The Rev. Helen Havlik
2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
January 19, 2020
Our focus in January and February is discipleship. We can be disciples of anyone, really—some people or groups who attract followers on Facebook or Twitter are worthy of “following.” But no one is more worth following than Jesus himself. Becoming his disciple, following him, learning from him changes our lives because we find out who we are and how to live here and now. In our gospel reading this morning, we’re back in Bethlehem. The wise men have come and they and Joseph are warned in dreams to get out of town fast—King Herod is not happy. I’m reading from Matthew, Ch. 2, beginning with vs. 16. Listen to God’s holy word.
It wasn’t their choice—not this time—but when a dictator says “jump,” you say “how high”? And so with the rest of their extended family, they packed up their belongings for the long trek ahead of them. Who knew what they would find along the way? That particular road wound through desert and was known for thieves who preyed on travelers. So it was good they wouldn’t be alone. The women and children would walk in the center of the group while the men led donkeys that pulled carts of household goods and personal items needed for several weeks on the road. The trip would take awhile and they needed to be prepared for long stretches of camping out where there were no inns to offer hospitality.
All of this was made even harder because she was pregnant—the baby would be born soon, maybe even along the way. She was naturally worried—to be far away from her own house, her own bed that her husband had made with his own hands when they were married. Their house wasn’t fancy, but she kept the two rooms clean and tidy. She was preparing now for the baby, spinning thread and weaving cloth for blankets and clothes. Her husband already made the cradle, beautiful with lovely carving. They left that behind, though—no room for it. When they returned it would be waiting for the baby. If they returned. When a dictator says “jump,” you say “how high”?
So skip ahead a year or two. The baby—a boy—is nearly two. The family hasn’t returned home. They’ve settled in a new place, with new opportunities, new life, even a new cradle. Some of the family members have headed elsewhere, but this new place is now home. Well, not quite. It’s a bigger town than they’re used to but at least it’s not the city, where government people and soldiers are everywhere. She’s homesick, but she hides it from her husband, not wanting him to fuss over her. The baby is growing up so fast—he toddles with her to the town well for water, he watches her intently as she cooks dinner. In fact, he seems to watch everyone, his bright black eyes curious about everything he sees around him. She often wonders what he’s thinking—he has some words but not enough yet to be able to tell her. Her love overwhelms her at times—yes, she’s homesick, but it’s worth it to her that her family is safe here and her husband has work and her baby has a new cradle, maybe even better than the one they left behind.
Jump ahead a few months and the family is uprooted again—now running for their lives. If a dictator says “jump,” do you really have to say, “how high”? They missed the worst of it—soldiers invading their neighbors’ homes, ripping babies from their mothers’ arms. Unspeakable horror. Crying children, crying mothers—they heard it all from some others they met on this new road. They escaped by inches, it seems. If they can make it to the border, they’ll be safe, her husband says. She trusts him. She’s heard stories about others who have found safety on the other side. Most of the time, at least, they have the reputation for welcoming strangers in need. Some stories have given her pause—how people were treated badly, but her husband says they’ll stay away from cities. People in the countryside will help them. He’ll work. She’ll take care of the baby who’s almost not a baby anymore. Someone will show them kindness. It will be worth it, he says to her to ease her fear.
By all accounts, Herod the Great was a monster. He was greedy and paranoid and insecure and would do just about anything to stay in power, even murdering his own wife, his mother-in-law and three of his sons. So when wise men came to him to ask about a strange star they had seen in the sky, his ears perked up and he instantly saw yet another challenge to his throne. Those wise men really were wise to go home by another road after they’d found the child they were looking for. It’s quite likely that Jesus was a toddler by that time. That Mary and Joseph had stayed in Bethlehem rather than immediately head back to Galilee from Bethlehem. Joseph’s carpenter skills were portable—he could support them while their little guy could grow up enough to be ready to travel home. But Herod asked his own “wise men” what they thought of the story of a baby born King of the Jews—a competitor? And a king who would kill his own flesh and blood? Well, anything was on the table.
So when Joseph had another dream that warned them Herod was seeking the rival king, he did as the Israelites had done centuries before and hightailed it out of Bethlehem. It was Passover in reverse. Unlike the Israelites who escaped from Egypt and ended up in the Promised Land, he and Mary ran to back to Egypt, literally becoming refugees and sacrificing yet again their peace and prosperity to serve and protect this child. I imagine their hearts pounding for weeks and months, as they waited for some official to come knocking on their door, to take their son, to separate them from their sacred calling as parents of this special child.
I don’t pretend to know or understand the kinds of sacrifices parents make for their children. Or the kinds of sacrifices so many people over the many centuries since Joseph and Mary fled into Egypt, before anyone was called a disciple of Jesus, have made to follow and serve him. I’ve been asked to sacrifice very little for my faith: I have a home, I have family, I have the freedom to follow anyone I choose and I choose Jesus. I weep at what Herod still does to the innocent ones. Because Herod still sends his minions to do his dirty work and Rachel still wails buckets of tears. Freedom isn’t free—and neither is faith. Neither is discipleship—it costs us something to follow Jesus—and the question for us is the same as it was for Mary and Joseph. What’s it worth to you? What are you willing to give him? What are you willing to sacrifice for him?
When Mary said yes to Gabriel and Joseph started listening to angels, did they know what they were getting into? Of course not. But that’s the thing about faith asking something from us—usually our time along with our treasure. It rarely comes all at once. It’s a dollar for the Souper Bowl soup pot. Then something for One Great Hour of Sharing. Then a pledge at the beginning of the year—and then deciding how to respond to the requests that start coming at us. Once you and I say “yes” to God—or Jesus—or an angel—or someone who needs us, the chances to serve come. Madeleine L’Engle says, “We are all asked to do more than we can do. Every hero and heroine of the Bible does more than he or she would have thought possible to do, from Gideon to Esther to Mary.” Living our discipleship is on-going, asking us to decide again and again what it’s worth to us.