Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Sermon for Christmas Eve, "Home for Christmas," Luke 2:1-20

Sermon 12/24/2015
Luke 2:1-20

Home for Christmas

I will admit to you that although some of you have heard me preach many, many times, I really only have a small repertoire of sermons. No, I don’t preach the same thing week after week of course. But I think if you boiled them down, you’d find the same themes running through my sermons again and again. God loves you so much, and God gives you this love and grace freely, without price. There’s nothing you can do to earn it, and nothing you can do to lose it. That’s one sermon. Or there’s this one: what God wants from you is everything! Your whole heart! Your whole life! Or another: God can do amazing things in you and through you if you open your life fully to God. Another: God wants you to have abundant life. Stop settling for stuff that doesn’t really satisfy. It will never work.
I don’t feel too badly about this though, my repeated themes, because Jesus did the same thing in his preaching and teaching. When asked to sum up all of what God says to us, Jesus said that it came down to the greatest commandments – love God, and love neighbor. Jesus said that everything in the writings of the law and the prophets could be summed up in these two commands. Perhaps if we could do those two things well, consistently, completely – love God, love neighbor, we could move on to more advanced topics.
I’ve been thinking about how we have these repeated themes – these stories we like to tell. And even though we have thousands, millions of books and movies and plays and TV shows and fairy tales in our world, we can really boil them down to a handful of tropes, a handful of themes that we like to hear and tell, just with different names, a different setting, different costumes – but the same story.
Two people meet. They fall in love. Some conflict arises and their love is threatened. The conflict is resolved, and love conquers all! A dark villain arises, threatening to conquer the world. An unlikely person, who doesn’t seem to have any special powers at all, is able to conquer the villain in some unexpected way, using smarts instead of strength, and saves the day. And then there are stories about getting back home again: somehow, people are separated. Someone has left home for some reason, and all they want to do is get back home. And the whole story is about their journey home, through trials and tribulations, and the story ends when people are reunited.
Think of it: Dorothy is a little discontent with her humdrum life in Kansas. But somehow, without meaning to, she gets caught up in a great adventure in Oz. Nearly as soon as she’s there, though, she begins to long to go home. She faces many trials and dangers, and finally, she learns that home was in her grasp all along. She returns home with some clicks of her heels, and discovers that everything she needed and loved was right where she started.
Chance and Shadow and Sassy, two dogs and a cat, get separated from their family and travel across the country until they find their way home again.
Hobbits Frodo and Sam and a fellowship set out to carry a powerful ring across Middle Earth so they can save the world from evil, but eventually, they make it back home to the Shire.
I’ve been thinking about these stories of home lately – our deep desire and longing to find home, be it a physical place, or a group of people we want to get back to. I think at Christmas, when we have all these emotions and expectations swirling around the holiday, all tied up with family and relationships and how everything should be, these stories are particularly powerful.
 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. Kim Gannon wrote this classic made famous by Bing Crosby in the 1940s. He wrote it thinking of all people who couldn’t be with their loved ones at Christmas, and of course it was particularly poignant for those serving in World War II who were separated from their families and longing to make it home. Home for Christmas. It’s a powerful image.
This story – journeying home – is the story of the whole Bible, in fact. God creates humanity, but they turn away. Adam and Even leave the garden. God’s people wind up as slaves in Egypt. And Moses spends decades trying to lead them to a new home, renewing their relationship with God. Jesus tells us of a prodigal son, who took his family inheritance and ran off, and found himself with nothing. He makes the journey home – and finds that he is welcomed back with open arms.
It’s the story of our favorite songs of faith, too: “Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound, that saved a wretch like me – I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.” We sing, “Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” It seems we are always seeking home, seeking God, on this journey of life, encountering trials and tribulations, longing for something more than we’ve found in all the other places we’ve been looking.
Tonight we read of another journey – Mary and Joseph, traveling to Bethlehem. Once there, because the inn is full, Mary delivers Jesus and lays him in a manger. We read of shepherds, watching their flocks. An angel appears and tells them there is “good news of great joy for all people,” and sends them to see a child, Jesus, who the angel calls Savior, Messiah, and Lord. The shepherds make the journey, find the baby, and praise God as they return to their fields. And Mary, we read, keeps all that she hears and sees and ponders it in her heart, treasuring all of it.
This, too, is a story about home, even though we find Mary and Joseph far away from theirs. Instead, it is a story about God announcing to us that we are home – with God – that God is home with us, and in us. And to show it, to prove it, to convince us that God is home with us and we are home with God already and always, God gets as close to us as possible by becoming one of us. Can we understand, can we glimpse the depth, the magnitude of God’s love for us? Can we comprehend the lengths to which God will go to make a home in our lives?
I have a cat, Ella, and when I’m home, Ella is usually in arm’s reach of me. When I’ve been away for a few days, she’s so clingy when I get back that I’m afraid I will step on her, because she’s always underfoot. And if I’d let her, she’d most like to sit right here. She wants to be as close to me as she possibly can be.
Studies are increasingly showing what many have known intuitively for generation upon generation. If it is possible, one of the best things for newborn babies is to have skin to skin contact with their parents. Even babies who are preemies, who need extra attention – if they can have that skin-to-skin contact – there’s healing and strength in the touch.
I’ve talked with my mom about a pattern I’ve seen in my family, immediate and extended, and maybe you’ve seen it in yours too. My older brother always talked about getting out of our hometown. He couldn’t wait to get away from Rome. And he finally did – when he was an adult, he moved out here to the Syracuse area. Not far, but not Rome. And I moved out here. And my brother Todd was living out here. And eventually, my Mom moved out here too! And by the time she moved out here, my older brother, who was the most anxious to move away from home, was most anxious to get Mom to move as close to him as possible. She lives about 3 minutes away from him, and sees him nearly every day, much to everyone’s joy. I’ve seen this in my extended family, where my cousins slowly moved to Arizona over the years, and finally my aunt and uncle moved there too – to everyone’s delight. So maybe everybody left home. Maybe no one moved back to their hometown. But they brought home to where they had moved!

