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.