Sermon preached for the Third Sunday of Advent at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.
At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the LORD.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Seventy-five years ago, Bing Crosby recorded I’ll Be Home for Christmas. Written from the perspective of a World War II soldier, it immediately caught the ear—and heart—of Americans. It’s become a staple of our Christmas canon, with probably hundreds of artists putting their stamp on it.
When I was a kid, though, I didn’t like the song. It was too sad, too wistful. I liked the louder, brighter, happier songs. Jingle Bells and Rudolph and Joy to the World.
Looking back, the reason I didn’t like it was because I didn’t need it. I was blessed with a wonderful, warm childhood home, and there was never a question that I would be there for the holidays. I lived there.
And then I grew older, and moved away, and kept moving. And everything changed.
I love the song now. It’s personal.
I’ll be home for Christmas, you can count on me.
I’ve been blessed to always make it home to my family for the holidays, if only just. But there are times I miss all the lead-up—putting up the tree with my brother, wrapping presents with mom, last-minute shopping with dad, who shares my tendency to procrastinate.
It’s no accident that Christmas music is shot through with the idea of home. Here in the darkest, coldest months of the year, we have some primal pull to be with our loved ones, to feel safe and warm again. Home for the holidays is more than a slogan. It’s practically a need.
Our scripture this morning—from Zephaniah, of all people—speaks to the joy of going home. Zephaniah’s people were in exile, scattered to the corners of their world. Grieving homes that were not only far away, but destroyed. Lost to them entirely. And yet, God says, “I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth.”
I will bring you home.
We don’t quote Zephaniah often, but I think that’s one of the most beautiful promises in scripture.
Zephaniah imagined that homegoing to be back to Israel, back to Jerusalem. But I wonder if God’s promise is not bigger than that—that we will be brought home to God, to God’s loving arms. In some traditions, a funeral is called a homegoing service—the idea that while we live on earth for a while, with all our struggles and sorrows, that there is a better home waiting for us. A place of warmth, and safety, and joy.
Most of us love the idea of home. Most of us spend a great deal of time and energy and even money into making our homes places where we want to be, and where other people want to come to. But home is a trickier thing than the Christmas songs make it out to be. Not all of us have a home we want to go back to. Not all of us grew up in homes that were safe and nurturing.
Sometimes, its simply that home isn’t there anymore. Our parents have moved, or died, and we no longer have a claim on the place where we grew up. Or maybe it’s that nowhere was ever really home, because we’ve moved so much. Or maybe it’s that we couldn’t wait to leave where we lived, and haven’t looked back since.
And then there are those in our community who can’t be home for Christmas because there simply is no home for them to go to. Who will spend their holidays in a shelter or on someone else’s couch, as displaced and cold as Mary and Joseph were on that Holy Night.
And then there are those too who have had to run from home—not just their house but their homeland—because it is not safe on a level most of us cannot imagine, because they are trying to save their lives and the lives of their children. There are those who cannot go home for Christmas because it would literally be a death sentence to try. Like Mary and Joseph in Egypt, they must try to make a new home in a new country, and pray that they will be welcomed.
To all of these—the lonely, the displaced, the homeless, the refugees, and even to us, longing for the sense of home we knew in our childhoods—Zephaniah’s promise is good news in the extreme. I will bring you home.
And the picture our prophet paints is amazing—of a God who breaks into song just because we are home. “God will rejoice over you with gladness,” we hear. “God will renew you in his love; God will exult over you with loud singing.” That sounds like exactly what I want to hear when I finally make it to my true home.
I’ve spent most of the last decade living away from home, at school and on internships. While I loved the places I lived, they were clearly not home—that word was resolved for a little dot on a Virginia map. When someone said home, I knew exactly what that meant—my parent’s house, where I lived since I was five.
For a decade, if I asked my GPS to take me home, it took me to Salem. It might have been more expedient to set my home location to my dorm room, or apartment. But it felt almost sacrilegious to do so. Home was Salem. Everything else was just temporary.
Salem is still set as home in my GPS. But so is here.
I don’t remember exactly when it happened, but I think it was my first Christmas with you all. I got done with the Christmas day service and jumped in my car to head to Salem, giddy that I was finally going home. It’s a wonderful feeling.
But then when it was time to come back, and I got in my car to come back to Kentucky, I realized I was feeling the exact same thing. Giddy to be coming home.
I count myself so blessed to have two homes now—one in Salem, and one right here. Two places full of people I love. Two places to call my own.
But really, I know I have more homes than that. I have a home in God’s heart, where I am renewed in God’s love. I have a home in God’s house, where there are rooms to spare.
So in a little less than a week I’ll go home to Virignia, and a few days after that I’ll come home to Kentucky. Either way I’m going, I’m going home.
And I wonder that’s maybe even a fraction of what Jesus felt, coming into our world. Because while we are all awaiting going home to be with Jesus, Jesus came home to us. Jesus came into this world, to make it his home, even when he was ignored and hunted and chased off. Jesus has two homes, just like me, just like us. Jesus made this world his home, makes our hearts his home, so that we can get a glimpse of our home to come. So that we don’t have to wait on promises of joy, of redemption, of safety. So that we can rejoice now, even before every promise has been fulfilled.
It’s good to keep our dreams. Seventy-five years ago, the writers of I’ll Be Home for Christmas imagined a soldier who knew how to dream, to dream of home, of a Christmas with all the peaceful, joyful trimmings he remembered. Sitting in a world of bombs and guns and death, he sang of snow and mistletoe and love-lights gleaming. In a world of death, he sang of love.
If only we have the strength to do the same. To stick to our dreams of love, of peace, and of joy. Of a home for everyone, of a place of warmth and safety for those who are afraid and alone. God promises I will bring you home, and God will, for all of us. But it is our job to create homes along the way, for our neighbors who need them, for our siblings across the globe who follow in the Holy Family’s footsteps, running from terror. They are temporary homes, but they are love-lights nonetheless, lighting the way to God’s final home.
Because right now, we are Christ’s home. Our hands, our hearts, our spirits. We are where Christ lives still, reaching out through us to remind people to keep dreaming. To keep dreaming of peace. Of joy. Of home.
I’ll be home for Christmas. It’s true.
But more than that, I’ll be a home for Christ. Make room in my heart, in my spirit, in my life, a place for Christ to live and work and laugh here, now.
Because I’ve finally learned that home isn’t a place. Not really. It’s a feeling. It’s that feeling of love, and joy. Of familiarity and usefulness. Of safety and gentle peace.
And so whenever I pray, whenever I remember that the Lord is near, near as my heartbeat, I can smile and say:
May it be so for all God’s children.