“Once there was a way to get back homeward. Once there was a way to get back home. Sleep pretty darling, don’t you cry. And I will sing a lullaby.” Beatles
Sometimes you just really want to go back home. This is often the case during the holidays. For years as a single priest, living far from family Christmas Eve and Day were especially poignant for me. I imagined families gathered around trees, opening presents, and sharing a meal while I finished the final of four Christmas services and ate a cup of ramen noodles while sitting at my desk.
We just want to be home for the holidays. We want that vision of Christmas we hold in our minds, even if every year it doesn’t conform to expectations. People the world over and for centuries have wanted to go home.
It is the deep desire of refugees living in a foreign land. No matter how desperate their country of origin is, they are anxiously longing for an opportunity to return.
For those who have lost their homes to fire and other natural disasters, this Christmas will bring grief and longing and disbelief that their homes and all they have and all they mean have been destroyed, often in a matter of hours. How can it be?
We want to go home. We want to go back to a place of safety and security where we are loved and accepted. We want things to be the way they were before. Before he died. Before the divorce. Before the war. Before she started drinking. Before everything got so complicated and difficult.
We hear this longing across our country and the world. We want to return to the way things used to be. We want our jobs back. We want a chance to raise our children the way we were raised. We want to recover our way of life that feels threatened and insecure. We want our neighborhood to be the same sweet, peaceful place it used to be. We hardly recognize the city any more, it’s changing so much. Sometimes we don’t even feel at home in our country. Some joke about leaving for Canada and New Zealand. Some talk about revolution and resistance. Others long to “Make America great again.”
We want to go home.
For the Jewish people in Isaiah’s day, that homecoming meant a return to Jerusalem from exile in the foreign land of Babylon. The promise of a way in the desert, a highway for the people to travel upon back to their homeland was a powerful comfort in a time of great difficulty. For Christians experiencing persecution and difficulty in early days, the longing was for the return of Jesus and the final day of the Lord when everything would be put right and all that was wrong and evil and unjust would be put to an end.
How do we find our way home? How can we make it through the wilderness with the dangers and difficulties it presents? What will fix the many problems we face – homelessness and poverty, terror and threats of war, addiction and broken relationships? And who will lead us? Who knows the answers and has the strength and courage to bring us back?
John the Baptizer offers one way in the wilderness. His is the way of repentance in the great tradition of the Hebrew prophets. He compels us to examine our lives and to confess the ways that we have broken our relationship with God and with others. In the wilderness we are to move beyond blame and shame by acknowledging both our shared and individual sin. By confession and forgiveness we are set free to begin again, to re-commit ourselves to the way of God.
The Baptizer calls people to honest repentance. But this is only the first step. This is preparation. This is what is needed when we are in the wilderness. We can’t go home when we’re stuck in blame and shame. There is no way to a healthy family dynamic when our inner six year old and our judgmental teenage self confront the complicated reality of family relationships. We cannot work together as a community to address the problems of homelessness, addiction and mental illness when we are hurling names at one other, demonizing the people involved and magnifying the shame of the most vulnerable by treating them without respect and dignity.
And we cannot be great as a nation when many of our fellow citizens are shamed because of race, color, gender or orientation. We cannot return to a time when it was standard practice to devalue the human worth of the non-white, the poor, and those that don’t conform to arbitrary standards of normal identity. There will be no moving forward if we blame the immigrant, the Muslim, the homeless, the rich or the people of a different political party for all of our problems. In the wilderness of our fear and anger, repentance is one first step towards a new future.
But repentance alone won’t bring us home. Even John the Baptizer knew that. He was aware that he alone wasn’t powerful or worthy enough to deliver the people, to transform the world, to usher in the Kingdom of God.
Finally, at last, in the last days, at the end of hope in the depth of our longing we discover our heart’s true home. And it is Jesus. The beginning of the good news is when Jesus enters our world and our lives. It is when Jesus makes a home in our very beings by the power of the Holy Spirit and dwells with us. We can be at home in any place, anywhere and at anytime when we are at home with God in our inner being.
Jesus doesn’t come to re-establish the Kingdom of Israel or to recruit an army and establish world peace or to fix everything for us. Jesus comes to offer himself in love for the world and to immerse us in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit so that we might live as witnesses to the life, light, and love of God.
Jesus comes and people are healed and empowered. Jesus comes and families are disrupted as new connections that transcend blood and ethnicity and background are forged. Jesus forgives and those who lived in shame and regret are able to lift their heads and begin a new life. Jesus comes and we find our heart’s true home at last beyond human boundaries and barriers. We are able to be at home with those who are very different from us and those from whom we differ. We are able to love in a fresh way those who are part of our own family and to expand that love to include the stranger and alien.
This is no lullaby to soothe us but rather a powerful new identity that propels us into the world as servants of the risen Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Our longing for true home sends us out as messengers of the One who finds his home in every human heart. Amen.