Not surprisingly, Christ’s birth was dramatic. Beforehand, an angel of the Lord announces to Mary that she will give birth to the Son of God. Joseph gets the same news in a dream.
Immediately afterwards, a whole host of angels directs shepherds to the new-born king. At roughly the same time, wise men follow a star to Jesus, and arrive with rich gifts. It is like the best baby shower ever.
Luke tells us that Mary pondered all this in her heart (2:19). Luke does not elaborate, so we can only guess what Mary’s thoughts might have been as she looked at her new baby and meditated on his future.
But I remember what I thought when our first child was born. No angels were involved that I could see. No wise men came from the distant east bringing gifts. Still, I knew my son was going to have a blissful, trouble-free life. If Benjamin ever cried—and I did not expect much of that—I planned to do whatever I needed to do to fix the problem right away.
That illusion lasted maybe thirty minutes.
If Mary and Joseph had any similar illusions, our gospel reading makes it clear that they did not last much longer.
The trouble began immediately after the wise men left. Joseph learns in a dream that he and his family have to flee to Egypt or a murderous king will kill the baby Jesus. The holy family will have to live as refugees in a foreign land.
Even when they return to the land of their birth, the holy family cannot go back home for fear of the new ruler of Judea. Instead they go to Galilee, to a town called Nazareth.
Especially in the Christmas season, people mostly focus on the good news of Christ’s birth, and that is as it should be. But we should not ignore the flight to Egypt, which is part of the birth story and which has its own important lesson to teach us.
And the lesson is simple.
Sometimes angels come, and wise men bring gifts, and everything seems perfect. But other times, murderous kings threaten, and people flee, and everything seems horrible. We are not promised a life free of trouble or risk.
The question for us is, how will we live in the face of our inevitable fear and uncertainty?
In our reading, Joseph is a model of quiet courage.
According to tradition, Joseph was an old widower with children of his own when he and Mary became engaged. Although we do not know the details, we can make some educated guesses about how it all came about. Joseph agreed to protect and provide for Mary. Mary agreed to raise his children and care for him as he aged. Probably Joseph and Mary barely knew each other. Their engagement was probably more of a business deal than a romance.
We do know that whatever plans they made go awry very quickly. Soon after their engagement, Joseph learns with shock that his fiancée is pregnant, and not with his child. Thanks to a dream, Joseph comes on board. Then there is all the wonderful weirdness around Christ’s birth. That must have been a little shocking for Joseph too. But again, Joseph comes on board. Now, in our reading for today, Joseph gets yet another shock. Joseph learns that he has to leave his home immediately, that very night, and flee to Egypt, or else the child will die.
By this time, if I were Joseph, I might be rethinking the whole deal. This, after all, was surely much more than Joseph had bargained for. Joseph may well have hesitated. But not for long. Soon Joseph was on his way to Egypt, with his wife and baby in tow.
And I ask myself, could I have done the same?
Like Joseph, we can never really be sure what is in store for us when we make a commitment. We can never be sure what the future holds. But staying put, remaining exactly as we are, is not an option. Life happens.
And as life happens, God directs us one way rather than another. The question is, can we go in the direction that God invites us to go, the way that leads ultimately to the fulfillment of God’s purpose for us? Do we, like Joseph, have the courage and the faith to take a chance, to follow God into the unknown, despite the risks?
Thankfully most of the time, our options are considerably less dramatic than Joseph’s. But even in the midst of our daily business, God can come into our lives in surprising ways.
I think, for example, about the people Joseph met when he arrived in Egypt, ordinary Egyptians going about their ordinary lives. When Joseph arrives, ordinary Egyptians have to decide: will they help this strange refugee family or not?
Those first-century Egyptians had no way of knowing what was at stake. They had no way of knowing that Joseph was bringing God into their lives. But we do. As they decided whether or not to help this strange refugee family, they were also deciding whether or not they would serve God?
The easiest thing, the safest thing, would be to turn these strangers away. In our own time, we know what it means to fear the stranger and the alien. They did too.
But people need help when they move to a new place.
I remember when my family first arrived in Northampton. A truck was filled with all our stuff. Our new home was ready. But the movers we had hired were running late. Our boys were little, so Carrie took them off. I began unloading.
The movers never did show. But eventually the truck was nearly empty. Unfortunately everything that remained was too big for one person to move.
And in that moment, a stranger helped. He helped me get the last things off the truck. I never saw him again.
I will always be grateful for the kindness of the stranger who welcomed me that day. I was starting a new life. He was just going about his business. And God brought us together.
As refugees, the holy family surely needed considerably more help adjusting to life in Egypt than I did adjusting to life in Northampton. I hope and presume that they found some strangers like the man who helped me.
Most of the time, our lives do not depend on the decisions we make. But even in ordinary times, God comes into our lives in unexpected ways. God comes into our lives in the guise of a stranger and gives us the opportunity to serve him or to turn him away.
Many of us in the United States today are afraid of the stranger, and it is easy to understand why. There is risk in reaching out to those we do not know, people who may not be like us.
But we cannot simply give in to our fear. God invites us to take a chance on love. Christ invites us to see him in the face of people in need.
In this Christmas season, my prayer for us is that we will always welcome Christ when he comes to us, and that we will know the joy of answering God’s call with faith and courage, even when it is scary.
In the name of our incarnate Lord. Amen.