Coming Home to Christ’s Peace

Sermon by Laura, 12.8.19 Advent 2

Isaiah 40:1-5, Ezra 1: 1-4, 3:1-4, 10-13

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.”[1]

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! [2] 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.”[3]

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.[4] 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.”[5]

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.”[6]


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I%27ll_Be_Home_for_Christmas

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/09/science/what-is-nostalgia-good-for-quite-a-bit-research-shows.html

[3] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4221

[4] David Evans at Austin Seminary, in a sermon he preached in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

[5] Susan S. Phillips, Candlelight: Illuminating the Art of Spiritual Direction. New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2008, 36-37.

[6] Barbara A. Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, 2nd ed. (Fortress Press: 2017), 3-4.

Torn down to build up 11.15.15

Today I delve into one of those texts of scripture that often cause stress and anguish not only for the reader, but also for the preacher who decides to wade in the apocalyptic waters of texts that deal with things yet to come.  Chapter 13 in the Gospel of Mark has often been referred to as the “little apocalypse,” because of all the dire language.  Oft-quoted texts like “wars and rumors of wars,” of earthquakes and famines, have been used by alarmists throughout the history of the church.   Which is ironic, because in the midst of this bleak picture of wars and earthquakes, you will hear Jesus give words of comfort to not only his disciples, but also to us as we live in a world where nightly the news broadcasts bring the horrors of wars and natural disasters into our living rooms.

Even though I completely believe Jesus’ predictions in chapter 13 dealt with the destruction of the temple that happened in 70AD, any good prophecy speaks beyond the moment it was intended for and has a word for us today.  Jesus consoles his disciples then and now with the words, “Do not be alarmed.”  These texts aren’t meant to strike fear into our hearts, but to teach what is needed to sustain us as we life out our day-to-day discipleship in a world of transition and turmoil.  Let us hear the words of our Lord from the opening verses of chapter 13 of the Gospel of Mark.

Mark 13: 1-8

Many of you are well traveled and have seen some pretty spectacular structures during those times abroad.  Which of all the buildings you saw was the most impressive or most beautiful? What was your initial reaction when you first saw it?  How many pictures did you take?  Now imagine as you are taking your last picture, the guy standing next to you says, “It won’t be long before all that will all be gone.”

The feeling you have only begins to scratch the surface of what must have gone through the disciples’ heads and hearts as Jesus told them that the temple would be destroyed.  This was the temple, the very dwelling place of God.  It was huge.  The Roman historian Tacitus described the temple complex as a mountain of white marble adorned with gold.  There were immense courtyards, grand porches and monumental stairs.  Herod, the great builder of this temple, not only built it to impress his Roman allies, but to show off his power to the common Jewish people of Israel.  And he succeeded.

For these Galilean fishermen, the daunting power of the temple and the Roman forces may have seemed irresistible and immovable.  But Jesus lets them know that the powers of the present age are transient, they will not last.  The world they are living in of imperial rule from both outside and inside the temple is not the way that God intends the world to be.  They would have been in complete agreement that the sooner the Romans went the better.  But the temple?  It stood for so much.  Sadly, the temple became a metaphor for how God would save the people of Israel from the world, but it had originally been built so the people of Israel would be a light unto the world, pointing the world back to loving presence of God.

In sharing this story of the foretelling of the destruction of the temple, Mark is not denying that crises exist or that there are times when present suffering calls for urgent action.  But what it does is present the cataclysms Jesus describes as the “birth pangs” of God’s transformation of the world, where God’s new heaven and new earth intersect with the old.   Because of this, whenever you hear people ascribe disaster experiences as part of God’s judgment, they are to be held at arms length.  In almost a way that is un-apocalyptic, Jesus says that earthly disasters are not necessarily an indication that God’s judgment is near.  They will happen, but don’t try and interpret them for what they may not be.  God is at work in the world, but labeling God’s actions and motivations as judgment is not the job of his followers.

Jesus is aware of our human tendencies, to lock in on more powerful forces and to be overcome with fear due to threats, violence, war, the tenuous standing of the church, the finitude of our existence, or to be lured by all those enticing voices promising the false security of other idols, quick fixes and scapegoats.

