A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on December 4, 2011.
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8
Lots of Christmases past still linger in my mind, but none more vividly than the Christmas of 1972. I woke up that Christmas morning with all the usual excitement and anticipation, but for none of the usual reasons. I wasn’t excited to see what I’d gotten from Santa. Nor was I anticipating my grandmother’s famous Christmas dinner.
You see, I was thousands of miles from my family as I woke up in Vienna, Austria, where I was spending the Christmas holidays with a good friend named Bruce. Bruce and I awoke at the crack of dawn, bolted down a couple of hard rolls for breakfast and then headed to the Vienna bus station. We planned to take a two-day round-trip bus excursion to Prague, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). I had always wondered what it would be like to be behind the Iron Curtain. Now I was going to find out. . . on Christmas day, no less.
Things went smoothly until we arrived at the Austrian/Czech border. We passed through Austrian customs with no problem, but Czech customs were another matter. To make a long and very traumatic story short, Bruce and I were singled out as the only Americans on the tour bus and refused entry into Czechoslovakia because of a supposedly fraudulent passport. Not only that, the bus went on it’s way and we were now stranded 100 miles from Vienna with no transportation but our own two feet.
I’ll never forget looking at the rolling barbed wire and control towers as we slowly trudged away from the Czech border and stuck out our thumbs to hitchhike back to Vienna. I’ll also never forget eating a Christmas lunch of potato soup in a tiny cafe of Jetzeldorf, Austria. As I slurped down my lukewarm soup, I would have given my eye teeth to be instantly transported to my grandmother’s dinner table for our annual Christmas feast.
A tidal wave of nostalgia washed over me in that Austrian cafe, and the Christmas carol, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” came to mind:
I’m dreaming tonight of a place I love
Even more that I usually do
And although I know it’s a long road back
I promise you
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 lovelight gleams
I’ll be home for Christmas if only in my dreams.
You don’t have to be sitting in a cafe thousands of miles from home on Christmas day to have your thoughts turn homeward. Most of us feel nostalgic (nostalgia literally means “longing for home”) over the holidays. Regardless of our age we still have a wide-eyed child inside us that yearns to go back where we were warm, and well-fed and cared for.
If you identify with this “I’ll be home for Christmas” nostalgia, you understand how the readers of Isaiah’s prophecy felt. For almost 50 years, the Israelites had been living in Babylonian exile, far from their beloved home in the nation of Judah. Imagine a foreign army invading Winston-Salem, burning down this church and every other building in this community, including your home. Then imagine being forcibly deported on foot to a far-away city like Philadelphia or Cleveland.
That’s essentially what the Israelites went through in payment for their sin of rebellion against God. They were a broken and defeated people, heartsick and homesick.
Then suddenly, the political landscape shifted when a Persian ruler named Cyrus invaded Babylonia, and defeated the Babylonian army. Cyrus issued an edict freeing the Israelites from their Babylonian masters, and soon they would be free to go home.
Against that backdrop, the prophet Isaiah delivers one of the most moving prophecies found in all the scriptures. Thanks to Handel’s Messiah we know these words well, because the first eleven verses of Isaiah 40 provide the words for eleven of the arias and choruses of that famous oratorio we hear especially at Christmas.
Speaking on behalf of God and other angelic figures within God’s heavenly council Isaiah says,
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her
that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
Notice that God’s steadfast love for Israel does not spare Israel from the consequences of her sin. Israel pays, and pays dearly for her transgressions. Just because God is gracious toward us does not mean we will be spared the painful consequences of our sin and rebellion.
Nevertheless, there is a promise of mercy built into God’s love that no sin can eclipse. We see that promise delivered hundreds of years earlier when God said to the Israelites through Moses, “Even if you are exiled to the ends of the world, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will bring you back (home)” (Deuteronomy 30:4).
But just how will God bring the bedraggled Israelites home? It is no easy journey back to their homeland.
“Not to worry,” says God.
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low;
the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain,
the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Centuries earlier God had done some serious rearranging of natural elements when he split the Red Sea in two to help the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage. Now, in what many call the “second exodus” of Israel, God promises once again to do his magic as he landscapes the desert to build a superhighway so his people can go home.
