Our scripture today is called The Flight Into Egypt (Mt 2.13-23). After the birth of Jesus, the Holy Family must flee to Egypt to escape King Herod.
As a preacher, there are different things you could do with this story. You might compare this story with Luke’s gospel, where the Holy Family just goes back to Nazareth after the birth of Jesus. The two accounts are not consistent with one another, which raises questions about what really happened. Faith, history, and all that. It could be a good sermon, but not today.
Or a preacher might focus on Joseph, who is a model of fatherhood in this story. Care and protection — he does what a father should do. He also has a deep spirituality, with a sensitivity to divine leading. That would be a good sermon for Father’s Day.
But in the end, as a preacher, I must preach on what seizes me in this scripture. And what caught me was the image of the flight to Egypt itself. Jesus is born, a healthy baby. They have foreign visitors with expensive gifts. But just as Joseph is beginning to relax, he receives news of danger and threat. He must flee with them to another land. They must live for a time in a foreign land, where the language and the geography will be strange to them.
This reminds me of times in our life when something happens that changes everything, and we must flee to Egypt ourselves. Let me give an example.
Nicholas Wolterstorff is a professor at Yale. One day, many years ago, he received a phone call.
Mr Wolterstorff? Yes…
You are father of Eric Wolterstorff? Yes…
Mr Wolterstorff, I have hard news for you. Yes…
Your son Eric has been in a mountain climbing accident. Yes…
Mr Wolterstorff, your son has died on the mountain. We need you to come immediately to Austria.
Nicholas Wolserstorff hung up the phone, and for three seconds he felt a sense of peace, with an image of giving his son to Someone. Then, after three seconds, he felt pain. Cold, burning pain.
In that moment, he had to flee to Egypt. He could no longer live a normal life in his homeland. He had to go to Egypt, the land of grief, where Rachel weeps for her children because they are no more.
This has been a hard year in our congregation. Many families are grieving. Many of you received hard news this year, news that changed everything for you. You lost something or someone precious to you. Now you are grieving, living in the land of Egypt, the land of grief.
Why do bad things happen to good people? The perennial question. I don’t have an answer, but I will share a way of looking at it that has helped me. It comes from a theologian named Gregory Boyd.
Some people, he says, see life as a blueprint. Everything that happens is a part of God’s blueprint for things. When a bad thing happens, we take comfort believing it’s all part of God’s master plan. This view is comforting, and disturbing. When a child dies of leukemia, is that part of God’s master plan? Who would want to believe in a God like that?
But Boyd offers another view. Not a blueprint, but a war. We are in the midst of a cosmic war, he says, a war we are only dimly aware of since it is spiritual as much as physical. The creation is in rebellion, at war with its Creator. The pain and suffering we see around us are casualties of this war. God can’t stop the war without stopping everything. But God, in Jesus, entered the war zone, first as a vulnerable baby, who grew up and experienced the pain, suffering, and heartache we know, and became a casualty himself, and overcame it, and is even now leading his people out into a new land where war will be no more, a new creation with peace, joy, and glory.
This way of looking at things has helped me. Not a blueprint but a war, where there are casualties. And refugees who are grieving.
If you are a refugee in Egypt, the land of grief, I’d say stay there for a while. Stay there as long as you need to. There are people around you who may not want you to stay there. They may want you to get over it and be happy. “Look at the pretty lights of Christmas,” they will say. But the pretty lights only deepen the ache of grief.
No, if you need to live in the land of Egypt, then stay there. I will even stamp your passport. I will live with you there. Eventually, you will come back to your native land, but you will return a different person. Once you have lived in Egypt, then Egypt lives in you. There is a capacity for compassion in you that is deeper than it was before. It is a strange thing, but usually it is those who have been broken who become agents of healing for others.
A few years ago there was a movie called Castaway, starring Tom Hanks as a package delivery executive. He is traveling on a plane carrying packages going around the world. The plane crashes in the ocean, and he and many packages wash up on the shore of an island. He is stranded on that island for four years. Eventually, he is rescued, and he tries to adjust to normal life again. But he can’t really go back. He has lost everything in his old life, including the woman he had been dating. Thinking he had died, she has married another man. He has one remaining package from the original trip that he never opened. The movie ends with him delivering it to a woman living on a ranch. The film hints and suggests that his new life will be with her.
That’s how a new life begins, with a hint, a suggestion, and a possibility.
Joseph, Mary, and Jesus returned from the land of Egypt, and they made a new home in a place called Nazareth. So Jesus would become Jesus of Nazareth. They made a new life there.
Know that you will make a new life too. Even now there are hints and new possibilities bubbling inside of you. You will come back from Egypt and make a new life. It will take time, but it will happen.
All that is needed on your part are three things: trust, wait, and listen. Amen.