How many of you spent Christmas Day in your own home? For many of us, Christmas is a time that we associate with being at home. The Chris Rea song ‘Driving home for Christmas’ is a firm favourite for many in the run up to Christmas. Its evocative lyrics have the singer frustrated in his car stranded in tailbacks disparate to be home for Christmas. He looks at his fellow travellers in other cars. They all want the same, to be home for Christmas. ‘But soon there’ll be a freeway yeah, get my feet on holy ground…driving home for Christmas with a thousand memories.’
Many will have chosen to travel and be else where this Christmas, but they will still have spent it with family and friends, to have felt ‘at home’ even though they weren’t physically in their own house. The salient point is to remember all those who had no where to call home this Christmas; those who were on the streets, those who were refugees and those who simply have no one close to them with whom to spend Christmas; who find this time of family and home coming particularly difficult.
And then there is Jesus himself. We would think that if the God of love came to dwell among us for a time, he would be well received but we know that it was not always easy for Jesus. Firstly, there was no room for him in the inn. (Luke 2.7) These familiar words from Luke’s gospel have given rise to all the knocking on doors which go on in thousands of nativity plays every year. Actually, it might not have been quite like that.
Mary and Joseph were not travelling to an unknown town without having booked the Premier Inn online early to get the elusive £29 room. They were returning to the town where many of their family still lived. They were part of a movement of committed Jewish people at the time who wanted to recolonise towns in the north, in Galilee. They were not unlike Jews who live in illegal settlements in Israel today. Hence, they lived in Nazareth while many of their extended family continued to live in Bethlehem and other villages in Judea some eighty miles to the south. The journey would often have been made to see relatives and visit Jerusalem for the festivals. There would always have been a bed for them with family when ever they travelled home. The word commonly translated ‘inn’ is more likely to have meant guest room. Either through pressure of guests or a desire for greater privacy for Mary to give birth, they were given the space usually reserved for the animals. Homes in 1st century Israel were often built out from small caves in the hillside. The precious livestock were usually over wintered in the cave at the back but as it was likely to have been summer, the space, cleaned up and served for Mary to give birth to Jesus.
That makes Jesus birth a little less worrying. He is at least not homeless at the start of his life. It also makes sense of the fact that Matthew does not mention a stable when the wise men arrive but only a house. Yet, Jesus is born to a family who were trying to make their home a distance from where their ancestors had lived. Like many in our own day, they were living in a region to make a political point: that, despite the collapse of the northern kingdoms of Israel some 700 years earlier; the lands of the north, of Galilee should still be considered Jewish. But where would Jesus call home?
Todays gospel reading follows on from the visit of the wise men or magi which we will think about in more detail next week at the feast of the Epiphany. Matthew alone tells us about the flight to Egypt. In this we see Jesus as a very young child being taken on a rushed and perilous journey further south through the desert region of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt. The story recorded by Matthew is that Herod the Great who ruled the whole of Israel, north and south under Roman jurisdiction at the time of Jesus’ birth, was not told by the wise men where Jesus was to be found. Herod was paranoid that everyone was out to get his throne. He murdered his wife, three sons, mother in law and brother in law amongst others thinking they might be trying to usurp him. True to form he is enraged by Jesus’ birth believing that his rule is now threatened by a pretender ‘King of the Jews’. Joseph is warned by God in dream to take Jesus and Mary and head to Egypt. Unable to find the house in Bethlehem where Jesus was, Herod has all the boys under two years of age killed. Estimates reckon that would have been around twenty. The Holy Innocents they are traditionally remembered by the church in December 28th, yesterday.
Herod the great dies and his territories are divided between three descendants some of whom confusingly take the name Herod. Archelaus takes over Judea in the south. But Joseph is warned a dream that he will not be safe there so the family return north, to Nazareth ruled by Herod Antipas, a slightly more amenable son of Herod the Great. It is here that Jesus has a boyhood home, where he grew and became strong, filled with wisdom and the grace of God was upon him. (Luke 2.40)
Jesus in born into a family which for a time is not settled, they can be described as refugee or migrant. The plight of refugees and migrants is never far from the news. I spotted a rather black joke sticker on a van the other day. It read: ‘No illegal migrants kept in this van overnight’ and in brackets (no tools either). There have been some very hard things said about those who cross international borders seeking work, a better life or escaping hardship and persecution in their own country. From Trump’s Mexican wall, to some of the harsher things said in the Brexit debate by people who are settled, who have the good fortune to live in relative peace and security. I am not unaware of the issues at stake. The ability of the infrastructure of a country to expand quickly to cope with a rapid influx of people with considerable needs who may not speak the language. Yes, there are issues around the availability of jobs and the problems when understandable frustrations boil over. But it does not behove us as Christian people to have a closed mind when it comes to refugees and migrant peoples. We need to have sympathy, to pray and support those who try to make a difference to the lives of those who seek no more than we already have. When we come across people in our community who have travelled many miles to be here, let us take a moment to get to know them, to be welcoming and supportive. In so doing, you may well welcome angels unawares.
Why? Because Jesus was born into just such a migrant family. Matthew sees him as retracing the migration of Abraham’s family to Egypt and then back through the wilderness to the promised land. ‘Out Egypt, I called my son’ (Matthew 2.15 after Hosea 11.1) Jesus’ ministry was one of movement. He recognised that a prophet was not welcome in his own home. (Mark 6.4 & Luke 4.24) ‘Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no where to lay his head. (Matthew 8.20 & Luke 9.58) Once Jesus began his teaching and his journey to the cross, he was dependant on others for hospitality.
More than that, however much we like our homes and our settled lives, we have to conclude with the writer to the Hebrews when he says: ‘Therefore, Jesus suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood. Let us then go with him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.’ (Hebrews 13.12-14)
However comfortable and at home we may feel in this world, behind our own front doors with friends and family, we need to remember that like all migrants and refuges, we seek a better place and that it is Jesus who is preparing it for us. (John 14.3)
Christmas 1 29.12.2019