It’s hard to imagine the joy these words evoked in the homesick hearts of the Israelites. And yet they couldn’t help but be a bit skeptical. After all, fifty years was a long time to languish away from home, and they couldn’t bear to have their fragile hopes dashed one more time.
So another “voice” of God’s council allows that people are frail, and admits that if we place our hope in people, we will often be disappointed because human promises are based upon human beings who wither and fade, who are here today and dead tomorrow. But the promise of a way home was the word of God himself, and the word of our God will stand forever.
Soon, the Israelites would in fast return to their homeland. But in truth, it would be centuries before the glory of the Lord would be fully revealed as the prophet promised. In fact, the Israelites continued to stagger blindly in the darkness of their sin until the promised Messiah made his debut on a starry night in Bethlehem.
It is no accident that gospels like Mark refer back to Isaiah 40 as they describe the coming of Jesus. John the Baptist understood himself to be the messenger for Jesus who would prepare the way of the Lord, and make his paths straight. And so he did, plowing the ground for Jesus so that Jesus might sow the seeds of the good news that God’s kingdom, God’s brand new reality and way of living, had arrived.
It is no accident that John’s gospel describes Jesus as the light of all people…(that) shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it (1:5). Later in John’s gospel Jesus promises that he is preparing rooms, dwelling places for his followers in his Father’s home. When one of Jesus’ disciples complains that they do not know the way to his Father’s house and wonders aloud how they will get there, Jesus offers this famous response, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
The truth is, all of us are far from home as long as we are on this earth. That’s why the bible calls us “sojourners”. Built into our souls is a longing for heaven. It’s not that our earthly lives don’t matter—far from it! It’s just that this place was never intended to be our ultimate home. And our souls know what our brains struggle to grasp – that it is not until we are home with the Lord that we are truly home.
The gospel says God moves heaven and earth through his son Jesus to get us home with him. We are like lost sheep, and we are prone to wander further and further from home until our Good Shepherd finds us and returns us home.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd,
He will gather the lambs in his arms,
And carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep (home).
Home to our God in heaven.
But this process of going home doesn’t have to wait until we die. It actually begins the very moment we become serious about spiritual transformation.
In the past I’ve considered John the Baptist a kind of holy-roller preacher who tended to go overboard with his hellfire, damnation sermons calling people to repentance. But as I’ve learned more about spiritual formation, I’ve come to appreciate John’s insight that getting right with God is no casual affair. To be transformed is to be turned inside out, and is a movement of the soul as radical as John the Baptist himself.
Those wise in the life of the Spirit have known that we can cling to our physical home and still be far from our spiritual home. The great fourteenth-century Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart, made this point when he offered his interpretation of Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son, the story of the young man who demanded his fortune from his father, left home, and proceeded to make a horrible mess of his life.
“God is at home,” wrote Meister Eckhart in his commentary. “It is we who have gone for a walk.”
In a spiritual sense, all of us are prodigal sons and daughters who have left the homes of our God-inhabited souls. To put this another way, we were created by God as true, faithful selves, intimate with and obedient to God, trusting God for all our needs. But somewhere along the way we took a walk from our true selves, and decided to find life as false selves through our own pursuits and pleasures in the pigpens of life.
Physically we may never leave our home. But spiritually we are in exile, far from the true selves God created us to be.
One of the best definitions of spiritual formation describes it this way—“the process of coming home to our true selves.” You may hear this and not even know exactly what it means. But somewhere in your heart of hearts, you know you stopped living out of your truest, God-created self a long time ago, and you’ve wandered far from of God.
John the Baptist reminds us there is no better time to repent, to turn around and start the road back home than Advent. When we get honest with God and confess our sins openly and humbly, when we engage the spiritual disciplines of our faith, we give God the opportunity to break up the hard ground of our souls, to clear away the debris of sin and decay, to turn the deserts of our souls into fertile fields that in time bear the fruit of the Spirit.
If spiritual transformation sounds challenging, that’s because it is. Even with God doing the heavy lifting, allowing God to landscape your souls may be the hardest thing you ever do. But let me tell what’s even harder—always running away from God, and from the person he made you to be. Living the false life may be fun in the moment, but ultimately it leaves you depraved and depleted.
The words of the old hymn still ring true:
Come home, come home,
Ye who are weary come home.
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling.
Calling, O sinner, come home!