Christmas – God goes home

Were you home for Christmas?

It is customary to be at home, or go home, for Christmas. For some, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without being home. And, in this meaning, ‘home’ refers to a specific, geographic location, a space usually defined by a building: the homestead back on the farm, the house you grew up in and is still in the family, the house you lived in for many years, etc.

Bing Crosby’s “I’ll be home for Christmas” echoes in the back of our mind, providing a mantra for constructing our idea of what Christmas must be like. Being home brings comfort and a feeling of stability. To do or say otherwise might threaten our very notion of what Christmas means. In discussing whether it is time to celebrate Christmas somewhere new and somewhere different, someone will always say: How could we do Christmas anywhere else than here — at home?

I heard over the holiday the story of a childhood memory of Christmas. When this person was a young child, her parents took her and her siblings to travel from Ottawa to the Eastern Townships to be with an aging and infirm family member. Friends criticized them: “How could you spend Christmas in a motel room and nursing home far away,” they judged. “You’re spoiling Christmas. Especially for the children.”

Contrary to our nostalgic sentiments, the first Christmas story points another way: Mary and Joseph make a home where there is no home – a stable behind a packed inn in a town far away from hometown Nazareth. The recluse shepherds have to leave the familiar abodes of the fields surrounding Bethlehem and go with haste to visit strangers in town. And the magi travel great distances, following a star, from the East and arrive to visit the Christ child after some time has passed since that Holy Night.

The Christmas story is more about traveling away from home, away from the familiar and towards the unknown, the new, the unfamiliar. If we assume that being away from home at Christmas would be unsettling, then we might be surprised that the dislocation of the main characters in the Christmas story does not appear to destabilize them.[1]

Brian McLaren argues that what matters most in religion “is not our status but our trajectory, not where we are but where we’re going, not where we stand but where we’re headed. Religion is at its best when it leads us forward, when it guides us on our spiritual growth.”[2] This is the meaning of the magi’s journey:

Religion is at its best when we, with the wise men, follow the star shining upon the place of Jesus’ presence in the world today. Like Jesus’ disciples who were to “go into all the world”[3], we are called from time to time to leave places of comfort and familiarity, in order to discover the new things God is revealing to us and participate in the mission of God.

Our comfort and stability come when, no matter where we find ourselves at Christmas time, we find our home in Christ. There is something true about a nostalgic portrayal of the nativity: the happy family and visitors huddle around the manger made of straw, a soft light shedding its warmth on the pastoral scene; what is right about this is that there is a home – a home whose hearth is Jesus Christ himself.[4]

As I pondered the idea of being home at Christmas, I found this wonderful definition of home: “Home is the abiding place of the affections.”[5] Home speaks of a shared intimacy, vulnerability, truth-telling and love. The abiding place of the affections is not limited to any one physical space, but is more a function of healthy relationships. Jesus said, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.”[6] Whenever deep speaks to deep,[7] heart speaks to heart, that is home. And that is where God is.

In this coming season of Epiphany, we indeed discover God anew. We discover the revelation of Jesus in the world today. We discover with joy that God is at home in us and in this world.

“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.”[8]

Christmas means that the game for us has changed. For, no longer do we need to wait until the end of our life to go to heaven and be with God. For that matter, we don’t need to go anywhere at all.

Rather, Christmas means that God came home; that God and heaven have come to us. To where we are. And no matter where we are. For now, and forevermore. Amen.

 

[1] Cynthia L. Rigby in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B, Volume 1 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008) p.118.

[2] Brian McLaren, “The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian” (Convergent, 2006), p.xi-xii, 12-13.

[3] Mark 16:15

[4] Cynthia L. Rigby, ibid.

[5] David Marine, cited in Diana Butler Bass, “Grounded: Finding God in the World, A Spiritual Revolution (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015) p.172.

[6] Matthew 18:20

[7] Psalm 42:7

[8] Revelation 21:3

The roominess of God

Perhaps even more so that the images of the gate, sheep pens and pastures green, the metaphor of a room speaks more relevantly to us, today. Jesus says that he goes ahead to his “Father’s house” to prepare a room for each one of us (John 14:1-3).

Given the average rental costs of a one-bedroom apartment in Ottawa today is close to $1000/month; given that real estate values in Canada today are scrutinized by some economists as being over-priced, where the average single-dwelling house is almost $400,000 — the physical space we call home and the rooms we inhabit are, to say the least, costly.

We place a high value on our housing. And therefore our ears are piqued to hear a comforting word of promise from the lips of Jesus: at the end of the journey, each of us has a place in God’s house.

