December 6, 2020
In our passage today, the prophet Isaiah is writing to an Israelite people who find themselves very far from home. Home for them is thousands of miles away, across the harsh desert back in Israel. Now they are in Babylon, in exile. Home seems like a far off dream, a familiar memory that may never be again. Sure, they’ve built new houses here in Babylon, but it just isn’t the same. We all know that home is more than a building with four walls and a roof. When I say the word “home”, what does it evoke for you? What memories or people come to mind? What do you smell, what do you see or hear?
Even after eight years of living in other states, when I hear the word “home”, I still think of Colorado, where I grew up and spent the first nineteen years of my life. This time of year, when I think of home I can smell my mom’s sticky buns in the oven, I hear Mannheim Steamroller Christmas albums on in the background, I remember the Christmas stories my dad would read to us every night in December and all the games we’d play as a family sitting around the table. Home is more than just a physical space; it’s a place of comfort and peace – a place where new memories are formed as often as past memories are recalled. And God’s people, Israel, find themselves ripped from all of that. The houses they’ve built in exile do not provide the comfort of their homes back in Israel.
The Israelites are far from home. They’re waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Waiting for what? They’re not quite sure. God seems to have plopped them down in a foreign place and left them to suffer their hardships alone. By this point in the story they’ve probably lost hope that they will ever be able to return
home again. Israel longs to be home, but home is out of reach, and God is conspicuously quiet.
Israel’s longing for home is a longing that might resonate with us during this season. We spend a lot of time in our houses, yes—a lot more than we would like! But it is devoid of many of the joys that we’ve come to look forward to this time of year. Thanksgiving looked very different for many of us; who knows what Christmas will be like. Our tables have more open spots than usual. Our houses aren’t as filled with the din of laughter, grandkids running around, games and boisterous conversations. The Christmas favorite “I’ll be home for Christmas” may ring hollow for us this year, because we are unable to spend this Christmas season with friends and family the way we would like to. Our church home also looks very different this year as we aren’t able to celebrate Advent together in person, but must do so virtually.
The days are darker and shorter. Those of us who suffer from depression or seasonal affective disorder feel the heaviness of our mood more this year due to social isolation. We’re told to hunker down for the winter, because it will be a difficult next few months. The comfort and joy we normally look forward to this time of year is different this year. Like the Israelites, we might begin to wonder, where is God? After the year we’ve had, we might be more familiar with God’s absence than God’s presence.
I remember when I first moved out to New Jersey, a very strange and foreign place, known to some as “the armpit of America”. It was a difficult transition moving away from a place where I had friends and family and a fiancée to a place where I knew nobody. Meghan and I weren’t married yet and would be long distance for three months before we got married. But the first few months were very hard. People seemed meaner and drove angrier in New Jersey. Friends were difficult to make at the seminary I attended, I think partially because of its elitist culture. I’m not sure there’s been a time in my life that I’ve missed home so much. And all I could do was wait. Wait for three months until Meghan and I would get married and she would move out to New Jersey. Wait to meet someone normal who would be my friend. Wait for New Jersey to not seem so strange anymore. Wait for time to just speed up. There was little comfort in the waiting.
While the circumstances are different, I find myself in a similar place once again. Just waiting. Waiting for a vaccine. Waiting to see if it might be safe enough for us to travel to see my family in Colorado this year. Waiting for this long dark winter to be over. Waiting for the peace and joy promised at Christmas time.
Waiting can leave us feeling like we have no agency, no say in the life that is unfolding in front of us. But our waiting also connects us with God’s people who have lived in every time and every place over the course of history; waiting is one thing that connects us all.
In the midst of the Israelites’ waiting in a strange and foreign place, the word of the LORD comes to the prophet Isaiah and tells him to cry out to the people. “What shall I cry out?” Isaiah responds. I imagine Isaiah exasperated as he asks God this question: “What is there to cry out to the people? Is there anything worth saying to these people who are so far from home?”
“Proclaim comfort to my people. Herald the good news that the LORD your God is coming. Go up on the highest mountain to make sure all the people know that I am coming. Every mountain will be made low, every valley shall be lifted up to prepare a way for me to come, to enter your presence and to bring you home.” Though Isaiah has his prophetic credentials, I imagine he is as stunned as the rest of Israel will be to hear this news. At last, God is coming. At last, they know what they are waiting and hoping for. Their waiting can take shape now.
Advent comes from the Latin word adventus, meaning coming or arrival. It is traditionally a period of waiting, of preparing our hearts for God’s coming into the world. It is also a period of palpable expectation as we look for signs that God is already here among us.
God is coming. That is the good news Isaiah proclaimed to his people who were worn out and hope-dry from their long exile. Isaiah’s message doesn’t change their circumstances. They are still very much in exile, away from home. But Isaiah gives them something to look for as they wait. He provides dimensions, colors and shades to what it is they are waiting for; he shows them what to look for. They are looking for God himself to come. Not a messenger, not an angel, not a middle man. God himself is coming.
