In the Middle of the Night

 In Telling a Better Story

December 22, 2020

By: Joel Tooley

It sounded like a door closing loudly. Or was it the neighbor’s dog barking? Maybe it was the teenager across the street coming home late with his loud pickup truck in the middle of an otherwise very quiet night – whatever it was, it startled me awake. My heart immediately began to pound. Was someone in the house!? Did I remember to lock the door!?

Can you imagine being awakened in the middle of the night by an angelic being, warning you to get up and leave immediately? Matthew’s Gospel tells us, “…an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, 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.” (Matthew 2:13 NRSV)

For Mary, Joseph and Jesus the Christ child, the scene didn’t end with the dad getting up to make sure all the doors were locked and returning to the comfort of a bed for a good night’s sleep. For this family from the Middle East, it meant them gathering whatever essentials they could and quickly leaving in the dark of night – not knowing when or if they would return nor whether or not whoever was hunting them would find them.

Too often, we have a sanitized picture of the Holy family traveling quietly on a weighted-down donkey under the peaceful tranquility of a star-lit sky. The stories I hear from friends in refugee camps and awaiting permission to request asylum along the USA/Mexico border don’t leave me with the Hallmark-card image we often see.

The Bible doesn’t give us a lot of details about the psychological impact of this experience on Joseph and Mary, but we unfortunately have millions of people who have had similar fleeing experiences today from whom we can gather stories. The trauma experienced by refugees is unimaginable. The losses they have experienced, the tragedies they’ve witnessed and the heartbreak they have endured are impossible to adequately describe. I can’t help but believe that while God-in-the-flesh was physically present on this refugee journey, the weight carried by parents of a young child having to run for their lives had to have been daunting.

It was December 2019, when three of my children and I visited the UNHCR refugee camp outside of Belgrade, Serbia where men, women, and children from the Middle East are finding refuge while they await their applications for asylum in yet another foreign land to be adjudicated. We met a woman and her children who had fled Afghanistan after her husband had been hunted by the Taliban. Having fled in the middle of the night, this overwhelmed widow-mother gathered a handful of family heirlooms, photos and items of value that she could sell to survive.

With the US government’s drastic disassembly of the refugee resettlement program since 2016, I have found myself wondering each year during Advent and then during Christmastide, “what would have happened to the Holy family had they been unable to cross into another nation for safety and refuge?”

The Lord has a special call upon believers in these days – to plead the case of the foreigner; to provide care for those who are displaced.  While so much of the time we feel our hands might be tied by the restrictions of movement placed on refugees by the world’s governments, there are still ways we can care for those who have found themselves in the situation of Mary, Joseph and the Christ child.

In the days to come, we have hope that the US government will soon open the door to resettling securely vetted refugees into our neighborhoods throughout this nation. Let us join together to pray for those who are on the journey and let us strategically prepare for ways we can support them when and after they arrive.

“An argument arose among them as to which one of them was the greatest. But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side, and said to them, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.” – Luke 9:46-48 NRSV

Joel Tooley is the Lead Pastor of First Church of the Nazarene in Melbourne, Florida. He is an immigration advocate and also serves as the Executive Director of Mosaic Compassion, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing care and support for vulnerable populations through education, advocacy and awareness, and community development.

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