Sermon by Laura, 12.8.19 Advent 2
It’s sing-along time. Join in with me if you know this song:
I”ll be home for Christmas,
You can count on me,
Please have snow and mistletoe,
and presents on the tree.
Christmas Eve will find me,
where the love light gleams.
I’ll be home for Christmas,
if only in my dreams…
That was great! Thanks for singing with me!
So, that was “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” written by Kim Gannon and Walter Kent, one of the most popular Christmas tunes since 1943, when Bing Crosby recorded it. Sung from the perspective of a WWII soldier overseas, it became the most requested song at Christmas U.S.O. shows, and the GI magazine Yank said Crosby “accomplished more for military morale than anyone else of that era.”
Isn’t it curious that this song about the longing for home was seen to improve morale? In the same era, the BBC, thinking it would have the opposite effect on British troops, banned the song from broadcasts! But in the last decade, psychology researchers who study nostalgia have learned this emotion has overall beneficial effects, alleviating loneliness, boredom and anxiety.
Apparently, nostalgia can even help people literally feel warmer on cold days!  No wonder so many favorite Christmas songs and movies are nostalgic—we need the warmth in winter!
But I also think we benefit from nostalgia as we sing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” because its last, wistful line acknowledges a difficult truth: “if only in my dreams.”
As much as we might want to go home, physically or emotionally, as much as we might long to return to the Christmas morning feelings of childhood, as we grow up we usually experience the truth of the saying, “You can’t go home again.”
I asked friends on Facebook to share stories of when this feeling had surfaced in their lives. Those who responded to inquiry named an array of situations: when a parent dies or moves away from your childhood home; when you return somewhere with a broader perspective after being away at college or visiting another country; when you realize your children will no longer stay with you for the holidays; and when a place you’ve loved changes or closes down.
People and places and circumstances just keep changing, and we ourselves grow into different people. So the actual experience of going home, for Christmas or any another time, is often uncomfortable in the incongruity we might feel between our warm memories and the present reality. Today’s scriptures express the human longing for the comfort of homecoming alongside the ambivalent emotions that homecoming actually brings.
“Comfort, O comfort my people,” says Isaiah 40. “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.” We’ve often heard these familiar words in this season, as we read the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which depict John the Baptist as the “voice in the wilderness,” the one who prepares the way for Jesus.
However, in Isaiah’s context, these words are first addressed to the Judean people exiled in Babylon, promising them a straight and steady roadway to return home to Jerusalem, promising that God will make a way where there is no way:
“Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low.
The uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed
and all people shall see it together…”
Isaiah 40 initiates the theme of return, which is carried through the next fifteen chapters of this prophetic book. This poetry was likely composed years after the fall of Jerusalem, as Isaiah or his students watched the political dynamics in the region and found hope when a new ruler, Cyrus, king of Persia, conquered and took over Babylon. Isaiah 45 even names Cyrus directly as a ‘messiah,’ an anointed agent of God, the only non-Israelite in the Bible ever to be named as such.
Cyrus and the Persians had a different idea of empire than their Babylonian predecessors. They allowed greater freedom to their vassals; they encouraged them to worship their gods in their own customs. So it is that Cyrus’ edict to exiled Judeans is the immediate good news of Ezra 1, a proclamation permitting them to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. “And what a proclamation it is!” writes one commentator. “It’s the kind that refugees don’t even dare dream about: go home. Go home, loaded with blessings. Go home, loaded with blessings, and rebuild.”
Some, though not all, of the people do go home to Jerusalem, with plans to rebuild their nation in these new circumstances. According to the book of Ezra, they waste little time getting to work on the “house of God.” They begin with the altar, setting it up on the ruined foundation of the old altar; from there, the priestly leaders immediately reestablish proper worship of God, in line with Moses’ instructions. Getting the proper sacrifices going is a priority for the exiles because home is not as they remembered.
In their time away, the exiles in Babylon had struggled to stay true to their identity as God’s chosen people while surrounded by worshipers of other gods. These struggles shape their perception of those who had stayed behind, people who were never the political or religious elites, and who had intermingled and intermarried with the Canaanite cultures in and surrounding Judah. In the returned exiles’ minds, the people who had remained in the land had diluted and corrupted the ways of God’s people. At stake was the question of identity: which people constituted the true Israel, the true heirs of God’s blessing?
