Fleeing to Egypt

“Fleeing to Egypt”

Matthew 2:13-21 – December 29, 2019

Matt 2-12 Flucht_nach_Aegypten_Meuhlhausener_Altar_Bamberger_Dom

I have been puzzled by the week between Christmas and New Year for some years. Yes, it’s still the holiday season, and yes, lots of people are on reduced schedules, or even taking the whole week as a holiday. But, I realize some people need to keep working regular shifts, to do necessary things that keep the wheels of society rolling and things continuing to happen. As we all know, holidays do not last forever…or sometimes even for a few days.

Remember back to last Sunday? The fourth Sunday of Advent? I talked about the shepherds, and how they got ready to visit the Baby the Angel told them about. Only thing—the shepherds couldn’t afford to take a lot of time off to see the Baby. I doubt whether they could even take more than a few hours, at most a day, to go and see the Baby in Bethlehem. And, the angels in the angel chorus? The angels had gone back to heaven in an instant. They had already left before the shepherds even decided to check out this fantastic story.

Between last Sunday and today, Christmas happened. We sang “Away in a Manger,” “Silent Night” and lit our candles around the Advent wreath. But, what does our Scripture reading say happened? How on earth did we get from shepherds adoring the Baby at the manger to the horrible reading we had just now, from Matthew chapter 2?

Thank goodness for the Angel, again! Thank God the Angel came to Joseph—again—in a dream, and told him to flee to a different country, with Mary and the Baby. The Holy Family was fleeing for their lives; or, at least, for their Baby’s life.

Today, when young couples here in the United States have a new baby, even a toddler, usually the extended family, good friends, and often the church family members gather around in a fond shower of gifts, sometimes bringing dinner or other good things to eat. Somehow, I doubt whether Joseph, Mary and the Baby Jesus had much of a baby shower before Mary went into labor. Our reading from Matthew 2 tells us a whole lot more serious than just not having a baby shower. Matthew describes an evil, manipulative king who was extremely jealous and anxious. He worried about attacks against his power structure.

From all accounts of Herod and his life and reign, he was a tyrant. Looking at writings from contemporary authors of that period, Herod was cruel and bloodthirsty. He was also two-faced, as we can see from a few verses before our lectionary passage today, from his response to the Magi. He sent the Magi to Bethlehem, and requested that they come back after they find this “King of the Jews,” because Herod wished to “worship” this King as well.

I have a pretty good idea of exactly what Herod wished to do to the baby Jesus from what follows. What is even worse is King Herod has demanded that his soldiers go and slaughter all infant and toddler boys in and around Bethlehem. This reading of the slaughter of the innocents? Why this massive horror and carnage to happen? Why now? Isn’t it still the holidays? Didn’t we just celebrate Christmas? We just sang “O Little Child of Bethlehem” just a few days ago.

Sure, those soldiers were military men. I know those in the military have to do some really unpleasant things. But, ordered to kill babies and toddlers? Well. Just look who was giving that horrible order: the cruel, bloodthirsty King Herod.

We can see why the Holy Family left Judea. They fled. They became refugees.

As I have been thinking about this Scripture reading from Matthew 2 this past week, I wondered about the term “refugee.” I know many people use this term, not only in this country, but also internationally, and some of these people are misusing the term. What is the actual definition of the term “refugee?”

For this definition, I went to the United Nations website, where the UN describes and defines a great many words and terms that concern millions of people, worldwide. According to the migrant and refugee section of the official website, “Refugees are persons who are outside their country of origin for reasons of feared persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or other circumstances that have seriously disturbed public order and, as a result, require international protection.” [1] From everything described in Matthew chapter 2, that definition of refugees describes the Holy Family all too well. Sadly, too well.

As one of my favorite commentators Carolyn Brown said, “It would be nice if everyone had gone happily home and watched Jesus grow up safe and secure with angels watching over him and no problems for anyone.  But it didn’t work that way.  It doesn’t work out that way for any of us.  We all have all sorts of problems to worry about and work on.” [2]

Here in the United States, people are sometimes forced to relocate or are made homeless because of natural disasters or floods or fires – which certainly are on the UN’s list in their definition of the term “refugee.” We know about these refugees, or migrants.

