Rev. Richard Hogue Jr.
St. Paul’s Cathedral, San Diego
Journeys are part of nearly every story. In the western tradition, we trace back the earliest heroes to people who took arduous journeys, Odysseus stick out clearest after surviving the journey to and war with Troy in the Iliad, and the perhaps the most iconic of all heroic return stories in the Odyssey. Go back even further, to ancient Sumerian tales of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and you see the shape of many stories and legends to come. To this day, we often mark chapters or eras of our lives by our goings and returns, or finding home after seeking it, depending on the life one is living.
But not all journeys start out for glorious or glamorous reasons. In fact, Hebrew Scripture, and then our own Christian Scriptures, take a starkly different approach to the heroes’ journeys, through defeat rather than through victory, through death to life. Matthew’s gospel for this morning uses the motifs from Genesis and Exodus as a foundation for two straight chapters before introducing John the Baptizer and then Jesus’ own ministry. Matthew’s writer is riffing on Joseph, the first one to be clear, with the coat of many colors, and his dream interpreting. This gospel also riffs on Moses, complete with an execution of any young boys by Pharoah in Moishe’s time and by Herod in Jesus’ time.
That’s where we find Jesus today, on his way out of Palestine and into Egypt. The Christ child is a refugee and a migrant, all as a result of a scared oligarch’s murderous grip. Wise men visited Herod, leading the oligarch to have innocent children massacred, which was also a popular legend about Moses in Jewish circles in Jesus’ and Matthew’s time. In Jesus’ case they also warned his parent’s. Both bring freedom, to people, both are Prophets, and both will find their way out of Egypt. Both are vulnerable in their circumstances, and it’s related to their heritage as Jews, in Jesus’ case through his lineage that hearkens to David, greatest king of Israel, as well as deeply fallible, according to the book of the Prophet Samuel. That book comes towards the end of a long cycle extending from the book of Joshua to the book of Kings, which is the book which tells of the glories of Solomon, the second greatest king of Israel, and a son of David who too is considered deeply fallible.
The scene is set for a beggar king, someone who has run from the worst in order to do the best. But this prophet and king will not have the gloriously expanding empire and human negligence of David or fleets and wealth and wives and waywardness of Solomon. He will not lead his people through the Red Sea into freedom as Moses did. Instead, he will lead all people through death into life. Matthew is weaving a story a Jewish child who will remake the world, not by accumulating power, but pouring it out for others.
This Christ child in flight is a symbol that bears a deep well of meaning for us as we sit along a border where even now children are in flight from threats to their lives from not terribly distant places like Central America. One need not even go to the border, as Afghan refugees begin to settle into San Diego itself. Christ then, and Christ now, is with the desperate and distraught of the world. And Jesus shows, through his own humanity, shows that a life lived with meaning is one that is emptied out for others. Ultimately, this is the Jesus who proclaims “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
For his sake, the life we must lose are the very ones that threatened him and Moses as a child. We must lose lives that revolve only around our own petulance, but that delights in the love we can and must share for others. This self-emptying prophet, king, messiah, and Christ of the cosmos is oppressed but not overcome, desperate but not dismayed, fleeing and yet full of power. His life still changes more lives than Pharoah, or any other powerful person in history.
His example is one of humility and a compassionate charisma, he does all this while still needing naps and snacks, like the rest of us. Jesus is just as human as we are. Yet he used his ultimate powers to upend empires, not through force, but by living life as a truth telling, authority agitating, and selfless lover of people. Loving our own families can be difficult sometimes… Hello, Christmas!… but Jesus manages to love the world so thoroughly, then and now, that he showed us to live like that so we all can enjoy more peace and harmony. That story is born out of a vulnerability that extends from Jesus, to his mother, to his forebears kings and prophets alike, to each and everyone one of us here and now and beyond now. That vulnerability is the deepest desire to know something beyond ourselves, to extend past disconnection from life and love that we can sometimes feel, and to feel part of something wonderful and vast.
And as we see with Jesus’ disciples, it’s often difficult to live up to that kind of life and teaching, but ultimately we are here because good people have been able to for nearly two thousand years. We in our own time are the body of Christ, and we are called to deliver hope in a world that seems hopeless. We are called to empower the very ones that the current orders wish to deem powerless. We are the ones who worship a child in flight, a life giver and loving companion to all people, a challenger of the comfortable, and a comforter to the afflicted.
So, the next time you pick up your copy of the Iliad or the Odyssey, or the Avengers, or the Justice League or Star Wars, remember that the truest heroes may appear to be the most ordinary ones. They aren’t in rocket ships or yachts, they are the ones who have no choice but to flee, who seem powerless now, but who will shape the world to come.
May we empower and equip that world to be a better one than we find ourselves in now, and may your new year be a new era of liberation, light, and love, that you find with Jesus, wherever you are on your journey. That’s Spirit of Christmas, and the light is still coming. Amen.