I remember my first trans-Atlantic plane-ride as a 10-year old when my family travelled to visit family in Germany. It was a long day and short night complete with sounds and sights and senses I had never yet experienced. Sensory overload!

When we arrived at my aunt’s house in Germany, exhausted yet exhilarated, she immediately showed us to our rooms. And even though it was the start of a new day, I appreciated the chance to be all by myself, in my own room prepared just for me, on the ground, still and silent. The peace and comfort of my room was a welcomed contrast to the hyper-stimulation of the long journey there.

One of the things I learned from the experience of long-distance travelling is that time gets all mixed up. My sense of the passage of time gets either accelerated or elongated when crossing multiple time zones in a day. And that can be disconcerting to the body. We call it jet lag. And there’s nothing like a place we can put down our suitcase and put up our feet to cope with the dis-orienting trouble of travel.

Jesus promises his disciples who face the trouble of loss — the loss of his physical, bodily presence with them — he promises them that God the Father has room for them. Indeed, God is ‘roomy’.

But, as some thinkers emphasize, God’s roominess has more to do with the time God has for us (Robert Jensen in Colin Gunton, “The Doctrine of Creation”, 1997, p.24). Time can be defined as: room in God’s own life. God is roomy, in that God’s eternity is not separated from our time on earth and its boundary of death; rather, God’s roominess is God having all the time he needs. The Psalmist expressed this concept of time, poetically: “For a thousand years in your sight, O God, are like yesterday when it is past” (90:4).

What troubles Jesus’ disciples is the very real sense that their time with Jesus has come to an end. Indeed we have the same trouble vis-a-vis our loved ones. Time, we perceive, is brief. Its brevity robs us of those we love.

The plots of most of the stories we enjoy reading and watching on the big screen today excite us because they are charged with the scarcity of time. The main characters are up against a deadline. If time runs out before they complete their quest, then all is lost forever. The dramatic thriller normally has a climax where the proverbial ticking time-bomb must be deactivated before total devastation.

The scarcity of time stokes our fear, and guides our decisions. We hear this a lot in our daily conversations. Marketing gurus capitalize on our fear of running out of time: “This special offer ends today!” “Get yours before time runs out!” We also hear this line of argument expressed in popular religion — “Before time runs out on your life, accept Jesus as your Lord and Saviour — or else!” The result of living this kind of approach is fear-based.

It also assumes, in the end, when time runs out, it’s all up to us. We forget in all the fear and anxiety, that Jesus had all the time in the world for his disciples. Remember, Philip was one of the first of all of his disciples to follow Jesus (John 1:43). And yet here we see Philip, who had spent three years with Jesus, not getting it. Philip still does not really know Jesus, who tells him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?” (John 14:9)

And it’s to those very disciples, like Philip, Thomas and Peter who doubt, who deny, who sometimes express their belief boldly, and sometimes don’t — it’s to those very disciples Jesus promises nonetheless: God has a room for you in his house. Jesus, despite their unbelief, comforts them in their grief at his leaving them, and promises them God’s eternal presence.

Who among us knows Jesus? Does knowing Jesus coincide with an inward assent to church doctrine or written creed? Or, is it more than that? Martin Luther, in his Small Catechism explanation of the third article of the Apostles’ Creed, writes, “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him.” What John is getting at in his Gospel is that believing is expressed more as an outward and active commitment to a person, the person being Jesus (Cynthia Jarvis in Feasting on the Word Year A Vol 2, p.467).

We know God by God’s initiative in Jesus Christ. We are not the actors; God is not known to us because Jesus is dependent on the exercise of our cognitive abilities. No one has ever seen God; we know God only by Jesus’ self-revelation to us in love and grace.

In the Large Catechism, Martin Luther, in response to the First Commandment — “I am The Lord your God, you shall have no other God’s before me” — Luther poses the question: What does it mean to have a God? He answers that God is what you hang your heart upon.

Hang your heart upon Jesus. When the journey of life goes haywire and you are disoriented by grief, loss or great personal challenge.

Hang your heart upon Jesus, when time appears to be running out.

Hang your heart upon Jesus, trusting that his presence is in you when you reach out into the homeless world to house those who do not have a room.

Hang your heart upon Jesus, being the hands and feet of Christ, sharing his love for those in want.

Hang your heart upon Jesus, who leads the way, and is in us through life and death.

Because God has a room for you. And God has all the time in the world, for you.

A public journey

In the opening scenes of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” on the big screen, Bilbo Baggins is faced with a momentous choice: Will he respond to the wizard Gandalf’s invitation to join the company of dwarves on an adventure? Or, will he remain safe and sound in the Shire and the comforts of his burrow?

