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.