Of course, questions of the ‘true people’ or the ‘true church’ continue to cause conflict within and between Judeo-Christian and other religious traditions to this day. And no matter how humans fight to prove our own ways to be correct or pure, it is truly a question only God can judge rightly.
That said, I want us to see how the leaders in Ezra’s story demonstrate practical wisdom. In the midst of great uncertainty and change, they prioritize the rituals, symbols and structures which have and continue to ground and frame their sense of identity in God and their trust in God’s presence. It is wisdom each of us can use when we make disconcerting transitions, coming home to a changed reality.
“Structure binds anxiety,” a wise teacher once told me. What are the core structures, symbols, and practices which help you return to your foundation with God? What are the songs and stories, the memories and mementos which bring you home at Christmas, even if only in your dreams?
And there is a further question, once you’ve reestablished that foundation: Will you allow God to draw you, beyond the home you knew, to your true home in the heart of Christ?
Perhaps the most poignant moment in Ezra’s story arises in a gathering after a new foundation for the temple has been laid. The priests put on their vestments and sound their trumpets. Musicians come out with their cymbals. They sing the classic refrain with which Israel has praised the Lord for generations, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.”
The gathered people respond with a great shout. Many are joyful, but not everyone. The oldest people, those who still remember Solomon’s glorious temple, are weeping. Can you imagine their feelings?
A new beginning has been made, but they know how much has been lost. It will never be the same. The past is gone, and any possibility of future glory may never match it in their eyes.
What I appreciate in this story is that their weeping is not overlooked or denied, even as the text says that “people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping.” Both responses seem to be regarded as worthy of notice and authentic to the moment.
Here, too, is great wisdom for us. In God’s presence, joy and sorrow will intermingle. Both can provoke tears. Tears not only express grief, compassion, and contrition but they arise in response to goodness and beauty. “Tears are a way the body expresses its openness to God,” writes spiritual director Susan S. Phillips. Tears reflect an opening with a person to “see oneself clearly in the light of God’s loving truth.”
Here in this season of Advent longing and Christmas celebration, when we remember God’s past coming in Jesus Christ, and we renew our hope for Christ’s culmination in the second coming, there is an invitation for us.
The culture paints this season as “happy happy joy joy,” a denial of complex reality which can exacerbate our feelings of loss and lack and loneliness. But the truth is that God’s coming,and our coming home to God, evokes a very mixed bag of emotions: joy, sorrow, fear, excitement, and everything in between.
We are invited to accept all of the ways God’s Spirit moves through us and those around us, whether in laughter or tears, or even both at the same time. We are invited to let ourselves and others express those emotions freely, trusting that our authentic responses help Christ lead us deeper into God’s grace in each encounter of these days.
When we can freely experience and express to God and to one another whatever arises for us this season, God’s house becomes a spacious place in which we can truly come home to Christ’s peace.
In Philippians, Paul calls it “the peace of God which surpasses all understanding.” It is a peace which is not dependent on the purity of our traditions or appropriate religious enthusiasm. It is a peace which transcends time and place, flowing in and beyond any conflict, a foundational equanimity, unshaken, no matter what life changes we experience. It is a gift which we are given so that we can be at home no matter where or with whom we find ourselves in this world, a gift granted to us that we may become peacemakers, those who pass on to others the peace of Christ.
So, my friends, hear my prayer for you this season: Wherever you may go in these days, in your life, may you come home, in and beyond your wildest dreams, to God’s love in Jesus Christ. Amen.
From my Charge and Benediction: quote from Barbara Holmes in Joy Unspeakable:
“The human task is threefold. First, the human spirit must connect to the eternal by turning toward God’s immanence and ineffability with yearning. Second, each person must explore the inner reality of his or her humanity facing unmet potential and catastrophic failure with unmitigated honesty and grace. Finally, each one of us must face the unlovable neighbor, the enemy outside of our embrace, and the shadow skulking in the recesses of our own hearts. Only then can we declare God’s perplexing and unlikely peace on earth.”
 David Evans at Austin Seminary, in a sermon he preached in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
 Susan S. Phillips, Candlelight: Illuminating the Art of Spiritual Direction. New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2008, 36-37.
 Barbara A. Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, 2nd ed. (Fortress Press: 2017), 3-4.