Jesus, boy refugee

This 18th century painting by Miguel Cabrera shows Jesus younger than he likely was when Joseph and Mary fled with him to Egypt.

We’re hearing the word refugee plenty these days. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a U.S. Presidential candidate, stirred up a backlash on Christmas Day when he described “divinity” coming to earth as a “refugee.”

Was Buttigieg’s label for the newborn Jesus accurate? No, because it was only about 24 months later that he was displaced from his home in Bethlehem, along with Joseph and Mary. But if Jesus didn’t arrive on earth as a refugee, his status quickly changed. Not born a refugee, he soon became one. Jesus was a boy refugee.

Here’s what the New Testament reveals. Luke’s Gospel portrays Joseph and Mary leaving Nazareth in Galilee and journeying to Bethlehem (Luke 2:1-4). At this point in the narrative, there is no indication that the couple were fleeing any kind of religious or political persecution. Rather, Caesar Augustus was conducting a census. The mechanism for gathering the data was for people to return to their ancestral home, which for Joseph, was the a tiny village near Jerusalem named Bethlehem. The rest of Luke 2 presents snippets of Jesus’ young life, including his parents presenting him at the Jerusalem Temple eight days after his birth (vv. 22-28), the family’s return to Nazareth (v. 39-40), and the story of twelve-year-old Jesus getting lost during the Festival of the Passover in Jerusalem (vv. 41-52).

But Luke isn’t the only Gospel that recounts the circumstances of Jesus’ birth and infancy. Matthew furnishes details that are lacking in Luke’s account. Forget the typical nativity scenes that show both shepherds and magi kneeling at the manger. The magi weren’t there. Matthew 2:1-12 recounts a journey for the magi that likely took many months. Finally, the star “stopped over the place where the child was” (2:10, NIV). The next verse (2:11) explicitly mentions the “house” where they found Mary and Jesus. It was there in the house that they worshiped Jesus and presented him with the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Here’s where the story takes a dark turn. King Herod, ever protective of his political power, had previously inquired of the magi regarding the timing of the star’s appearance, under the pretext of also wanting to worship the Messiah (Luke 2:3-8). When the magi were done worshiping, they obeyed a warning received in a dream and “returned to their country by another route” (2:12, NIV). Only when Herod realized that the magi weren’t coming back to him with details on the child’s location did the King take more drastic measures. He ordered the slaying of all boys in Bethlehem who were two years old and younger (v. 16) based on the time when the star that led the magi westward had first appeared.

King Herod ordered the slaughter of all baby boys in Bethlehem who were two years old or younger, indicating the approximate age of Jesus when his family escaped to Egypt. See Matt. 2:16

Now the legitimacy of applying the word “refugee” to the holy family comes into sharper focus. An angel of the Lord warned Joseph in a dream about Herod’s intentions, with the command to take Mary and Jesus and “escape to Egypt” (2:13, NIV; the HCSB uses the word “flee.”) Immediately, they “escaped” (HCSB) to Egypt by cover of darkness.

Having examined the evidence in Scripture as well as other historical documents, Joan Taylor observes:

We know that Jews fled from troubles in Judea of many kinds, in the third to first centuries B.C.E., and that Egypt was one of the places they went to as refugees. Josephus comments on the problematic revolutionaries (and their children) that fled there after the First Jewish Revolt (66-70 C.E.; Jewish War 7:407-419) but they were following a well-worn path.

Read the entire article for a convincing case that Jesus and his parents were refugees for a season. (See also the online version of the IVP New Testament Commentary, which in connection with the flight to Egypt describes Jesus’ family as “refugees.”) Only when Herod is dead and after two more dreams where the Lord warns Joseph does he make the decision to settle down in Nazareth of Galilee rather than back in his ancestral town of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:19-23). The trio of refugees gradually transition back to the more normal everyday life of Jewish peasants.

Both Luke and Matthew hint that the refugee chapter of the holy family’s story informed Jesus’ later perception of himself during his 3 year nomadic ministry. When a scribe said he would follow Jesus, the Lord replied: “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests; but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20, NRSV; see also Luke 9:58). Taylor affirms: “The legacy of being a refugee and a newcomer to a place far from home is something that I think informed Jesus’ teaching.”

