It comes as a shock after the stories of Christmas – the birth of a child, the arrival of shepherds and the promises of peace on earth.
It’s a story about a man and a woman with their young child.
It’s a story about their flight from danger and persecution to safety in a foreign country.
It’s a story about a brutal and oppressive regime which seeks to destroy anyone who threatens it.
And it’s a story that could be told in any century from the earliest days of history to the news bulletins of today.
So when we think about Mary and Joseph seeking asylum in Egypt we’re also thinking about men, women and children in our world today. And those thoughts are not all that comfortable
Egypt was a different place at different times of Jewish history.
For Joseph, son of Jacob, Egypt’s a place of suffering and hardship. He’s taken there as a slave although later becomes Pharaoh’s “Chief of Staff” and is responsible for guiding Egypt through a time of plenty so that when famine comes there’s provision for all.
And Egypt then becomes a haven for Jacob and his family in a time of need. They come to Egypt and thanks to Joseph, they are given food and their own land, they’re allowed to live in freedom and to practice their faith without interference.
But time passes and things change. A new king comes to the throne of Egypt. To him the Jews are a threat, an ethnic minority in his land who he can’t trust. They might ally themselves with an enemy to plot against him, they’re different and must be kept in their place.
Egypt again becomes a place of oppression and injustice for the Jews who now long to be freed from slavery and from the land that once welcomed them.
By the time of our Gospel story Egypt has once again become a place of refuge for Jews escaping from persecution and oppression, this time from their own King, Herod, and also from the Roman occupiers of their land. It’s the natural place for Joseph to take his family when he senses danger in Israel.
Egypt was a different place at different times and we still have those different places in our world today. We have nations which are places of injustice and oppression and nations which are places of safety, tolerance and freedom of faith.
We have a responsibility for the sort of nation we live in. We can be oppressive, hostile to newcomers and ethnic minorities and intolerant of racial and religious differences.
Or we can be a nation that offers asylum to refugees – those whose lives are in danger in their own country. We can be a nation that allows those people freedom to choose where and how they live and how they practice their religion, whatever that is.
On a more personal level we have a responsibility as a church and as individuals for the way we treat people who are strangers and different from us.
The king of Egypt and Herod acted as they did because they felt threatened by the presence of a people or by the birth of one child. They reacted to that perceived threat by abusing the power they held and seeking to crush or kill their supposed enemy.
If we’re willing to accept people who are different from us and the changes they might bring with them, if we are prepared to make changes necessary in order to accommodate then we will be welcoming them into fellowship with us, inviting them to join us on our faith journey and providing a refuge and support for people hurt by the world they live in. Surely that is our call as God’s people.
And, finally, a thought about where we are in our journey.
We might be in a place of safety and freedom. Perhaps we’ve just reached it after a long journey through a wilderness of need and it’s good to be in the place to which God has guided us. That’s something to celebrate and enjoy.
Or we might be in a place where we feel stuck and oppressed. Just because it was once right to be in a certain place, a certain house, job or even church, doesn’t necessarily mean that that is where God wants us to stay for ever.
Maybe there’s nothing wrong with where we are – there’s no indication that Mary and Joseph started to feel threatened in Egypt – it was just that the time had come when they could move back to their own country.
We need to watch and listen for signs of God nudging us on to a new stage, to make changes in our lives so that we grow in maturity and faith.
Wherever we are and wherever we travel God himself will be with us, knowing first hand what it is to experience all that life can bring us. And we have his promise that if we believe and trust in him, he himself will be alongside us through all the changing scenes of life, in trouble and in joy.