Much has changed since yesterday. No more babies or angels or lambs in today's Scripture passage. There are still eleven more Days of Christmas until we celebrate Epiphany, the arrival of the Magi and their recognition of Jesus as the Christ… however, the lectionary passage for the first Sunday after Christmas is the one we just read from Matthew. It quickly jerks us out of the sentimentality of Christmas pageants into the real world – both then and now – of political power struggles and violence. King Herod slaughters innocent children in order to strengthen his rule. This old story is re-enacted many times and in many ways in our own day when political powers attempt to annihilate their opposition to protect their leadership.
Herod “the Great” had been given the title by Rome of “King of the Jews” and enacted his brutal rule over Judea for 33 years. He was so suspicious and insecure that he called a secret meeting of religious leaders, lied about his intention to worship this new king and convinced them to tell him the time and place of the birth.
His response in fear and paranoia of the claim of a new king resulted in his murder of all the toddlers in Bethlehem. We can imagine the grief-stricken reaction of the families of those little ones. Matthew emphasized it in his reference to Rachel - the inconsolable sadness of mothers whose children of any age have died, especially so violently.
Why haven't things changed in 2,000 years? Why are we still doing this, murdering each other's children – young and old? As Doug mentioned on Christmas Eve, the struggle in the late 1990s between Slobodan MiloševiÄ‡ and Yugolovia with the ethnic Albanian minority resulted in our friends, the Vila family, escaping their home in March 1999. They walked and hitched rides the long distance until they could cross the Macedonian border. Three-year-old Nesibe and four-year-old Eshref were carried in backpacks by their father and uncle while their grandfather, injured in their escape, was at times carried on a stretcher. The women of the family in their traditional long skirts, carried all they could, clothing and a few family photos and documents. At that time, Muhabere was newly pregnant with little Suad. They were able to get to homes of relatives in Skopje and take shelter there for a few weeks before moving to one of the larger refugee camps. After six weeks of waiting in long lines for food and water each day, they were finally approved for relocation to Fort Dix, New Jersey, and then, with the help of the International Rescue Committee and this congregation, to a temporary home in Tiburon. What would have happened to them if Macedonia had refused to let them cross the border nor allowed the camps to be set up there or the United States not offered to help 20,000 refugees? They were well-acquainted with fear, had their home attacked, fought off the intruders and seen how others suffered – the memories played like movies over and over in their minds whether awake or asleep. How did they survive emotionally? Who carried them?
Joseph, at the command of an angel, took the child and his mother to Egypt to escape Herod's wrath. Egypt, the land known to the Israelites as the place of slavery and oppression, but now it was a refuge. They were to go there and stay indefinitely. Were they afraid – Joseph, and the teenage girl with a little boy? Matthew doesn't mention any border gates or Roman check points that they had to cross, no lengthy application process or visa requirement. Even if it was somewhat straight-forward to get there, what would they do for survival? Would they be able to speak the language? How would they find food and shelter? Who would help them? Who would carry them?
We are told none of the details of their experience except that sometime after their escape, Herod died. They could end their exile and return home but things would not be the same. Arch-e-la-us, the son of Herod now ruled in Judea, the region of Bethlehem and of Joseph's family home. It was uncertain if he would also be as brutal as Herod. What a risk it would be to move back to that town where all the children his age had been killed. It would be hard to hide Jesus and painful for other families to see him having lost their own children. Instead, they would go to Nazareth and begin anew. Perhaps Mary had some family members there. Things would not be the same as before. It was a new beginning for the family in Nazareth.
As the Vila family went through the years of adjustment to life in the United States, you carried them – with housing support, English lessons, rides, job interviews, dinner gatherings and especially welcoming them into the community and into your lives. Their youngest child, who experienced their escape en utero, was born at California Pacific Medical Center with the help of Dr. Bill Hagbom six months after their arrival. His brother and sister, now in high school, remember little of Kosovo and can't ever return to life there as it was before the war. The family home was destroyed. Their property seized and beloved family members have escaped to Norway, Germany or Macedonia.
For those of us who have never lived under a brutal regime or been forced to flee our homes, it is hard to imagine the true extent of the refugee experience. Of course, it happens every day to people in many parts of the world. Who helps them through their exile from home? Who carries them?
There are times in our lives when we feel separated from God similarly to the way refugees feel separated from their homes. We know what it could be like to return. We remember and long for it. During the Advent season, we actively wait for the one who carries us to be born again. This year we began in early November anticipating Advent, preparing ourselves, our hearts, our minds and our lives to know and fully experience Emmanuel, God With Us. We are not the same people that we were in October. Theologian Marcus Borg reminds us that “Christmas is about the end of exile and coming home – not to the home of our childhood, which is forever gone, but coming to be at home with God.”
On this First Sunday after Christmas, may you know God's love and presence surrounding you. May you recognize God's nudges challenging you. May you feel the trust and relief of God carrying you and may you live at home in God's peace now and always. Amen. .
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