Epiphany 1, Year A, 2014

Every once in awhile, I wish the Gospels had a really good novelist as an editor.  I want someone to send this manuscript back to its writers and say something like, “Interesting story, but the motivations of Jesus are unclear.  Why does he want to be baptized if he has nothing for which to repent? Why does John resist?  How does Jesus feel when he gets in the water?  Your use of detail is insufficient, please expand.”

The authors of the Gospels are just not interested in giving us all the details.  They are not interested in thoughts, feelings and motivations.  They are telling us a theological story, not a psychological one.

So we’re left with this very brief description of a momentous event.  Jesus’ baptism was so important that each of the four Gospels have an account.  Matthew’s is the longest, and is an expanded version of the baptism in Mark.  The version in Luke is extremely similar to the one in Mark.  And in the gospel of John, we don’t see the baptism take place, but John the Baptist refers to it.

After Jesus is baptized, a dove comes from the heavens, and rests above Jesus’ head.  This dove floating above the waters evokes the Spirit moving above the waters in the Creation story.  God is creating something new.  Some major change is coming.

This supernatural moment is important because by this time in Jewish history, God had pretty much stopped showing up in momentous, visible ways.  When we read the Old Testament, God appears all the time in dreams and visions, even occasionally allowing someone to catch the briefest glimpse of him.  But God had not revealed himself in that way in a long time.  For God to break into our world, to a send a message, however brief, was heart poundingly exciting.

In the three synoptic gospels, the dove is accompanied by a voice from heaven.  In Mark and Luke that voice speaks directly to Jesus, but in Matthew the voice speaks to everyone within earshot.  “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Two thousand years later we hear that statement and we think, “Aw, isn’t that nice.  God’s giving his son a little pep talk!  I bet that made Jesus feel awesome!”  But if we keep in mind that the writers of the Gospels are interested in making a theological statement, we take another look at what God says about Jesus.  That short sentence is extremely loaded.  It evokes Psalm 2, which reads:

I will tell of the decree of the LORD:

He said to me, “You are my son;

today I have begotten you.

The Psalms are associated with David, and the Messiah is supposed to come from David’s line.

The sentence also evokes Isaiah 42:1

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,

my chosen, in whom my soul delights;

I have put my spirit upon him;

he will bring forth justice to the nations.

In Isaiah, this describes the suffering servant.  Jesus being linked to the suffering servant is really important.  When Jews pictured a Messiah, for the most part they imagined a mighty warrior.  The suffering servant in Isaiah was just a character of his time, not an archetype for a Savior.  But in one little sentence, God begins making the link for people that this Messiah is going to be different.

God’s words also evoke his own words to Abraham.  When he instructs Abraham to bring Isaac on the near fatal walk, he says, Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”  We can’t help but hear those instructions when God refers to Jesus as his beloved son.  Where God spared Abraham’s son, God’s son will not be so lucky.

Each of these men, Abraham, David, and Isaiah were critical players in God’s salvation history.  He used each of them to further define his relationship with humanity.  God makes a covenant with Abraham that he and Abraham’s descendents will belong to each other.  They will be God’s people.  He will be their God. God makes a covenant with David, too, that kings of David’s line will be the rightful kings until the Messiah comes..  Isaiah was a prophet who urged the people of Israel to return to keeping their side of the covenants they had made with God.

Each of these men, and the covenants made with or defended by them, is a key part of God’s history with humanity. For God to reference them as he introduces his Son, demonstrates that Jesus is part of the same salvation history.  Jesus is deeply connected to these men who have come before him in faithfulness to God.  But God also distinguishes Jesus by so clearly announcing their relationship.  Jesus is not just another human in relationship with God.  Jesus is God’s flesh and blood.  His son.  Jesus is the same substance of God.  And yet, Jesus chooses to immerse himself in the same baptism as ordinary humans, to identify with us completely.  To immerse himself in our experiences, our sorrows and joys.

Today we’ll celebrate baptisms at the 10:30 and during the Celtic service.  While the voice of God may not break through our roof, and we may not see a dove flying in, we do know that the Holy Spirit will be present.  Baptisms are not merely our culture’s version of a baby naming ritual.  Baptisms are a leap of faith, the beginning of a new stage of life, a response to that Jesus who so confidently accepted his own baptism and role as our savior.

