Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Home for the Holidays

“See your children gathered from west and east at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that God has remembered them.” Baruch 5:5

In our family, sometimes we call my mother the sheepdog.  She likes nothing better than to herd all her charges into one place.  My mother has always loved big family gatherings: the heaping table, decorations all in their places, music playing in the background, children shouting and dogs barking underfoot.   When we all get together there are fourteen now, the majority of us under seven.  It can make for quite a racket in a house built for smaller crowds.  Sometimes one of my brothers or I will suggest that it would be simpler to host us in batches.  It really is easier to talk at a smaller table.  There’s no need for quite so many dishes.  But she’ll have nothing of it.  Since my father died ten years ago, my mother spends most of her time alone.  For a woman who gave so much of her life to the things that make for a happy family, that’s sometimes very difficult.  When we are all together, I think that for her, it’s a bit like putting life back together again, recovering something of what was lost and can never quite be again.

Of course, this is the season for big family gatherings, when we endure hair-raising traffic and the nightmare of airport security to head back to our home places, to sit around the family table, among old, familiar things. 
I met a man who lives in Tennessee
He was headin’ for, Pennsylvania, and some home made pumpkin pie
From Pennsylvania, folks are travelin’ down to Dixie’s sunny shore.
From Atlantic to Pacific, gee, the traffic is terrific,
For there’s no place like home for the holidays.[1]

And increasingly, as our families spread even farther apart, and our work schedules become more demanding, we can’t even make it back together for the holidays.  I hear often of families who keep a Christmas together half-way through November, or at Martin Luther King weekend in January.  Taylor, our seminarian, is at a family Christmas like that today—the only time when they could all fit in the trip.  The liturgical purist in me cringes a bit at this, I acknowledge.  But there something about the gathering the loved ones together that marks true festivity—when we can look around and see the old faces and remember together happy times.  There are few sweeter blessings God has placed in human life.

But of course, sometimes we can’t all find the time to be together.  The warm invitation receives no reply. Sometimes we must sit and wait, and acknowledge with tears that the family which was once so happy together cannot quite be gathered into one again, that we are scattered far and have quite forgotten the road that leads home. 

For Israel, this is what it was like to be in exile.  Israel had once all been one people, living together in one land under one ruler.  They were the descendants of a family of brothers, and once upon a time, they had come together from every corner to Jerusalem to keep the great feasts, to pray and sing and dance and eat, to put themselves together again and remember God’s goodness, His everlasting “promise of mercy.” 

But Israel had sinned.  They had run after other gods.  They had perverted justice and neglected the poor.  There had been a bitter dispute in reaction to a reckless king which had split them into two states, with two temples and two kings.  And then the Assyrians had come and conquered the Northern Kingdom, hauling them off to vanish from the pages of history.  The Southern Kingdom, ruled by David’s sons from the grand old city of Jerusalem with its majestic temple, it had lasted a few generations more.  But it would not repent.  It spurned the warnings of the prophets.  And God sent the great Babylonian armies against it.  They conquered the city, tore down the walls, hauled off the treasures of the temple, led away the people in chains. 

And for seventy years they lived in Babylon, unable to come home.  They did not lose faith, and eventually God allowed them to return.  The Persian king gave them their freedom, and helped them to rebuild the walls, to construct a temple on the spot of the old ruins.  The law book was brought out again, the sacrifices were made.  There was no proper king, but the arrangements gave them far more dignity than they really deserved.

But it just wasn’t the same as it had been before.  For one thing, maybe only half of them returned.  Many of the Jews had made out quite well for themselves in Babylon.  They spoke the language now, they had good jobs, friends among the local people.  It might be nice to die in the homeland, they thought, but the living’s not bad here in the meantime.  Maybe once they’d make a trip back for the Passover, to see if it really was as grand as old grandmother had half-remembered—but to move back, to start over again, wasn’t that asking too much? 

There had been an initial burst of piety back in the land of Israel, a generation of pioneers that rediscovered the lure of holiness.  But faithfulness is the work of a lifetime, not the adventure of a summer’s afternoon.  The old sins crept back in again, like weeds that can never quite be grubbed out.  Soon the priests were on autopilot again, the prophets were ignored, the people as indifferent as ever.   They needed a deeper kind of restoration: not just construction and moving vans, a complete spiritual renewal.  It’s as if they were still waiting to come home, their hearts back on Babylon’s shores even while living in the middle of the ancient city.