In response to our inevitable reaction to such powerful forces, Jesus provides us with three important spiritual disciplines for navigating transitional times.  Things were changing and about to change very fast for the disciples in the next several days and years, with the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ and then the destruction of their beloved temple.  How are we to respond in this world of constant change and flux?

First, believers must engage in discernment in the face of threats from both without and within to determine God’s goal for the life of the world.  For the disciples between that time of the resurrection and destruction of the temple, history tells us that resistance fighters were going through the Palestinian countryside calling on all Jews to join the battle.  Many in Mark’s community would have been tempted to join the cause and saying “no” would have marked them as traitors.

For us, the threats in this age are more subtle such as allowing the false security of a cultural, consumer driven theology to creep into our community.   In today’s culture in the church, this often takes shape in the assumption that a church that is growing, vibrant, and happy is “filled with the Spirit,” as though these are visible indications of being spiritually dressed for success, or that a church in decline has necessarily lost the steadfast faithfulness of bygone years.  God in Christ calls us to be faithful to him and not successful as defined by the world’s standards.

Second, believers must be patient.  Birthing a new heaven and new earth takes time.  There are many evils to eradicate and many more hopes to realize.  These are the birth pangs of God’s new age.  God’s transformation and the witness of believers must compete with many forces, biases, demons, and appetites.  Working out God’s promises occurs during the life of the world as well as in and for the world.  Being patient requires the recognition of the truth that, while the powers of the world are imposing and strong, they are not unmovable and invincible.  The love of God that is transforming the world is the one thing we can rely on that won’t change.

Trusting that God is transforming the world and that believers are called to participate in God’s saving work is fundamental to Mark’s conception of the Christian life.  In that task, believers are sustained by the third reminder:  for the Christian, there is always hope.  There will be times when we feel beleaguered, beaten up, bruised, and vulnerable.  Growth, change, and the coming of new life are a painful process, but in this suffering there is always hope and the promise of a new day.  Hope sustains us through the birth pangs of change and the necessary struggle that leads to growth.  It is Mark’s prescription to the disciples as they move into a time of great change and transition, and it his prescription to us, Christ’s church, in a world of change and transition:  Discernment, patience, and hope.  They are given as a provisional sign to stand in the midst of tension in a passing world.  Amen.

Tear ‘Em Down and Build ‘Em Up: Sermon by Keith, 3.8.15, Lent 3B

During Lent, many of us take up some form of spiritual housekeeping, like giving up coffee or chocolate, or adding something like reading the psalms every day.  In this morning scripture, we find Jesus doing more than just a spiritual cleanup, he takes housekeeping to a new level.

Scripture text: John 2:13-22

This is one of those stories about Jesus that creates some inner turmoil for me, and it should produce a little bit of angst for you, too, as Jesus makes his whip and gets the coins a flying and the cattle bellowing as he drives them from the temple.  Here is why we should have some tension with Jesus over the whole scene:  Along side this surge of righteous adrenaline that is produced when Jesus shifts into his prophetic mode comes the sneaking fear that we might have more in common with the targets of his judgment than with the righteousness of his cause.  Do we stand there cheering Jesus on as he goes about his good work of addressing a wrong, or is Jesus coming at us with his whip?

For many of us, we are drawn to Jesus in what he is doing.  We want to be right there encouraging him as he confronts injustice, hypocrisy, and the misuse of God’s name.  He slips into the role of an Old Testament prophet whose words thrill and empower us when we think about the weak exploited by the powerful.  We have a desire to see wrongs righted, to see and experience God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.  And here is Jesus addressing the wrongs!  We have the temptation to take up a whip with him and denounce the principalities and the powers that bring about injustice in the world.  You can almost hear the “superhero” music playing in the background.  Duh, ta, ta, duh!  Here is Jesus to save the day!  We got your back!

Yet the targets of Jesus’ actions in the temple that day are not kings far away in remote palaces, or forces seen or unseen, or pagan priests who are making sacrifices that have never heard of the God of Israel.  No, driven before him are the money changers, whose tables were tolerated, even encouraged, by the temple authorities.  Just getting this little glimpse and we say, “They should have known better.”

