Mary and Joseph had created a home for Jesus. They had hung up their equivalent of curtains and settled in. They took Jesus to synagogue on the Sabbath and watched in wonder as Jesus ran around Joseph’s workshop and squirmed in Mary’s arms.
Then life took a detour.
It started when these strange astrologers showed up at Mary and Joseph’s door, delighting in meeting Jesus who they called God Incarnate or God in the flesh. The wise strangers relished the reality that, even here in the gritty human experience, God is with us. They gave what they had – gold, frankincense and myrrh – and then because they had been warned in a dream, they went home by another way.
How do they set a course?
How do they chart their way through new territory?
How do we navigate our way through unfamiliar spaces?
The passage today reminds us that it started with dreaming God’s dream, a dream in which God said: Herod’s death and destruction is not part of my vision for the world. And so the wise ones took another route. Then Joseph dreamed God’s dream, which warned him to flee with his family to Egypt because Herod intended to harm his family.
Without a second thought, Joseph jumped up in the middle of the night, shook Mary awake and they grabbed their toddler Jesus and ran toward Egypt with only the clothes on their backs and the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Refugees. They became refugees: their curtains and their residency left behind.
“Will we ever find our way home?” they wondered as their feet hit the packed dirt and the little one wailed.
It is an outrage that Mary and Joseph had to wrestle with that question in the first place. It is an injustice that they had to flee their home because of the threat of Herod, because of Herod’s greedy grab for power that wreaked havoc on his neighbors.
“Will we ever find our way home?”
I find this a striking question because it is one wondered by the astrologers as they nervously charted a new course, by the holy family as they fled and by us as we find ourselves lost and wandering. How do we find our way home when we too find ourselves surrounded by fear and violence?
Finding our way can seem impossible in light of the past year where innocent people died in Aleppo, Dallas, Pulse, Brussels … when more just died this week in Syria and Fort Lauderdale … How do we chart a course when we find our hearts hardening, the bitterness setting in and the fear of others taking over …
In the midst of the heartbreak … How do we find our way back to God, to ourselves and to one another?
That is a question not just for us but for Joseph and Mary in light of Herod’s actions.
The church doesn’t often talk about Herod but Herod committed what is called “The Slaughter of the Innocents” when he killed every single young boy under two that he could find because he heard about Jesus and was afraid that that the young toddler would eventually overthrow him. Herod totally missed that Jesus came to bring about a different kind of kingdom …. Jesus came to bring about a kin(g)dom that prioritizes compassion, well-being and mutuality over power, money and control. Through violence, Herod harmed not only others but also himself as he prioritized self-preservation over all else.
It is tempting to leave Herod out of the Christmas story all together, to just keep the story focused on snowy surrounds, perfect moments and chubby angels. Yet, the story of Herod is important precisely because it reflects the reality of today. The story of Herod is significant because it reveals the desperate need for Jesus’ birth. Jesus is born into a moment like our own; God is made flesh in the gritty human experience to teach us that even there, especially there, God is present, loving us, and at work.
Because the story isn’t done yet.
Perhaps life takes a detour and we travel by a route different than we anticipated, and yet, and yet we discover … like the magi … like Mary and Joseph … that God’s dream … that God’s light .. that God’s love … shines like the North Star guiding us forth to freedom’s land … to a place where we can live again, where we can breathe again, where we can love again. For, no matter what route we take, God is there to lead us home.
Because let me clear, the Scriptures teach us that Herod does not win.
Violence does not win. Bitterness does not win. Fear does not win.
We may remember Herod’s part in the Christmas story: we may mourn evil and be outraged by evil … but we will not be overcome by evil because God is with us.
God comes to us by the light of the star in the sky that guides us, even if it is by a different route.
God comes to us in the cry of a toddler who is God incarnate and has born witness to the grief of humankind.
God comes to us in dreams that wake us up at night and put our feet on the road because we know in the deepest part of our souls that we will not bow down to Herod, we will not serve Herod and so we journey forth to justice, to equality, even if we need to take the long way home.
For we know, even if we take the long way back, we will get there. Thy kin-dom will come. We dare to dream God’s dream, to strike out for life because God promises to see us through death itself.
I was reminded of that truth several years ago when I was listening to a sermon by the Reverend Doctor James Forbes at the Riverside Church in New York City.
Forbes tells the story of a dream he had. In the dream, Forbes has died and is in a drawer at the morgue and the judge is about to shut it when Forbes sits upright and says: “I object.”
I object to being dead.
I object to living in a world that values violence over well-being. I object to living in a world that degrades people who do not look like us or talk like us or that forces people like Mary, Joseph and Jesus to become refugees because their good-will is a threat to others.
I object to each and every route that leads to Herod, that leads to death, that leads to the dying of my soul and the souls of others. I object! I have been warned by a dream and I will find my way home by another route.
Which was precisely what Mary and Joseph did. Having been warned by a dream, they traveled to Egypt, joining the ranks of refugees. They encountered new problems like listening to their politicians and new neighbors complain about “those people” – meaning them – who dressed differently, spoke differently and practiced a strange religion.
“Speak Egyptian!” people used to say to them.
Yet, in the midst of these struggles, Jesus, Mary and Joseph objected to death and dehumanization. They cared for those on the margins, because they knew what it was to struggle; they prayed, practiced compassion and ate with strangers. They journeyed toward justice and found they were home, there as refugees in Egypt. Perhaps they did not have curtains or a house. Yet, they had love, they had peace … they had journeyed by another route and found life. Right there in Egypt.
My friends, we can always find our way home. This is God’s promise.
Just look to the sky, for the star of truth, the star of forgiveness, the star of righteousness.
Just like the people of Aleppo, Syria, one of the oldest cities in the world. They have endured great onslaught and devastation in these past years as a result of the war in Stria. Yet, a photo depicts the Aleppo Christians – who are some of the oldest Christians on earth – gathering around the bombed and fallen cathedral to celebrate the promise of Christ’s birth this Christmas.
When I saw the photo, I was shocked. How could they celebrate Christmas in the midst of that kind of heartbreak?
Then suddenly I saw: They knew Herod was part of the Christmas story and they knew that God was born into the world at precisely such a time as this. They knew that they served a God who could bring life in the midst of violence and bombed churches, destruction and selfish leaders. And so they joined with the magi, with Mary and Joseph, and with the Rev. Dr. James Forbes – all who had been warned by a dream, and they said collectively: I object.
I object to being dead.
I chose another path. I will show up, pray, love, hope, dream because Christ is being born into our hearts this very moment and we don’t need to be anywhere else but here … because as long as we have God, as long as we have compassion, as long we have trust, as long as we have grace, we are already home … building or not …
Prepare the way. Soften you hearts.
Christ is being born into our midst.
Do you see it? Do you believe it? Are you ready to proclaim it?