Baptism is a reminder of the Covenant that God makes with us through Jesus.  No longer are we bound by sin and death, but through Jesus we are set free and invited to live new lives.  When we say yes to life with God through Baptism, we are letting go of our old ways of life.  No longer are we bound by our accomplishments, keeping ahead in the rat race.  No longer are we defined by cruel words that have been spoken about us.  No longer are we do we need to surround ourselves with people who do not have our best interests at heart.    No longer do we need people to be impressed by what brand we wear or what car we drive.  Baptism frees us from the need to gird ourselves with earthly things, because now we are joined with Christ.  Now we are bound to love and service; humility and patience.  We have moved from darkness into light.

Today, as we renew our own Baptismal vows, we are invited to remember that the Holy Spirit remains with us, and even if we’ve slipped back into old ways of life, the Spirit still dwells within us, ready to help us walk back towards the light.  God’s covenant with us will not be broken.  God’s beloved Son has made sure of that.

Thanks be to God.

 

Epiphany I, Year B, 2009

My husband, Matt, just finished reading The Life of Pi.  I read it a few years ago and don’t remember all the details, but when I began thinking about this week’s readings, I kept coming back to the main image of The Life of Pi, which is the image of a young boy, stuck on a lifeboat in the middle of the sea, with a  zebra, a hyena and a Bengal tiger.  Now, being stranded in the middle of the sea in a small boat is bad enough, but you can imagine that wild animals as your shipmates complicate matters.  At one point, after the tiger has dispatched with the zebra and hyena, Pi writes a message and puts it in a bottle.  The message reads,

Japanese owned cargo ship Tsimtsum, flying Panamanian flag, sank July 2nd, 1977, in Pacfic, four days out of Manila.  Am in lifeboat.  Pi Patel is my name.  Have some food, some water, but Bengal Tiger is serious problem. Please advise family in Winnipeg, Canada.  Any help is very much appreciated.  Thank you. (p. 238)

Ah yes, those Bengal Tigers will get you every time.

Being stranded in a boat is a powerful image because endless water is one of the most primal, beautiful, but fearful images in the human psyche.  Water, though it sustains us, can also completely subsume us.  Water symbolizes that which we both need, but that threatens to destroy us if not controlled.

Water courses throughout our readings today.  We begin in Genesis with the wild waters of creation that simmer in the chaos, not yet controlled by land.  These images continue in descriptions of thunder, storms, and flooding that threaten the Psalmist.  Water is presented here as something extremely powerful and dangerous.

If water represents unknown, uncontrollable forces, then it certainly is a metaphor for our times, isn’t it!  In my three and a half years here I have never received as many calls and visits for financial assistance as I have the last three months.  People are getting hours cut back and fired because businesses just can’t sustain activity in the current economy.  Being a worker right now feels a bit like being afloat in a boat on the wild seas.

And in such unsteady times, if any additional part of your life begins to fall apart, it can feel like there is a Bengal tiger right in your boat with you!

For better or worse, we are not the only group of people who has ever felt this kind of anxiety.  In fact, most of our readings today were written to respond to anxiety.  When everything is going well, and you sense the presence of God very clearly, you don’t need to be reminded about who God is.  However, when things in your life are rocky, you need all the reminders of God’s goodness you can get.  When you are an Israelite who has been exiled from Jerusalem, you might need to hear about the God that controlled chaos and created plants, animals and people with loving care.  If you are an early Christian who fears being persecuted, you might want to be reminded that Jesus really was the son of God, and that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove.

Telling our stories is a powerful antidote to anxiety. We tell stories from the Bible every week in church because they remind us of who God is.  We need those reminders on a regular basis to stay rooted in our identity as God’s children.

The stories we tell in this week’s lectionary readings remind us both who God is and also who we are in relation to God.

