Strangers in a Strange Land

Strangers in a Strange Land

by Ralph Kinney Bennett, Reader’s Digest, August 1997

In China’s Henan Province, 36 year-old Zhang Xiuju was dragged from her home one night by police. When the police returned her lifeless, battered body, they claimed Xiuju had died accidentally when she jumped from a car.

In Pakistan, Munir Khokher was wounded by a gunshot when he tried to stop the destruction of a Christian cemetery by Muslim mobs.

In Bangladesh, when Marzina Begum and her family would not celebrate a Muslim holiday, the villagers beat her husband, breaking his leg.

You haven’t heard of these people. They are but drops of water in a vast sea of victims – men, women and children who have been tortured, imprisoned and executed. Their crime? They are Christians.
Being a Christian is easy, isn’t it. All we have to do is show up for church once a week and try to live the rest of the days so that we don’t offend anyone. Once a year, at Christmas, we have the opportunity to have a big blow out celebration of indulgence under the pretence of a religious observance, At Easter we act sombre (when we’re not looking for the Easter Bunny) and perhaps remember for a moment the cost to our Saviour of His dedication to us and our future.

We dutifully read the story of a young mother and a baby, living in poor circumstances, but really all right for the most part. We know that Jesus came to save us from our sins and we remember his death at Easter time. We even say that we want to live our lives as Jesus would have us do, using His life as an example, but do we always mean it? At this time of year, when we celebrate Jesus’ birth, perhaps we should take the opportunity to realise that the cost to Him started almost as soon as He was born.
Matthew 2:13 – 23 (NIV)
13When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
14So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt,
15where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”£
16When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.
17Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”
19After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt
20and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”
21So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel.
22But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee,
23and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: “He will be called a Nazarene.”
Jesus was a refugee
Jesus was a refugee, a stranger in a strange land in many more ways than one. His first forced trip from home was when He was a toddler of about two years old. Before we go too far, however, let’s have a look at what a refugee is. We hear the term in the news all the time, but do we really understand it?
The word refugee is derived from the French réfugié meaning “gone in search of refuge”

Who is a refugee?

According to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee is a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”
Definition of a refugee (Concise OED)
[A refugee is] a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.

I want you to take special notice of the word “persecution” in this definition. For that is how the term refugee will apply to Christians; that is how so many of us will be turned into refugees of one sort or another throughout this world, and how Jesus’ own life started.

The modern usage of the word refugee has been extended to mean those who may displaced for these same reasons within their own country. Jesus was, at different times, a refugee both within his own country, and in other countries.

Herod the Great, the king at the time of Jesus’ birth, was an extremely cruel man, a king of Judah who was not even a Jew. He was an Edomite placed in power by the Romans. He was known for killing anyone who got in his way or could get in his way, even his own children. By the time the wise men arrived at his door, Herod had already killed two of his own sons and would kill another within 5 days of his own death. At the time Jesus was born, Herod was about 70 years old and already had a well-developed reputation for cruelty. The Jewish historian Josephus records many of Herod’s vile exploits in his work Antiquities of the Jews.

When the wise men from the east, who were most likely Arabic philosophers, arrived at Herod’s door looking for the new King of the Jews, he sensed a competitor and, in true Herod fashion, immediately began to plan for His elimination. Doesn’t this sound similar to what might happen in some place like Iraq? Tyrants like Saddam Hussein these days, are not dissimilar to Herod.

Iraqi Christian Refugees Are Detained in Mexico
Advocates say it’s result of anti-Arab sentiment
By Letta Tayler

September 22, 2001
Mexico City – The 96 refugees had been waiting at the Mexican border in Tijuana for permission to immigrate to the United States, where their small Christian community can worship without the religious persecution they faced in their homeland.

But they are Arabs from Iraq, one of the nations that the United States is investigating for possible links to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Iraq: About one million Christian Assyrians (Orthodox ) and Chaldeans (Catholics) live in Iraq. Most of the Christians are concentrated in the north. The Assyro-Chaldeans are submitted to cultural and political repression.

Iran: Five hundred thousand Armenians, Protestants, and Assyrians live in constant fear under the Islamic Republic of Iran. Christian spiritual leaders are executed by the government.

Men who obtain and keep power the way Herod did will always be with us, and they will always behave the same way – viciously, violently, and without consideration for anyone but themselves. The degree to which they behave this way is limited only by the degree of their power.

