Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Out of Egypt, Not Yet Home - Advent Meditation

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
-Matthew 2:13–15

There should be a sojourning quality to the Christian life. A sense in which we are foreigners. Peter puts it like this: “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.” (1 Peter 2:11) You hear it in the old spirituals and folk songs. “I'm just a poor, wayfarin' stranger.” “This world is not my home.”

Of course, there is a mistaken way to take all of that. There are those who think “this world” refers to the planet earth. That heaven stands in relationship to our world essentially the way Alpha Centauri does. That Christians are destined to blast off to some other place for all eternity. That is not what Scripture teaches – our hope is the restoration of creation and the resurrection of the body here on this planet.

But there is also a deep truth to it. “This world” is more than just terra firma. It is a society, a city with values and priorities and systems that are alien to the kingdom of heaven. It is not that we are bound for another planet, but it is that we are from another city. We should be, in a sense, as foreign and uncomfortable in this world's systems as someone from Alpha Centauri would be.

Jesus grew up in Africa. Sometimes we miss that in how we tell the story, but He was an immigrant and refugee in His youth. His first human memories were probably of the Nile and the desert sands. He was a sojourner in that sense.

What's more, that time in Egypt called back to another story of sojourning. Matthew calls back to this story in verse 15 - “Out of Egypt I called my son.” These words would first have been understood as being about Israel and their deliverance from Egyptian slavery.

Israel's identity as sojourners, both in Egypt and in the wilderness, is taken throughout Scripture as a lesson about how we should live in the world. It should shape our ethics: “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21) More than that, though, it is about our current state. “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me.” (Leviticus 25:23) Not just that you were strangers, but that you are.

Those immigrant days in Egypt were not just an interlude in Jesus's life. They were the character of the whole of it. He lived in Nazareth and Judea just as He had lived in Egypt, just as Israel was called to live – a stranger of another world, serving and loving this one but never confusing it with His home. A messenger from the world to come. An emissary of heaven's kingdom in the kingdom of this age. That was how He lived and died, and it is how we are called to live and die as well.

This is not our home. Our home is coming, and it will come, and then we will be able to settle and have rest. For now, though, we are all expatriots as we follow Jesus in His sojourning way. Our citizenship is in heaven, and though we serve and love this one, we must never confuse it with that place. We must never make this our final dwelling, lest when that great Stranger returns with His kingdom in His train, we find that we perish along with the powers of this perishing age.

Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,
Now leaves His well-belov'd imprisonment,
There He hath made Himself to His intent
Weak enough, now into the world to come;
But O, for thee, for Him, hath the inn no room?
Yet lay Him in this stall, and from the Orient,
Stars and wise men will travel to prevent
The effect of Herod's jealous general doom.
Seest thou, my soul, with thy faith's eyes, how He
Which fills all place, yet none holds Him, doth lie?
Was not His pity towards thee wondrous high,
That would have need to be pitied by thee?
Kiss Him, and with Him into Egypt go,
With His kind mother, who partakes thy woe.
-John Donne, Nativity

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