It was about a month ago that we announced that one of our saint ben’s small groups was going to take the lead for us in the sponsorship of a refugee family, and at about the same time I decided that I wanted to preach an Epiphany sermon on Jesus as a refugee. I’d been talking with Steve Bell, and he’d offered this insight about how in this story from the Gospel according to Matthew, God who is “our strength and our refuge” (Ps. 46:1) has become God the refugee. It was one of those moments where you see a familiar text with new eyes. I mean, I know the story well, and had even referred to Mary, Joseph and their baby as “refugees” before, but somehow between the connection to God as our refuge and the current world refugee crisis, Steve’s observation struck me in a very particular way. It seemed that the sermon would all but write itself—something that does happen from time to time—because this insight was so timely.
- To listen to the sermon press play:
Funny thing, though, is that if I’d just tracked things back a wee bit, I’d have realized that anything I might have to say this evening has already been said. Steve’s song “Refugee”, from his Keening for the Dawn album wrestles deeply and brilliantly with this image, and that has much to do with the fact that the song is based in Malcolm Guite’s poem “Refugee”; a powerful presentation of the picture of Christ the refugee. That poem was actually picked up on by Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in this year’s Christmas sermon, in which he actually cites Malcolm’s poem. So much for originality… but we stand on the shoulders of giants, but that’s not a bad thing at all.
Typically, the reading for Epiphany focuses on the experience of the magi; on their unexpected and surprising epiphany in which they see in the face of a peasant child something of the divine. As astrologers, they’d set out on the road in search of the royal child they believed was signified in that unusual star they had observed “at its rising,” and when they arrived in Judea they did the most logical thing; they went to the palace. But no, there are no newborn babies there. You need more than stars and astrological charts to lead you to Messiah… you need the ancient scriptures. Which is why Herod summons the chief priests and scribes—biblical scholars who know the deeper story better than he—who tell him that Bethlehem is the key. “Go there, and if you find him come back and tell me where he is,” Herod bluffs, “so I can go and pay him homage.” Right… if there is anything to your star-gazing, I will go and finish him off before he threatens my throne, my place, my power.
The magi head out on the road to Bethlehem, and when they get there they do find “the child with Mary his mother.” Whatever it was they expected to find and whatever it was they were planning to do, when they saw this baby born to an unlikely mother in an unlikely place, “they knelt down and paid him homage.” And then offering their royal gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh—gifts rather out of place in a peasant home—they left and returned home by a different road, “having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod.” That’s where the reading for Epiphany typically ends. They pay homage because they have seen—because they have been gifted with this epiphany of something startling and new—and they go home shaking their heads in wonder.
But tonight we extend the reading beyond the departure of the magi:
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.
These are important verses, though never more than at a time like this. Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, for in his madness for power Herod is about to do something appalling. “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men”—that they had not returned to tell him where this child was to be found—“he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.” (Mt 12:16) For the sake of my throne, kill them all. As Malcolm Guite observes, “The story of Herod’s jealous rage and the massacre of the innocents would be too appalling to hear were we not called up to contemplate it almost every day in the news. What Herod did then is still being done across the world by tyrants who would sooner kill innocent people than lose their grip on power.”
The Roman Empire stands at arms’ length from this horror; this is Herod’s doing, not Caesar’s. Herod, though, is a vassal king, holding his power only in relationship to the power of the empire. He holds his reign under the watchful eye of the empire, and will be permitted to stay in power so long as it serves the political purposes of Rome. He was, to use a modern term, a tin-pot dictator; an autocratic ruler with delusions of grandeur, whose rule was supported because it served the practical needs of empire. We’ve seen an almost endless parade of them over the last fifty years: Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Manuel Noriega in Panama, the brutal military dictatorship in El Salvador; each tolerated, even protected by the United States for the sake of opposing Soviet-style communism. Gaddafi in Libya, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Bashar al-Assad in Syria; each received considerable support from powerful nations and were enabled to stay in power for the sake of maintaining an uneasy sort of political stability in the Middle East. This is the world of realpolitik, in which matters of morals and ethics are set aside for the sake of tactical ends. For the sake of my throne kill them all, Herod had ordered, and even if Caesar had caught word of it, it would not have particularly troubled him… not unless Herod was beginning to fancy himself more than a vassal king, more than a tin-pot dictator. So long as Herod knows his place, what is the real cost of this slaughter? Besides, those Jews have a history of rising up against their overlords; perhaps this will remind them that they need to keep in line if they wish to survive.
From Malcolm Guite’s sonnet “Refugee”:
We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cosy in a crib beside the font,
But he is with a million displaced people
On the long road of weariness and want.
For even as we sing our final carol
His family is up and on that road,
Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,
Glancing behind and shouldering their load.
This is the story unfolding in the world today, with four million people displaced from Syria; Christians, Muslims, Kurds, along with various smaller religious and ethnic groups. But it is not only Syria, for people are fleeing for their lives from Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, South Sudan. And against that story we must make the same assertion Malcolm makes in his sonnet, that the Incarnate One is with those millions of displaced people, waiting to be recognized and embraced by all who dare to call themselves Christian.
Against those huge numbers, though, it seems so small to speak in terms of sponsoring a refugee family, doesn’t it? Yet it may be for that one family a gift, a possibility, a beginning that expresses and embodies more than they “can ask or imagine”; it may just be the dawning of a whole new life. God who is our refuge would have us see the face of Christ in the faces of that one family; an epiphany, a showing forth of the God who is indeed our refuge and our strength.