This is how God loves us: so much God wants to be even closer than in arm’s reach. So much that God gives us life and strength the closer we draw to God. So much that God will find us and bring home to us wherever we go. The story of Christmas is a story of a journey, and a story of home. We keep telling it again and again. And maybe each time we tell it, we’ll know it a little better, understand it more fully, believe more deeply. God creates us. God loves us. We love God. We turn away anyway. God loves us. God loves us. God loves us. God helps us find our way back. But God is with us when we start out. And God is with us even when we’re trying to journey away from God. And God is waiting for us with open arms when we return home. Because God will do anything to make a home with us. That’s the story of Christmas. God-in-the-flesh to be God-with-us. Always. Home for Christmas. Amen. 

Monday, December 14, 2015

Sermon, "Home for Christmas: Over the Back Fence," Luke 1:26-45

Sermon 12/13/15
Luke 1:26-45

Home for Christmas: Over the Back Fence

Last month, noted biblical scholar J. Ellsworth Kalas died at age 92. He was a prolific author, and I’ve used many of his resources in my years of ministry. He wrote a whole series of short studies on the scripture that were called “From the Backside” – the Parables from the Backside, the Old Testament from the Backside, Beatitudes from the Backside. Each book took a very relatable, straight-forward approach to drawing out themes from the scriptures, but by looking at the scriptures in a new light, from a different angle, focusing on minor characters or small details. My favorite is Christmas from the Backside, and I have had a particular chapter on my mind as I’ve reflected on Mary and Elizabeth this week. Kalas includes in his book chapters like “The Scandal of Christmas” and “Three Votes for an Early Christmas,” and he also includes a chapter called “Christmas Comes to a Back Fence” that focuses on the interaction between Mary and Elizabeth and the significance of women to the birth story of Jesus. He imagines the sharing between Mary and Elizabeth of the extraordinary happenings both are experiencing, juxtaposed against the common, ordinary setting of Elizabeth’s home.
We can envision this conversation between Elizabeth and Mary in a place where women might comfortably talk together. In the time when Mary and Elizabeth met to share and talk over their life-changing news, there weren’t many public places where women might gather for conversation. This conversation, then, is one that might take place in the kitchen, in the yard, by the fence, certainly a conversation that took place at home. And it is here, likely at Elizabeth’s home, in this ordinary place, talking about ordinary and extraordinary things, that we read of Elizabeth being filled with the Holy Spirit, the first time in the gospels this happens. We usually think of the Holy Spirit coming at Pentecost, falling on the disciples as they began the work of the church. But it fills Elizabeth first, as she rejoices in what is happening in both Mary and herself, saying, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” They both believe, Mary and Elizabeth, ordinary though they may be, that God is doing something extraordinary in and through them.
There are, of course, many miraculous things about the birth of Jesus and the connected stories as told in the scriptures. There are God’s messengers, the angels, popping in and out of the lives of everyone from Mary, mother of Jesus to shepherds in fields, and a sky fully of heavenly host. There’s Jesus, born in a stable, a star that guides the way, and eventually Wisemen from the East who perhaps practice astrology and bring strange gifts to the baby. There’s Elizabeth, pregnant beyond the known age of child-bearing. There is, of course, the very fact that Gabriel tells Mary her child will be the Son of the Most High God, conceived through this overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. The birth of Jesus is extraordinary.
