. But Herod’s son is ruling over Judea. So they settle in Galilee, in Nazareth.

And then Matthew skips a few years, brings in John the Baptist, and starts Jesus’ ministry.

It’s a bit of an opening crawl. You can imagine it in yellow letters floating into space before the camera pans down… probably not to a scrappy rebel spaceship. A conflict between two kings! A massacre! A family on the run! Excitement! Adventure! Wonder!

And now we’re ready for the main story.

Now, Matthew never wrote a prequel to flesh out his opening crawl. We have to imagine.

Imagine having just had your first child. You’re a new mother or a new father. You have hopes and dreams for your son. Maybe it’s been a few months or a year. You’re starting to build a nice little life as a family.

But, in the middle of the night, you get  a message. One word: run!

You start grabbing things. You can’t take everything you own, there isn’t time. You can’t take everything you can carry, you need to be fast and light. You can only take the necessities.

You run. You settle in a foreign land. You work, you pray, you start to build a life. Some of the people here are kind and they help you. Some of the people here are cruel and they tell you to go back where you came from. And you wish you could. This isn’t home.

You hear news. The ruler of your homeland is massacring children. Every child under the age of two has been killed. And while you hear people in the cafés talking about the statistic, you start seeing faces and hearing voices and recalling names. You know those parents. You know those children. You know those families.

You go to your home that isn’t home and look at your family — your family that you brought to this strange land — and you weep.

You hear news. The ruler of your homeland has died. Your home, your real home, is safer. You get up, you take what you have, and you go back to your home country. But your real home is still too dangerous, so you settle nearby. You go home… ish.

And time passes. And your son grows up. And you wonder if he remembers being a refugee. You wonder if he remembers his real home, or the foreign land, or fearing for his life.

That’s Joseph. That’s Mary. That’s Jesus.

In Matthew, Jesus wasn’t born peacefully in a manger. Shepherds didn’t come down from the hills to greet him. Angels didn’t sing him to sleep. Cows didn’t low. In Matthew, Jesus is a child of war, threatened by a king, taken for his own protection to a foreign land.

In Matthew, Jesus is a refugee.

And that matters. I don’t know if Matthew intended to, but it does. Once we flesh out that opening crawl — once we see Jesus as a refugee — it changes things. Everything that happens from here on out — all of the sayings, all of the parables, all of the healings, all of the miracles — are the acts of a refugee. Everything that happens from here on out — the last supper, the betrayal, the crucifixion, the resurrection — are the acts of someone who had to leave his home when he was a child… and never return.

“Blessed are the merciful.” The words of a refugee.

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” The words of a refugee.

“Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.” The words of a refugee.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The words of a refugee.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know anything about being a refugee. I’ve never had to run from my home. I’ve never had to flee my country.

But I know this. Refugees span every walk of life.

Politicians? Madeleine Albright, Henry Kissinger.

Scientists? Max Born, Albert Einstein.

Writers? Joseph Conrad, Rigoberta Manchú.

There are refugees who are musicians and actors and athletes and artists and a thousand other things. They are white and black and brown and every other color. They are men and women. They are adults and children. They are just like us. But, to paraphrase Maria von Trapp — a refugee who you know from The Sound of Music — they have no home… they feel like a parcel that has been mailed and moved from place to place.

And I know this. There are a lot of refugees.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are more than 21 million people who have had to flee their countries. In addition to that, there 38 million people who are still in their countries, but who have been forced from their homes. And in addition to that, there are millions of people who are stateless, with no country, no nation, no home.

More than half of those refugees come from just three countries: Somalia, Afghanistan, and Syria. And more than two-thirds of them live in the Middle East and Africa. There are more than two-and-a-half million refugees in Turkey alone.

And there are about half a million here in America.

Jesus is a refugee. And he has tens of millions of brothers and sisters.

And, as the author of Hebrews says, he, “is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.”

The author of Hebrews — it’s a letter that’s often attributed to Paul, but he didn’t write it — is writing to Jewish Christians living in Jerusalem. The original audience for this letter knows persecution. They know what it’s like to be home but not home. They are not refugees from their country. But they are refugees from the Kingdom.

And they know that Jesus is not ashamed of them. They know that Christ had to become just like them. They know that Jesus has suffered like them. They know that Christ is among them.

Later, Matthew will write that we find Christ among the hungry and the thirsty, the stranger and the naked, the sick and the imprisoned. We know that Christ became like them, that Jesus has suffered like them, that Christ is among them.

Christ is the stranger. Jesus is a refugee.

And we have faith that we, too, are refugees; that we are strangers in a strange land; that we are home and not home; that we are in the world, but not of it; that we are refugees from the Kingdom.

We have faith that we can look to our brother Jesus who became like us and suffered like us and fled his home when he was a child, and he is not ashamed of us.

We have faith that we can look at our brothers and sisters from Somalia and Afghanistan and Syria and every corner of the earth — the refugees, the displaced, the stateless — and know that they are not ashamed of us. And we are not ashamed of them.

We have faith. And because of that faith we can welcome the stranger and the refugee with open arms. For we know that they are Christ.

Because Jesus was a refugee.

Hallelujah. Amen.