Sunday, January 13, 2019

God in Unlikely Places: Sermon on Matthew 2:13-15

It wasn't a day much like today. The sun overhead was warm, without much regard to the season. The streets of Pelusium, the 'city of silt,' were bustling – foot traffic from the quays and baths, the workshops and kilns, the temples and theaters, all mixed up together as Egyptians, Greeks, and Jews roamed the city. It was the gate of Egypt, Pelusium was – a fine city, dignified twenty-five years before by the Emperor Augustus when he entered as its conqueror, having bested the armies of Cleopatra and brought an end to centuries of rule by the Ptolemies. And now Pelusium – or, as some locals called it, Peremoun, the 'House of Amun' – enjoyed the benefits of the 'Roman peace,' prospering as a trading post, littered with customs offices, glassworks, brickworks, even tanks for raising fish for making fish sauce, the Romans' favorite condiment.

In the streets of Pelusium that day, a Jewish soldier patrols – as he always does – while a pair of bare-headed priests of Zeus Kassios walk by. They laugh as they suggest he enjoy some nice pork; he jokes back and tells them he'll share it with them if he can add some onions – for the priests of Zeus Kassios infamously avoid onion and garlic. The soldier walks on, and as he does, he picks up the familiar sounds of Aramaic – not a language he hears too often here in Pelusium, with most speaking Greek or Coptic. The soldier leans against a wall and, perhaps forgetting his better manners, eavesdrops for a while.

The speakers are a man and his wife, traveling with one donkey and a toddler in tow; the donkey loaded with a few parcels of supplies or goods, the toddler clinging to his mother. The pair seem a bit on edge, this Yosef and this Miriam – fleeing trouble in the homeland. Herod's doing, from the sounds of it. The soldier isn't surprised – he knows Herod's reputation, not just as a defender of Jewish rights abroad (though he was that) but as a power-hungry beast desperate to rule 'til death and willing to kill whomever necessary to keep his crown secure from threat, no matter the collateral damage; and these aren't the first fellow-Jews the soldier's seen pass through Pelusium looking for a life beyond Herod's grasp.

From the sounds of it, the soldier thinks, the man and his wife are deliberating where to go next. Do they stay in Pelusium? They could, of course – it's a fine trading town – though without too much of a Jewish cultural life for them, other than a few soldiers guarding the road. So a prolonged stay in Pelusium is probably out. So is Migdol – not much there. They'll have to cross the Nile River Delta, but do they then curve back and head south toward Leontopolis and Memphis? They could stay near Babylon Fortress – it's not far from the Temple of Onias, a religious shrine founded over a hundred years earlier by the overlooked son of a Jerusalem high priest, who packed his bags for Egypt with some friends and settled in. But, they seem to be saying, they aren't too convinced that this second temple is legitimate: There should be only one temple on earth, they say, to bear witness that the Lord our God, the Lord is one. So maybe the land of Onias isn't for them. They're still keeping their mind open about the Babylon Fortress, though – three Roman legions are headquartered there, but there's plenty of work for a Jewish craftsman in the area. Or maybe they'll go further south to Oxyrhynchus, 'city of the sharp-nosed fish,' the third-largest city in all Egypt; they've heard there's a Jewish quarter there, and they're sure they'd fit right in. But on the other hand, they say, there are Jewish enclaves in almost every town in Egypt – they could settle anywhere.

Maybe even, if they feel like migrating west for a couple weeks, they could reach Alexandria, the jewel above all Egypt, where two of the city's five massive districts are majority-Jewish, where synagogues abound through the streets, where the Jewish community was self-governing. They knew already of the Alexandrian Jewish community by reputation – after all, the current high priest in Jerusalem, Herod's father-in-law Simeon ben Boethus, grew up there. For any Jewish travelers, and especially those of means looking to thrive in intellectual and religious luxury, Alexandria was the place to be. As the soldier listened in, the couple didn't seem to make much headway on their deliberations, but they had time – just had to stop in Pelusium for the evening to rest, and figure out the rest on the way, secure in knowing that the prefecture of Gaius Turranius over Alexandria and all Egypt was far, far preferable to the terror of the tyrant Herod.

For his part, I wonder if the father of that family – Joseph – reflected scripturally on what was happening. He'd had to uproot his family in the dead of night from Bethlehem – woke up in a cold sweat after an angelic vision, shook Mary awake, insisted they pack up their things and leave within the hour. No one was happy – not him, not her, not the boy. But they'd crept out in the stillness of night, them and their donkey carrying all they had to survive on: the valuable gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh, more than enough of a financial stockpile to see them through the next year and, when the coast was clear, to buy a lasting home (cf. Matthew 2:13-15).

