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The Gjan family had gone to bed as on any other night……….in their simple hut in the jungle of Burma. During the night others had frantically wakened them and urged them to flee. For all of the villages of Burmese ethnic Karens, the new day meant not only that they had lost their citizenship and the protection of their government, but that government now sought to kill them. In haste they stuffed a few belongings into old canvas, tied them into bundles, and ran for their lives. It was not until they saw the blue flag of the UN High Commissioner for refugees that they felt safe again. But they could never go home.
There are more than 16 million refugees sheltered in various centers on this day when we are singing to the “Light of the World.” In fact, quite a few of those refugees know Jesus, Who like them, began his life as a refugee. The story of the coming of the Magi not only underscores the newborn as sovereign of the nations, but also that He found no welcome within Israel’s borders in the days of Herod the King. However bright the light that shines in the stable on your Christmas cards, the One Whom Mary bore could not trade His light for a defense against either Herod or his soldiers. So Jesus became a refugee in the land where his ancestors were slaves.
Every year through official channels, Lutheran Social Services signs contracts to safely re-settle refugees who have been granted asylum in the U.S. They are not just immigrants, they are people who had to flee for their lives because someone in power hated them that much. Perhaps, like Jesus, they were a threat to the powers that be. Ethnic cleansing drove the Gjan family along with all their kin – from their tribal lands because the Burmese government considered them a threat. Astronauts in the international space station ultimately saw the smoke of the fires that burned the Karen from the face of Burma. “When Herod heard the news of the birth of another king he trembled and all Jerusalem with him.” When the powerful feel threatened they almost always strike back with force. The baby boys of Bethlehem paid the price for Herod’s fears while Joseph took Mary and the child and fled in the night toward an international border.
Of all the missions of Lutheran Social Services, none moves me like our refugee work. It moves me because it is a tangible way for me to stand close to Jesus as my human brother. I have an ID card that will get me into lots of circles of power in this city. Some of you have even better ones. But Jesus had none at all. We tend to lump refugees and immigrants into one giant category and because it has become popular to build fences and employ huge police forces to keep immigrants out, our society tends to treat refugees no better. But Jesus was a refugee and we have to do better. Somewhere in Egypt someone made Joseph welcome and kept Mary and Jesus safe. Until Jesus returns in His glory, I can not imagine that we can ever stop doing the same for other refugees.
Most scholars think the Magi were astrologers from ancient Persia, still practicing their craft somewhere in the land where Abraham’s father was born. Most scholars believe they had picked up Messiah stories from the Jewish captives who had lived among them for nearly 100 years of exile. And most scholars believe the Magi saw a star that they believed signaled the birth of a great new ruler. From wherever in the east that they came, they came because they followed a beckoning star, and it led them to the land that still bore Abraham’s fame.
But no star could tell them what God was doing. So they came to the keepers of God’s covenant book to learn what the star meant and discover what to do next. So in Jerusalem they heard what we have grown up knowing – that in a tiny village whose greatness was as long passed as American villages that still claim American Presidents that we have forgotten – from Herod’s scribes they learned that God chose Bethlehem for the sake of His love for David. So they hurried to Bethlehem.
Matthew could surely have begun the story of Jesus at another place. And it is hard to reconcile the time line in his story with Luke’s story about Simeon and Anna that we heard last week. But Matthew, whose last Gospel word is a wondrous command to carry the good news of Jesus from Jerusalem to all the nations, Matthew begins with those nations coming to Jesus’ side before any child of Abraham had come. Picking up the words of Isaiah in a story that is woven together by the light of a heavenly star, Matthew sang Isaiah’s song in a brand new century: “Arise, shine, for your light has come……….nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”
Last May I was serving a turn in our congregation’s booth at Viva Vienna, wearing a St. Paul’s T-shirt, passing out St. Paul’s balloons, and welcoming children to spin our game wheel. Suddenly a well dressed, brown skinned, man came up to me because he made a connection with the word “Lutheran” on our sign. “Thank you,” he said. I smiled and asked, “For what?” “For bringing me safely to this good land.” And then he told me that he was a refugee from Iran – old Persia. That his “tribe” of Zoroastrians had somehow become dangerous and were on a death list, and he had to flee. “Thank you for bringing me to this good land. You have served your Lord Jesus well.”
I do not know how far down the path toward trusting Jesus as the saving Name that this man or the Gjan family have gone. But I know from that simple “thank you” story that Jesus gets glory every time we are as gracious as He was first gracious to us. I do not know whether the Magi came as believers or went home as believers. But I know that Matthew considers them to be the point of all preaching – that all the nations would come to the true Light Who brings redemption to the world. And Matthew, ahead of all the Evangelists, knows that the best preaching is done in deeds of mercy.
Our children will be forever grateful to the Magi for bringing those gifts because that custom has endowed our Christmas with what is now its most memorable feature. But I am grateful to those Magi for those gifts for other reasons. One is that they teach me to give gifts to Jesus that are huge because generous gifts really honor Him. And the second is that those gifts saved Jesus’ life. No doubt someone in Egypt had known Jewish traders and was well disposed toward this Nazarene carpenter because of them. But carpenters are poor and Joseph had no tools with him. What he had was gold and frankincense and myrrh. No matter what our songs make those gifts symbolize, for the holy family they were generous international currency, and they made it possible for the holy family to survive as refugees until the death of Herod. “So bring Him incense, gold and myrrh, come, peasant and king, to own Him. The King of kings salvation brings, let loving hearts enthrone Him.”
Epiphany 5 Sermon
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