Whatever the motivation might have been for Mayor Buttigieg’s original remarks or the critical responses to it, this much is clear: Jesus was a boy refugee for a time in Egypt with Joseph and Mary. Such is the plain reading of Matthew’s account.

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Image credits

  1. La Huido a Egipto by Miguel Cabrera, at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:La_Huida_a_Egipto_-_Miguel_Cabrera.jpg
  2. Slaughter of the Innocents, a painting inspired by Poussin; in the public domain, at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Slaughter_of_the_Innocents_after_Poussin_-_Princeton_Univ_Art_Museum_INV34431.jpg

God to the rescue

1024px-ROM_1500_MaryIt’s called Mary’s Song.

Elizabeth had just discovered that her young cousin was bearing the Christ child. “God has blessed you among all women, and he has blessed the child you carry” (Luke 1:42, CEB). What a gracious affirmation to a girl pregnant out of wedlock. Where others might have uncovered her shame, with her words, Elizabeth clothed Mary with honor.

Something in Elizabeth’s warm embrace made the dam break. Mary burst out in song:

With all my heart I glorify the Lord! (1:46, CEB)

In these 10 verses (Matthew 1:46-55), Mary extols the God who:

  • cares about those in humble circumstances (v. 48)
  • is mighty and strong (v. 49, 51)
  • is holy (v. 49)
  • is merciful across time (v. 50)
  • deposes the arrogant and powerful and lifts up the lowly (v. 51, 52)
  • feeds the hungry but sends the rich away with nothing (v. 53)

In vv. 54-55, her song comes to a climax. Among the poorest of an oppressed people, under the boot of the Roman conquerors, she praises the God who comes to the rescue! 

He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, just as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever (CEB).

Rescue is a word we use less often these days, yet it’s a word with a rich heritage. As a boy, I remember singing the hymn: “Rescue the perishing, care for the dying.” In large cities in the U.S., churches sponsored “rescue missions” that ministered to men suffering from alcoholism, giving them a square meal and place to sleep in exchange for listening to a salvation sermon. (One such mission still operates in Kansas City, Missouri, ministering to men and women). The Nazarene church building in Pilot Point, Texas includes story boards of the home for unwed mothers run on the property in the early 1900s.

With such a heritage, and in-light of our God who comes to the rescue, what shall we do?

As God’s people, our call is to be like God: “Be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16, NIV). Mary’s Song fleshes out what holiness looks like. The one whose name is holy (Luke 1:49) can never be conceptualized apart from the God who acts in history. And how does God act toward people? God scatters the arrogant (v. 51), dethrones the powerful (v. 52) and leaves the rich to their own devices (v. 53). On the other hand, he empowers the lowly (vv. 48, 52) and provides for the hungry (v. 51). If this is what God coming to the rescue looks like, then it’s fair to ask ourselves:

What are we doing as a church that looks like that?

The Gospel has no political party. Our interest is always the Kingdom of God, set in motion when God incarnate came to the rescue in a manger in Bethlehem. This Christmas and always, I want to be part of the Rescue Mission. Let’s join our voices and sing Mary’s Song!


 

Image credit

Theonlysilentbob at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Great Role Reversal

28ae36946daf05c6172d09cad9686435-2Every married couple has to figure it out.

At the end of a long day when you’re both exhausted, it’s better to “divide and conquer.” Who will cook and who will wash the dishes?

Once in a while, it’s helpful to trade places. Do you normally cook? Tonight, clean up instead. If you typically wash the dishes, try your hand at cooking. Besides increasing versatility, role reversals let us walk in another’s shoes. Nothing fosters empathy more effectively.

Jesus modeled the Great Role Reversal. Paul captured this well:

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9, NIV).

Christ, the Eternal Word, identified with us by becoming one of us. God put on skin. His name was Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:14-31) exemplifies role reversal. A man of wealth lived in luxury, oblivious to the plight of Lazarus, a sickly and hungry beggar.

