Coming Home

A Homily for the 2nd Sunday after Christmas (January 3, 2010)
Anglican Church of the Redeemer – Amman, Jordan
Lectionary Readings:
Jer. 31:7-14; Eph.1:3-19; Matt. 2:13-23; Ps. 84

On New Year’s Eve we returned from the United States, where we recently attended our son’s wedding in Virginia. It was a wonderful time of celebration. Holden and Heidi were married during a major snow storm that blanketed the northeastern United States. Many of the wedding guests came in 4-wheel drive vehicles. Some walked. Others arrived on skis!

Holden and Heidi on their wedding day

Virginia is where I grew up, so this trip felt like coming home. Over the Christmas holidays I had many opportunities to visit with friends from my high school and college days. It was amazing to see how much and how little have changed in 30 years!

Up to 20 inches of snow blanketed the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia

The Lectionary readings for this second week after Christmas are about coming home. They highlight several important things about physical and spiritual homecomings. Let me briefly reflect on three.

1. All of us long for home.
Most of us carry an image in our heart and mind of a place we call home. For many, it is the place where we feel safe; the place where we feel loved; the place where we feel a sense of belonging; the place where we are free to be ourselves; the place where we find familiar foods and smells and sounds and traditions. While some of us also associate painful memories with the place we call home, all of us still long for an ideal home.

Home is both a physical place and a spiritual space. In the Old Testament reading, the prophet Jeremiah describes the upcoming exile of God’s people to Babylon. There they will long for the familiar sights and sounds of Jerusalem, where they can worship in the temple and live in safety. But their exile is about much more than being physically absent from Jerusalem. It also represents that they have grown distant from God.

The psalmist also longs to be at home with God. “My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord,” says the psalmist (Ps. 80:2). “Blessed are those who dwell in your house” (v.4), the psalmist continues, “For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. . . . I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness”(v.10).

All of us long for home – for physical places that are friendly and familiar, and for that spiritual space where we feel close to and loved by God.

2. While we long for home, we spend much of our life away from home. Sometimes we are away from home because of our bad choices. This is the story of the Old Testament reading. Many years before the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem, the prophet Jeremiah foretold that God’s people would be taken into captivity for 70 years because of their sin. Because they have worshiped false gods and treated one another unjustly, Jeremiah warns that God will remove their hedge of protection and give them a long time out. But God will not forget his people. The upcoming exile is intended to prepare their hearts for returning home.

In his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul reminds his readers of their transgressions that separate them from God; and of their need to be forgiven and redeemed so that they can again be at home with God (Eph. 1:7).

Of course this is our story as well. We stray in many ways. In his book, Home Tonight, Henri Nouwen reflects on the story of the prodigal son who took his inheritance and left home where he squandered his wealth in wild living. Ironically, like the prodigal son, we often don’t appreciate home until we leave it.

Much of our wandering is because we want to be in charge. We want to be independent and not to have others tell us what to do. We want to do things our way. We want to prove to others that we are important.

Nouwen writes that it is easy for us to see how the younger son strayed from home. But he goes on to note that, while the older son physically stayed at home, his heart was distant and resentful. His relationship with his father was based on trying to earn acceptance rather than simply accepting his father’s love.

While being far from home is often a result of our bad choices, the readings this week also remind us that sometimes we are away from home for our own safety or in order to accomplish God’s purposes. In the Gospel reading, an angel tells Joseph to flee to Egypt where Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus also live in exile. But this is not because they have done something wrong. It is for their safety and protection. The wise men from the East had come to pay homage to the new king born in Bethlehem. In a fit of fury and jealousy, King Herod issued an order to kill all the baby boys in Bethlehem under the age of two. The exile in Egypt was not because Joseph and Mary needed to repent, but so that they could faithfully fulfill their responsibility to raise Jesus.

In a similar way, many refugees today are far from home because of war, persecution, oppression or economic hardship – not due to some fault of their own. In these safer spaces, God is preparing them to return home or to resettle elsewhere.

While we long for home, for one reason or another, we spend much of our life away from home. Sometimes we wander on our own. Sometimes God removes his hedge of protection and allows us to go into exile. Sometimes God leads us to a new place for our safety or to fulfill a particular ministry.

Time away from home is not necessarily wasted. God uses it as fertile ground to teach us lessons and to prepare us to return home.

3. God is in the business of bringing us home.
No matter how far away we have wandered, God is in the business of bringing us home.

In his book about the prodigal son, Nouwen writes: “While the young man in the story seemingly left his home and lost everything, one possession remained. He was still a member of his family.” This is true for us as well. We never cease to be God’s children.

The prophet Jeremiah repeats God’s promises again and again:
-I will bring them from the north country (v.8a);
-I will gather them from the farthest parts of the earth (v.8b);
-I will lead them back (v.9b);
-I will make them walk by brooks of water (v.9c).

Jeremiah specifically mentions that the most vulnerable – the blind, the lame and pregnant women — will be among those who God leads home (v 8).

And what a homecoming it will be! God will shepherd the people (v.10d), their life will be like a watered garden and they will languish no more (v.12). God will turn their mourning into joy (v.13c) and give them gladness for sorrow (v.13d).

In the Epistle reading, Paul promises that, in Christ, “We have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses (v.7a). Though we have strayed and become like homeless orphans, God adopts us as his children and offers us a rich inheritance. Like the father who prepared a feast for his prodigal son, God lavishes us with the riches of his grace (v.7b). More than that, God is uniting all things in Christ. Wherever there are divisions between peoples and nations God is working to unite all things (v.10).

In the Gospel reading, Herod eventually dies. Again an angel appears to Joseph and tells him that it is time to go home, “for those who sought the child’s life are dead” (v.20).

God promises to bring us home. The psalmist reminds us that, “even the sparrow finds a home” (v.3). No detail is too small for God.

Closing reflection

Nouwen writes: “The whole course of the spiritual life is falling off, and returning, slipping away from the truth and turning back to it, leaving and returning. So in our leaving, as much as in our returning, we must try to remember that we are blessed, loved, cherished, and waited for by the One whose love doesn’t change.”

One of my most memorable visits over the holidays was with a friend from college days who I had not seen in 30 years. Mike (not his real name) grew up in a troubled home. His life has been hard. He has a gruff exterior. He went through a divorce and has struggled in his second marriage. He has had major health problems and has attempted suicide. But what I found most remarkable is that, while he continues to struggle, Mike is now actively involved in a church community and is growing as a Christian.

Indeed, God is constantly in the process of bringing us home — gathering, redeeming, restoring, uniting all things in Christ.

It is not always as quickly as we would like. God’s people were exiled in Babylon for 70 years. But God gathered them back and satisfied them with goodness.

It is not always the way we would like. Joseph and Mary had to journey by way of Egypt before they could return to Nazareth.

Often there is pain in the process and tears along the journey. The Bible tells us that all of us have fallen short of God’s glory. But, in Christ, God offers us redemption. God offers us adoption as beloved children.

How in your life do you feel far from home? Perhaps you feel physically far away from what seems safe and familiar to you. Perhaps spiritually you feel distant from God. Being far from home may be due to no fault of your own.

Whatever the reason for our displacement, hear this promise of Scripture: God is always at work to bring us home – or to a new home. Thanks be to God.

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