It is time to come home!
This is the good news the prophet is speaking in the passage from Isaiah we hear today. You see, Jerusalem was the symbolic and physical home of the Israelites. They had journeyed for hundreds of years, and finally secured Jerusalem under King David’s leadership. The Israelites believed their wandering, their suffering was finally over. Unfortunately, years later, the Babylonians swooped in and took over Jerusalem, exiling all the Jews.
The Israelites understood this defeat as not only a political and military defeat, but a spiritual defeat as well. They believed that their sins had caused the loss of Jerusalem.
When the Lord says, “She has served her time and her penalty is paid” in this triumphant passage from Isaiah, he is telling the Israelites the good news that they will no longer be punished by exile, but will be allowed to return home.
It is time to come home!
John the Baptist repeats some of these words from Isaiah when he proclaims the coming of Jesus Christ.
See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
`Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,
Why echo this message of homecoming? Jesus was not going to come in and drive out the Roman occupiers of Jerusalem.
What is a home, anyway? I’ve been traveling for a couple weeks, a little vacation, then some continuing education, and each time I drove back to Crozet, and sunk into my big comfy bed at the end of a long day, I could feel myself relaxing into being home. Some of you have lived in this area since you were tiny and some are as new as I am, but somehow we have all come to associate this place with home. Home is more than a physical place. Home is an emotional and spiritual idea, too.
When John announced Jesus’ coming, he was announcing a whole new idea of a religious home. No longer would home be a physical place like Jerusalem. Home would now rest in a person-the person of Jesus.
It’s time to come home.
To come home to Jerusalem, the exiled Jews would need to a do a lot of work. They would pack all their tents, hitch their belongings to their donkeys or camels, and begin the long walk back home.
Coming home to Jesus takes work, too.
John the Baptist preached a baptism of repentance. He knew that in order to encounter Jesus, the very embodiment of love, the people around him would need to cleanse themselves of their sins. He knew a life of sin would prevent a homecoming with Jesus.
I read a wonderful book over vacation called A Song I Knew by Heart by Brett Lott. This novel is a retelling of the Ruth and Naomi story, but with a big twist. In this story, after years of dealing with the painful issue of infertility, Naomi and her husband have grown distant from each other. In a fit of anguish, Naomi throws herself at her husband’s best friend and they are intimate together one time. Naomi goes immediately home where she sits in a cold bath, trying frantically to feel clean and finds herself unable to move, but shivers uncontrollably in her cold and guilt. Her husband comes home, finds her, lifts her out of the tub, then takes her to their family bed, where he covers her in quilts and lies next to her until she warms again. Throughout the rest of her life, she is tormented by her guilt and thinks of her sin as a separation from love. . . a separation from love. Instead of turning toward her husband, who loved her so, she separated herself from that love and clung to another.
Sin as separation from love. . .a powerful image isn’t it? When we sin, we separate ourselves from love, we separate ourselves from home. When we repent and are forgiven, we bridge that separation, we experience a profound homecoming.
Naomi feels the weight of her guilt for the rest of her life. She never tells her husband what happened, and they stay married and eventually have children. At the end the book, at the end of her life, she finds out that her husband’s best friend told him what happened immediately after the indiscretion.
So, when Naomi’s husband picked her up out of the frigid tub, and warmed her with blankets and his own flesh, he KNEW what had happened. He was forgiving her, loving her, despite her betrayal.
For forty years, Naomi carried around a guilt that separated her from her husband, her children. If she had only spoken of her guilt to her husband, she could have experienced the depth of her husband’s forgiveness, God’s forgiveness, much sooner. Perhaps she could have even forgiven herself.
Like Naomi’s husband, God is eager to forgive us, eager to wrap us in the blanket of his love, his acceptance. God is eager to welcome us home.
As we wait for Jesus’s arrival this Christmas, we can prepare for his arrival by coming clean, coming clean before ourselves, our loved ones, God. We can examine ourselves for the ways in which we have separated ourselves from love, and turn to welcome love back in our lives.
It is time to come home.