But we forget the reasons all this had happened.  Here was the temple, and back in the Holy of Holies, where the chief priest only went once a year was the place that held the 10 commandments, the words that spoke how to have a right relationship with God and neighbor.  And for festivals and celebrations, Jews would make a pilgrimage from all over the world with Roman coins in their pockets and animals that were bruised and tired from their journey to celebrate at the temple in Jerusalem.  You can imagine how this system of money changes and animals filling the outer courts of the temple happened.  Well, those coins with the image of Caesar can’t come in here!  They violate the law!  And those weak and weary animals, they can’t be sacrifices!  God only deserves the best!  Let’s create temple money that doesn’t have any images on it so people can give in a way they don’t violate the law.  Let’s have on hand animals without blemish that people can buy for their sacrifices.

It is highly doubtful that anyone had any intent on exploiting these pilgrims by the use of God’s good name when these systems were set up.  Odds are all who were involved thought this arrangement was ideal to meet the requirements of the law.  Everyone settled into comfortable behaviors that enabled them to meet personal and institutional goals.  The temple wouldn’t be corrupted by idols and images of Caesar and the pilgrims could fulfill their religious duties.  No one saw the corruption inherent in changing money, and if they did, they turned a blind eye.  The rational behind creating this system became more important than the issues it created.

The condemnation Jesus serves up is not for obscure priests and powers abusing their authority in distant lands, but for people in their time and place who were doing no more than we do in our own time.  Tempting as it might be to pass around a microphone and ask everyone what their favorite wrong they see and experience in the world and talk about how we can take up our own whip of cords and overturn the tables of those injustices, this text talks directly to us.  It pushes us to imagine Jesus entering our own sanctuaries and homes, overturning our own cherished rationalizations and drive us out in the name of God.  It forces us to be honest and acknowledge that we often put ourselves and our institutions at the service of powers that are decidedly less than God.

There is a tension here of being faithful to God’s calling in the world and what we can do in our lives and in our churches.  We make compromises and we try to figure out what works best in our lives and the situations we face.  But how we live in that tension is important.  We must constantly be questioning, asking why, basically being a prophet to our own motivations.  We must always be asking ourselves, the world, and yes, the church to do better than we currently do.  If we lose that prophetic voice, we slide into, “but that’s the way we’ve always done it” and our lives can start mirroring the values of the prevailing culture or worse yet, co-opting to serve those things and powers it originally bore witness against.

The reason for keeping the idol of Caesar’s image out of the temple was a good one, but it lead to a system that benefited a few and left others poorer.  How have the individual and family decisions, the lifestyle choices, and how we spend money been justified?  How has what the church been doing in its outreach and programming come to benefit just a few, or benefit those doing that outreach?  There is a tension created between what we think are good motivations and God’s call to love, mercy, and forgiveness.

One way to deal with the tension that we meet as we encounter Jesus in the temple would be to say, “Well, Jesus is criticizing a Jewish institution and practice that we as Christians have moved beyond.  In Christ, we have moved beyond the temple.”  And yes, John does write his whole gospel with the theological understanding that the actual physical temple would be replaced with the temple of Jesus’ body, a narrative foreshadowing Christ’s death and resurrection.  But that doesn’t give us permission to settle too fast to celebrate the Jesus who criticizes someone other than us.  We cannot assume that because Jesus is ‘our’ savior that he is perpetually well pleased with us.

If anything, these words of Jesus should make us take notice of every aspect of our lives to see where we need to hear his voice calling us to repent.  He’s calling us to a type of housekeeping that goes beyond giving up chocolate or holding rummage sales.  Jesus’ call on our lives is to tear down those things that are separating us from God and each other, even if we put them up thinking they would bring us closer to God and each other.

We are celebrating the third Sunday in Lent today.  I’d invite you to spend some time this week doing some spiritual housekeeping with Jesus.  Think about those things in your own life that maybe you have come to see as reasonable compromises in your life of faith, or even things in this church community that made good sense to do when they were started but now have become idols in their own way that keep us and others from fully experiencing the love God has to offer the world.  And come tell us about them.

It is important for us to tolerate and explore through prayer and preparation the queasy anxiety of seeing Jesus with a whip of chords in his hands and hearing him with the righteous judgments of God on his lips—knowing that he speaks for us, yes, and with us, yes, but also to us and even against us at times.  It might be hard to picture an angry Jesus lashing out at us.  But Jesus came into the temple not to be destructive or disruptive, but to draw us back to the heart of God. Amen.