We have the opportunity to grasp the significance of the Christmas story this year like we never have before. This Christmas season will be different. We won’t have the normal busyness, holiday planning and all the different Christmas parties and shopping trips to navigate. This year “home” will take on a different look. But as we suffer all these changes and losses, both big and small, one thing remains unchanged: God is coming. God is coming to enter into our pain; God is coming to wait with us; God is coming to sit with us in the darkness of these short days. And in fact, God is already here.
The story is told of an old shoe cobbler who dreamed one Christmas Eve that Jesus would come to visit him the next day. The dream was so real that he was convinced it would come true.
So the next morning he got up and went out and cut green boughs and decorated his little cobbler shop and got all ready for Jesus to come and visit. He was so sure that Jesus was going to come that he just sat down and waited for him.
The hours passed and Jesus didn’t come. But an old man came. He came inside for a moment to get warm out of the winter cold. As the cobbler talked with him he noticed the holes in the old man’s shoes, so he reached up on the shelf and got him a new pair of shoes. He made sure they fit and that his socks were dry and sent him on his way.
Still he waited. But Jesus didn’t come. An old woman came. A woman who hadn’t had a decent meal in two days. They sat and visited for a while, and then he prepared some food for her to eat. He gave her a nourishing meal and sent her on her way.
Then he sat down again to wait for Jesus. But Jesus still didn’t come.
Then he heard a little boy crying out in front of his shop. He went out and talked with the boy, and discovered that the boy had been separated from his parents and didn’t know how to get home. So he put on his coat, took the boy by the hand and led him home.
When he came back to his little shoe shop it was almost dark and the streets were emptied of people. And then in a moment of despair he lifted his voice to heaven and said, “Oh Lord Jesus, why didn’t you come?”
And then in a moment of silence he seemed to hear a voice saying, “Oh shoe cobbler, lift up your heart. I kept my word. Three times I knocked at your friendly door. Three times my shadow fell across your floor. I was the man with the bruised feet. I was the woman you gave to eat. I was the boy on the homeless street.”
Jesus had come. The cobbler just didn’t realize it.
Advent isn’t just about looking ahead to the future. It’s about looking around us now for traces of God’s fingerprints, for glimpses of the reality that he is already quietly here among us. Like Mary, we wait for the baby Jesus to be born, but we also recognize that he is already with us in the womb. Perhaps we make the same mistake the cobbler did, and we look for Jesus in the wrong places. We fix our gaze on the future and miss him in the present. We look for Jesus in the parts of life that are going well, and we miss him sitting next to us, holding our hand through life’s storms.
This Advent season, no matter what life throws at us we are reminded that God is near. Author Frederick Buechner writes, “No matter how much the world shatters us to pieces, we carry inside us a vision of wholeness that we sense is our true home and that beckons us.” Home may not look like it did last Christmas season. But we carry inside us a vision of wholeness, a longing for the peace and presence of God that transcends all hurt, all frustration, all loneliness. Our true home is in God’s presence. Our joyful memories of home—surrounded by family, fresh-baked cookies and laughter—are just a glimpse of the joy it is to live in God’s presence.
I’ll close with a story that I think I’ve shared once before, but it’s too good not to share:
There once lived a king who announced he would offer a prize to the artist who painted the best picture depicting peace. Many great painters sent the king several of their best art pieces. One of the pictures among the various masterpieces was of a calm lake perfectly mirroring peacefully towering snow-capped mountains. Overhead was a clear blue sky with fluffy clouds. The picture was perfect. Most of the people who viewed the pictures of peace from various artists thought that this was the best among them all.
But when the king announced the winner, everyone was shocked. The picture that won the prize had mountains too, but they were rugged and bare. The sky looked very angry and there was lightning. This did not look peaceful at all. It looked like the artist had mistakenly submitted a painting with the depiction of a storm rather than peace. But if you looked closely at the painting, you could see a tiny bush growing in the cracks in the rock. In the bush a mother bird had built her nest. In the midst of the rush of angry weather, the bird sat on her nest in peace.
This Advent season may look less like the masterpiece paintings with calm lakes and peacefully towering snow-capped mountains with clear blue skies and fluffy clouds overhead. This season may more likely resemble the painting that depicts a powerful and angry storm. But to live with God’s peace does not mean there isn’t noise or trouble. Peace is the presence of God in the midst of the brokenness and the chaos of our lives. Peace comes from trusting that God is in the midst of it all, slowly and often quietly bringing wholeness to things that are broken. God came near to grant us this peace, this hope in the midst of life’s storms. We do not carry on as a people without hope. We carry on with the promise that God has come near. Amen.