Advent: Jesus the Refugee

And the Word Became A Refugee: The Incarnation and the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Living in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania just northeast of Philadelphia, I have been forced to consider how to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis. Mayor Ed Pawlowski of Allentown has accepted a small number of refugees into the city, and has faced a barrage of criticism for doing so. As a follower of Jesus who pastors a local church, I have been asking myself how we should live out our faith in the midst of such a heated debate. The story of Christmas illuminates a path forward for how we should think and act in response to the current crisis.

During this season, Christians set time aside to reflect on the birth of Jesus. This time of year often yields discussions and sermons on the Incarnation, the truth that God became flesh and dwelt among us. Yet, in reflecting on the Incarnation, many Christians fail to come to grips with what sort of flesh God chose to take up residence in. The Incarnation is not just about God putting on human flesh in general, but also about the kind of human flesh God put on.

I could write about the economically impoverished flesh of Jesus, the ethnically oppressed flesh of Jesus, the criminalized flesh of Jesus that was subjected to state violence, or the vulnerable infant flesh of Jesus. However, I am moved today to write about the refugee flesh of Jesus.

Jesus was a refugee. The Word became a refugee and dwelt among us.

According to Oxford Dictionary, a refugee is “a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.” When King Herod received news of Jesus’ birth he put out an order for all male babies in Bethlehem to be killed (Matt 2:16). With the threat of persecution being made known to them by an angel, Mary and Joseph fled their hometown to seek refuge in Egypt. This aspect of Jesus’ humanity should give us pause.

Our world is in the midst of an unprecedented Syrian refugee crisis. It is estimated that nearly 9 million Syrians have fled their homes since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011[1]. While there was an initial push from countries around the world to welcome Syrian refugees, there has been a significant reversal of hospitality since the terror attacks in Paris, France. Politicians have used the terror attacks to incite suspicion of links between ISIS and Syrian refugees.

While the world retracts the hand of hospitality from our Syrian neighbors in the name of self-preservation, how should the church respond?

The Christmas story is embodied, in our day, in the flesh of 9 million Syrians on the run for their lives. We must understand that King Herod’s call to slaughter all male babies in Bethlehem was because he perceived Jesus as a threat to his power and Israeli national security. Whenever power is threatened, it does all it can to protect itself. Syrians are being denied refuge around the world because they have been labeled as a threat to power and security. Syrian refugees are our neighbors, and we all know what Jesus has to say about the neighbor. “Love your neighbor as yourself, as long as they pose no security threat to your government.” This is not the word of our Lord! The question for us as Christians in the midst of the refugee crisis is not how can we protect ourselves but, will we be obedient to Jesus? Or better yet, will we welcome Jesus?

All throughout Scripture there is an unequivocal call to “welcome the stranger.”[2] In Matthew 25, Jesus identifies himself with “the stranger,” (foreigner, immigrant, refugee, etc.) and says that to welcome the stranger is to welcome Him. In this passage, Jesus crystallizes what is of first importance, the witness of His church to welcome the immigrant, refugee, and foreigner. Just as Jesus gives no caveat to the command to love our enemies, he gives no caveat to the command to welcome the stranger. The Church should be the loudest voice calling for the welcome of Syrian refugees. How can we claim to love Jesus, yet deny the refugee?

King Herod did not realize that salvation was to be found in the one he perceived as threat, the baby of our Christmas season. Instead, to save his own life, he pushed out the salvation that had come to him. Herod’s fear of losing his power, security, and status led him to stand in opposition against the salvation of God. It is no surprise that the most common command in Scripture is, “Fear not!” When God shows up we fear the loss of our lives, but we fail to recognize that in the Kingdom of God, when we lose life we actually find it. There is salvation to be found in losing our desire for our own security and denying our lust for power. I believe that in welcoming the stranger, we are saved from being governed by fear that prevents us from loving. We are saved from the desire for self-preservation, a desire that turns us in on ourselves and elevates our own security to the position of top priority. Fear and self-preservation are not the way of the cross (Luke 9:23). Lose your life (i.e. your desire to maintain power, your own security, your own comfort), and, as Jesus promised, you will save it (Matt 16:25).

The North American Church must “take up its cross” by denying our national right to “security,” and grab hold of our King’s command to welcome the stranger.

I’ve been challenged to consider what it will look like for my family and my church to respond to the call of Jesus. Pastors in my area have recently gathered to talk through the response of the church in this area to the influx of Syrian refugees. The medical clinic that my wife works at has set aside specific appointments to serve Syrian refugees free of charge! You may not live in an area where Syrian refugees are present, but each of us can use our voice to speak out against xenophobia (fear of the foreigner), and position our hearts to be ready to welcome. Each of us have people in our midst whom we consider to be strangers. The gospel demands that we labor to see strangers become friends. After all, the core of the gospel is that we who were once estranged from God have been brought near by the blood of Christ (Ephesians 2:13). Whoever the stranger is in your midst, the call of Jesus is to welcome them.

As you meditate on the Incarnation this Christmas, consider the significance of God choosing to indwell refugee flesh. The flesh that God chose to put on matters, because refugee flesh is, in the eyes of the world, unwanted flesh. Refugee flesh is rejected flesh. God chose to incarnate as an unwanted and rejected refugee. Consider the statement God is making by doing so. Let this thought shake up your image of Jesus.

In a world filled with refugees, God has called the Church to be a people of radical hospitality. Who will we be?


[1] Syrian Refugees. (n.d.). Retrieved December 23, 2015, from

[2] Deut 10:19, Lev 19:34, Matt 25:35, Rom 12:13, Heb 13:1

Originally published at on December 23, 2015.

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