But there are far more things about the birth of Jesus that are entirely typical. Mary experiences the limitations that unexpected pregnancies place on young women. Elizabeth feels her baby moving around in her womb. Mary wants to share her news with her cousin, and be with someone else who is experiencing what she is. Above all, we know nothing about Mary or Elizabeth that leads us to believe that they are in any way different from any other women of their time and place. We don’t find anything to suggest that they were especially pious or holy or spiritual or devoted or faithful. Perhaps they were, but the biblical writers don’t bother to share that if that’s the case. And this child, Jesus, who will be born, will not be of noble birth, will not be born in a palace, will not be born into luxury or status. He is not going to be born a prince or a king – not by standards his world will recognize. Despite God’s host of messengers, despite the shepherds that will come, despite the star, despite the visitors from the East, I think the normalcy of Jesus’ birth is just as, maybe more important than the attention-getting uniqueness of it. After all, this is God-with-us, and God can only be with us if God is really with us – born like us, born among us, born to experiences that most of us, not just a few of the elite of us have, born to a regular young woman, like any number of other children would have been born on the very same day. The birth of Jesus is ordinary.
We so often look at the world around us and divide what we see into two realms – sacred and secular. There are holy things and holy people and holy place – cross and altars and clergy and churches and sanctuaries – and then there’s ordinary stuff – our homes, our workplaces, our stuff, our food, and all the regular people. But that’s not what we see in the Christmas story. That’s not what we see in Mary and Elizabeth. That’s not what we see in scriptures. Instead, we find again and again that God shows up unexpectedly in our ordinary place, and by God’s very presence, by God’s showing up in our regular old lives, they are made holy. That’s what God does in communion – ordinary bread and cup become extraordinarily the living body of Christ. In baptism regular old water becomes a sign of new life, rebirth. Fishermen and tax collectors become disciples. Children become keys to understanding God’s reign on earth. And two ordinary women become the mother of the Christ-child and the mother of the prophet who will prepare his way. That’s what happens when God shows up in our ordinary – what God touches becomes Holy.  
I think sometimes we spend so much effort seeking out what we think is holy and sacred so that we can draw close to God. Instead, I wonder if we can start looking for the ways that the holy is all around us when God shows up in the ordinary stuff of our lives. Perhaps you’ll notice a holy moment when you are in the midst of the chaos at a busy shopping mall in these weeks leading up to Christmas. Perhaps you can make note of the holy in our midst when you see the kind of gifts children prepare for their loved ones with such care and creativity. Maybe you’ll experience a holy moment as you roll out the dough for Christmas cookies, or when you hear a carol on the radio as you drive to work. When you see examples of God-with-us in the everyday of life, you’re seeing something holy.
Kalas writes, “I’m trying to say that Christmas shows us that no part of life is unimportant to God, and that none of it is beyond God’s interest. And if that be so, not one of us is beyond God’s care and concern … So if you’re wondering where Christmas will happen this year, I’ll answer with a question: Where do you expect to be?” Because Christmas happens where we are. Christmas comes right to our homes, and right to our hearts. God loves you, God loves me, God loves us enough to become one of us, to show up in every part of our world, in every aspect of our lives. The gift that we can prepare for God this Christmas is to offer to God every bit, every piece, every part of our ordinary lives. And then, get ready: Because everything God gets to work on can becomes something extraordinary, something holy. And blessed are we who believed that there will be a fulfilment of what is spoken to us by God! Amen.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Sermon, "Home for Christmas: Prepare Him Room," Luke 3:1-18

