Life should be getting back to normal for the Joseph and Mary household – as normal as life could possibly be with a new baby.
So here is the holy family, sleeping peacefully one night – and I want you to join me in imagining this scene: Joseph has just woken up having had another dream. An angel of the Lord has informed him that he’s got to get the mother and child out of Bethlehem, or Jesus is going to end up dead.
Can you play this out in your mind’s eye? Joseph wakes up Mary, who’s probably not too happy about being disturbed in the middle of the night (you get pretty tired when you’re a new mom – sleep is one thing you can never get enough of), and says something like “We’ve got to get out of here. Jesus’ life is in danger!”
Now, in the fog of new-mama sleep fatigue, these could hardly have been the most welcome words to hear. Especially since this little family is not just supposed to move to a new house or a neighboring village – they need to make a 200-mile trek through the desert, down into the foreign land that once enslaved their ancestors, with a baby – and they’ve got to leave now. Not tomorrow, not next week, not after they pack their stuff, make arrangements, and let everybody know about the dangers that are coming, but now.
I’ll bet both Mary and Joseph could have easily been tempted to snuggle back under the covers, chalking the whole thing up to Joseph’s imagination. I mean, after all – didn’t some very glamorous priests just bring Jesus a few incredibly amazing gifts? Why would something so wonderful be followed by something so terrible?
Life is pretty good for the family right now. This midnight journey just seems so illogical. It would have been (for the time-being) a lot easier and more comfortable for Joseph and Mary to just stay put, ignore the dream and go back to sleep. But thank God they responded to God’s message faithfully. The salvation of the world was at stake.
This would be no vacation, for sure. Think about what they were leaving behind: Matthew’s Gospel tells us they lived in a house in Bethlehem – what will happen to this house? No time to sell it or rent it out. Joseph is a tekton (sometimes mistranslated as carpenter – but in Greek this means he was a stoneworker; the type who probably built a lot of those ancient buildings that the archaeologists love to dig up out of the ground), and that’s a job he’ll be leaving for an uncertain future.
The social support for Mary as she struggles with new motherhood? Gone. Family, friends, synagogue, temple, culture, language – all of this is going to be given up or radically changed when they are forced to journey to Egypt.
And do they have a high-ranking family member there to greet them like their ancestors did some 1,600 years before when they had to run for their lives too? Is Joseph (the dreamer with the multicolored coat) going to be welcoming them, feeding them, arranging for them to have some land on which to live?
Hardly. Those days are long-gone. This is Egypt, the land whose people once chased their Israelite ancestors through the Red Sea, attempting to stop them from fleeing slavery.
This is the place where multitudes of pagan gods are idolized and worshipped. The place is foreign, it’s enemy territory. If I had been Mary or Joseph, it would have been the last place I would have wanted to journey to in a desperate nighttime dash to save my son’s life. But journey they did – and the Light of the World was not extinguished because of their faithfulness.
Matthew’s Gospel does not tell us much about their life in Egypt; just that they stayed there until King Herod finally died and it was safe to return – which was probably a good six to 10 years.
There was no issue with the family crossing the border into Egypt, no one blocked their entry, Joseph did not have to get passports or visas arranged.
They were provided refuge as long as they needed it and they probably settled into normal life as best as they could; Joseph and Mary looking for a place to live, finding new work, raising Jesus, trying to make ends meet until it was safe enough to cross back to their own country. They had followed God’s directions, trusting that this uncomfortable and unwelcome journey was imperative.
Speaking of imperative: I will also be heeding God’s call to journey to a foreign land and cross over into a place that is unfamiliar and in many ways uncomfortable.
I will be traveling to the US/Mexico Tijuana Border with a group of students from my seminary for the express purpose of being the eyes and ears of Jesus Christ; the One whose very life was once saved by the hospitality provided by a foreign nation. The One who said that whatsoever you did to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did to me; and whatsoever you did not do to the least of these, you did not do to me.
My colleagues and I will not be crossing the border to fix the problems we encounter. We will be visiting with God’s people there who live in the cardboard box cities. We will be meeting those who live amongst the rivers of chemicals that pour from factories and out into the ocean that we all share. We will be visiting with God’s people who work in those factories 14 hours a day to make $20 so that Americans can buy cheap towels.
We will survey the damage done to habitat that’s been impacted by a wall that stops wildlife from migrating but not the migrants from climbing over. I will bring what I see and what I hear home to Lake County so that we can begin a dialogue about how best we can answer God’s call to save Jesus in this region of the world.
When God calls us to save Jesus in 2011 we may be ready or we may not be ready to respond. There may be a million reasons we can think of for not taking a journey that God wants us to take. Reasons like: It can’t be that important, this urgency must be exaggerated, I’m doing fine, it’ll go away if I just ignore it, it will work itself out, I don’t need to get involved, it’s not a good time for this, it’s uncomfortable or unpleasant, or “what will people say?”
Thank goodness Mary and Joseph did not respond with any of those excuses when God called for them to get out of their comfort zone and hit the road.
Is God calling us to do the same thing today? Is God calling us to get up and out of our comfortable little lives somehow in order to make a journey that will further his salvation plan? If you happen to be Christian, called to see Christ in every person, to love every person, to be the hands and feet of Christ to every person – especially the “other” over there – the answer is yes.
But how can we really do this if we don’t know what life is like for that “other” person? How can we really powerfully feel that Christ lives in us and our fellow human being if we are not willing to cross over and stand in his shoes for a while?
My wish for all of us in this New Year is that we would each find some way to journey to the other side of something that is uncomfortable, unfamiliar or unwelcome.
Maybe for you that means actually going somewhere you’d never go or deliberately getting to know someone you’d otherwise never even give a second glance or that you’d be more likely to criticize than celebrate.
Maybe it means considering the opposite side of an argument, a philosophy, a theology, a culture, a religion. How can we find ways to cross to the other side?
One thing is certain: God intends there to come a day when there won’t even be a side to cross over to. He intends that there will come a day when no one will have to run and hide, no one will fear persecution, no one will be denied food, shelter, or healing; a day when not one of us will be separated from another by walls, either physical or psychological.
We can help that day come by being willing to cross over to the other side now.
Crossing does not mean we have to agree with that side, fix it, or become it. It just means we experience it and let God’s spirit work its magic in our hearts and theirs so that the Light can get brighter for all of us.
Waiting for the rest of the world to get it right before we’re willing to get out of our comfort zones, just won’t cut it if we are followers of The Way.
May we, like Joseph and Mary two thousand years ago, answer the call that keeps the Light alive, make the journey even when we don’t want to, and help bring about a day when the concept of “foreign” is, itself, foreign.
Gale Tompkins-Bischel is working on her master's of divinity degree at Pacific School of Religion in order to become an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). This commentary was a sermon on Matthew 2:13-23 she gave at United Christian Parish in Lakeport, Calif.