January 4, 2014
For thus says the Lord: Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, “Save, O Lord, your people, the remnant of Israel.” See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here. With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.
The book of Jeremiah is a very complex book. It is a collection of the prophet's speeches, some of them written by a scribe, others of them remembered by Israel. The book doesn’t always read in a straight line. Scholars bicker with one another regarding the dating of this passage or that. Our text is one of those passages. We don’t know if it comes from the beginning of his ministry, the middle, or the end. And it probably doesn’t matter anyway, because he is speaking something we know. He's talking about going home.
We have just endured a season of snowmen and red-nosed reindeer. We deck the halls, offer tidings of comfort and joy, and sing about angels. These are festive songs, and rightfully so, at such a bleak time of year. But the tunes that cause us to sniff and wipe away a tear are the songs about the experience we know so well. "I'll be home for Christmas, you can plan on me." "Oh, there's no place like home for the holidays.” That's the experience that Jeremiah talks about: going home. All of us know how it feels.
I remember the Christmas week when we buried my father's mother. Margaret Carter, my younger daughter’s namesake. She lived to the abundant age of 92. Grandma Carter was a prolific woman: she had eleven children, 29 grandchildren, 57 great-grandchildren, and seven great-great grandchildren. According to the family legend, she never lived more than ten miles away from the house where she was born. She grew up there, fell in love with a farm boy named Norris, raised their children there. It was her home.
Home is the place we remember. It is the one place where we are anchored. Regardless of where we roam, where is it for you? Where are you from? My grandmother would have said, "Dempseytown, Pennsylvania." And curiously enough, even though I was born in Angola, Indiana, and have now lived in this town longer than I have lived anywhere else, my quickest answer would be, "Owego, New York." That’s where I am from.
If we remember a home, it’s the place where we felt like we belonged. It stirs up all kinds of feelings and affiliations. Sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, you recall the voices and the events that anchor that place within your heart.
But home can be a slippery memory. A couple of weeks ago I spent a night with my parents and took my younger daughter along. After getting my folks settled, we went out for a late-night ice cream, really an excuse for escaping for a bit and driving around the old haunts. Soon I was boring her with legends, and abruptly she said, “You really grew up in the sticks. It’s so different from the city where I now live.” Then she paused and said, “You don’t think you could ever actually move back here?”
It was a loaded question. I’m not sure I could, and neither do I think she will. Sometimes the place we remember is not the place we left behind.
A friend named Laura wrote about going home for the holidays. Her family met her at the airport with broad smiles and chatter. Her parent's house was bigger than she remembered, especially after the squalor of her little place. They exchanged Christmas gifts that night, and Laura kept trying to convince everyone that she hadn't spent much money. Then they had a banquet of wine and rich food.
When I got up next morning, craving soda water, as I always do after a long night's sleep, I realized with dismay that my parents' refrigerator had never encountered such a thing. There were no croissants, and the only jam was full of sugar. The coffee was in the cupboard, not the refrigerator, and it was decaffeinated. With a sigh, I set about making some tea.
My mother walked in as I was singing along to a pop song on the radio. She looked surprised. "You used to listen to such nice music," she said, mildly enough. We curled up with the paper in the living room. We laughed and told stories, catching up with one another after months of absence. I let slip that I had been out to eat the Sunday before, in a restaurant. There was no comment, but the banter stopped for a moment. I watched the lips compress.
When I again flew home two days later, this time going the other way, I wondered: what did the prodigal son feel like the morning after the party? What would I feel like after years of freedom, having to move back home? Was that place even home to me anymore?
Then she says,
Home is attractive for many of us precisely because it is irretrievable. If we, like Dorothy, were given a magic pair of ruby slippers to transport us back home at the click of our heels, how many of us would go?
The older I get, the more I think she's right: "Home is attractive, because it is irretrievable." We remember how home used to be, yet when we return, it never quite fits the familiar picture.
I recall a scene in a novel where there is a homecoming. A man has been away for some weeks. His young son gets some friends together and paints a sign that reads WELCOME HONE; it should have been spelled H-O-M-E, but the last leg of the M is missing, so it becomes an N. "It seemed oddly fitting," the man reflects. "It was good to get home, but it was home with something missing or out of whack about it. It wasn't much . . . just some minor stroke . . . but even a minor stroke can make a major difference."
I wonder if Jeremiah got it right. In chapter 31, he proclaims the promise of the Lord: the faithful remnant of Israel will be gathered from the ends of the earth, and they'll return to a hometown called Zion. There will be singing and laughter. There will be dancing and abundance. Most of all, there will be comfort and consolation. "Everybody will be glad to go home," says Jeremiah.
But do you suppose he got it right? If Jeremiah is talking about life after the exile, then some seventy years have passed since those people have been home. A whole generation has come and gone. Any memories of the way it used to be must be tempered by the way it really is. Just imagine traveling back to that same address, and the whole town is different. And even if that homecoming gives you some consolation, a little child may pipe up and say, "Daddy, can't we stay in Babylon? This place has become my home."
Frederick Buechner makes a helpful distinction. When we talk about home, says Buechner, we mean one of two different things. The first is the home we remember, and the second is the home we hope for. All of us can remember a home where the hallways are familiar and the voices are known. When we make homes of our own, much of what we make is rooted in the memories of the homes which were provided for us. We use the same recipes. We talk the same dialects. We treat our children the way we were treated. And yet, try as we might, when we return to our homes, they are probably not everything we remember them to be.
But then there is the home for which we hope. And that's what Jeremiah is singing about. He remembers his hometown, but he hopes for a renewed Zion. He remembers the people who walked the familiar streets, but he hopes their spirits will be lifted and their lives will be given a surprising abundance. He remembers the familiar voices, and all the whining that people have taken on as a habit; but he hopes for a new song that shall cause all people to dance.
"I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow." That, my friends, is our dream home. The good news of Christmas is that a home like this is not only possible; it's available. In the midst of all our comings and goings, God comes to make a home with us.
The Gospel of John explains the mystery of Christmas this way: that the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us -- that the eternal wisdom in which all things were created came down here and made a home among us. In Greek, it says quite literally that the Word became flesh and pitched its tent in our midst. Imagine that: the Eternal God whose Spirit blows as fierce as the winter wind took upon our flesh, put up a canvas tarp, and drove some stakes into the ground to live among us. Wherever we wander, Christ camps with us.
This is really the Christmas mystery. God has come down here. It’s the answer to the home that Jeremiah dreams of returning to. In the middle of our recurring homesickness, in the thick of dashed expectations of what home ought to feel like, God comes to us in the person of Jesus. Our everyday business is sanctified because he is among us. Our lingering disappointments can be filled with his presence.
This is indeed a holy mystery. We don’t have to wait for some far-off time in the future before we can flourish and rejoice. It can happen today. Right here. All we need to do is to stop running long enough to discover that he has never left us. And the emptiness we felt is actually the manger to welcome the radiance of the goodness of God. We remember that. We hope for that. And we are met this day by Jesus Christ, who comes to us in bread and cup and spoken word. He is the One who left his eternal home so that the life of God’s eternity would make its home in us.
There is a Christmas carol that says it well:
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray.
Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell.
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.