Where will you spend Christmas this year? Throughout Advent I find people giving me their apologies at the church door. “We won’t be here for Christmas - we’re off to see the children or the parents or the aged aunts and uncles. We’re off to the other end of the country or the other side of the world…”
I don’t worry too much about the church being empty though, because I know that there will be just as many people coming in the other direction, landing up here in Seal for what may be an annual visit to family here. It all evens out in the end. It is just how it is. Christmas is a great time for home-going and home-coming, when people gather together with those they love, or those they feel they ought to love.
Adverts, tv programmes, magazines and films are full of the imagery of the ideal home at Christmas; the family gathered round a groaning table or a roaring log fire, everyone getting along, children playing happily together… at which point we know we are well into fantasy land! But it’s a fantasy we are very ready to buy into, quite literally, spending our money in the hopes that it will be like that for us too this year, even if our houses and families are far from that ideal.
The advertisers’ images might all seem very far from the story of the baby in the manger we’ll tell here at church, but nonetheless it seems to me that there is something very holy about that desire to come home, to feel “at home”, to be in a place where we know we are loved and welcome. That longing for home is echoed in the Bible stories we hear in Advent, which begins today.
Advent means “coming”. Something’s coming, it hints. Someone’s coming – and its not just Santa. The kingdom of God is coming. It’s just around the corner, close by, on the horizon - you only have to reach out a bit and you can touch it – that’s the message. But Advent isn’t just about what, and who, is coming to us. It’s also about the journey we are taking, the journey that leads us to our true home, that place of welcome we’re looking for. Just as Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem, the shepherds to the manger crib, the wise men from their distant lands, we are called to be on the move in Advent, coming home to the God who loves us, and trying to make the little bit of the word we are responsible for a place of welcome for others too. We do that through prayer and reflection, but we do it also as we give to those in need, as we campaign for justice and peace.
That theme of home-coming is there, loud and clear, in our Bible readings today.
In the Old Testament, Isaiah writes at a time of turmoil for the people of Jerusalem, when they are in exile in Babylon, far from home, knowing that Jerusalem has been destroyed and its splendid temple looted. But it won’t always be so, says Isaiah. They mustn’t lose hope. They will go home and when they do, their city will be a place that everyone else wants to call home to as well. “Come, let us go up to the house of the Lord…” they’ll say. It is a picture of home-coming on a grand scale – the world will find a welcome in this place, Isaiah says.
His vision is echoed in the Psalm we read together – “I was glad when they said to me, ‘ Let us go to the house of the Lord.”
But when we get to the Gospel reading the emphasis, and the tone, shifts. This time it is God who is coming home, in the person of this mysterious Son of Man. And frankly it sounds like a homecoming that has a rather dark edge to it – like one of those moments in East Enders when the doorbell rings and a long lost character everyone thought they were well rid of is standing there on the doorstep. It might all sound a bit bizarre to our ears, but this is an ancient text, from a world very different from our own, though, so we need to do a bit of work if we want to understand what it is really saying.
At the time of Christ there was a widespread belief in some sort of dramatic moment when God would intervene in the course of human affairs to overturn injustice and usher in a new age. Oppressive powers would be thrown down and the poor and humble would be lifted up. Many people at the time of Christ longed for this time to come. Faced with the might of Rome, little control over their lives it sounded like very good news… provided, of course, that you were on the right side of that dividing line when the Son of Man made his judgement. Naturally enough, those who embraced this vision tended to assume they were. What Jesus is trying to do here, though, is to get his followers to see that the changes they really need aren’t going to start “out there” with God sorting out other people, but in their own lives. As long as they are convinced that they are ok, and it is just those other folk who need to mend their ways, they are going to be in for a shock, because the mess of the world isn’t that simple. We are all involved in it. We are all oppressors in some ways, all victims in others.
Paul echoes that message in his letter to the Christians in Rome. “Now is the time to wake from sleep” he says. What we do matters, he says. How we live shapes us and the world around us, for better or worse. “Live honourably”, he says, because living honourably makes us more ready and more resilient for times when trouble strikes, as it inevitably will in every human life sooner or later. You don’t need to believe in a literal Day of Judgement, with the sky splitting open and Jesus coming in clouds of glory to know that.
Sudden change can come upon any of us. In a moment the walls of our world can crumble, the foundations crack. It might be an illness, a bereavement, a job loss, a relationship breakdown –no one is immune, however well-shielded they think they are. These times of trouble have an uncomfortable tendency to reveal things we’d rather they didn’t. They show us what we are made of, what inner resources we have, or haven’t got. They show us what others are made of too – who our friends are, how strong our relationships are. They may well reveal our society to us in a new light as well. We might discover the kindness of strangers, but often when the props are kicked away people also find out just how cold and mean the world can be to those who are already on their uppers. Cuts to public services that seemed like nothing when you didn’t need them, now make the difference between life being bearable or not, and instead of sympathy and support, people are very ready to label you a scrounger or shirker.
When Jesus warns his disciples of tough times coming he knows what he is talking about. For him the cross lay ahead – this passage comes from just before his arrest and crucifixion. For many of his followers there was persecution coming too. For everyone in his society there was political turmoil that would lead in AD 70 to the destruction of Jerusalem and an expulsion of the Jewish people from their homeland which would last nearly 2000 years. These times would either be an end – the end of all their hopes and dreams, the moment to give up - or they would be a new beginning, launching them out with a new vision and new hope into a new age. It all depended on how they looked at the situation, and who they looked at it with. He knows how much it will matter that they have sunk deep roots into the love of God, that they have a good and loving network of support around them.
When trouble comes home to us, when truth comes home to us, God can come home to us too, feeling close in ways that he didn’t before, and that can make all the difference. “Be at home in God,” runs an old saying “and the whole world is your home.” Whatever is happening you’ll have what you need to deal with it.
This Advent the theme of home-coming and home-going is going to be running like a thread through our preparations for Christmas, giving us a chance to ask ourselves what home means to us, where we get that sense of belonging and love which every human being needs to live well. The travelling crib set which is going to start its journey round the parish today with a week or two in school is a part of that. Can we make a home for the Holy Family? How does it feel to have God show up in our home or classroom? I’m also posting daily reflections on the theme of home on the church blog, with poems, Bible readings, music and questions to think about – there are paper copies here too.
My prayer for Advent is that somewhere in all of these Advent thoughts and activities, each of us will find some moment when we come home to God and he comes home to us, when we discover afresh what it feels like to be “at home” with him, loved, safe, welcome, just as Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and wise men were welcome at that manger in Bethlehem and that we will be transformed as they were, by that knowledge.