Sermon 12/6/15
Luke 3:1-18

Home for Christmas: Prepare Him Room

If you go into my eight-year old nephew Sam’s bedroom, much of the time you might find a path from the door to the bed, but not much else. I imagine he’s in good company. We all love Sam, and we love giving him things, but when he was about 2 or 3, if someone would come for a visit, Sam would say, “What did you bring me?” He was so used to getting gifts from people that it had become an expectation. If you didn’t have a present for him, Sam wondered what was wrong with you! My brother and sister-in-law work hard to make sure Sam is kind and generous and not hung up on stuff, things – and yet Sam has so many toys – and that’s not counting ones that are stored away – so many toys that there isn’t much floor left in sight in his room. Our focus this second Sunday in Advent is Prepare Him Room. The phrase you might recognize from the hymn Joy to the World – we sing: “Let every heart prepare him room.” We’re meant to make room for the Christ Child, room for the Prince of Peace, room for Jesus. And as I mull over this phrase, I just keep imagining that all of us are engaged in trying to prepare our hearts for Jesus like an 8 year old trying to clean his room when “clean” means “a path from the door to the bed is visible.” Let every heart prepare him room!
Last week I talked to you about people having to move into smaller apartments – folks adjusting at the retirement community where I work to having less space than they were used to. I lived in parsonages during my first two appointments as pastor, and then started at a church with no parsonage. For a while, I rented an apartment, and it was smaller by half at least than any house I’d ever lived in. I felt like I had no room for anything. The biggest challenge was my Christmas tree. I have an artificial tree that I store in about 5 plastic bins. And at the apartment I lived in, I felt like no matter what closet you opened, you’d find at least one bin with part of the Christmas tree shoved in side. There was just not enough room. I had to find creative ways to squeeze everything in. Let every heart prepare him room!
            When I was in high school, I went to Austria a group from my school orchestra. It was my first international trip, and I packed ridiculously. I couldn’t manage my own luggage. I needed to get help with it, on and off buses, in and out of hotels, on and off planes. And I vowed to myself never again to pack for a trip in a way that I couldn’t easily manage my own stuff. When I was in seminary, I had the chance to go to Ghana in West Africa, and I packed like a pro, and while I was there, I only bought souvenirs that I knew would fit in my bags easily. Some of my friends were not so wise, and I wondered about all the extra fees they would have to pay at the airport. But then I witnessed something strange – at the airport, where you could only have a certain number of bags – the airline staff would help you shrink wrap several of your bags into one, so that your four items of luggage were turned into one item – one gigantic item – but just one. This seemed to me to be missing the point of the luggage restrictions – making room by squishing everything in, sucking all the air out of it. Let every heart prepare him room!
            My Uncle Bill has shared with me that when he and my aunt were expecting their second child, he went to my grandfather in distress, and said, “I don’t know how I can do it. I love my daughter so much, and I don’t know if I have room to love a second child as much as I love her.” He was so worried that he wouldn’t be able to show child #2 the same kind of total love he had for child #1. My grandfather, father of five children, all of whom he he loved with all his heart, assured him that he would find his heart expanded quite nicely to love with all his heart a new life. Your heart expands and expands and expands and you find you have quite enough room for your heart to be completely filled again with this new life, this new child. There’s no competition, no struggle to divide love. Love multiplies. Let every heart prepare him room! 
Today we find ourselves in the gospel of Luke, encountering one who the scriptures tells us was sent to help the people – help us – prepare some room for the one who would come after him. We meet John the Baptist, cousin to Jesus. Luke tells us that the word of God came to John, and that he began preaching a baptism for repentance and forgiveness of sins. To repent means literally to change the direction of your mind, to change the direction of your life back to God’s direction. Baptism – cleansing with a water ritual – was not a new practice to Judaism – and something about John’s message was drawing people in. Luke tells us that John embodied the words of the prophet Isaiah who spoke of one who would prepare the way of the Lord, that all might see the salvation of God.