Our first reading is the very first passage from Genesis.  When the creation story starts, the world is nothing but a formless void.  The world is dark and filled with water.  We don’t get the whole creation story, but we get the very beginning images: a wind from God sweeping over those vast waters and then out of the darkness, comes light.  God makes something out of nothing.  God sheds light where there was only darkness.  God takes something chaotic and scary and makes something beautiful and life-filled. Although water can be overwhelming and uncontrollable, in this passage, God is fully in control and able to shape and guide the powerful element. This passage reminds us of God’s control and the way God brings light into difficult situations.

The author of Psalm 29 calls out to this Creator God as he faces a terrible storm, and reminds himself that the Lord God is incredibly powerful and reigns even over the floods and cracking trees and thunder that the storm brings.  The Psalmist gives us a model of how to pray in the midst of crisis.  He is able to celebrate God, even while being nervous about his own safety.

Our stories from the New Testament today address water and God’s relationship to water in a different way.  Both stories are about baptism.  In the Gospel we have Jesus’ baptism and in the epistle we have the baptism of Apollos.  While these images may seem completely unrelated to the images of wild and dangerous water from the Old Testament readings, danger is actually a part of baptism.

Baptism symbolizes cleansing, but it also symbolizes death.  Like Jesus’ baptism, early baptisms were all fully immersion baptisms.  People who wanted to be baptized were pushed under the water and then hauled out again three times.  Being pushed under, symbolized drowning, reminding the baptized of the power of water and of death.  When you were pulled back out, it symbolized your new life in Christ. And like God shows up in the Old Testament when waters become dangerous, God shows up at baptism, too.  Both Jesus and Apollos experience the Holy Spirit after their baptisms.  In the book of Acts, Jesus explains that the Holy Spirit gets sent at baptism to be our Comforter and guide.

We need to be reminded of the Holy Spirit.  We need to be reminded that even amidst the roiling waters God sends us a comforter and guide to help us through difficult times.  We need to be reminded that God is with us, even as we face off our own Bengal tigers in our tiny boats.

And so, we tell our stories.  We tell stories of God’s faithfulness in the Bible, but we can also tell stories of God’s faithfulness in our own histories.  I think of all the stories I know about how God has shown up in my life and your lives just in the nick of time.  These stories calm me.  They remind me that God is with me.

You might remember times when you thought you would be adrift forever, but then God rescued you in unexpected ways.  Better yet, you might remember a time when you were lost on the seas, but suddenly God helped you to see that you were not lost after all-you were just on a little character building adventure.

This remembering is what puts legs on our faith.  Telling our stories gives us the courage we need to take risks, to be brave in unfortunate circumstance, to be kind when we are feeling threatened. Telling our stories helps us to be true to our baptismal promises on the days when they seem silly or outdated.

Telling our stories helps us to remember that God holds us up amidst the waters, even if there is a tiger in our boat.

Proper 4, Year A, 2008

Noah was a man with a vocation.

God called Noah, clear as a bell, and told him to build a boat.  God told Noah to build a big boat.  God told Noah to build a boat so big that it could hold a pair of every kind of animal under the sun.

Living in Crozet, we have had the unique opportunity to see the Ark in person-at least Hollywood’s version of the Ark-and we know the Ark was one big boat.  But I’ll bet you a dollar that when Noah was in that big boat, on top of the choppy seas, on about day twenty of the rainstorm, Noah felt like he was in a flimsy little basket, floating on the great unknown.

Can you imagine?  All of humanity has been wiped out, and God has chosen you to be cruise director, zookeeper. . .and, oh yeah, put you in charge of repopulating the earth.  Noah must have been one nervous navigator.

Discerning our vocations can make us feel like we’re on flimsy little baskets, floating on the great unknown, too.  We stand side by side with Noah and his poor wife when we ask God, “Who am I?  Who would you have me be?”

After all, our first vocational act is to be baptized, to submit ourselves to the mystery of water and the Spirit in order to be transformed and welcomed as God’s very own.  From that time on, our job as Christians is to pray and discern who God is calling us to be.  When we are children we are called to be children-to play and to learn.  We are to immerse ourselves in the language of our faith through Sunday School and Children’s Worship and prayers around the dinner table.  Then, when we grow up, and we start realizing the gifts God has given us, we leave the playground and go to work.  Sometimes this is our vocation, and sometimes it is just work.  After all, for one person crunching numbers may be an area of excellence AND an area of passion, but their neighbor in the office next door may feel as much passion for numbers as they do for the color beige.

