All over the world people are on the move: students, soldiers, pilgrims, refugees, tourists, entrepreneurs, scholars, vacationers, explorers, emigrants, diplomats, even thieves! The new year begins with millions of people away from home.
Which is the way it has always been, as the Bible so clearly describes.
Abraham was neither the first nor the last to leave home looking for a better place, a different place, even a familiar place. Jacob and Joseph ended up in Egypt, and years later, their descendants left their home on the delta and struck out for a promised land.
Hannah was away from home when she prayed in the temple. Naomi was away from home when she met Ruth. Esther was away from home when she interceded on behalf of her people.
David was away from home when he slung that stone into the forehead of the giant. And he was away from home again when he escaped the wrath of Saul and composed the first of his many songs. Ezra was away from home when he received royal permission to travel to Jerusalem, and Nehemiah was, we might say, between homes that night when he walked around the dilapidated walls of Jerusalem.
John was away from home preaching in the wilderness, and Jesus was away from home when John baptized him. Mary was away from home as she watched Jesus die, and the other Mary was away from home when he met the Risen Lord in the garden. And thousands of Jews were away from home when they heard the sound of a rushing wind and listened to the testimony of the apostles.
Saul was doubly away from home: from Tarsus and from Jerusalem, on the road to Damascus. Aquila and Priscilla were away from home when they heard and believed the gospel, and the same could be said for the imprisoned Philemon. Phoebe was away from home as she handed the famous letter to the Romans, and John was certainly away from home when he saw the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Is there any story of significance recorded in the Bible that occurred to somebody at home? Not many, if any at all.
I learned this lesson years ago when the pastor search committee from Pittsburgh bemoaned the ability of their transplant-heavy congregation to reach indigenous people in and around the three rivers; and because I needed a job and felt called to that great city, I promised them I could lead them to do that. But within weeks my conversion had begun.
It was a transformation of my awareness of, and appreciation for, the transplanted person, the person on the move, the person away from home. Almost all of the people in the congregation had come to Pittsburgh to work in the great corporations: Alcoa, U. S. Steel, Westinghouse, KDKA, H. J. Heinz, Gulf Oil, and even the Pittsburgh Steelers.
And learning their stories of relocation opened my eyes to the stories in the Bible, summarized above. The biblical narrative is one of people on the move, away from home, looking, leaving, or fleeing.
Which is the way I now read not just the Bible from cover to cover but especially these stories of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. Was anybody at home? Not Joseph and Mary. Not the astrologers from what we now call Iraq. Not even the angels, sent from heaven to announce the good news. And the shepherds are always away from home, roaming the hill country of Israel looking to feed their sheep.
At the center of the Story is the coming of God, leaving the somewhere we call eternity to come here, to this good earth, taking up residence in mighty and mysterious ways in the person of Jesus born to a mother away from home. And then, they were all on the road again, not as dutiful citizens of the Empire but as fearful refugees from an order so violent, so vicious as to make it sound modern.
Which is why, much later, Jesus commanded his people to welcome strangers; and why his people embraced this basic rule of life on planet earth: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
And that “strangers” category surely includes students, soldiers, pilgrims, refugees, tourists, entrepreneurs, vacationers, scholars, explorers, emigrants, diplomats, and perhaps even thieves, especially those with names like Jean Valjean!
“I’ll be home for Christmas” may be the promise some people make to others but it is not the word that come to us from any page of the Bible nor from very many of our own narratives that really matter.