It was ironic, this trip to Egypt. So many centuries ago – before Josiah, before Hezekiah, before David, before Moses – the children of Israel had gone into Egypt, seeking refuge from a famine in the land of their promise. And who had led the way? Joseph, the son of Jacob the patriarch – the Joseph who rose to grand stature in the kingdom. And now, all these centuries later, Israel's Messiah – that toddler named Jesus, who summed up all Israel's heritage and destiny in himself – was following their footsteps. And who was taking him into Egypt? His mother's husband – also named Joseph, son of Jacob. A fitting turn. And a few hundred years after Joseph led Israel into Egypt, in the days of Moses, Israel made ready in the dark of night – the night of the Passover and the slaughter of Egypt's firstborn – to flee a land of tyranny for a haven of refuge. And just so, Joseph and Mary now had to take Israel's Messiah in the dark of night – a night of slaughter, aimed at their firstborn son – to flee a land of tyranny for a haven of refuge. Only, in olden days, the land of tyranny had been Pharaoh's Egypt, and the haven of refuge had been the Promised Land. Now, the Promised Land itself had become a land of tyranny under Herod's deranged grip – leaving Egypt to offer itself as a haven of refuge for the oppressed yearning to breathe free. What a twist.

Where in Egypt did they settle, Joseph and Mary and the little boy named Jesus? Truth be told, we don't know. They surely had to pass through Pelusium – the main road from Judea into Egypt led there – but they had their share of options. Some traditions name a few places, but other possibilities are likely. Wherever they went, it may not have been for long. No more than a year at most, and maybe only a few months or even less. Herod most likely died the next March or April. Jesus' stay in Egypt, that sandy land of mystery and magic, was not a lengthy one.

And to onlookers, he was an insignificant boy led around by an ordinary Palestinian Jewish family fleeing for refuge in a strange land – another province under the power of the same empire, to be sure, but a strange land nonetheless – seeking a home and a people amidst a dizzying array of bizarre cults and dusty trails. To onlookers, this trio of travelers was a blip on the radar – one more hungry set of foreigners, hardly worth a second glance in a crowded street, hardly worth extra consideration at a booked guesthouse, hardly worth more than they could barter or trade – reduced to their economic value, judged on how poorly or well they fit in, viewed as one more sign of foreign admixture, a reason for native Egyptians not to feel quite at home in their old country anymore.

But in whatever town or city or district they settled, or down whatever street they walked or rode, there's a bold and dazzling truth no Copt or Greek or Roman or even Jew knew. And that truth was this: That, in the guise of a foreign toddler in the arms of a migrant couple searching for refuge, God had come to Egypt. No one in Pelusium or Memphis or Oxyrhynchus or Alexandria or in all the land of Egypt had the foggiest notion that, for however many months these insignificant strangers dwelt in the land, they had physically smuggled God into the country – the God of galaxies and gravity, of avalanches and atoms, actually present in such a way that any Egyptian could tousle God's hair or say to God, “Uh-oh, got your nose!” God had been smuggled, in the flesh, right into the streets and sands of Egypt. And no one was the wiser. No one in Egypt. No one in Rome. And no one in Judea, who assumed that, if you wanted to approach the presence of God on earth, the closest avenue was either the gleaming temple Herod expanded in Jerusalem, wherein the fragrant incense ascended alongside the smoke of many sacrifices, or else in the virtual temple entered by Jews studying scripture's sacred speech. But for that year, or a part of that year, the nearest approach to God wasn't where you'd expect. It was in a land of pagan mystery, among a scarcely noticed family of Jewish foreigners, in the eyes of a little boy.

The prophets had surely hinted. Isaiah had seen: “Behold, the LORD is riding on a swift cloud and comes to Egypt. … In that day there will be five cities in the land of Egypt that speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to the LORD of hosts. … In that day there will be an altar to the LORD in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the LORD at its border..., and the LORD will make himself known to the Egyptians, and the Egyptians will know the LORD in that day and worship with sacrifice and offering, and they will make vows to the LORD and perform them” (Isaiah 19:1-21). And Hosea, reflecting on the story of Israel, sang, “Out of Egypt I have called my son” (Hosea 11:1b).