The trick to figuring out God’s call for us, the trick to figuring out our vocation is to find the place, as Buecher said, “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”  As Christians we are called to serve, and our true vocations will always contain some element of service.

Discerning vocation can be frightening.  Having steady work is the opposite of being adrift in a basket on a stormy sea.  Having a good, steady job is like being firmly planted in nourishing soil.  Leaving such an auspicious state can seem absolutely crazy!  But discerning your vocation is still worth it, I promise.  First, because at our core our deepest need is to have meaning, and our vocation gives us meaning.  Secondly, discerning our vocation does not always mean having to leave our jobs!

It is entirely possible to work full time in a job that is not your vocation, and find your vocation doing something on the side:  writing,  volunteering for hospice, taking on more pro bono work, teaching classes in your field to those who can use the knowledge.  One of my favorite parts of being your priest, is getting to hear your stories of vocation.  Those of you who raise service dogs, visit with the dying, serve food to the poor, coordinate after school programs, and the like have such deep joy and meaning in your lives.  Your vocational work is not always easy and can even be heart rending, but you are expressing the deepest part of yourself in a way that serves our community and our God.

When we begin this vocational discernment, we might find it helpful to remember that God doesn’t just send us out in our rickety baskets on uneasy waters.  God also inhabits the very water that upholds our boats.  God bears us gently even as we seek to follow him.  God is present in our vocation and in our search for that vocation.

And today as we baptize Stuart Caroline, she begins her own vocation as the newest, littlest Christian in Christendom.  She joins us on our rickety boats as we go off on our ocean adventure together.

Amen.

Epiphany 2, Year A, 2008

A dear friend of mine recently moved to New York City.  She is a gifted actress, recently graduated from UVA, and is working in a legal office by day and acting in a play by night.  Every few months she sends long, gossipy emails about her new life filled with stories of life in a small apartment, working in a big city office, the auditioning process, and of course celebrity sightings.

Recently, she went to see Cyrano de Bergerac, starring Kevin Kline and Jennifer Garner.  After the play, they went around to the back door in order to catch a glimpse of the stars exiting the building.  My friend was at the back of the pack of people, and I’ll quote from her email to tell you what happened next,

We were reconciling ourselves to trying to get pictures of the famous people by waving our camera in the air over our heads (which yielded a surprisingly awesome picture of JG) when a little door immediately behind us opened and a bodyguard-ish type person poked his head out.  We looked around in surprise, as we were the only people who noticed him, and he holds the door open and out sails MATT-freaking-DAMON.  Matt Damon.  Matt Damon saw the show the same night we did.  And of course, OF COURSE we didn’t take his picture/speak to him/tell him we loved him because we were too busy squealing at each other and yanking each other’s arms and squealing some more.  I am way too easily starstruck to be an actor. 

I tell this story, because I think her experience parallels the experience of those who followed Jesus in our Gospel reading today.  People had flocked to be baptized by John. They were fascinated by him, drawn by his message.  While they were excited to see him, they were also expecting to see him.  Seeing Jesus, however, was a huge surprise.  A few of the disciples start following him around, star struck in their own way.  He senses they are behind him, turns around and asks them, “What are you looking for?”

And they become completely flustered.  This was not just a movie star they were following, this was God.  Even if they did not realize that consciously, they sense there is something wonderful about Jesus.  They cannot pull themselves together, and instead ask the Messiah, “Um, uh, where are you staying?”

Jesus next issues the most important invitation these people will ever receive.  He invites them to “Come and see.”

Come and see.  Jesus does not give them a direct answer.  He does not lecture them.  He does not bombard them with theological arguments or grandiose pronouncements about himself.  He simply invites them to come and see for themselves. 

The experience of knowing Jesus can never be fully explained or taught.  In order to know Jesus, one has to encounter him. 

