Faith in Hard Places: Changing Locations
First Baptist Church
Sunday, January 13, 2019
Our first stop after seminary days was Paducah, Kentucky. Paducah is a wonderful Western Kentucky town and our congregation there called Immanuel Baptist was a very good first church to be a part of and to serve. One of the more interesting members of the Paducah church was a woman by the name of Svetlana Goman. Svetlana lived a little apartment right across the street from the church. She was originally from Russia and she came to our community and to our church as a political exile.
In Russia, Svetlana had been a significant figure in working with orphans. One would think that sort of work really couldn’t put you in hot water with much of anyone but in Svetlana’s case, the rub came when she began to allow Westerners and more importantly Americans to adopt Russian children. That decision was frowned upon, disliked and actually led to people threatening Svetlana’s life. It also led to her decision to leave the country and to come seeking asylum in America.
What I remember about Svetlana is that although being in Paducah allowed her to feel safe, coming to the U.S. was anything but easy for her. That decision meant leaving her home, her family and a career that she strongly believed in. She didn’t want to leave, but, removing herself from the situation and from her home was the only decision that Svetlana felt like she could make in the moment. Again, it was the right thing to do, but, it certainly wasn’t the easy thing to do.
Last week, we focused in worship on faith and the hard place that comes when we have to make changes. Even when changes are for our own good, they are not easy. As we said last week, change is a six letter word but it often feels a lot like a four letter word.
As we continue this three week look at the stories of Matthew chapter two and Jesus’ earliest of days under the heading of Faith in Hard Places, we move this week from dealing with the hard place of change in general to the equally hard place of having to change locations or said another way the hard decision to remove ourselves from locations or situations.
This sort of decision goes beyond the sense that we need to make a change to coming to understand that we need to change by changing where we are or changing who or what we are around. When we change locations, or change that which we surround ourselves with we don’t just change our attitude or our perspective. Instead, we remove ourselves from people, places or things because we recognize they are a threat or no longer good and healthy for us.
This very thing happens in the story of Jesus’ earliest days as told in Matthew chapter 2 verses 13 through 18. In many ways, these verses are a continuation of the the story of the Wise Men that we focused on last week. As you will recall, King Herod asked the Wise Men to return to Jerusalem after their trip to Bethlehem and tell him where to find the Christ child so that he too could go and worship this apparent Messiah of the Israelite people. Of course, as we discussed, Herod really didn’t want to go and worship Jesus. No, he simply wanted to know where to find the child so that he could do away with him. Warned in a dream to go home by a different route, the Magi by-pass Herod and go home without letting Herod know exactly where Jesus was being raised and thus where he could be found.
This left King Herod in a dreadful spot. Herod was paranoid. And, knowing that one seen as a King had been born and not knowing exactly where to find this newborn King left Herod with way to much to worry about. In turn, it also led to a drastic decision. Herod decides to have all of the boys in the Bethlehem area who are two years and under put to death so that he can cast a wide enough net to do away with this Jesus once and for all.
Aware of Herod’s plan and warned in yet another dream of the dangers ahead for the infant Jesus, Joseph is told to take Jesus and Mary and go to live in Egypt until Herod has died and things were safer. It was likely the only real choice that Joseph and Mary had. Yet, even though this decision was the only choice, it probably wasn’t a very easy choice.
The Bible tells us virtually nothing about the time that Joseph, Mary and Jesus spent in Egypt. We don’t know how long they were there. We don’t know what, if anything, they did for a living. We don’t know what friendships they developed or what support they found for themselves. Although it has been speculated that perhaps the three gifts of the Wise Men, those of gold, frankincense and myrrh, may have been sold and the money used to finance the trip and support the family while in Egypt, this is just a guess and not spelled out by scripture.
Again, virtually all that we know is that Egypt is where they went, that they stayed until Herod had died and that this was one of the only if not the only choice that they had under the circumstance. Led by God, they had to change the location of where they would live out their lives for a season. Bethlehem could not be home for a while. Home had to be in Egypt instead.