So crowds show up to hear John and get baptized, but he doesn’t exactly thank them for coming. He calls them a brood of vipers, and warns them against claiming their faith heritage, thinking they’ll be safe from needing to bear good fruit because of their good religious pedigree. Everyone, John says, needs to bear good fruit. Hopefully that language should sound a bit familiar to you. Someone bravely asks John, “Well, what should we do then?” And John says that if you have two coats, give one to someone who has none. If you have enough food, share what you have with someone who doesn’t. If you are a tax collector – and remember in John’s day, these were Jewish folks who worked for the hated Roman governments, so they were considered greedy and corrupt – John urges them to collect no more than is due. For soldiers – and again, here he is probably addressing Jewish soldiers working for the Romans – John tells them not to extort money, not to make threats, not to make false accusations, and finally, to be satisfied with their wages. Preaching scholar David Lose writes of John’s message, “Hey, wait a second: share, don’t bully, be fair. These sound like the rules of kindergarten. That’s right. “Fruits worth of repentance,” it turns out, aren’t located at the top of some spiritual mountain; rather, they are right next door, in our homes and schools and workplaces and community.” What John says isn’t complicated. We just have to actually do what he says. Our repentance – our changing direction – has to look a lot more like we turned back toward God and a lot less like we’re still going in the same direction. After hearing all of this, which Luke notes to us is the good news – we read that the people are filled with expectation. Let every heart prepare him room.
A couple of weeks ago, I shared a children’s sermon where I showed the children, using a jar and some stones that if you put God in your life first, instead of trying to cram God in last, make room for God after everything else, you’ll find that you have room for everything. Seek God and God’s kingdom first, and everything else after. That’s the promise of abundant life Jesus shares with us – he wants us to have life, abundant life, full life. And yet, I have to confess that my children’s sermon is also a little bit of a myth. God wants us to fill our lives with every good thing, starting with our relationship with God. We’ll find that our hearts keep expanding and expanding to receive God’s blessings as we fill our hearts with more and more love, more hope, more peace, more joy. There’s always room in our jar for more of that. But when we try to give a part of our hearts to things that really need to be thrown out, we make a part of our hearts inaccessible to anything God wants to give us. And we just can’t prepare room for Jesus if we won’t budge on some of the other stuff we’re keeping there. There are some things that don’t belong in our jar, that don’t belong in our lives, that don’t belong in our hearts. That stuff needs to be cleared out to prepare the way. John suggests we clear out from our lives some of our excess – if you have more food and clothing, more stuff than you need, there’s plenty who could use it. Wouldn’t he be surprised to know that most of us have not two tunics but fifty, or a hundred! If you’ve filled up your heart with greed and envy, clear it out, John says. If you’ve filled it up with the need for power over others, with anger, with pride, clear it out. Let every heart prepare him room.
In ninth grade English class, we had to read the lyric ballad The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I can’t say I loved it, but my English teacher would be happy to know that some of the most famous phrases have stayed in my mind all these years. In the poem, sailors are stranded in still water in the ocean for some time, and they are dying of thirst, having run out of water. The narrator remarks, “Water, water, every where, And all the boards did shrink; Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” The high salt content of seawater makes it impossible for your body to process, so if you drank nothing but saltwater, you'd die from dehydration. Water everywhere, and yet so very thirsty. I believe that this is the tension, the crux of our faith journey. We live in the tension of this paradox: some things fill us up to overflowing, and seem to expand our hearts and our capacity to love and serve and give, while other things leave us filled up to the point that we’re empty and starving, thirsty in the middle of an ocean full of water. Our task, our discipleship is the process of learning how to know the difference between these things, and choosing again and again to fill ourselves with things that satisfy, things that expand our hearts, instead of closing them off. 
This is a season of waiting and longing and hoping for the Christ Child, the Prince of Peace. We are filled with expectation. We have been called to repentance, to clear out some of the junk that is closing off corners of our hearts. We have been called to make a path, a highway, a wide-open road to our souls, ready for Christ to enter in. Let every heart prepare him room! Amen.

