When [Herod] had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law he asked them where the Christ was to be born.
So [Joseph] got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt… –Matthew 2:4, 14.
My father arrived in Canada in 1924 as part of a group of Mennonites fleeing the Russian Revolution. Picture the scene: a trainload of Mennonites has arrived after a journey from Russia to the farming settlements that earlier waves of Mennonites had created in Saskatchewan. The just-arrived Mennonites have been brought into a church building to be distributed among the congregation members who will provide temporary accommodation.
One of the Saskatchewan farmers elbows his way to the front and declares, “I want the family nobody wants.”
These farmers are prepared to be generous to their brothers and sisters from Russia, but something else is involved. So, what is the kind of family everyone wants?
It’s a labour-intensive farm economy. Everyone in the congregation wants to receive a family with young, strong parents who can work hard to earn their keep. It helps if they have a few husky teenage sons who can pitch in, maybe daughters to work in the kitchen.
My father’s family isn’t that family. It’s the family nobody wants. My grandparents are comparatively old, and my father is all of ten years old – and his younger brother, six. Not much work from them.
But here’s this farmer publicly proclaiming that he is willing to help people in more need than most. As a result of his selfless generosity, my father’s family has a start in their new home.
Nearly a century later, I’m part of a church congregation in Toronto that recently decided to participate in the Canadian government’s “private sponsorship” program for refugees from the Syrian conflict. The federal government offers refugee sponsors their choice of two kinds of family – which might be called “regular” and “surprise.” The families assessed by Canadian Embassy staff as “regular” have good health and mobility. “Surprise” families could be almost anything – perhaps including a member who had a leg blown off by a landmine, maybe someone who relies on a wheelchair, or is completely immobile. We wouldn’t know what the “surprise” is until we’ve met the family we’ve committed to support.
Our church’s steering committee thought it through, and decided that since we’re a large congregation with plenty of medical and social professionals, we’d opt for a “surprise” family. The family that nobody wants. And it turned out that in the family we sponsored, the “surprise” was a baby with a heart defect that would likely kill him. We took baby Yameen to Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, which is one of the leading pediatric hospitals in the country. The doctors examined Yameen, and in a six-hour operation, corrected the defect. Yameen is now thriving.
God in Christ came into the world as a vulnerable, endangered baby. Mary gave birth to Jesus away from home—in a stable—and laid him in a manger. Magi travelling from the East visited Jesus and worshipped him. On their way back to their country, they changed their route to avoid an encounter with King Herod and his men. Herod heard of the birth of the ‘King of the Jews’ and received the news with fear — afraid that he would lose his ruling power. He ordered a search for Jesus, and to kill him. To stay alive, Joseph escaped to Egypt with Mary and Jesus and stayed there until it was safe for them to return. Having been warned again in a dream, Joseph eventually settled in Galilee.
The Christmas story tells us of the vulnerability of Jesus’ entry into the world. God in Christ offered his life to us as a sacrificial gift that we may enter into a new life in him. Jesus came to be with the poor and needy, including those that carry a “surprise” such as a disability, contagious disease, or different ethnicity—and worked to make them whole.
The Christmas story also tells us of the sacrificial response of those who protected and cared for Jesus. Unlike Herod who saw Jesus’ arrival as a threat and was determined to get rid of him, the magi (from a foreign country), the shepherds (who were plain and simple), Joseph (a stepfather), and Mary (who carried and delivered the Son of God) received Jesus with generous hearts in the midst of their own vulnerability.
This Christmas, how can we show God’s gift of himself to those whom nobody wants?
God our Father, thank you for sending your Son, Jesus, to be with us. Just as you showed your powerful love for us in vulnerability, teach us to face up to our own as we share our lives with the least among us. There are millions of refugees in the world today, and many have come to live in our neighbourhoods. By your Spirit, move us to enter into their lives and, in generous love, work for their care and protection. In the name of Jesus, we pray. Amen.