Sermon: Homecoming Light

Grace and peace to you in the name of our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

[For my children’s sermon, I was going to point out the eternal light burning in the sanctuary, and talk about how the light symbolizes Christ’s presence in the sanctuary.  But no kids came up!  So the adults got the abridged version, which led into…]

The eternal light brings me back to another story I’ve heard, about a mother who light in a candle in her window when her son went off to war, so that whenever he came back, at whatever hour of the day or night, he would see the light burning in the window and find his way home.  As the story of this mother goes, her son never came back, but the candle is still burning in her window, calling out, “Here’s home.”

Home.  It’s one of those words that sounds like what it means.  Home.  The sound of it is round and encompassing, and there’s a certain degree of longing in the aspiration of the “h.”  Home.

There’s no place like it, according to Dorothy.  It’s where you hang your hat.  It’s where the heart is.  Home.

I ran away from home exactly once when I was younger.  I made it as far the backyard, where I hid behind some forsythia bushes for a few hours before I got creeped out and went back.

Home.  Even my dog understands what that is.  Whenever we go to visit my parents’ home in Maryland, he has somehow figured out when we get within a couple miles of our destination, and he starts whining and crying with eagerness.

Home.  It’s a word that means peace, and joy, and security.  And not just security in the sense of knowing that all the bad things are kept out.  It’s the security of knowing that you can be fully yourself before others, and still be loved.

But home is hard, too.  We know of broken homes, and homes that are not places of peace or safety.  Part of the experience of maturing is leaving home, and making your own home, and as we grow old, leaving home again to live with caretakers.  Those transitions are complicated and sometimes heartbreaking.

Maybe that’s the reason why so many of my favorite hymns talk about home being somewhere that you can’t find on this earth.  Home, instead, is somewhere you go across the Jordan, once you’ve laid your body down.  Home is not here.

But…it’s coming.

In our reading from the last chapter of Revelation, we hear the last vision of the book, the final destination of God’s long journey with us and all creation. And it’s a vision of home.

It’s a vision of a new Jerusalem, a city built by God, being settled on a mountain.  A crystal river flows through it, and a tree grows in it, a tree that humanity has not seen since it lost the Garden of Eden back in the time of the first things: the tree of life.  This tree bears different kind of fruit, and bears them all the time, and the leaves are for the healing of nations.

Imagine, for a moment, in the midst of this election season, a tree that could heal the nations.

Stay with that for moment.  In the chapters that came before this one, the earth saw some seriously epic battles in which the nations were involved, and we might reasonably expect to have heard the last of them.  But here they are, walking in the city, healed and giving glory to God.

The kings of those nations are in the city not as war captives, but as willing voices in the litany of praise that rises around the throne of the Lamb.  The last we heard of those kings in Revelation, they were ranged against the heavenly powers.  “We had no reason to hope for the kings and the nations.  But here they are in the new Jerusalem—a sign of God’s amazing grace.[1]

Here in this home, peace is never broken.  The gates of this city are always open during the day, and there is no night to shut them against.  Anyone can come; all are safe; no one is shut out.

Well—there is a caveat.  In verse 27, we hear that only those written in the Lamb’s book of life come into city—because you only get to enter the city by God’s grace.  John of Patmos also tells us that nothing unclean will enter the city—but wait, before you begin guessing who that might be, because can’t you see them, there in the city, the kings and the nations who somehow made it in? The line about uncleanness isn’t a threat.  It’s a promise that God is going to make us clean, just like the kings and the nations.

And most of all, there is this light that shines from the center of the city, the light that flows from the glory of God and from the Lamb.  Jesus has come again as he promised, and God is bringing to be what humanity thought was impossible: that the people of the city should see the face of God and live.  In the midst of unending light, God dwells with God’s people, and there is nothing to separate them anymore, not sin, not death, not doubt or unworthiness.  The people stand in the presence God, and are loved.

800px-victoria2c_bc_-_christ_church_cathedral_-_stained_glass_28_-_chapel_of_the_new_jerusalem_282062390578229
Chapel of the New Jerusalem, Christ Church Cathedral, Victoria, BC.  Photo from Wikipedia Commons.

And let me point out something to you: this place is not up there.  This place comes down from heaven.  If you want to go to heaven, don’t look up.  Look around.  Because God isn’t planning on bringing us home.  God is planning to bring home to us.

With delicious irony, that promise is most clearly given to us by a homeless man: Jesus.   One of the last things he promises his disciples in John’s farewell discourse, this loooong speech that Jesus makes on the night of his arrest, is home.  “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”

Home.  For something that gives us such a specific feeling, it’s a fluid concept.  Some of us look for home in our houses.  Some of us in the place where we grew up.  Some of us search for it in other people. Some of us wait to find it in the hereafter.  But Jesus offers it here, now, to you, in you.

God not only brings home to us; God makes home in us.  That home is eternal, and cannot be left or lost or forgotten.  And in one of those inconvenient switcheroos for which the Almighty is notorious, God not only makes home in us; God makes us home for other people.

Picture the northern coast of Greece, the city of Philippi, the city we read about in our first reading.  Picture a big boat pulling up to the sandy white shores.  Picture some wind-blown, scraggly looking people stepping onto the white sands.  Picture them being welcomed into a building in the center of town, from which light is pouring, even though it’s the middle of the night.

This is not the story of Paul and his companions.  This is the story of 1,200 Syrian refugees who were sent to the modern-day city where Lydia—she of the purple cloth—once lived.  Today that city, which is about the size of Lancaster population-wise, is called Kavala.  I would like you to imagine, for a moment, what would happen if Lancaster was told that they had less than 24 hours to prepare for an influx of 1200 refugees.

Here’s what happened in Kavala: people made room.  They turned their convention center into a welcome center.  They organized food and medical care and places to sleep.  They met a freighter full of frightened people who had lost their homes, perhaps forever, and they welcomed them.

Two thousand years ago, a seller of purple cloth did the same for some scraggly men who came preaching Christ. Lydia was an independent business woman in a preeminent Roman colony.  She was “a worshipper of God”—a Gentile who worshipped the God of the Jews, but because she was a Gentile, she was considered something of an outsider.  It’s she that the Holy Spirit picked out, and she whose heart the Spirit opened, and she who in turn opens up her home to the men who don’t know where the heck they’re going, and gives them a place to rest.

In the earliest days of the church, people didn’t meet to worship in public places or in lovely steepled buildings.  They met in people’s houses, like Lydia’s.  It is possible that Lydia’s house was the site of the first church in Philippi, the one that Paul writes to later in his letter to the Philippians.

The Spirit came to dwell in the household of Lydia, and the home of one who had been a spiritual outsider came to be the center of a flourishing new church.  God made a home in Kavala, and is making it afresh in the gift of hospitality extended to over a thousand refugees.

Beloved, God is making a home among you, and in you.  The city of New Jerusalem is flickering into being wherever the Spirit gathers us in the name of Christ, filling us with peace and calling us to service.  The light of that city shone around you on the day of your baptism, when the Spirit said, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and remember your father who is in heaven.”  The lamp that is guiding home the lost and the lonely and the longing—and they see it burning in you when you open your heart to them in love.

So keep walking, children, in the light, for it is guiding us home.  Amen.

[1] Brian Peterson, “Commentary on Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5,” Working Preacher blog, May 9, 2010.

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