We meet Bilbo as someone who cherishes his home. And we sympathize. We see how much he values the simple and predictable routines that give him security and peace: his regular meal times, his books, and pleasant sits on his front patio smoking a pipe looking upon the passersby. This is when Gandalf first encounters Bilbo with the invitation to join him on an important mission. Nothing comes of it, and Gandalf leaves.

Leading a rather solitary life, Bilbo is disturbed out of his comfort zone one evening soon thereafter when a company of dwarves invades his home, his cupboards and his routines in a boisterous celebration. Initially unawares of the purpose of this offensive invasion of privacy, Bilbo resents the dwarves and all their carousing, indulgence, eating and singing.

Then Gandalf appears again to put to Bilbo their need for a ‘thief’ to join their troupe in an attempt to recover the treasures of the dwarves’ lost kingdom. To comply, Bilbo must sign a contract, promising no guarantee of success or safety on this journey.

Bilbo resists this offer, turning it down flatly.  Too much risk. No guarantees of success. Too much to lose. Early in the morning, Bilbo wakes from his ‘nightmare’ to an empty house. The party is over. The lively group has just left on their journey, without him. All has returned to peace and quiet.

We watch Bilbo as he pauses amidst his seeming peace. We can only guess at the churning of his mind over the experience and invitation of the previous evening. Then, without warning, he erupts with speed and diligence, gathering only a few belongings in a bag. And runs out the door.

What finally convinced Bilbo to join in on this unexpected journey? How did Bilbo embark on this journey that would transform him from a unassuming, small hobbit into the hero of the story? What tipped the scales?

Was it Gandalf’s gentle yet persistent invitations and promptings? Was it meeting people who were real, genuine, authentic, people who would be forming his community on this journey, friends that would stand by him through thick and thin? Did he realize that in all his comfort and isolation and privacy in the Shire, he was missing something essential in life?

The Gospel from Matthew (4:12-23) reads like a grand opening of the start of Jesus’ journey, his ministry. The reading makes a broad sweep across time and scriptures to land at the disciples feet with invitation, and locate Jesus’ ministry in the synagogue at Capernaum. And there, in the synagogue the crowds came to listen to Jesus’ announce the coming kingdom of God.

Last week, from the Gospel of John, Jesus’ first question to his disciples was: “What do you seek? What are you looking for?” (John 1:38) In the Psalm for today (27:4), we read that the Psalmist seeks the Lord in his temple. Indeed, the people come to a public place for worship, to encounter truth, find peace and hear the message of love from God.

If the image of the temple, or synagogue, or church means anything to us today, it is the public gathering place for worship. Our deepest desires are met, not in isolation, but in community. Our deepest longing are satisfied not in the privacy of our individual lives, but in the public realm. It’s a bit counter-intuitive for some personalities — like it was for Bilbo who thought that his life would be complete in the safety, security and solitude of his home and hearth.

But deep down, he must have realized that there was something missing in his self-serving program for life. That his true self, his true calling and his growth as a person lay not in being by himself, but with his friends, in community, together on the ‘unexpected’ adventure of life.

I think this is part of the reason how those first disciples of Jesus were able to drop their fishing nets and follow Jesus, immediately. They knew that following Jesus would enrich their lives in ways no other self-seeking, self-centred, individualistic approach to life could do. Growth in faith is not a private enterprise, but a public expression. Faith is done together, not apart. In this way, we are assured of the eternal support and love from God through all the difficulties of life. And we grow and mature.

In the Psalm, God’s protection and support also includes being placed high upon a rock (27:5) — a vulnerable place to be, where the whole world can see you. Being a Christian and following Jesus is not just about seeking comfort nor is it about keeping things the same. Following God assumes some personal risk, no guarantees, and losing things. But the growth and transformation come about by this journey with others may very well be what we need to get through the dark times.

I was moved reading the story of “a beloved, longtime church member who was wracked with worry about his son. Sunday after Sunday the man returned to the sanctuary. When the congregation sang its hymns, he stood without a hymnal. He listened to the familiar tunes, but he had lost his voice for singing. The congregation’s alleluias felt far off.

“One Sunday he rose during the time of congregational prayer. He offered a prayer of thanksgiving for the people in those pews. He thanked his fellow churchgoers for keeping the faith when he could not, for singing hymns when he could not, for seeing the goodness of God when his eyes were too cloudy to see it.

“To be sure, his concern for his son continued. But he had begun to recognize again the source of his strength. His words were his own, but they echoed an ancient faith: God is my light and my salvation. God is the stronghold of my life. I will sing to the Lord.” (Andrew Nagy-Benson, Feasting on the Word Year A Volume 1, p.277)