This Sunday, November 29, we begin our Advent series entitled, “Refugee.” The series will culminate with our Christmas experience on the weekend of December 19-20. That is going to be a great weekend, by the way, as we welcome Stikyard to join us for what will be an inspirational weekend. Stikyard are percussionists in motion, and they will join our Central team to perform stirring Christmas arrangements with the goal of making beautiful those tunes we’ve come to see as ordinary. Make a note of December 19-20 in your calendar and come share in “The Old, Old Story” in an unusual yet touching way.
We decided on the ‘refugee’ theme many months ago when the plight of Syrian refugees was a topic of conversation but not the full blown political football it is today. While I believe every series we teach at Central is poignant and relevant I’m fairly certain that the title of this series speaks to a very relevant theme. Note the understatement!
The background to our Advent series is that Jesus was also a refugee. Matthew chapter 2 narrates that story. The theme we’re pondering is that we are all refugees in one way or another. The biblical story suggests that Jesus became a political and social refugee and in so doing retraced the steps of the nation of Israel. The Gospels depict an exodus from Egypt that brought an end to the spiritual refugee status of the entire human race. Just as God’s people were once enslaved in Egypt, so too the human race was enslaved to sin. The Christmas story gives hope to those who find themselves alienated from God and living life a long way from the peaceful and joyful surroundings of ‘home.’
That’s the context of our series.
No doubt some have wondered whether the series signaled our church’s belief that Syrian refugees should be relocated to America. For the record, Central's position is not that we are inviting more to come. Frankly, we are not conceited enough to believe we have that kind of influence! Clearly stated, our goal is that there be no social, political or spiritual refugees in this world to relocate. The mission of the church is to proclaim the message of Christ through whom the rule and reign of God is experienced on earth, bringing healing and wholeness to all peoples! At the same time, Scripture teaches that Christ followers live in a land that is not their home. More on that in a moment. For the record, there’s a sense in which the biblical story depicts us all as aliens, strangers and refugees.
What disturbs me in the current climate is how many wonderful Christian agencies find themselves having to defend their ministry to refugees in America – and there are refugees from many nations in America not just from Syria, by the way. All they are trying to do is encourage the church to her Biblical responsibility. In light of the clear teaching of Scripture regarding the believers' response to the alien, stranger and refugee, the challenge the church faces in America is not whether refugees should come but what to do with those aliens, strangers, foreigners and refugees that are already here?
Much of the Biblical teaching on refugees – the idea is translated as alien, stranger and foreigner in the text – goes from the standpoint of those that are already with us. What do we do with the alien, stranger, foreigner and refugee already in our midst?
Look at these texts:
“He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. 19 And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.”
29 so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.
[see also Deut. 24:14-15, 17-22; and Jer. 22:3]
Do you see this? The issue for Christ followers is what to do when aliens, strangers, foreigners and refugees have come.
Quite early in the development of the ‘One Church’ comprising Jewish and Gentile Christians, the apostle Paul sought to remind Gentile believers of what it felt like to be an outsider, a spiritual refugee, welcomed into the family of faith. Never, Paul says, forget what it is like to be lost, homeless, abandoned, orphaned and alienated. These Scriptures reflect this truth:
12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.
19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household,
Clearly, the motivation for the Christ-follower to practice hospitality to the alien and stranger is that we know what it feels like. The New Testament repeatedly reminds us that we live in this world, in the Promised Land, as aliens and strangers. This world is not our home; we are passing through. This reality is reflected in this small sampling of New Testament Scriptures:
13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.
2 Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.
1 Peter 2:10-11
10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. 11 Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.
This last Scripture is used by Peter to contrast the past status of Gentile believers as refugees and outcasts with their current status as a royal priesthood and a holy nation. The change in status is possible simply because of an act of grace and mercy on the part of Father God Himself. It is precisely because we recognize our status as aliens and refugees that we are able to live with restraint in a country not our own. Peter follows Paul in reminding us to never forget what it’s like to be social and spiritual outcasts.
This brief foray into the Scriptures reveals that God is concerned both for those whose status in social and economic matters makes them liable to overlook the plight of the alien and the most vulnerable and to the alien themselves who need to show restraint when dealing with hostile attitudes and practices in ‘foreign lands’ that wage war with their soul.
Outside of the Syrian refugee question, I believe the diversity of America to be the up-stream issue lurking in the background of the current controversy. America is a racially diverse nation and we are struggling with that. Millions of ‘foreigners’ have made this amazing country their home – my family and I amongst them.
In this week of Thanksgiving, I can’t thank people enough for never once making me feel like an outcast. I’ve never once had to restrain myself from acting in an ungodly way because of the attitudes and habits of hostile residents. My only prayer is that the those ‘aliens and strangers’ who are here would be welcomed as have we.
Of course, every ‘aliens’ future is uncertain; so was ours back in 2008. When we came to this nation it was on a temporary visa where no guarantee was ever given for us to stay beyond the length of the visa. Before coming I committed myself to be return home if told. It was an interesting journey for my family and I into the unknown. We left almost everything behind and were it not for the hospitality and generosity of God’s people it would have been a traumatic experience.
It was precisely because of the compassion and generosity of God’s people over here that one of my boys looked at Wibke and I one day and asked, “Are all American Christians like this?”
We find American believers to be the most compassionate and generous believers on the planet and these qualities left an indelible imprint on my children’s lives.
Let’s pray for wisdom for our leaders as they seek to protect their citizens as is their God-given responsibility. But let’s also minister compassionately and generously to those foreigners, aliens and strangers already ‘in our midst.’ If we act compassionately to those that are here, not only will we obey the direct commandments of Scripture but many will the number be of those children who look at their parents and ask, “Are all American Christians like this?”
I’m so excited about our Christmas series that begins this week. It’s going to be an awesome family experience you simply don’t want to miss.