Something that is even stranger in this story is the content of verse 3 of this chapter that says “When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.” The people of Jerusalem knew what kind of a cruel person Herod was, and as Jews they supposedly eagerly awaited the arrival of the Messiah. Yet they would rather have this vile king rule over them, than acknowledge a newcomer. Such is often the case in our day-to-day lives. Matthew Henry comments on this point when he notes “The slavery of sin is foolishly preferred by many to the glorious liberty of the children of God, only because they apprehend some present difficulties attending that necessary revolution of the government in the soul.” People are prepared to live with their sin because it is familiar. They are afraid of the changes that come with reforming their behaviour. People are no different now than they were two thousand years ago.

The wise men truly recognised Jesus as God. This seems fairly obvious by the fact that they brought gifts, fell down, and worshipped him. We see no evidence of such behaviour when they visited Herod. They knew he was not the king they sought. It seems very strange that Herod and the Jews could not see the signs and realise the fulfilment of their own prophecies while others from abroad could see it clearly.

At any rate, the persecution of Christians, and the need for them to seek refuge away from their homes, began with Christ himself. Herod was a devious old villain and managed to extract information from the eastern wise men about where and when Jesus was born, confirmed by his own sages. He obtained this information under the pretence of wishing to worship this new king himself, knowing all the while that his intent was to kill off any possible opposition. He did not stop to think that he was seventy years old and this new king was but two. Even were Jesus an earthly king, it is not likely that he would have posed much of a threat to Herod himself. We can also assume that Herod was not particularly interested in keeping the kingdom for his own sons as he had already shown an alarming tendency to kill them off. He inquired diligently of the wise men exactly when they had first seen the star and then lied to them, telling them he wanted to worship as well.

What Herod failed to realise was that Jesus was not interested in his earthly kingdom. He could have taken it if He wanted; indeed, Jesus is God, He could have anything in the universe His heart desired. Why would Jesus even want to rule a little backwater like Judea? Jesus was the Messiah and, in trying to confront Him, Herod was declaring war on God, something I am sure we all agree is extremely foolish and dangerous. Herod didn’t have a chance of winning.

So we know now that Jesus could not lose this battle. He would always be one step ahead of Herod because He had inside information. God already knew everything that Herod was going to do and could warn Joseph ahead of time. He also saved the wise men and thwarted Herod’s plans by warning the wise men not to go back to the king. It is not surprising that the wise men would heed this advice. They had already shown that they deserved the title “wise” since they had come to find Jesus in the first place.

Of course Herod was furious when he found out he had failed in his attempt to find Jesus. As with all bullies and tyrants, he reverted to his normal behaviour – viciousness. He knew that Jesus had been born sometime in the last two years in Bethlehem so, not content to hunt for the child himself, and showing how unconcerned he was for any life other than his own, he ordered every boy two years or younger to be slaughtered. He ordered this killing not only in Bethlehem, where he knew the child to have been born, but in all the surrounding area as well. He was concerned only for his own power, even when he had to know that, at his age, this child could not possibly be a direct threat to him.

What kind of person could slaughter possibly hundreds of baby boys? What kind of person could train children to be cannon fodder in war and to believe that strapping bombs to their bodies could serve a higher purpose? What kind of person could attempt to force others to relinquish their beliefs or die? Herod, though he died two thousand years ago, has had his types alive throughout history and in our world today.
Accurate hindsight is a great thing to have. We know that it was not Jesus’ time to die and for that reason we know that he would have to escape this persecution. Angels are great creatures to have on your side.

A little inside information to Joseph, and a lot of obedience on his part, and Jesus and His family were off to Egypt – refugees from religious persecution, as are many people today. Joseph had no idea what Herod’s plans were, nor did he have any idea where he should go, yet he believed in what the angel told him in a dream, and obeyed.

By the way, Joseph doesn’t get a lot of credit in this whole story. Of course we worship Jesus, as we should. Mary gets credit for obeying God and agreeing to mother Jesus. Some of our Christian denominations even seem to place her on almost the same level as Jesus. However, Joseph just sort of hangs out in the background. We should remember that is was Joseph who probably had to endure the ridicule of marrying a woman who was already pregnant, a situation much more serious then than now in most of our societies. It was also Joseph who listened to the angel and took Jesus and Mary to Egypt when there would likely have been other places he would have preferred.