The Book of Baruch, from which our first lesson is taken, reflects this sense of so many faithful Israelites that their exile had never really ended.[2]  There was a Baruch who had seen Jerusalem fall back in the sixth century. He was the scribe of Jeremiah, whose words had gone unheeded.  He fled with Jeremiah and the king from the city as it burned.  The Book of Baruch is attributed to him, but almost certainly it was written much later.  His name is used, rather poetically, to prove a point.  We count Baruch among the writings of the Apocrypha, written between the Old and New Testaments.  The scholars mostly date it to the second century, some four hundred years after the first Baruch had died.  We have it only in Greek, written for Jews who lived far from Palestine and didn’t quite remember how to read the mother tongue.

It says, pointedly, that Israel is still in exile.  Its first section concludes by addressing God with these words: “See, we are today in our exile where you have scattered us, to be reproached and cursed and punished for all the iniquities of our ancestors, who forsook the Lord our God.”[3]  It was a rather remarkable thing to say, really, while Jerusalem stood rebuilt, five hundred miles away, while sacrifices burned on the temple’s altars.  It’s as if four hundred years of history had never happened.  Baruch is still speaking to people far from home.  Maybe the best modern analogy would be when the gung-ho tea party folks dress up like George Washington and Ben Franklin at their rallies.  It’s still 1776, they’re saying, we’re still living under tyranny with a need for revolutionary change—and maybe they’re being ironical, or maybe they’re rather serious about it—depends on who you ask.

Well this writer, this man who called himself Baruch, he was quite serious.  And not just because he was dissatisfied about the way things had fallen out.  He believed that God was about to do something new.  God had promised more than what they had seen so far, so clearly He must be planning soon to launch a new plan for the restoration of His people, to get the whole family back together again.  First, they would need to turn back to God. Baruch’s book includes a great confession of the people’s sins with an expression of their desire to live new lives, to be dedicated completely to their eternally faithful God. 

But he ends, as the prophets always do, by looking ahead.  Baruch’s last word is this jubilant song of hope, our Old Testament lesson.  It is addressed to mother Jerusalem, who sits at the window and waits forever for her children to come home.  Look east, he says, and see them coming, from east and west, from every place where they have scattered.  God is calling them to return, and paving the way before them.  A pleasant path it will be, a level road, shaded with trees.  God has not forgotten your sorrow.  He knows how much you want to see them all together again.  Look east, and see them coming home.

When John the Baptist spoke in the wilderness, calling the people to confess their sins, and be washed clean to greet the Redeemer, he was speaking from exactly the same conviction as Baruch.  The exile was about to end.  God was about to answer their lonesome prayers.  The way must be prepared for all to come home, the valleys exalted, the mountains brought low.  Prepare the way, he says, for the Redeemer is coming soon.

And He has come, in the man Jesus Christ.  John the Baptist would mark Him out so there could be no question: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”[4]  Jesus came to make a new covenant, to call the whole world into God’s new kingdom, where “many would come from east and west and take their places at the feast.”[5]  He would gather home all Israel, and welcome in the Gentiles too.  He would blot out sin, and pour the Spirit, and reconcile us once and for all to God who always “remembers His promise of mercy.”  The great homecoming feast is what we share in today, the table spread where all humanity can taste and see the goodness of the Lord.”[6] 

But sometimes, we still seem to be waiting, don’t we?  This world is not yet put right yet, and many of God’s beloved seem to be wandering from home.  We hear God’s gracious will for us, as we did when His Ten Commandments were read out today, and we number our own failures.  This is a violent world, but we too are angry.  There is great irreverence, but we too are distracted and cold.  There seem to be no restraints, but we do not check our own desires.  There is so much division, and yet our own love is so weak, we are still separated from each other.  Because Advent is a season of expectation, it is also a time for penitence.  For we still long for renewal, for a return of His transforming mercy.  Come and save us, O Emmanuel.  Come and forgive us.  Come, and bring us home.

[1] Al Stillman, “Home for the Holidays.”
[2] c.f.  N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992. 368ff. 
[3] Bar. 3:8. 
[4] John 1:29.
[5] Luke 13:29.
[6] Ps. 34:8.

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