“Some children see him lily white, the baby Jesus born this night,” says a lovely song penned by jazz musician Albert Burt in the early 1950’s. “Some children see him bronzed and brown, the Lord of heav’n to earth come down…Some children see him almond-eyed, with skin of yellow hue…Some children seem him dark as they, Sweet Mary’s Son to whom we pray. Some children see him dark as they, and ah, they love him too.”
Jesus was born to a middle-eastern teenager, so was likely Arabic in appearance. But he was the Son of God, so theoretically and theologically he could be considered to be of any and all races, since we are all made in the image of God! His earthly father Joseph was a carpenter from Bethlehem who had moved to Nazareth. The Scriptures show him to be a very devout man, also wise and kind. We know the story. Joseph travelled with a very pregnant Mary back to Bethlehem because of the requirements of the government to register for taxation purposes, and there, Jesus was born. Wise men, magi, visited, and when they failed to go back to Herod to tell him where the infant Jesus was, King Herod, egotistical, childish, and vengeful as he was, went into a rage and ordered the deaths of all children under two. So Joseph, warned by an angel in a dream, the text tells us, packed Mary and Jesus up and fled to Egypt, where they stayed until after Herod died.
So much, then, for the sweet, pleasant story of “Away in a Manger.” Jesus was born and grew up in a violent and volatile time, under the reign of unpredictable and often cruel leaders. Some might say not much has changed!
Some people see Jesus, then, as a refugee. Others have argued that Jesus was in no way a refugee. A recent New York Times article defined refugees as those who flee due to war or persecution. Under that definition, Jesus and his parents would indeed be refugees, fleeing the terrible persecution of babies ordered by King Herod. In the Bible, there are parallels of the journeys of the holy family to that of the Israelites in Moses’ time. There are also parallels of Jesus’ travels and the journeys of refugees around the world today. Currently, there are an estimated 65 million classified as refugees globally. That does not include another 24 million who have been displaced by climate change, by natural disasters. Their plight is our plight, if we are followers of the holy family who had to flee.
Some people see Jesus mainly as a personal savior, as someone who will give them a close parking space or the $100 they need to pay a bill if they but pray. Others disregard his miracles as myth and look mainly at the teachings and the parables he shared. In the stories of Christmas, we see Jesus born as a helpless infant, just as we were. There is not much in the Bible about his childhood, but we know he grew up just as we do. Yet as a man, Jesus revealed himself to be more than human, to be, as Mary had been told by the angel, the Son of God, capable of miracles and full of deep compassion and wisdom.
Some people see Jesus as one of many prophets, crying in the wilderness to warn people of our misbehaviors, our selfishness and cruelty. The Bible portrays Jesus as the Son of God from the beginning of the birth stories, miraculously conceived in a virgin, yet quietly born in a stable because there was no room elsewhere. Yet he went on to make the most caring of sacrifices for our sake, to save our souls.
“How beautiful upon the mountain are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation,” says the Isaiah passage we read today. The messenger announced the end of the exile for the Israelite people, their restoration to their land. They would return to a ruined Jerusalem, and restoration would take a long time. But God had prevailed for them. Some would say the ruin had come about at their own hands, because they ignored the ways of the Lord who, through the prophets, urged them to care for the sick, the elderly, the outcast, the stranger, the refugee. But they did not listen. As Chris said earlier in the season about an Isaiah passage, the Israelites had allowed wealth to become more important to them than wisdom.
Forward to the Matthew passage, and we find a tyrannical ruler wreaking havoc in the lives of common people. “Herod the king, in his raging, charged he hath this day, his men of might, in his own sight, all children young to slay” says the Coventry Carol from the 4th century based on this passage. (When the choir sings one version of this, the men’s voices get to rage and shout out this cruel verse in a minor key. It is both beautiful and unsettling, as it should be.)
A recent Christmas letter from the North Carolina Council of Churches says Jesus was “not what we expected or maybe even what we wanted: an infant rather than a warrior; a peasant rather than a millionaire; a commoner rather than royalty.” Current leadership in our own country would likely reject Jesus and his family. They were not rich, they were not white; they were common, they were refugees, they were even homeless for a while. Back in the 1970s, Frederick Buechner penned this definition of “homelessness:”
“We lie in our beds in the dark. There is a picture of the children on the bureau. A patch of moonlight catches our clothes thrown over the back of a chair. We can hear the faint rumble of the furnace in the cellar. We are surrounded by the reassurance of the familiar. When things are bad in our lives, we have a place where we can retreat to lick our wounds while tens of thousands of people, many of them children, wander the streets in search of some corner to lie down in out of the wind. Yet we are homeless even so in the sense of having homes but not being really at home in them. To be really at home is to be really at peace, and there can be no real peace for any of us until there is some measure of peace for all of us. When we close our eyes to the deep needs of others, whether they live on the streets or under our roofs – and when we close our eyes to our own deep need to reach out to them – we can never be fully at home anywhere.” (Buechner, p. 46)
There are times when we need to hear comforting words from our Bible and from our preachers and Sunday School teachers. In the aftermath of 9/11, of the Sandy Hook and Las Vegas and too many shootings, of earthquakes and tsunamis, we yearn for comfort. But there are times when we, as the people of God, need to be reminded that the Word of God and the love of God is not for our own personal comfort as much as it is intended to be for everyone, for the shalom of whole world. We are all, every single one of us, beloved children of the one God who loves us enough to come be one among us as a helpless child, and to suffer and die for us, that God might show us something better and kinder than the violent, warring and political-maneuvering ways of our world. When the innocent baby, when all the innocents are in peril, the Christmas story urges us to protect them. When some have to flee danger, the gospel message calls us to welcome them in Jesus’ name. In our country, in our world, things need to change in order to reflect the goodness of a God who cares enough be born as a helpless baby.
Christmas is nearly over, a new year is dawning, and we have work to do. Howard Thurman said it well:
“When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flock, the work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to make peace among people, to make music in the heart.”
“To be really at home is to be really at peace, and there can be no real peace for any of us until there is some measure of peace for all of us.”
Albert Burt’s song ends: “The children in each different place, will see the baby Jesus’ face, like theirs, but bright with heavenly grace, and filled with holy light. O lay aside each earthly thing, and with thy heart as offering, come worship now the infant King. ‘Tis love that’s born tonight.”
Let love reign in every heart, and in all the world. Amen.
Buechner, Frederick, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (Harper & Row, NY, 1973)