Light in the darkness

Message for January 7, 2018
Glennon Heights Mennonite Church
Betsy Headrick McCrae
Scripture passage: Matthew 2:1-18
Light in the darkness
The story of the wise men coming to worship Jesus, the newborn king, carries
more oomph than we usually give it credit for. We like the trappings – the star, the
camels, the tall regal men in turbans and rich clothing, the lavish gifts. We’ve made it
part of our lovely Christmas scene. But actually it’s a story of political upheaval, of a
new paradigm coming into being, of a radical shift in power. It throws everything wide
open. This baby born is not to be contained, controlled or domesticated. He is a savior,
yes, but not just of one country or one people, Israel. We’re looking at a much bigger
picture here. This baby is destined to be ruler and benefactor of the whole world.
These wise men from the East, from what is now Arabia, Iran and Iraq, somehow
understand this. When they see the star they are compelled to follow. They come
bringing substantial gifts. Because that’s what is called for. This is a world-changing
event after all. Surely everyone knows something big and important is happening,
especially those in this country where the new king has been born. But when they get to
Israel and ask for directions this doesn’t seem to be the case. Their questions throw
everyone into a tizzy. A king is born? What king? Where? Folks start scrambling to
figure out what’s going on.
The present ruler in Israel, King Herod, is especially perturbed. He goes into full
defensive mode. For him, this is not good news. His power and position are being
threatened. He puts everything on high alert, though very genteelly to start. He smarmily
welcomes these foreign dignitaries, helps them find the information they need and then
sends them off with instructions to return because he, too, would like to worship this
newborn king. Um-hum, riiight. All the while he is hatching an evil plot. This
unsettling threat must be contained.
The wise men find the baby Jesus and his parents in Bethlehem. They are
overjoyed. They see before them the light of the world, the light which has overcome the
darkness! They kneel down and worship him. They give him the gifts they have brought
– the gold, frankincense and myrrh, these treasures of great value. And then, being wise,
they don’t play into Herod’s hand. They don’t provide him with the information he
craves. They go home by another road.
When Herod finds out, he is livid! And he responds with the ruthlessness
brutality for which he is known. He sends his soldiers out to kill all the babies, two years
and younger. Oh, can you imagine the outcry? My stomach twists. It breaks my heart.
“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her
children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
This is the world into which Jesus was born. A world that did not receive him
with hospitality. A world that brought terror down on innocent little ones and their
families. A world of deep darkness. A darkness, unfortunately, that is still present in so
many situations around our world today. Children at grave risk from bombs and drone
strikes, from marauding gangs or militias, from famine, from ethnic cleansing and
genocide, from megalomaniac leaders trying desperately to hold onto power. What
choice do parents have but to flee if they can? Like Joseph and Mary with the baby
Jesus, they leave their homes. With only what they can carry, they head toward safety,
wherever that may be.
But will safety be found? Is there a place where they will be able to live in peace?
Where their children won’t be traumatized? Where they can let down their guard and just
be a normal family again? What is it like to not know the answers to these questions?
What is it like to have to flee?
After participating in a MCC Borderlands tour of Douglas, Arizona, and Agra
Prieta, Mexico, Mathew Swora, pastor of Zion Mennonite Church in Canby, Oregon,
reflected on the story of Mary, Joseph and Jesus’ flight to Egypt. He reimagined the
scene from the perspective of what he had seen at the US-Mexico border. His retelling of
the story was printed in the December 2017 issue of The Mennonite magazine. I want to
share it with you this morning as we think about what it means to be light in the darkness.
Mathew writes:
Two thousand years ago, on a hot, dry, dusty day, at a checkpoint along the
border of Egypt and Israel, some very bored, irritated and edgy soldiers sat around a table
under the shade of a large tree. Any excitement they’d once felt about protecting their
country had given way to weariness and the disillusionment of suspecting everyone,
being lied to so often and having to crush the hopes of so many frightened, desperate
people. To the checkpoint came a man and a woman. The man had a large knapsack on
his back, while the woman was carrying a baby in her arms. They looked haggard, worn,
dusty and frightened, and the baby was crying.
“Your purpose in coming here?” a soldier asked.
“We simply want to enter Egypt and live there for a while,” the man said.
“Your name?”
After writing their names on a piece of papyrus, the soldier then asked, “Your
places of birth?”
“For my wife and me, Nazareth. For our baby, Bethlehem.”
“Bethlehem? Never heard of it.”
“It’s just a wide spot in the road near Jerusalem.”
“Your most recent address?” the solider asked.
“An animal stall in Bethlehem,” the man said.
“You’re Hebrews, aren’t you?” the soldier said.
“Yes. How could you tell?”
“Just by your looks – and your funny accent.”
“That’s not a problem, is it?”
