The scriptures referred to are Jeremiah 31:7-14 and Matthew 2:13-23.
According to the United Nations, there are, at any one time in this world, 40 wars going on. Some are civil wars and some are conflicts between nations. That means a lot of death, dismemberment, disease and displacement. One of the major motivations for emigration is the threat of violence. Human Rights Watch says that nearly 19.5 million people had to flee across international borders in 2014 and another 38 million people were forced to move to another part of their country. 1 in 4 refugees is Syrian with 95% of them in surrounding countries. The country with the most refugees in the world is Turkey.
Why do people become refugees? It may be that they are of the wrong religion or ethnic group or political party or are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. But eventually they realize that the only way to survive is to pull up stakes and leave their home.
We are a very mobile nation. It is estimated that 41 to 43 million Americans move each year, over half of them in the summer. Some move because of jobs but few move because of persecution. So it may be hard for most of us to understand how difficult it is for refugees. If you think it is painful to leave your family behind for your job, imagine forsaking family, job, home, savings, social position and more to save your life or those of your children. The reason many Cuban exiles cannot forgive Castro is that they were forced to leave everything behind when they fled Cuba and arrived in the U.S. impoverished.
The Jews were refugees. Jacob's sons went to Egypt to escape a famine in the promised land. When their descendants left Egypt under Moses, even though they brought much wealth with them, they missed Egypt and its advantages. It took 40 years of wandering for God to breed out the nostalgia for the land of their enslavement. But God never wanted them to forget how they were resident aliens in Egypt and commanded them to treat all foreigners in their midst with justice and hospitality.
In our reading from the gospel of Matthew, Jesus, Mary and Joseph become refugees. They leave behind all family, friends, business contacts—everything to save themselves from Herod. Some commentators doubt the occurrence of the massacre of the innocents, which is skipped over in our lectionary. They point out that no other historical source mentions it. Yet it is well documented that Herod the Great was a blood-thirsty tyrant who started his reign by slaughtering the 70 members of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court. He executed 300 members of his own royal court and had his wife, mother-in-law, and 3 of his own sons executed. Herod even laid plans to have many prominent Jews killed when he died, so that people would mourn at his passing. In contrast, Bethlehem was a small town with a population of maybe 1000, 1/5 that of Big Pine Key. So the number of children killed was perhaps 20 to 30. As horrible as that was, it was one of Herod's smaller atrocities and included no one the world considered important and so might have gone unrecorded during a reign in which violent and irrational death was common.
Jesus was apparently about 2 when his family left Judea, since that is the cut-off age given by Herod for massacring the male infants of Bethlehem. Scholars think Jesus was born in 7 or 6 B.C. (The monk responsible for our present year number system miscounted.) Herod died in 4 B.C. so the flight to Egypt may have taken place around 5 B.C. We don't know how long the family stayed in Egypt but a good guess is at least a year or two.
Jews often evacuated to Egypt during tough times so every city of any size there had a Jewish quarter. Joseph and Mary would have lived among fellow refugees. Still they had left behind everyone they knew. In addition, imagine the anguish they felt when word came of the massacre in Bethlehem. They had lived there for 2 years and some of the toddlers killed were Jesus' playmates. Mary would have known the parents and Joseph may have been related to some of them since he originally came from David's ancestral home. They may have felt the guilt all survivors of mass deaths do. They may have felt even more guilty because Jesus was the target of Herod's fury. Even though they left because they were warned and had no way of knowing the scope of Herod's rage, and even though they were protecting God's son, they must have had many sleepless nights over the whole event.
When news reached them of Herod's death, they may have stayed a while longer to see which of his sons would rule after him. As it turned out Herod the Great divided his kingdom among 3 of his remaining sons. Archelaus was given the southern part of his father's realm, which included Bethlehem. Archelaus proved to be as cruel as his father. He began his reign by executing 3000 influential Jews. Eventually the Romans deposed him and installed one of their own as governor. Mary and Joseph did not wait for that to happen. They returned to Mary's hometown of Nazareth, in Galilee, ruled by the less lethally inclined Herod Antipas.