[Note the subtle role reversal. Normally, everyone knows the name of a rich person, and poor people remain nameless. In Jesus’ story, the poor man has a name, and the rich man is nameless. Things work differently in God’s Kingdom!]

Jesus said that Lazarus “longed to eat the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table” (v. 21, CEB). He lay at the pitiless rich man’s gate, where at least the dogs came and licked the poor man’s sores.

The rich man never saw the role reversal coming.

After death, Lazarus was comforted, carrried to Abraham’s side by angels (v. 22). There he found solace, while the rich man – who had also died – was tormented in the flames.  During their life on earth, Lazarus had longed for crumbs from the rich man’s table. Now, the tables are turned, and the rich man longs for a drop of water from Lazarus (v. 24). Abraham denies the request, reminding the rich man:

Child, remember that during your lifetime you received good things whereas Lazarus received terrible things. Now Lazarus is being comforted and you are in great pain (v. 25, CEB).

Likwise, at the close of a different parable about the coming Kingdom, Jesus concluded: “So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last” (Matthew 20:16, NLT).

But I wonder:

Why do we need to wait until the end of time to live the Great Role Reversal?

How much closer to reflecting the Kingdom of God would our world be if those who bear Christ’s name (Christians) were willing to switch things up now?

 

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Two street children in Antananarivo, Madagascar, circa 2010

 

Gavin Rogers, a pastor from San Antonio, Texas, joined a caravan of Honduran immigrants that has been making its way north through Mexico. For five days, he chronicled the kindness and humanity he witnessed along the exhausting path. Rogers concluded: “The only Christian response to immigration is ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” He learned by coming close to people that every need has a name.

Stories like that of Lazarus or pastor Rogers and the Honduran immigrants challenge me. Unlike the rich man, I am not wealthy, yet am I not also attached to my “creature comforts”? How might God be calling me to step into the shoes of another, to journey alongside them, to see things from their point-of-view?

Jesus was the master of the Great Role Reversal. May we together learn to follow in his ways.

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Image credit: pngtree.com

7 Unusual Things About the Incarnation

Gospel_of_Luke_Chapter_2-1_(Bible_Illustrations_by_Sweet_Media)Note: I preached this short message in the chapel of Africa Nazarene University (Nairobi, Kenya) on December 13, 2017. Thanks to Chalé Atikonda, a BTh student at ANU, who heard the sermon and later suggested a further point, i.e. “an unusual task,” which I’ve added to this revised version.


Scripture reading: Luke 1:26-38

All Scripture citations are from the Common English Bible.

INTRODUCTION

“How should a King come?”

Jimmy and Carol Owens penned these words to the popular Christmas song:

How should a King come?

Even a child knows the answer of course;

In a coach of gold with a pure white horse.

In the beautiful city in the prime of the day,

And the trumpets should cry

And the crowds make way.

And the flags fly high in the morning sun,

And the people all cheer for the sovereign one.

And everyone knows that’s the way that it’s done,

That’s the way that a king should come.

And yet the Gospel accounts of Christ’s coming to earth make it clear: God’s ways are not our ways. Today, let’s look at 7 unusual things about the Incarnation, based on Luke 1:26-38, the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she will give birth to a son.

 

FIRST, GOD SENT AN UNUSUAL MESSENGER.

The appearance of angels was hardly an everyday occurrence. This is implied when Gabriel says to Mary: “Fear not.” People aren’t afraid of everyday events, but when they’re rare, they might give you a scare. Here was God’s messenger coming to deliver stupendous news. The name “Gabriel” means “God is my strength.” Here was an unusual messenger, a mighty being sent by God, and Mary took notice.

SECOND, THE ANNOUNCEMENT CAME IN AN UNUSUAL PLACE.

If Nazareth were a Kenyan town, it might make the top 100 list, but somewhere at the bottom, nestled between Nambale and Tabaka. Then again, Nazareth might not make any list, for at the time, people said: “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth” (John 1:46). Wouldn’t it make more sense for a King to come to Jerusalem, the Nairobi of its day, the main commercial and economic hub? But God’s ways are not our ways.

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