HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
December 3, 2017
First Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 64: 1-9 (CEB)
If only you would tear open the heavens and come down! Mountains would quake before you 2like fire igniting brushwood or making water boil. If you would make your name known to your enemies, the nations would tremble in your presence.
3When you accomplished wonders beyond all our expectations; when you came down, mountains quaked before you. 4From ancient times, no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any god but you who acts on behalf of those who wait for him! 5You look after those who gladly do right; they will praise you for your ways. But you were angry when we sinned; you hid yourself when we did wrong. 6We have all become like the unclean; all our righteous deeds are like a menstrual rag. All of us wither like a leaf; our sins, like the wind, carry us away. 7No one calls on your name; no one bothers to hold on to you, for you have hidden yourself from us, and have handed us over to our sin.
8But now, Lord, you are our father. We are the clay, and you are our potter. All of us are the work of your hand. 9Don’t rage so fiercely, Lord; don’t hold our sins against us forever, but gaze now on your people, all of us.
There’s something about the holidays that gets us all pretty sentimental. Each year, we want to relive the wonderful memories of the past, even as we make new ones. And often, these memories and traditions are centered around “home,” whether home is a place or a certain gathering of people. So as we move toward Christmas this year, our worship will center on this idea of home. Over the next four weeks, we will consider what it means that Christ comes to make his home among us, to redeem and renew us and all of creation. And we will also talk about what it means that we are called by God in Christ Jesus to, in a sense, make a home with God, to center our lives on Christ.
This morning, we hear the words of the prophet Isaiah. Like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and many of the prophets, Isaiah spoke to the Israelites during a time of exile. They had been forced from their home in the Promised Land and exiled to Babylon. They were longing for home, and the longing was fierce. You know how it seems like the farther you are away from home, the more you want to get back there, or the longer you have been gone, the quicker you want to return? This is the experience of the Israelites. They are in enemy territory, they have been gone for a long time, and they long for home, for a sense of security and familiarity. But their problem is compounded by the fact that God seems to be absent, “hiding his face” from them. They long for those days when God would quake and shake the world and turn the tide in Israel’s favor as enemies were vanquished before their eyes. It seems that as much as the Israelites were longing for “home,” they were also longing for a sense of the familiar and secure, for the certainty of God’s presence in their midst. “If only you would tear open the heavens and come down!”
This week, I ran across a blog that was written by retired United Methodist Bishop Ken Carder. Though speaking of home, to me he will always be Ken, my minister in my elementary school years. Ken’s wife Linda has advanced Alzheimer’s and lives in a care facility in South Carolina. Ken wrote these words last year during Advent, and they seem especially pertinent today. I don’t normally do this, but I want to share this blog in its entirety because it really touches on our longing for home.
Bishop Carder writes: “For the past six months, I have been serving as the chaplain at Bethany, the memory care facility in Chapin, South Carolina, where my wife, Linda, is a resident. She was diagnosed in 2009 with frontotemporal dementia, and her disease has now reached the severe stage.
“As her husband and as Bethany’s chaplain, I now spend part of each day among people whose memories are being erased by brain diseases. Most have forgotten their families, places they have lived, churches they have attended, friends they have loved. But despite their tangled recollections and garbled communications, the residents utter one phrase almost universally: ‘I want to go home!’
“For some, home is the place where they spent their childhood, the house where they grew up. For others, home is the last place they lived before being admitted to the memory care facility. And for others, home is the room just down the hallway. One woman nearing the end of her journey pleaded, ‘I want to go home to be with Jesus!’
“Ever since our primordial parents were banished from their idyllic garden, humans have been yearning for home. Abraham and Sarah in their old age embarked on a search for a home not made with human hands, [but] eternal in the heavens. When the Hebrew slaves were in Egypt, God saw their misery, heard their cries, felt their suffering and sent Moses to lead them home, to a land flowing with milk and honey. The people of Judah mourned in lonely exile in Babylon, separated from family, their temple, their familiar songs and liturgies. They longed for home.”
