The Homecoming of God
I want to speak a word to you tonight that will not at first seem like fit material for a Christmas sermon. That word is “exile.” The word comes from the Isaiah readings that began this Service, readings that come out of the experience of the people of God’s exile in Babylon after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem over 500 years before the birth of Jesus.
Just so you know ahead of time, “exile” is not the last word. “Homecoming” is, and that is how this night enters the story in triumph, for Christmas is the Homecoming of God. So that’s where I’m going, but hang on and listen up because now I’m going to go back to exile and work my up to the glory of homecoming.
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly…
These words are stunning, particularly if you have been reading the book of Isaiah for the previous 39 chapters. Those chapters speak primarily of judgment and abandonment. Yahweh, the God of Israel and the kingdom of Judah, is done. The people have pushed God beyond the last divine nerve.
Isaiah preaches eloquently, passionately for Israel to wake up and smell the impending doom. They do not listen. Isaiah of Jerusalem is a failed preacher, a magnificent one, but an utter failure. No one listens; he preaches a message that no one wants to hear. So Yahweh is done, and the Babylonians will have their destructive way with Judah.
Many years pass between chapters 39 and 40, about 160 of them. Judah falls into chaos, there is a period of occupation by the Empire, and then destruction and deportation of at least the leading families.
These people are settled in Babylon, and, as Psalm 137 says, they sat by the waters and wept as they remembered Zion. And, as is human, they blame not themselves, but Yahweh. Yahweh had failed them, Yahweh had abandoned them, Yahweh had been defeated by the gods of Babylon; Yahweh is now silent.
For 50 some odd years the silence goes on; a generation passes. Then comes a startling new voice, a new Isaiah, who reaches back into the verbal and imaginary storehouse of his ancestor and brings a renewed word, although this time the word is not of judgment, but of forgiveness and hope.
After 50 years and more of silence, Yahweh speaks,
Comfort, O comfort my people. Speak tenderly…
This new Isaiah is charged with bringing good news, gospel, a word that Isaiah invents long before there are things we Christians call gospels. Announce peace! Bring gospel! Announce salvation! Proclaim that once again Yahweh reigns!
And the people are eventually set free when a new Empire arises to the East—the Persians, led by a man named Cyrus, an unlikely agent of the God of Israel, who defeats the Babylonians and sets the exiles of Judah free. They return home.
They return home, however, with a message: do justice, expand your notion of who is your neighbor, be a light to the nations, not an exclusive domain. Your God wishes to reign over the whole earth, not to be your sole possession.
The people return and they fight this message, just like they fought the old one. For the most part, they choose another option: exclusiveness and social order that ensures there will be privileged and poor.
It is this world into which Jesus is born after several hundred years and the rise and fall of Persia, and then the Greeks, and now the Romans rule Judah. By now the people are used to the Empire—whichever Empire it is—and the word of the day is “accommodation.” Let us try to maintain a shred of our identity while keeping the Empire happy.
Jesus comes into this context fed by the words and the vision of Isaiah. More than any other prophet before him, Isaiah of the Exile shapes Jesus’ imagination and his agenda, so much so that Christians now look back to Isaiah and read what is written there as a prediction of Jesus, the servant Isaiah imagined would save his people, the messiah who would bring gospel.
The birth of Jesus that we celebrate tonight is told in this vein. Jesus is born as a servant, is born not in splendor nor in religious purity. He is visited by lowly shepherds—more “common” folk you could not find. Or as Matthew tells the story—perhaps even more outrageously—he is visited not by the practitioners of his own religion, but astrologers from foreign lands.
This Jesus from his birth is about inclusion and solidarity with the poor, the gospel for which Isaiah had longed and had proclaimed centuries before. And he grows up and not only proclaims this gospel but embodies it, so much so that Christians look back and say he was not only human like us, but divine as well. Christmas is the feast of God’s homecoming.
What does this mean for us in our own day, in our own Empire, in our own city, in our own lives?
As Walter Brueggemann has suggested in too many places to cite, “exile” is an appropriate and powerful metaphor for our own day. Particularly for we people of faith, “exile” helps us understand where we are and what our message needs to be.
In this city alone we are in exile. What happens around us is so far from gospel, good news, that indeed we, like our ancestors, sit by the river and weep. A generation of young black men, in particular, either dead or in prison; the hopelessness of an obscenely widening gap between rich and poor; a dependence on security and violence to bring peace to the world when we know those tools will not ultimately work; leaders who even speak of Empire and certainly act it out as if the world somehow belonged to us and should be bent to our will.
People of faith find themselves in the midst of these things in a kind of exile, in need of a homecoming.
First we need new Isaiah’s, poets and prophets and preachers to proclaim comfort and hope, but also action for inclusion and justice, the practices of forgiveness, hospitality and generosity rather than vengeance, security and greed. We need to be inspired as a people to vulnerability and love rather than violence and suspicious hate. We need to desire, urgently, gospel.
We need to dare to speak against even those things that seem to work. Zero tolerance, for example, is in one sense working, but at the cost of money for the good of our neighbors and even more young men in jail. How many can we put in prison? Even zero tolerance is a dead end. It is not the answer. The answer is the revolution of gospel.
But who will bring this revolution? Not our elected leaders, not those who have bought into the concept of Empire or zero tolerance. Only we have the words of revolution, only we can tell of the God of unconditional love and infinite mercy who has come home among us.
Christmas, even as we truly celebrate it as God’s homecoming, ought to well up in us as a sense of radical urgency. If God is at home among us, if God does indeed dwell in the ‘hood, on Avenue D as well as Avenue East, than we have to tell that story. If God is on the side of not only those of the privileged to live in the relative security of the middle class, but also the prostitutes, the drug dealers and the gangbangers, than we are the ones who have to show forth this truth.
All of this is true, and all of it is urgent, if God has truly come home among us.
The message tonight is indeed gospel, good news. Despite our exile, we celebrate the homecoming of God.
Go tell it on the mountain!
Go tell it among the privileged on the east
Go tell it among the struggling on the west
Go tell it in the suburbs and in the villages!
Go tell it along the river where they weep!
Go tell it in the board rooms where they
count their piles of cash!
Go tell it on the streets, among the lesbians
and gays, the single moms, the homeless,
everyone you can find who for one reason or another doesn’t count among the privileged!
Go tell them the revolution of gospel has
Go tell them that God is home right here,
Go tell them that despite everything going
on around us, we celebrate the
homecoming of God!