            (Hymn: Joy to the world! The Lord will Come)

Thursday, December 10, 2015

A Sung Communion Liturgy for the Season of Christmas - Tune: Adestes Fideles (O Come All Ye Faithful)

A Sung Communion Liturgy for the Season of Christmas:
O Come, All Ye Faithful
O Come, all you faithful, gather at the table
O Come, lift your hearts up and give praise to God
Come and be welcomed; Come and be filled with life
We come now to the table,
We come now to the table,
We come now to the table
of Christ the Lord.

God, our Creator, set us in the garden
God offered to us all our hearts’ desire.
We turned away, convinced that we knew better
Yet God would not forget us
Yet God would not forget us
Yet God would not forget us
Thanks be to God!

All through the ages, God still sought to reach us,
Through prophets and poets, through leaders and law,
Yet, we kept wandering, yet we kept falling
The people walked in darkness
The people walked in darkness
The people walked darkness
O save us, God!

Just at the right time, God sent us the Christ Child
Born to redeem us, Prince of Peace
Jesus: God with us, Word made flesh among us
O Come, Let us adore him
O Come, Let Us adore him
O Come, Let Us adore him
Christ, the Lord

He called us to follow, he preached to us repentance
He ate with sinners; he taught and he healed.
Sharing the good news, he showed us salvation
Our savior walked among us,
Our savior walked among us,
Our savior walked among, us
God with us!

With his disciples, he sat down to supper
Broke bread and shared it; his life for us
Cup of redemption, new covenant God gives us
He calls us to remember
He calls us to remember
He calls us to remember
Give thanks to God! 

God, pour out your Spirit, on these gifts before us
May bread and cup become Body of Christ
Transform us too, God! We are your people!
Redeemed by your love,
Redeemed by your love,
Redeemed by your love
in Christ the Lord.
Prayer after Communion:
O God, we thank you, for this holy mystery
In which you give yourself for us
Send us forth now, Send us in your Spirit,
For we are Christ’s Body
For we are Christ’s Body
For we are Christ’s Body
Thanks be to God!
Text: Beth Quick, 2015.
Based on “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” John F. Wade, trans: Frederick Oakeley.
A Sung Communion Liturgy for the Season of Christmas by Rev. Beth Quick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Sermon, "Home for Christmas: Moving Out, Moving In," John 1:1-14