“I’m afraid so,” said the soldier. “We don’t let more than a few Hebrews into our
country during any given year anymore. The last time we did, we had so many problems,
what with plagues of flies and locusts, and lightning and hailstorms killing all our
livestock, we finally had to round you guys up and send you back to where you came
“That’s not exactly how we remember it,” the husband said. “You guys worked
us so hard in the fields and making bricks. We were your slaves. But God liberated us
and brought us out of Egypt; you didn’t deport us.”
“And I suppose you just swam the Red Sea to get out of Egypt?”
“No. God split it apart so we could cross on foot.”
“Riiight,” said the soldier. “Suit yourself. So if you want to get into Egypt, write
your names on this papyrus. There’s quite a waiting list, as you can see. You’ll be
number 14,378, which means you’ll get to appear before an immigration court in about,
say, 17 years.”
“Seventeen years?” the woman said. “I don’t know that we have 17 minutes.”
“Well, if you have verifiable cause to fear anyone, you can apply for asylum.”
“Good,” said the husband. “How do we apply for that?”
“You fill out this form, telling us who’s persecuting or threatening you. Who are
you afraid of, by the way?”
“King Herod. He sent his soldiers to kill our baby.”
“Now why would King Herod even know about your baby, let alone want to kill
him?” the soldier asked.
“Because,” the mother said, “this is a very special baby, sent by God, to be king in
Herod’s place someday. He’ll even be king of the world.”
“Riiight,” the soldier said. “But everyone can have enemies, so write your names
on this list, and we can get you an asylum hearing in about six to 15 months.”
“So now we can come into Egypt and await our hearing?” the father asked.
“Yes, but you should know this: Unless someone can post bail for you – and
that’s some pretty big bucks – you’ll have to spend those months awaiting your asylum
hearing in a detention center.”
“By detention center, you mean prison, don’t you?”
“Well, technically, OK, if you want to call it that, yes.”
“I’m not taking my wife and our child into a prison.”
“But we can’t wait out here on this side of the border, with the chance that
Herod’s soldiers might still be looking for us,” the baby’s mother added. By then the
baby had stopped crying.
“Look,” the father said to the Egyptian soldier, “is there any other way we might
enter Egypt and safety now, and legally?”
“There is another way,” the soldier said, “but I don’t think it applies to the likes of
you, as poor and hard up as you look. You could get a visitor’s visa on the spot, but it
will set you back 1000 denarii. And you’ll need to prove you’re worth at least another
10,000 denarii, so you won’t be begging in the streets or taking jobs away from us
Egyptians. Like I said, I don’t think that’ll work for you, but –“
“Wait,” the man interrupted him. “Look at what I have here in this knapsack.”
He slid it off his back and opened its top for the soldier to see.
“Whoa,” said the soldier as he looked inside the knapsack. “Where’d you get all
that gold, frankincense and myrrh?”
“From some wise men who came from the east to worship our newborn baby,”
the mother said.
“Riiight,” the soldier replied. “Still, where that money really comes from is none
of my business. You’ve got enough wealth in that sack to bring our whole platoon in
with visitors’ visas. Pay your money, sign this papyrus and welcome to Egypt, my
The man and woman signed the visa documents, paid the money and walked past
the checkpoint into Egypt, looking and feeling relieved. But just a few paces down the
road, they stopped, talked together and walked back to the checkpoint.
The surprised soldier asked them, “What’re you doing slumming around here for,
when just up the road you can rent a chariot with two horses, hire a driver and go see the
pyramids of Giza, play the blackjack tables at Caesar’s Palace in Alexandria or rent your
own palace in the most exclusive neighborhood of Thebes? That’s what I’d be doing if I
had your kind of wealth.”
“We’re going to stay right here,” the woman said, “and pay for more people’s
entry into Egypt, until all that’s left is just what we need to live on.”
“Which won’t be much,” her husband added, “because we can go live with my
cousins in Alexandria’s Hebrew community.”
“Riiight,” the soldier said. “This I’ll have to see to believe. Suit yourself. Here
come some more refugees right now. They look as ragged and scared as you did when
you first came up to this joint. Are you going to help them?”
“If they need it, yes,” the man said.
“But they don’t look like your people, Hebrews,” the soldier said. “By the looks
of them, I’d say they were from Syria, Gaza or Yemen. That make any difference to
And the woman said, “No.”
[end of the story by Mathew Swora]
“The light shined in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” So
begins the Gospel of John. Jesus came into a world that was not and often still is not
hospitable. A cruel world. We see that in this story. But it is not what this story is
ultimately about. It is instead a story about outsiders and foreigners sometimes
understanding more than insiders and citizens do. It’s a story about freely, generously
sharing the wealth because that’s what is called for. It’s about hearing God’s voice and
trusting God’s leading, even when it isn’t what you expected. It’s about faithfulness in
the midst of terror. It’s about love beyond borders. It’s about God dwelling with us, here
and now, in our world, in our reality, bringing hope, being light that is in the midst of but
never overcome by darkness.
Hold that light high, my sisters and brothers. You can trust it. Let it shine!

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