Still, no one would have expected. For the prophet Jeremiah, return to Egypt was forbidden: “As my anger and my wrath were poured out on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so my wrath will be poured out on you when you go to Egypt: You shall become an execration, a horror, a curse, and a taunt” (Jeremiah 42:18). For the prophet Ezekiel, Egypt was a target of judgment: “I will set fire to Egypt; Pelusium shall be in great agony, Thebes shall be breached, and Memphis shall face enemies by day. … Thus I will execute judgments on Egypt; then they will know that I am the LORD (Ezekiel 30:16-19). And even for the prophet Hosea, returning to Egypt was a punishment for sin – a “going away into destruction” (Hosea 9:6). Who would have expected that Egypt was the place to encounter God? It was, maybe, the unlikeliest place on earth. But in Jesus Christ, we have a God who tends to turn up in unlikely places. The Pharisees would never have guessed it. The scribes would never have guessed it. The priesthood would never have guessed it. Herod would never have guessed it. The Egyptians would never have guessed it. We would never have guessed it. But there he was – God in the flesh, living incognito in Egypt.

God doesn't always turn up where we expect him. Which can be frustrating. Sometimes we tend to assume that his presence is at our beck and call – we follow our religious duties, and he'll turn up in nice, predictable ways, in just the places we've made ready for him, the places we've duly cleaned and padded and reserved for him. He does, sometimes. But not as often as we can delude ourselves into thinking. We can so quickly figure that God will show up when and where we've prepared for him to, when and where we expect him to – and then become dismayed or discouraged when that's not where he is. He isn't always in the likely places.

And God has a penchant for turning up where we don't expect him. Where do we expect to find God? Where do we expect to not? And what do we do when we have those categories nicely delineated and differentiated, and then God goes messing everything up by getting our categories all confused? Maybe one place we seldom expect to meet God is in the dangerous darkness – out in the slick and heart-pounding roads, out in the sudden falls and shadowy valleys. We don't expect to find God when we can't so much as find our own hands and our own feet, after all. But there, as we grope blindly through the mysteries of life, as we spin beyond control and lose our way, we may just unexpectedly trip over God at the midnight of our souls.

Nor do we expect to find God in the midst of our suffering. Oh, when we suffer, we may call out to God, asking him to call us away from our suffering so that we can meet him. But finding God in the suffering – that's a very different thing. Not at all our preference. Diving into the wound, where it's most painful and messy, digging around in the rawness of it all – that's hardly where we expect to find God pitching his tent. And yet, as we face what hurts most, as we reach out and embrace the torment that dogs us, as we stretch for the breath we can't catch and brace ourselves for the hit – well, we hardly expect to find God there, any more than we would have expected to meet him in Egypt. But sometimes, just sometimes, the middle of the suffering, the break in the bone and the gore of the wound, is where he's hidden himself away, waiting incognito in the pain to meet us.

Nor do we expect to find God when we're caught in our shame. Those are the moments we feel furthest from God – when all our hypocrisies are exposed, when all our secrets are laid bare, when we've messed up and made fools of ourselves, when we're embarrassed and humiliated and can't bear to lean into it; when all we want to do is run away and hide. And yet, sometimes, unexpectedly, the closest approach to God is found in open shame – not in our dignity, but when our dignity is ripped away, when we have nothing to hold onto, then, unexpectedly, does God come bounding in, maybe when we feel least ready to see and be seen, but there he is, when we're caught in our shame.

Nor do we expect to find God in bread broken and shared with the hungry and alone. People who are different from us – they may tend to bother us. The language they speak or dialect they use, the habits they've developed, the hygiene they display, the shade of their skin or shape of their features, all the man-made markers that make up the organization of our society. What Egyptian, two thousand years ago, would have thought that, by tearing bread and passing some to an immigrant family from Judea, a man and woman and child, they'd thereby be having fellowship with the Lord God Omnipotent? And today, we seldom figure that, in reaching across the political aisle, God may show up; that, in singing songs with speakers of a language not our own, God may show up; that there may be no closer approach to God than, unexpectedly, by way of fellowship with the poor and poorly, the foreign and forlorn and forgotten, the hurting and heartbroken and homeless, as with brothers and sisters and beloved neighbors. We have all sorts of excuses – the fear, the distaste, the unpleasantness, the risk – all pointing, at root, to our lack of expectation of finding God in those encounters. And yet, for all our excuses, there might God be found where we least expect him – and more's the pity when we miss the meeting.

No, God doesn't always show up where we expect him, where we've made ready for him. Sometimes, God is best found in the unlikely places, where we least expect. Even Egypt. Even the inner city. Even the trailer park and the country hills. Even the graveyard and the hospice. Even the homeless shelter and the storefront. Even the crevices of a struggling soul beneath the skin-thin self-sufficiency we all wear. What will you do to avoid passing God by when he's so unexpected you don't recognize him? What will you do when he surprises you in a place you didn't think he'd go? For he's a God who ventures to unlikely places. Don't miss him. Meet him, not where you'd like him to be, not where you feel comfortable keeping him, but where he is. Amen.

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