Bishop Carder continues, “Longing for home is deeply embedded in the human psyche. It is an innate hunger, buried deeper even than our memories or imaginings. It is a yearning for the best of what has been and the anticipation of what can be. We hunger for the home we remember and long for the home of which we dream. But that longing for home is more than a desire for a place or a pleasant memory or a dreamed-of future. Home is a state of being, of belonging, of becoming. The longing for home is the deep need to be anchored in a secure, restored past and pulled toward a transformed, fulfilled future. That yearning for home is God beckoning us toward wholeness, belonging, and participation in God’s present and coming reign.
“Advent means ‘coming,’ and it is the season of remembering and preparing for home. We remember God coming to those in exile, declaring through the prophet, ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine’ The prophet pointed toward home and admonished, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’ God came to those in exile, announced that their wait was almost over and said to prepare for homecoming.
“God entered into humanity’s exile as a vulnerable baby, whose birth home was a cattle stall. God enters our waiting, ‘tabernacles’ among us and claims even smelly stables as home. In Jesus Christ, God assures us that wherever we are, we are home in the divine presence…”
We all long for home. And this Christmas, we need to acknowledge that that longing extends beyond a house, or traditions, or even a family. We long for the safety and security of the divine presence in our midst. As Saint Augustine once said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds rest in you.” The problem is, sometimes we look for God in the wrong places, or we long for God in the wrong ways, and so we can’t seem to find God. Or we lead our lives in such a way that we do not connect or stay connected with God our Creator. The Israelites in exile longed for the mighty God who, at times in their history, had shaken the earth, and made enemies tremble in his presence. But they weren’t seeing God acting in that way, and so they concluded that God must be hiding his face from them. Their sin was drawing them away from God and blinding them to God’s ways. When, all the while, God was really doing a new thing. God was working to make himself present with the people in a new way. Christmas proves that. Instead of earthquakes and anger and armies, God will tear open the heavens and come down among the people as…a newborn baby. God chose to make his home in the world not by power and coercion, but by suffering service and unconditional love.
So here’s the thing for us to know, to take home with us today. Our culture and our society and our world tells us a lot about how we should live and what we should expect—from our families, our education, our work, even our Christian faith. But when this is our only guide, we will find ourselves unsettled, unsatisfied, longing for something more. We will wonder why God isn’t fulfilling all our hopes and dreams, and doubt will paralyze us. But if we can trust that God has prepared a home for us, and open ourselves to God’s unexpected work in our lives, then we will see something new. God’s power and presence will fill us with certainty and security, and we will know true peace. Let me end with the rest of Bishop Carder’s blog:
He writes: “Advent is the season of remembering God’s coming among us in Jesus the Christ. It is also the season of expectancy, as we anticipate the coming of God’s final victory over all that threatens home. We live between God’s coming in Bethlehem’s stable and God’s coming reign of justice, compassion, generosity and joy. While we wait for the final homecoming, we know that we aren’t alone.
“God has entered our exiles, our lonely places, reminding us, ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. … Do not fear, for I am with you.’
“’I want to go home,’ pleaded the resident at Bethany, the memory care facility.
“‘Who is at home?’ I asked.
“’My mom and dad,’ she replied. ‘And they love me.’
“I took her by the hand, looked into her eyes and said, ‘I love you, too. People here love you.’
“’Is this home?’ she asked with a slight smile, her eyes twinkling with hope. ‘Am I home?’
“’Yes, this is home for now,’ I assured her. I reminded her that she was at ‘Bethany,’ the home of Mary and Martha, where Jesus felt at home. ’Jesus is at home at Bethany,’ I said. ‘And so are we.’
“Her smile grew wider, and her eyes became brighter. ‘Jesus lives here?’ she said, at once questioning and assured. Then, with a sigh, she squeezed my hand slightly. ‘Jesus will help me go home,’ she said.
“Suddenly,” Bishop Carder writes, “it was Advent!…”
We all long for home. During the season of Advent we look with hope toward that home with God that Christ makes possible. But to hear the voice of Isaiah is to proclaim that Advent is more than a time to hear promises about God. Advent is a season of attentiveness to the presence of God already among us. God is Christ Jesus has made his home in our midst.
Will you come on home?