Strangers in a Strange Land

Three years ago I wrote about one of my favorite Advent/Christmas paintings, Luc Olivier Merson's Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1879):

I love Rest on the Flight into Egypt for a couple of reasons. First, the scene is haunting and full of fatigue. Joseph is asleep on the desert floor. One imagines his mental and physical exhaustion fleeing danger and trying to take his wife and baby across deserts to a foreign land.

And what awaits them at journey's end? Will they find friends in Egypt? Work? And when will it be safe to go back home?

Sitting on the Sphinx, in a striking juxtaposition and lending an exotic touch to the scene, is Mary and the baby.

The baby. The only source of light in the painting.

What I like about Rest on the Flight into Egypt is how it depicts, from the very beginning of his life, the homelessness of the Messiah. God is a refugee, an immigrant, a stranger in a strange land, a person of exile.

Rest on the Flight into Egypt is a model for the life of the church. We are people of exile. Strangers among the nations. All we carry across the wastelands of this earth is the Christ Child. We have nothing else to offer.

This note is echoed in John Howard Yoder's book The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited where he suggests that the church should model its existence after the Jewish diaspora. The church is to embrace a "cosmopolitan homelessness" and accept "dispersion" among the nations as a part of its "mission." The church is to embrace "galut as calling." Galut is a Hebrew word for the situation of living in a state of exile or homelessness. I think Rest on the Flight into Egypt vividly captures the experience of galut.

Yoder uses the phrase "galut as calling" to describe the landless missionary existence of Christians. The biblical models for this existence in the Old Testament are Joseph, Daniel and Esther. Joseph, Daniel and Esther each lived as exiles, as resident aliens. Each labored alongside the people of a nation to which they did not belong, each working elbow to elbow "seeking the welfare of the city" (Jer. 29.7).

We can add Mary and Joseph to this list while they lived and worked in Egypt with the baby Jesus.

That is my wish for the church this Advent season, that "non-Christians" find us, in every place, working side-by-side with them, as partners, seeking the welfare of the city. The church isn't a fortress or a gated community or a community of snobbish like-mindedness and self-righteousness. The church is a mission as we live in exile among the nations. Purposely scattered, in jobs and neighborhoods across the world, to work alongside our neighbors to bring peace on earth and good will to all.

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8 thoughts on “Strangers in a Strange Land”

  1. Absolutely loving this one, Dr. Beck. I have been praying and thinking for a while now regarding immigration ministry and a possible call to start one in Houston. While researching, I found something like 12 or 14 separate passages in Deuteronomy alone wherein God provides explicit instructions to care for and save goods and extra crop for "the widow, the fatherless (orphan) and the foreigner," which I found so inspiring.

    This is also a good reminder that we too are foreigners, children of immigrants (spiritually and literally..). We are all fellow travelers, wandering migrants, who remember God's command in Leviticus 19:34, "The foreigner who resides with you shall be to you as the native born among you. You shall love him as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.."

  2. I've been thinking of similar ministries. I need to start working on my Spanish. A lot of the men in my prison bible study speak Spanish and I want to start connecting better with them.

  3. That last paragraph reminds me of this book:

    Let us all seek the peace of the cities everyday.

  4. Your last sentence beautifully expresses my hope for my own Christian life.  We Episcopalians (and probably not we exclusively) refer to this as "being the body of Christ in the world."  If only the Church behaved this way. 

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