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Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Christmas Refugee

In churches across the country, children put on simple Christmas pageants. Angels with floppy wings and floppier halos announce the birth of Jesus to shepherds wearing grey or tan bathrobes. Perhaps the shepherds bring a small, stuffed sheep to the Baby as He lies in a bed of straw. Then three wise men in kingly robes arrive holding brightly wrapped gifts. The children sing Away in a Manger; the congregation holds lighted candles as they sing Silent Night; and the program is over.
But the Christmas story is not really over. The gospel of Matthew tells us that after the wise men left, God warned Joseph to flee with Mary and the Baby into Egypt to escape the murderous rage of Herod. After the death of Herod, Joseph brought his small family back to Israel. “This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called My Son’” (Matthew 2:15). The passage Matthew quotes is Hosea 11:1, where the prophet says that God called the nation of Israel out of Egypt
In the Old Testament, Israel is God’s national son (Exodus 4:21-23). In the New Testament, Jesus is God’s eternal Son. During their four hundred years as refugees in Egypt, the family of Jacob became the nation of Israel. Then God sent Moses to lead them back into the Promised Land. So when Jesus took refuge in Egypt, He (the eternal Son of God) was recapitulating the history of the Israel (the national son of God).
God used Israel’s refugee experience to exhort them to be kind to aliens. “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the lord your God” (Leviticus 19:34). Similarly, Jesus commanded His followers to be kind to strangers.
Do you remember the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37)? A Jewish man who had been beaten, robbed, and left for dead was rescued by a Samaritan. The Jews despised Samaritans. Furthermore, the robbers might well have been lingering the vicinity, so the Samaritan was risking his own life to help the injured man. Finally, the Samaritan paid an innkeeper to care for the man until he recovered. Jesus concluded the parable by saying, “Go and do the same.” In other words, be willing to help people who don’t like you even if there is some risk and some cost involved.
That is what Jesus did for us. The Bible says that Jesus died for us when we were ungodly sinners, enemies of God, and subject to His wrath (Romans 5:6-10). Those who put their faith in the crucified, risen Christ are healed of sin’s curse and enter into a peaceable relationship with God (Romans 4:25-5:1).
Therefore, those who have been befriended by God ought to befriend the friendless, even those who might be our enemies. At this Christmas season, we need to remember that Jesus was a refugee Himself, and we ought to be willing to help refugees, even if there is some risk and some cost in doing so.
Some Christian leaders, whom I greatly respect, have opposed settling Syrian refugees in the United States. The Lehigh Valley, which hosts a large Syrian community, has been in the national news lately because the Syrians who live here are divided over the refugee issue. Some of them fear that the very Syrians who murdered their relatives might find a home here. Some fear that ISIS might deliberately smuggle its operatives in among genuine refugees.
I understand those fears. I really do. There are some genuine (though very small) risks involved. In recent years, my wife and I have hosted five refugee families in our home for two weeks at a time. Three were Muslim; two were Christian. We have loved all of them. Our health would not permit us to take another family right now, but perhaps in a few months we would be able to do so. And we would welcome a Syrian family as willingly as we have the rest.

(Published in the Allentown Morning Call 12/19/2015)

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