When we put ourselves in the shoes of Joseph, Mary and Jesus and ask ourselves what lessons we can learn from this change of location, I think there are two big things that stand out that are worthy of our time, attention and focus.
First, I think it is important to say that there is no indication that Joseph and Mary reached this decision quickly or on their own. This was apparently a decision of last resort and not of first choice. So too, it was a decision that God was a part of not a conclusion that they came to on their own.
On the one hand, we can certainly say that Joseph and Mary felt like they were out of options. Herod was King and they couldn’t change that. Herod would stop at nothing, including murder, to preserve his control and they couldn’t change that.
On the other hand, I think we can also clearly say that they felt God was leading them to this decision. The text says that they were warned in a dream to go to Egypt. In the first two chapters of Matthew, Joseph has three dreams and the Wise Men have one dream. All of them are places where God speaks to them and guides. Joseph is told in dreams to keep Mary as his wife, to take his family to Egypt and to return after Herod’s death from Egypt. The Wise Men are told in a dream to go home by a different route and avoid another encounter with Herod. Again, this is a moment where God speaks and thus when the decision is made to go to Egypt it is a decision guided and directed by God.
I remind us of these elements to say this: the decision to change locations by removing ourselves from jobs, relationships, situations or environments that are not good for us must be the result of two things. They must be the result of lots of thought, reflection and wrestling. They are never entered into lightly. At the same time, they must be decisions that God is a part of and where we sense God’s clear guidance.
We live in a society where we give up too quickly and quit too often. We also live in a world where we allow our children and our grandchildren to quit things at the slightest sign of discomfort or dissatisfaction. This is not a good thing. I shared with our Wednesday Night Bible Study group this past week about reading Bob Merritt’s book 7 Simple Choices For A Better Life. One of the things that Merritt says is that life is full of quitting points which is to say moments when we have every reason to quit and no one would blame us. It is often our staying the coarse, keeping at it and pushing forward when we want to quit that defines us and our children.
But, there are moments when moving on is the right thing which gets me to the second lesson from this story. Eventually, after lots of thought and listening to God, Joseph and Mary choose to leave Israel and go to Egypt. They choose to change locations. And, it is also worth noting that in their case it was a change of location for a season not a change of location forever.
I believe deeply that sometimes God calls us to remove ourselves from where we are. Sometimes the pay is great, the benefits are wonderful but the job is killing us. Occasionally, the our friend is fun to be with and they have been a terrific companion for a long time, but their habits or their attitude are not helpful to us. When we can’t control what we look at on the internet or tv, the best decision may be to have cable or wifi removed from our house. When we cannot have a credit card without buying things we don’t need our best move may just be to cut up the card and get rid of it.
Again, I want to be clear that removing ourselves from environments, relationships or situations is never entered into flippantly. Yet, when we have no other chose and when we know it is what God wants us to do and what is healthy for us to do, I want us to understand that it is best.
On February 14, 1884, Teddy Roosevelt’s mother and wife died on the very same day. His wife died in child birth and his mother died of typhoid fever. In fact, a short time later, both were remembered in a double funeral at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York. Writing in his journal at the time, Roosevelt simply said, “the light has gone out of my life”. That summer, unable to deal with his grief, Roosevelt left New York and began what are remembered as his time in the Badlands. For a period, he stopped being a government figure, a New Englander and a member of the elite. He left it all to live for a time as a cowboy in the Dakotas rustling cattle. After two years Roosevelt returned. His removal to the Badlands didn’t last forever. It was only for a season. But, many historians say that the person and President that Roosevelt ultimately became would not have been possible without his change of location to the Badlands. (Leadership in Turbulent Times, Doris Kerns Goodwin, pages 124-131)
Is there a need for a change of location for you? Do you sense God calling you to set aside an environment, an activity, or a relationship that is not healthy? Is God calling you even if for a season, to take a break and remove yourself from a place where you have long been but where you no longer find joy? It is not easy, it is not to be taken lightly, it isn’t always forever. But, right now, maybe it is just what we need. Amen.