The next question that might arise is this: Why in the world would God instruct Joseph to take his family to Egypt. I’m sure that at that time Egypt was still not a country that evoked pleasant memories for the Jews. However, it was a Roman province, so probably a bit safer than some barbarous country, and it was outside of Herod’s control. Reviled though it probably was, we must remember that, and I quote Matthew Henry again, “God, when he pleases, can make the worst of places serve the best of purposes; for the earth is the Lord’s, He makes what use He pleases of it.” We can be sure that no matter what the circumstances were in Egypt, God provided for Joseph’s family. Even the visit of the wise men was fortuitous, for one of their gifts was gold and this would have been most useful for a refugee family on the run.

Shortly after this, Herod died, and what a death. Josephus tells us that Herod died in a most painful and horrible way. Such is the end of those who choose to go against God and His own. Even those who may not die a horrible physical death will be dealt with afterward.

Jesus’ entire flight with His family was orchestrated by God. Joseph had been told to stay in Egypt until God said the family could leave, and he obeyed. God did not reveal His entire plan to Joseph at one time. I think He knows that the human mind can only absorb so much at one time. As with so many things that God does not show us all at once, He reveals only that which we can handle at one time.

Even on His return to His own country, Jesus remained a refugee. The family could not return to the home they had made for themselves in Bethlehem because that area of the country was ruled by Herod’s son Archelaus who was just as evil as his father. Just because we get rid of one enemy in our lives, we can be certain that another will always rise up. We need God’s protection at all times. Joseph was directed by the angel to take the family to Nazareth, from whence he and Mary had gone to Bethlehem originally. This area of the country, Galilee, was ruled by another, gentler son of Herod’s called Philip. In this area Jesus could grow to adulthood safely, to complete His work on this earth. Having to move back to Nazareth may have come as a surprise to Joseph, but it wasn’t to God. This move was a fulfilment of prophecy given many years before.

We can say, “Yes, I agree that Jesus was a refugee for a time when He was young, but He grew up and undertook His ministry without being sent away.” However, if we look at the scriptures later on, we can see that Jesus was a refugee throughout His ministry as well.

Matthew 8:19 – 20 (NIV)
19Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.”
20Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
This was the cost outlined by Jesus to those who wished to follow Him. Even within his own country, Jesus was without a home, always on the move, always persecuted by those in power. He made them afraid because he threatened their position in the community. Those who live by power cannot stand to have anyone threaten that power. The chief priests and other powerful members of the Jewish community did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah, yet still they feared Him and His power. For that reason, He would always be persecuted in His own country.

But surely Jesus would be safe at home, you say. Surely He could return to Nazareth and give them His message, to have it received well. Unfortunately, that was not the case.

Matthew 13:54 – 58 (NIV)
54Coming to his hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” they asked.
55“Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas?
56Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?”
57And they took offense at him.
But Jesus said to them, “Only in his hometown and in his own house is a prophet without honor.”
58And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.
Luke provides a much more dramatic account of Jesus’ reception in Nazareth, showing how even the home-town folks can reject you.
Luke 4:16 – 30 (NIV)
16He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read.
17The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him,
21and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.
23Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself! Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”
24“I tell you the truth,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown.
25I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land.
26Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon.
27And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”
28All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this.
29They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff.
30But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.
It seems that someone with an important message has the potential for rejection and persecution wherever he goes. Certainly Jesus was persecuted and sent on His way, a refugee, throughout His entire life.

All Christians are Refugees
Knowing of Jesus fate and His persecution is important to us historically, but does it affect our lives today?

Lebanon: Christians in the north and central parts have been systematically, politically and socially oppressed since the war has ended. Hundreds have been arrested, tortured, and jailed by pro-Syrian forces. In the south of Lebanon, thousands of Christians are bombarded constantly by Hezbollah.

Egypt: Dozens of Christian villages are routinely attacked by Islamic fundamentalists. For example, in the village of Manshiet Nassr in Upper Egypt, dozens have been killed or injured.

Sudan: South Sudanese Christians are being killed by the Islamic fundamentalist forces of Khartoum. Entire villages are being destroyed by the Islamist government of the north.

