Almost twenty-five years ago, my predecessor at Reidsville Christian, Robert Forrester, retired, and in doing so, handed me, a twenty-eight year-old kid, the reins of the church (has it really been that long?). At the same time, he also left behind quite a few volumes from his personal library. While many of them have since found their way into our own church library or been donated to other ministers, I kept one book for me, for one reason and one reason only: Page 69.
Let me try and explain. The book is Christ in the Fine Arts, published in 1938 by Harper & Brothers Publishers. It is an anthology of the life of Christ as portrayed through multiple mediums of art - pictures, poetry, music, and stories.
Confession time: I got that information from the book's introduction. Quite honestly, I couldn't really tell you what the book is about... because I've never read it. In fact, I'm not so sure that I've ever even ventured past page 69.
You ask, almost in a hushed whisper, "Do tell. What exactly is on page 69?"
The answer is the artwork that's pictured above - Rest on the Flight into Egypt, which was painted in 1879 by French artist Luc Olivia Merson and is currently hanging in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (the hyperlink will give you a great close-up view).
Now, just so there's no misunderstanding: I don't normally "go" for art museums. In fact, when we were in Washington D.C. over the last couple springs, while the rest of my family hung out in the National Gallery of Art and the Hirshhorn Museum, I was out on the National Mall, Munzeeing (another obsession for me to explain another time).
However, there is something about this painting that has stuck with me over the last two and half decades. I just can't seem to shake it. I've asked myself, "Why? Why has this canvas made such an impact on me... especially when all I've really seen of it is a black and white picture in a book?"
I've come up with a few possible reasons.
First, while I grew up in the church and have heard the story about Jesus' birth and eventual escape to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-17) countless times, I don't believe it was until I turned to page 69 that it dawned on me that the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Sphinx would have been on the Egyptian horizon as Mary and Joseph made their trek. Now, since they were both constructed 2,500 to 3,000 years before the birth of Jesus, of course they were there, but that thought had never even entered my mind... not until page 69.
I'm not so sure what that says about my I.Q.
But a second reason is the picture itself. Scroll back up to the top of this post and click on the "Museum of Fine Arts in Boston" link. Take a look for yourself.
Go ahead, I've got time. I'll wait.
Oh, it's too much trouble for you to scroll up? Well then, just click here.
Did you look? Okay, now, look at it again... this time closer.
Do you see it? Do you feel it?
Do you sense the weariness of Joseph and Mary? Joseph lies by the dying fire in a protective stance, and yet, he looks exhausted. Mary cuddles the baby Jesus to her as she leans against the Sphinx, her legs dangling off the side. The darkness of the sky seems to envelope them both.
To me, it's an image that is so different from the traditional nativity scenes that depict the wide-eyed couple as they gaze upon God's gift, the Babe, while the bright star shines down upon them all.
No, this looks more like real life.
Real life can be dark. Real life can be lonely. Real life can be exhausting.
Real life can be the call in the middle of the night that you weren't planning on getting, with news that you never wanted to hear. For Joseph, the news was simply, "You've got to go... now!"
I personally would have had a very hard time with that sort of news. Assuming that I could have even just gotten up and left, I still would have had a ton of questions:
"How hard is the trip going to be? Where will we stay? What's it going to be like? How long will we be there? What about the language barrier? Will there be anybody there that we know?"
I could go on.
That's because I'm a Planner... a Planner with a capital "P," but sometimes real life can make a mockery of our plans.
In fact, there are times throughout the Bible when God seems to intentionally mess up people's plan... and yet, if they choose to follow His plan, it ends up being a really good thing.
That's because God always has a better plan.
Trust me, I really need to remember that as I move into a new year... as I make plans as to where I want to go and what I want to do. Even if God chooses to lead me into the desert, I wouldn't be the first, He knows exactly what He's doing, and He has promised that He will not leave me there alone.
In fact, in the middle of the darkness, He offers rest.
This is the way God put it: 'They found grace out in the desert, these people who survived the killing. Israel, out looking for a place to rest, met God out looking for them!' God told them, 'I've never quit loving you and never will. Expect love, love, and more love!' (Jeremiah 31:2, The Message)
The same God Who gave rest to His children as they left Egypt also gave rest to Joseph and His family as they entered.
And He will give rest to us as well.
That's the last reason why I like this painting so much - it's name: Rest on the Flight into Egypt. I mean, it almost seems like an oxymoron - rest as they're running - but it's just the sort of thing that God specializes in.
This next year, wherever we find ourselves, whether it's a part of our plan or not, when we find ourselves looking for a place to rest, may we meet up with the God Who is already out looking for us!