A young man was shot on the Howard St. El platform just a few weeks ago. He had moved from the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s south side to Rogers Park, because he did not want to be actively recruited by gangs. And—he was shot in the back, execution-style, by a rival gang member. He tried to migrate. He tried to get away from feared persecution, conflict and violence by moving to the relatively safer area of Rogers Park.

This is not the sweet story of Christmas we heard on Christmas Eve. This wasn’t the gentle story of a young woman giving birth to a Baby, and angels giving a birth announcement to shepherds, including the words “Peace on earth, and good will to all!” Where—we heard about God breaking into the world, coming to be Emmanuel, God-with-us.

The narrative from Matthew 2, though jarring and heart-breaking, helps us know that God is truly with us. Just look at the state of the world, and the sad—even violent situations people encounter all over. Day in and day out, the days are dark more often than not. People like this young man from Englewood get shot, and stabbed. So many feeling separations of race and class and religion and so many other dividing lines.

Yet—nothing surprises God. Yes, the Holy Family did need to run away to escape from Herod the King. “So God understands when we and our families have scary problems.  God is with us and loves us not just when things are Christmas Eve wonderful but also when nothing is going right.  Right now, on the Sunday after Christmas, that is really good to know.  Christmas is over for this year.  But, soon it’s back to school [and work] and all the old problems and people we will struggle with.  It’s a good time to remember that God was with Jesus and His family in the peaceful stable AND on the scary road to Egypt.” [3]
            He is able to not only help us through our times of trouble, but also to be God with us. Jesus is there with us, even though homes are destroyed and children are slaughtered. Jesus is there with us through all the pain and suffering, through all the wailing and lamentation. We have His word on it. Jesus said “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” What a precious promise! What a wonderful Christmas gift! Jesus is our Emmanuel, God with us.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] https://refugeesmigrants.un.org/definitions

[2] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2013/11/year-first-sunday-after-christmas.html

Worshiping with Children, Christmas 1, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2013.

[3] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Don’t Be Frightened!

“Don’t Be Frightened!”

1 Pet 3-14 don't be afraid

1 Peter 3:13-17 (3:14) – September 9, 2018 – from Dave Ivaska’s book Be Not Afraid

Do you know anyone who talks straight? Comes right to the point? Doesn’t pull any punches? Sometimes, a person who speaks this way can be refreshing. So unlike other speakers or politicians who sugar-coat problems or sometimes sweep difficult matters under the rug.

Except – I am not sure whether we might say the same about our New Testament scripture reading for today. Suffering and pain are not exactly the favorite topics of most Christians in the 21st century. Yet, the apostle Peter is just such a man as I just described. A man who talks straight, comes right to the point, and does not pull any punches. We ought to listen to him, a man who was loved deeply by our Lord Jesus Christ, and a man whom God appointed as leader, the person in charge of the band of disciples after our Lord Jesus ascended.

No one enjoys talking about suffering, pain and harm. But, what do we find here? Peter tells his fellow believers in Christ that suffering, pain and harm will surely come. We do not want to hear that. None of us do! Yet, let us listen again to the words from 1 Peter 3, once more: “13 Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? 14 But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.”

Peter does not mess around. He comes straight to the point. Christianity is not a safe religion. Of course, the first century was not a safe time to live, either. One of the commentaries mentions “the situation referred to in 1 Peter 3:13-22 could range from mild abuse and mockery at the hands of the families of these new Christ-believers, to open, official, harsh persecution by Roman officials under [the emperor] Domitian (81-91 CE).” [1]

Christianity at the time of the apostle Peter was one of many religions, and a brand-new one, at that. It was closely related to Judaism, but the Jews were not high in the regard of the Roman Empire, either. As far as the Roman government was concerned, this new sect or religion called Christianity was nothing but a headache. Imagine, people running around, saying that there was only one God, instead of many gods and goddesses. How demeaning! How insulting to their families and the towns where they live, which all have patron gods and goddesses!

And, not wanting to, even demanding not to bow down to any other god, or call anyone else their Lord except this one particular God? Why, that was treason, pure and simple. On top of everything else, there were rumors that in the Christian worship services, there was cannibalism. They actually ate and drank the body and blood of their God. Imagine that!