Sermon 11/29/15
John 1:1-14

Home for Christmas: Moving Out, Moving In

            Have you moved much in your life? Have you had the opportunity – or challenge – or however you’d describe it – of packing up all your stuff, and moving it to a new place? Did you move across town? Or to a new town? A new state? Pastors in our conference are encouraged each year to take a health assessment that examines stressors that you might have experienced within the last year. One significant stress factor, according to the assessment, is whether or not you’ve had to move in the last year. Of course, for United Methodist pastors, who often move to new locations at the leading of the bishop, there are many of us who have to check that box every year! (And no, please don’t panic. This is not me telling you that I’m moving!) I’ve been thinking about this – the stress of moving – because as you know, I serve part time as chaplain to a retirement community. Folks come to live at The Meadows for a variety of reasons, but for some, the move is because of declining health, or the loss of a spouse, or to be near children – some situation that makes moving more of a requirement and less of a choice. I often speak with newer residents who are struggling with the significant change that moving requires. People who have lived in large houses are suddenly in small apartments. They’re very nice apartments. But they are significantly smaller than what folks have been used to. Moving, settling into a new space, a new home, a new community, a new pattern of daily life – it’s stressful. Leaving a place that has been home is so very difficult. And yet, often the most meaningful experiences we have in life are attached to a move. Children head off to college. Couples move in together. A family buys its home for the first time. A new job opportunity means a move to a new place. Leaving home is hard. But often, we build a new home in a new place, in a new season, in a new expression of family, at a new stage in our journey.    
Our Advent theme this year is “Home for Christmas.” I wrestled with a few ideas to focus our worship this year, this Advent. I felt a strong tug towards spending the whole season thinking about the theme for this week’s candle: Hope. We could use some huge helpings of hope right now in our hurting world. But this idea of Home for Christmas just wouldn’t let me alone. I’ve been thinking about the number of losses we’ve had as a congregation recently, and thinking about how I hope we take comfort in the idea of being eternally at home with God. I’ve been thinking about my folks in Rochester and their different family situations – how some would be able to be with loved ones for Thanksgiving and some would be on their own. I’ve been thinking about refugees, and the journeys they have taken – driven from one home by violence, wondering if they would find a new home, and where that might be. Home is such a powerful concept, isn’t it? I’ve been thinking about how whatever home means for us, whether it is our hometown, or an adopted hometown, a biological family, or a group of dear friends – I’m guessing we’ve all experienced at one time or another a sense of homesickness – this kind of longing to go home. You all know how much I loved going to camp as a child. I loved Aldersgate, every minute of it. But I would often be mystified by my crying friends who were so sad about going home at the end of the week. I loved camp – but I was also always ready to go home.
            I’ve been thinking a lot about where we’re headed this Advent. Some of you may have seen a question I posed on facebook a couple weeks ago. I shared a confession: Sometimes, at the end of Christmas Day, I feel a sense of let-down. I'm sure part of it is because of the energy it takes for church leaders in worship and planning throughout Advent and Christmas, combined with a lack of sleep and a different rhythm and routine in the season. But I also think it has something to do with the unrealistic expectations of what the day is supposed to be like that come from all around us during this season. Expectations that we don't need to buy into, yet somehow still do. I've been thinking a lot about how to make Christmas more meaningful for me and my family this year. I asked people to think about and share the practices and traditions in their families that make Christmas particularly meaningful. And I want to help us – to help you and to help myself, frankly – remember where we’re heading this season. Advent is a journey of patience, and longing and hoping. But if Advent is the journey, I want us to remember in our mind all the time the destination. I want us to arrive Home for Christmas. I want us to arrive at the manger-side of the Christ-child, and find that the Christ-child has arrived and settled at home into our hearts.       
Our gospel text today comes from the gospel of John, the very opening sentences of the gospel of John. Of our four gospels, just two, Matthew and Luke, contain what would sound familiar to us as part of the Christmas story, the birth of Jesus. Mark contains no mention of Jesus’ origins at all. He’s moving too quickly, and points simply to Jesus’ baptism as the significant starting moment of sorts. But John – he does his own thing, as usual. The gospel of John is the most different from the other gospels. They are referred to as synoptic gospels, which means literally “together with one eye” gospels – they look at the life of Jesus in the same basic way, although each has its own flavor and some unique scenes. But John is different. The gospel of John was written a bit later than the other gospels, and Christian theology was starting to develop in some different ways – farther out from the life of Jesus, as faith communities were becoming more established, thinkers in the faith had time to explore the deep meanings of God’s actions in Jesus beyond the most concrete. We see this in John, and this prologue of sorts to his gospel. It isn’t a historical record – it’s poetry and philosophy. It is a creation hymn that resonates with the themes of Genesis 1. “In the beginning,” John starts like Genesis. But he goes on: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John wants to make sure that we know that that Christ – the Logos, the Word – is not a regular person. Jesus is God, existing from the beginning with God, co-creator with God, life and light of the universe. Pretty awesome stuff. And it is this God, this Christ, this very life and light and word of the universe – this very Christ – who comes into the world to be with us. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory … full of grace and truth.” John wants us to grasp the importance – this is God, the Creator of the universe, incarnate, embodied, poured into humanity in Jesus. God became flesh. Word made flesh. God-with-us. One of my colleagues in ministry was fond of saying that God had “stepped out of eternity” into our world. I kept thinking, as I read this text, of words from the book of Revelation – near the very end, a vision of a new heaven and a new earth. John of Patmos writes, “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.” Eugene Peterson translates the verse, “Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women! They’re his people, he’s their God.” God has moved into the neighborhood, and is living amongst us. That’s what John wants us to know. That’s what we’re preparing to celebrate. God has made home with us. That’s Christmas.
This Advent, in order to get Home for Christmas, we’re all going to have to do some moving. We have to journey ever closer to the heart of God, and sometimes that means leaving some things behind – old ways, old behaviors, old beliefs, old excuses. The journey may be stressful, painful sometimes. But the good news is this: even as we set out to journey close to the heart of God, God is already moving in with us, moving right into our neighborhood. Home for Christmas. Amen.