This invitation to come and see is repeated an additional three times in the Gospel of John.  Soon, after Jesus offers his invitation, Philip is talking to his friend Nathanel who asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Philip says, “Come and see”. Next, after Jesus engages with the woman at the well, she goes and tells her friends, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”  Finally, when Jesus has come to visit a grieving Mary and Martha after their brother Lazarus’s death, he asks where the tomb is, and they invite him to come and see.  Ironically, it is they who will really see and understand when Jesus raises his friend Lazarus from the dead.

Can you imagine what it must have been like for these star-struck followers of Jesus to be issued an invitation to come and see?  I can assure you, Matt Damon did not invite my friend to follow him around, and even if she had, I don’t know that she would have gotten much out of it. 

Following Jesus, however, is another matter.  To follow Jesus, to observe Jesus as he went about his daily business, was a chance to observe God.  To follow Jesus, was an opportunity to engage with the God who created all of us, to understand what his love means for us.  To follow Jesus was to learn about how to be fully human.

Thankfully, Jesus’ invitation to come and see is not limited to those encounters recorded in the Gospel of John.  We, too, are invited to come and see.  To come and see what happens when we begin to pray more regularly, or study scripture, or serve the poor.  We’re asked to come and see what Jesus was doing in Biblical days and what Jesus is doing today.

And while it may not feel like it, our annual meeting is another chance for us to come and see what Jesus is doing in our midst.  The administrative part of church life may not feel as uplifting or spiritual as the ritual or fellowship part of the church life, but Jesus works amidst those decisions, too. 

As we choose our leaders for the next year, and engage in conversations about issues relevant to our life together, we have the chance to discern where Jesus is working in this church and in the greater community. 

So, come to the annual meeting and listen very, very carefully.  You may hear Jesus invite you to come and see.

Proper 23, Year C, 2007

Today we celebrate the baptism of Sally Beights-we could not baptize her on a better day in the lectionary.  Today, in Paul’s second letter to Timothy, we read about life with God through Christ. 

We read the image of dying with Christ in order to live with Christ-this is the central image of baptism.  Baptism is just not a chance to get an adorable baby all dressed up in white to show her off.  Baptism is not an empty ritual to make parents feel better about the fate of their children.  Baptism is the central rite of Christianity. 

In the early church, and in many churches today, Baptisms are done by fully immersing the person.  Their heads are dunked fully under water three times, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  This full immersion was meant to simulate drowning.  This image of being held under the water, nearly drowning, makes the air you breathe when your head breaks through the water even more powerful. 

This week, I had the pleasure of receiving a surprise email from one of my best friends in the world.  We haven’t kept in touch much over the last decade, just an email here or there, but this week we’ve been emailing back and forth frantically, telling each other our stories.  The latest part of her story goes something like this. 

She has been living in New Orleans for a few years, and was there when the hurricane hit.  She, her boyfriend, and a friend carpooled out the city, expecting to return in a few days.  They did not.  In the matter of a day’s time, her life was irrevocably changed.  Her home was gone, car was gone, and most of her material possessions were gone.  Friends were missing.  Over the last two years the emotional toll grew heavy upon her shoulders and in her heart.  In a sense, you could say she felt like she was drowning.

Last weekend she realized she was trying to deal with all of this pain and sorrow with her own energy.  She realized she did not have the resources to do so.  And so she prayed.  She prayed for forgiveness and direction and guidance.  And God answered her.  She heard him say that he loved her and that he had everything she needed. And for the first time in a long time, she was able to breathe freely. 

That is baptism.  The baptism we perform today is an outward and visible sign of an experience that profoundly changes us. Today we are trusting that as we baptize Sally, she too, will experience the love, healing and guidance of God.  We are committing ourselves to telling her about God and how much God loves her. She may internalize this from the time she is a small child.  Or, she may not deeply experience God’s love until later in her life.  But as we baptize her, we entrust her to a God who will always remain faithful to her, no matter where life brings her.

Each of us can trust that God loves us and will remain faithful to us, even if we are not faithful to God. 

Thanks be to God.

Baptism of our Lord, Year C, 2007

I don’t know how many of you are former evangelicals, but I spent most of my later adolescence as a hand clapping, power point watching, profoundly guilt-ridden modern American conservative evangelical.  It was good times. 