If you and I step back from our current understandings of Christianity and try to see this brand-new religion in the same way that the Roman government of the first century did, we might get a little insight on the way that many others—both Jews and Gentiles—viewed this strange band of religious converts. Ridicule and open jeering at least, and harsh persecution, even death, by officials of the Empire. That means soldiers busting down doors in the middle of the night, dragging people into the streets, throwing them in prison. Maybe there was a trial, and maybe there wasn’t. Uncertainty, fear, pain, suffering.

Do you understand what Peter was talking about now? “Clearly, identifying one’s self as a Christ-believer in the first century CE was not something as common and mainstream as it is in certain places of the world today. Christianity as one of the leading world-religions did not yet exist as such.” [2]

Not only from the New Testament, but from other historical writings, we can see how persecuted the early Christians were. Peter had guts, I’ll say that for him. He did not have an easy life. Peter kept on the move, spreading the message of the Gospel, the Good News. He introduced people to his Lord and Savior, the risen and glorified Jesus Christ.

And yet—and yet, he told his fellow believers in Christ to “Be Not Afraid!” He knew very well what could (and quite possibly did) happen to some of them. Yet, he had the faith and assurance to write these very words. Don’t be frightened!

What is the next thing he says? Listen to Peter’s next verse: “15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,” We need to stand up for what we believe, and who we believe in. Gently and respectfully.  

Peter knew that even if his friends gave a respectful defense for the Lord they believed in, persecution would come. “Peter wants his readers to understand that, although they may act in a good and right way toward others, they may still suffer. Suffering for doing right is something we may all have to experience.[3]

I am reminded of Olympic runner Eric Liddell, the man called “the Flying Scotsman.”. The movie Chariots of Fire was made about him and his story at the 1924 Paris Olympics. Liddell was a devout Christian. He refused to run in a race he very much wanted to run—the 100 meters—because it was scheduled on Sunday. Liddell believed that playing sports on Sunday was disrespectful to God. So, he calmly announced that he would not run in that particular race.

Eric Liddell’s decision was not popular, at all. “He had to be brave because lots of people got really angry with him.  He was however gentle.  He didn’t scream and shout about how wrong the officials were to schedule the race on Sunday.  He simply said that he would not run because much as he loved racing, he respected God more.” [4]

I would like us to imagine that we are overseas, today. In parts of Afghanistan, Myanmar, Pakistan, or Thailand; in Algeria, Iran, Sudan, or in Saudi Arabia. Christians are less than 7 percent of the population of these countries, especially in Saudi Arabia. Let’s close the blinds and put out the lights. Shh! We can’t be too careful! The police are looking for people who go against the government, and the small minority of Christians are often arbitrarily persecuted. Several pastors and church leaders have recently been thrown in prison, so we need to be really careful and keep a low profile. No public church services! Keep quiet about meeting for bible study. And, make sure to hide your bibles!

In 1924, Eric Liddell still faced a great deal of opposition for his decision not to run. Imagine how much more difficult the apostle Peter and his fellow Christians had it, in the first century, with widespread persecution and suffering?

In the Beatitudes, in Matthew 5:10-12, Jesus tells us “blessed are the ones who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”  What is another way of saying this Beatitude? To be righteous, to practice righteousness, is to be like our Lord Jesus. What would Jesus do? We need to do that. Show others the Gospel through our lives and words. Be like Jesus. Love others, with kindness, gentleness, and respect. Always. And, do not be frightened, because Jesus will always be right by our sides. No matter what. Peter would certainly agree.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=938

Commentary, 1 Peter 3:13-22 (Easter 6A), Valerie Nicolet-Anderson, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2011.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=938

Commentary, 1 Peter 3:13-22 (Easter 6A), Valerie Nicolet-Anderson, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2011.

[3] http://www.lectionarystudies.com/easter5ae.html

“Raised to Life,” Rev. Bryan Findlayson, Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons, Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources.

[4] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/04/year-the-sixth-sunday-of-easter-may-25.html

Worshiping with Children, Easter 6A, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2014.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)