Mon, 24 Jul 2000 name deleted
Yesterday a pastor from Ambon came to the office. He shared his experiences in destruction of the Poka area of Ambon, the escape with his children including an eleven month old baby in heavy rain and high seas, and news of the thousands living in the mountains. His baby was soaking wet for hours from the rain and sea. When they reached the other side of the bay they heated a little water and rubbed the water on the baby to warm it. The baby has lost three kilos in the last week and was sick this morning.

There are thousands of people trying to keep dry and warm under trees and sheets of plastic. They are running out of food and getting food is difficult. We are trying to get help by buying food but we haven’t been able to send money to Ambon for the past week.

The following report reveals that heavy automatic weapons and large size mortars being used by the military against Christians. The pastor reported the use of lethal gas!!

These people are experiencing true persecution; they are refugees in the purest sense of the word. Their homes are gone and their lives are in danger, only because they are Christian. Unfortunately, there are many other stories told, and I’m sure untold, of people in these types of situations, harassed and attacked purely because they choose to follow Christ. Perhaps some of you have experienced this degree of persecution. I have not and for that I am truly thankful.

To different degrees we live comfortable lives, certainly struggling sometimes to make a living, but not often suffering any real persecution for our faith. Certainly our liberties to worship and convey the Christian message to others in this country are cut back somewhat, but as long as we stay within the boundaries set by the government here, we are not in much trouble. However, persecution and displacement for our faith is not far from where we are. Try to witness to your Muslim boss and see what might happen here. Countries near here, such as Iraq and Iran, were more open to other faiths at one time, but a mere change in government can turn Christians into refugees.

Persecution is not always so serious as this, yet can still exist. To be a devout Christian will often result in rejection and lack of advancement in the workplace. It may not be overt, but it can make going to work somewhat unpleasant. Certainly, in the West, being a devout Christian at work will most certainly result in a great deal of mockery. Practices of any religion in the world are seemingly protected against discrimination while any attempt to promote Christian values, practices, and traditions is seen as an effort to force people to adopt our way of life. Our so-called Christian countries of the West are rapidly becoming anti-Christian. One has to wonder how long it might be before open discrimination against Christians might begin.

How then should we live?
Among the favourite products in Christian bookstores in Canada are small trinkets (bracelets, key chains, paperweights, etc.) inscribed with the letters WWJD. These letters stand for “What Would Jesus Do?” Jesus did not go through the life He did just to provide us with good stories. We are to try to be Christ-like in everything we do. In any situation you are unsure of, stop and remember what Jesus’ character and behaviours were like. In that recollection you will likely find out what you should do. Then comes the difficulty.

Knowing what we should do, and doing it are two different things. Jesus knew what He had to do, and He did it. He died on the cross for our sins. Not many of us will likely be called upon to die for our faith, but for mere mortals, there are many other decisions and actions that are just about as difficult to accept. Sometimes what we should do, when in conflict with what we want to do, makes our path unclear. It is then that two other tools come into play to help us decide.

1 Thessalonians 5:16 – 18 (NIV)
16Be joyful always;
17pray continually;
18give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

Romans 8:26 – 28 (NIV)
26In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.
27And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.
28And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

Pray always, for everything and in everything you do. We may not always understand what happens and why we are called to do something, but God does and He will always guide us in the correct way to go, if we will listen.

Finally, read God’s Word. One of my major problems is that I do not read my Bible nearly as often as I should. I am not as familiar with its contents as I should be and therefore, do not get as much guidance from it as I could. Read your Bible regularly and you will be amazed at how its words will cover so many of your daily situations. God gave us His word for a reason, and that is not just to have something to carry to church. His Word will guide us in all that we do and combined with prayer, will help us through any troubling situation.

As Christians, we are all refugees in this world, whether through direct persecution and exile or by the very fact that, once we dedicate our lives to Christ, this world is no longer our home. To quote Matthew Henry yet again: “Did we but look upon the world as our Egypt, the place of our bondage and banishment, and heaven only as our Canaan, our home, our rest, we should as readily arise and depart thither, when we are called for, as Joseph did out of Egypt.”

Remember this, whenever you read the Christmas story, that it depicts not only the joy of our salvation arriving on this earth, but shows us some of the trials that we will have to undergo and the manner in which we should deal with them. We are refugees, but we have a home to go to that is far greater than anything our exile in this world can provide.

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