“Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt.” Matthew 2:14 (NRSV)
We have barely finished the glitter, partying, gift exchanges, joyful celebrations, time with family, people on vacation (or at least a day off), and then we go to church to hear this story of the realities of life. What a come-down! Mary and Joseph had been visited by a bunch of people including wise men from the East who gave them gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh – precious and expensive gifts – gifts that would probably have to support them in their quick departure from Israel to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod. Talk about a rude awakening!
Yet, as I’ve read through commentaries this week and realized that I would normally be on vacation this week after Christmas (not this year), I realize that I have left this passage for others to grapple with as they filled in for me in the pulpit. Maybe I can even admit to being relieved that I didn’t have to deal with the passage, after all, I admit to being a romantic who loves happy endings. But maybe that’s unrealistic.
Life is hard work, and living as a follower of Jesus, the Christ, adds a big challenge to that work. Let’s face it: the difficulties we face in life often far outweigh the celebrations. Bummer. It’s like being reminded that there is an emotional and spiritual sort of CRASH when we come off a retreat or vacation time – we have to return to the regular, ordinariness of our lives, and the reality of it hits us as we face the return to work or school or job hunting or balancing the checkbook or dealing with relationship issues or health issues.
We fool ourselves if we think that the nativity scenarios we have created at Christmas are romantic. I mean, really, look at the story in Luke. Mary and Joseph had to travel because of a census that was meant to increase taxes paid to the Roman government. They were poor and had very little. Then, when they arrived in Bethlehem, they ended up in a stable – a crude cave with a bunch of smelly animals where the conditions for giving birth to a baby would send our doctors and nurses reeling.
After the birth a bunch of “low-life’s” showed up – Shepherds of all people – who were despised and rejected because they were unclean and didn’t honor the Sabbath (how could they – the sheep didn’t take a day off!). And then eventually, a few years later, according to Matthew, these three wise men arrived to honor the child. Aha! Maybe that was the turning point!
Alas, this was not the positive turning point we would want in our romantic setting. Instead, the wise men tricked the wicked and murderous King Herod who had even murdered one of his wives and two of his sons for fear of losing his throne. When he realized that the wise men had tricked him, he sent his soldiers to slaughter the boys two years old and under in the region around Bethlehem, thinking he would rid himself of this “newborn king” who would surely claim his throne.
But God was ahead of Herod. In a dream, God told Joseph to take Mary and Jesus and go to Egypt where they would be refugees, but safe. That is what Joseph did, after all, Jesus had a much more powerful mission to accomplish. The realities of life are that we aren’t going to always have an easy journey; there will be twists and turns that take us different directions and change our lives forever.
One reality brings us the happy ending. Through it all God is with us. God sends human families and friends to support and care for us. God sends us on our journeys with blessings and accompanying angels. Human beings may make life miserable, threaten us, be really nasty to us, but God is in the midst of it, giving us strength to keep moving ahead. We may become ill or have a loved one die, but we are not alone in the journey of grief, pain, loss, and healing. God is with us in Emmanuel, the Wounded One who understands our life, knows our pain and hurts, walks with us even to death.
In the television show, “Touched By An Angel,” someone who died would always be accompanied by Andrew, the angel of death. He was not one to be feared, but a companion on the journey who was sent by God to help us cross over to the new life – the life made possible because of the One who was born into a humble home and who opened the doors so that all people could know God’s love and grace. That is a reality that many miss or don’t want to believe because they can’t SEE it.
Maybe they are just too stuck in life’s realities to really look or comprehend that Emmanuel, God-with-us, is right here in our midst. God can work through others to touch our lives and bring us to a new place of joy and peace, even in the midst of the rankest realities. That is always my belief – my hope – my trust. In the midst of Christmas, the message is of God’s love and strength and guidance for us. Thanks be to God!