Jesus must have been affected by all this. His earliest memories would have been of Egypt, where he lived until he was perhaps 4 or 5. He must have remembered his parents' grief and anger and would have heard the story of Bethlehem eventually. Did they tell him why the infants were killed or did they spare him the guilt? Did he have any vague memories of a playmate he lost? We do not know.
Then he would have been the new boy in Nazareth. He might have picked up some foreign phrases or customs in Egypt that would have marked him out as different. There may have been gossip about the circumstances of his conception as well. What impression did this leave on him?
We know that Jesus often went out of his way to help outsiders. In fact much of his ministry was aimed at those who were on the fringes of society. He did not disdain the Samaritans, whom other Jews considered half-breed heretics. He healed the Roman centurion's slave, a Gentile no respectable Jew would talk to. He touched lepers, who were considered unclean, taught women, who were thought unfit to study God's word, and ate with tax collectors, who were reviled as traitors by their countrymen. Was Jesus' vision of a kingdom of God open to all influenced not only by the Hebrew scriptures but also by his childhood experiences?
When Jesus accepted the mantle of Messiah, he acted very differently than the popular idea of God's anointed leader. He did not court the powerful or influential. In fact, he frequently offended them. He built his kingdom on a foundation of 12 ordinary, working-class guys. He discouraged a movement to crown him and talked instead of humility and his coming humiliation. He washed the feet of his students, a slave's duty, to teach them the importance of serving others. He repudiated violence, even if it were to defend him from his enemies. On the night he was betrayed, he went to meet the soldiers sent to arrest him, identifying himself and asking that his disciples be let go. Was this so that no one else might die that he might live, as happened in Bethlehem?
The history of the world is largely the history of waves of people leaving their homelands, moving away from persecution, wars and disasters and seeking new lives elsewhere. The great figures of the Bible underwent such uprootings. Abraham left his home to seek a land promised by God. Jacob fled from the brother he tricked and labored in a distant land before returning home. His son Joseph was taken to Egypt as a slave and only returned to the promised land in a coffin. Moses fled to Midian where he felt like a stranger in a strange land. God called him to return to Egypt to lead his people out of slavery. The nations of Israel and Judah were conquered by Assyria and Babylonia respectively and taken into exile. Today's passage from Jeremiah looks forward to the triumphal return of the northern kingdom. Jesus also knew exile and danger.
I lived in Brownsville, Texas for 2 years and was reminded daily of illegal immigration. It occurred to me that if my family lived in a poor and politically unstable country, I too would do everything I could to bring them to a free country where the opportunity for a better life existed. Let's face it: except for Native Americans, we are all of us descended from those who fled other countries. In fact, what were the pilgrims but refugees and exiles seeking freedom from persecution?
On one of the anniversaries of September 11th PBS showed a documentary on Arab Americans. One story they recorded was that of a Palestinian American family. The husband's parents were visiting them in New York. The parents were preparing to go back to their home in the Palestinian territory and their son was naturally worried. He comes home from work one day to find the whole family sitting around the TV, watching the news. The Israeli army was reacting to a suicide bombing. Glued to the screen, the man suddenly realizes where the fighting is taking place. Behind an Israeli tank he sees the church where he was baptized. For this Arab American is a Lutheran pastor. While he was in seminary, he was picked up by Israeli authorities, held and tortured on suspicion. He was hung by his arms for days and can no longer raise his hands above his head. He was sent by his bishop to serve a small congregation of Arab Lutherans in New York City. I bet whenever he reads today's passage from Matthew he knows how Mary and Joseph felt. And Jesus knows how the pastor and his congregation feel. He knows what it is to be different, to be an outsider, to be persecuted.
For Christians, no one is foreign. We are all of us displaced persons. We are all exiles from our true home. For we are all citizens of the kingdom of God. More than that, we are all brothers and sisters through Jesus Christ. When we let him into our hearts, we are adopted into a large multiracial, multicultural, multilingual family. He made us all; he loves us all; he died for us all. There is no national allegiance, no tribal tie, no earthly bond stronger than that.