Though now I prefer Anglican chant, complicated motets and authentic gospel music, at the time I loved praise music.  My favorite praise song was based on our passage from Isaiah today.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.
The wind and the waves shall not over come you.
Do not fear, for I will be with you.

and so on and so forth. 

For a nerve-wracked college student trying to figure out what to do with her life, the comforting idea of God’s omnipresence in difficult times was very reassuring.  In fact, I still love an image of a God who is with us, even in our most difficult experiences. 

In the passage from Isaiah today, God is responding to the people of Judah who have been complaining that God has abandoned them because Jerusalem has been destroyed. He reassures them that, despite appearances, He is, in fact, with them.  And no matter what deep waters or hot fires might try to consume them, God will not leave them.

How poignant then, in our Gospel passage today, to see Jesus joining the throng as they are baptized by John the Baptist.  While in many ways, this scene of Jesus’ baptism is familiar to us, there is one key difference between Luke’s account of the baptism and the account of other Gospel writers.

While the authors of the Gospel of Mark, Matthew and John remember Jesus’ baptism as an individual event, independent from the baptisms of the crowds that gathered to hear John the Baptist, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is one of many who are baptized.

But why did Jesus even need to be baptized?  The baptism that John the Baptist performed was a baptism for the remission of sins.  Why in the world would God need to repent of sins?

Imagine with me the setting:  John has set up shop on the banks of a river and hundreds of people of every shape and size are crowded around, waiting eagerly to be baptized.  They enter the water one by one or perhaps as a crowd.  As they are each baptized and washed clean, the water around them gets less clean. The dirt that collected on each person’s feet as they made the long trek to the wilderness, drifts into the water.  The sweat from the heat, joins the dirt.  The sin that has built up over a life time of being human, pollutes the water.

Jesus enters into this murky water, embodying Isaiah’s words.  God is not only figuratively with us when we’re in deep water.  In this case, Jesus actually stands shoulder to shoulder with every sinner who wants to be washed clean.  Jesus does not shy away from the messy, literally dirty parts of these people.  Jesus bathes in them and seeks baptism himself.

Instead of washing himself from sins, in that dark water, maybe Jesus was taking on our sins.  Perhaps he was embodying what he would go on to do his whole life-living as a God completely committed to being human, in all of humanity’s strength and weakness.

We all know that when we experience our baptisms, we become one with Christ.  We change our identity.  We become “marked as Christ’s own forever”.  Perhaps when Jesus was baptized by John in the wilderness, he became marked as our own forever. 

And this is what God blesses.  For just as in all the other Gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism, a dove from heaven descends, alights upon Jesus and the onlookers hear the words, “You are my Son, the Beloved.  With you I am well pleased.”

At this moment of utter humility-the moment when Jesus enters a body of water to be baptized for the remission of sins, this moment when Jesus is incredibly vulnerable and human-this is when God chooses to make a public declaration of Jesus’ identity as God’s Son. 

Frederick Buechner, the great Presbyterian novelist and autobiographical author knows this aspect of God’s closeness to us well.  The deep waters he waded through were his father’s suicide when he was a child and his daughter’s anorexia when he was an adult.  At the height of her illness, she became so sick she was hospitalized.  Though Buechner was terrified, He writes,

“I have never felt God’s presence more strongly than when my wife and I visited that distant hospital where our daughter was.  Walking down the corridor to the room that had her name taped to the door, I felt that presence surrounding me like air-God in his very stillness, holding his breath, loving her, loving us all, the only way he can without destroying us.  One night we went to compline in an Episcopal Cathedral, and in the coolness and near emptiness of that great vaulted place, in the remoteness of the choir’s voices chanting plainsong, in the grayness of the stone, I felt it again-the passionate restraint and hush of God.”

Buechner sensed Jesus standing shoulder to shoulder with him.  Buechner knew God was in the deep water with him and would not abandon him.

So, it turns out that the words to that praise song I sang as an adolescent are as true now as they were a decade ago.  God will be with us when we pass through deep water.  God will be with us when we walk through fire.  Our God really is Emmanuel-God with us.  Thanks be to God.
 

Advent 2, Year B, 2005

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. 

(Pause)

It is time to come home.