“Are you going home for Christmas?” What question has been more commonplace in recent weeks? Some while ago in December I was at the grocery store and as I walked through the store, I heard some version of that very question over and over. A cashier glanced over to a bagger, “So, you going home for Christmas next week?” Two older couples met up in the dairy section: “Hey, Charlie and Doreen! Are your kids coming home for Christmas?” I was quickly passing by two women who were chatting by the Pop-Tart display and although I had no idea exactly what they were talking about, the two words I did catch as I zipped by were “Christmas” and “home.”
Are you going home for Christmas? It seems like the question to ask, as well as the theme to play on. One major retailer has as its advertising jingle on TV, “There’s no place like home for the holidays.” The U.S. Postal Service used to run an ad showing people in far-flung places opening mail to convey the idea that there’s more than one way to be home for Christmas–send the right card, and maybe your daughter in the Army won’t feel like Afghanistan is so far from Kansas after all. Speaking of soldiers, most of us know the well-known World War II song, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”
Are you going home for Christmas? Frederick Buechner has written that in mid-December 1953 he was in church one Sunday, listening to a sermon by his mentor, Rev. George Buttrick. Buttrick, too, related overhearing some people in the church narthex the week prior talking about Christmas and home. And when in his sermon that Sunday morning in New York City Buttrick asked, “Are you going home for Christmas,” Buechner says the question was asked with such a sense of longing that tears leapt to his eyes.
Home. What is it really that we mean by that word? What do retailers and the postal service want to conjure by the word “home”? Is it a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting, all soft colors, crackling fires on the hearth, wide-eyed children whose eyes sparkle in the light of the Christmas tree? Is that home? Is it the sense of “Home sweet home” counted-cross stitched and framed over the mantle, or Dorothy clicking her heels together three times and saying, ” There’s no place like home”? Is that home?
Is it finally actually a place? Or is home more a longing? Or maybe I can put it this way, how many of us over the age of 20 feel like we are really “home” right now? Isn’t it true that “home” for us summons up, as often as not, a whole battery of things that are past and that cannot, as a matter of fact, be retrieved? Maybe “home” is the house you grew up in but that now belongs to some other family. But it’s not really that house, either, is it? Yes, that place, that locale, those four walls, are all important. If we concentrate, most of us can still take a kind of “virtual tour” of our childhood homes. In our mind’s eye we can still navigate those corridors, staircases, and rooms; we can still smell the mustiness of the cellar, the mothballs in the front-hall closet. Through an act of imagination, we can still open the door to mom and dad’s room and when we do, we know where every bottle of mom’s perfume will be on the bureau, where we’ll find dad’s plaid work shirts in the closet, his favorite hat on the edge of the dresser.
That’s home, but it’s still not just that. A skilled Hollywood set decorator could probably re-create our childhood homes based on photos and our descriptions. But even if someone could re-make that physical place, few of us would believe that just going there would be like going home again. Truth is, “home” is as often as not a whole set of longings, it’s a set of special people, an array of feelings that combine to make you feel safe and loved. It’s like that untranslatable German word, “Gemütlichkeit.” If something is “Gemütlich,” it’s cozy and fitting and warm and right and, well, I don’t know but if you find a “Gemütlich” place, you’ll know. You just will. You’ll feel it in your heart.
Home is like that. That’s why “home” could be experienced most anywhere so long as the right people were around. “Home” could happen in a hotel room where your family gathers because the heat is broken at the house. Many of us know full well that stabbings of home can hit you while talking on the phone with your sister just as surely as they can bubble up were you actually to journey to some piece of real estate back in Iowa.
Are you going home for Christmas? You could say that this is just another piece of sentimental doggerel, the very type of Hallmark hoo-ha that lards over Christmas and obscures its deeper meaning. “Home for the holidays” may have as little to do with the gospel as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. A theological Scrooge could say, and with some biblical justification I might add, that whatever the gospels tell us about what we now call “Christmas,” it has precious little if anything to do with being “home for Christmas.”
It’s partly right to say that: in terms of the gospel, “Christmas” and “home” don’t have much to do with one another. But seen from the right angle, those two things may have a lot to do with each other after all, and this morning I’d like to wonder aloud with you about that connection. Maybe even the soaring opening chapter to John’s gospel has something to do with this. And so I’ll ask again, “Are you going home for Christmas?”
We’d maybe all like it if we could, but mostly we cannot. We can’t go home because it doesn’t exist anymore. Not just the physical place but the sense of the place, the ambiance, the people above all. We can’t go home because mom and dad are dead now. Or one of our parents is gone and nothing has been the same for any of us since. Or we can’t go home because maybe we don’t want to. For a few of us perhaps, “home” was never that fine a place to begin with. Home was the place where mom and dad argued all the time until finally they split up, and then for the rest of our lives all we ever heard from other people was how sad it is that we come from “a broken home.” Or “home” is the place where we wished mom would have walked out on dad but she never did, and meanwhile he beat the living daylights out of her and us a couple times every week.
Are you going home for Christmas? Maybe in some real sense we still can do this, and maybe today we are doing it. And maybe for some of us it’s wonderful, but if so, then it is likely also true that for others of us it’s strained. We’ll all be home today all right but after we leave later on, mom will cry buckets of silent tears because she knows, as only a mother can, how much is wrong in our various relationships with each other. And whether she’s right or wrong about it (because who, after all, can finally know such a thing?), mom will wish to high heaven that her kids and grandkids were more like Verna’s family because they all seem just golden and why can’t our family Christmas parties be like Verna’s?
We long for what was but is now lost. We long for what never was but should have been. We rue what was as well as what is. And so in a thousand ways we find now and then, here and there, an unsettled part of our hearts and whatever else we make of that ache, that longing, that sense of sadness, we think we maybe should cover it over because it doesn’t have anything to do with Christmas. It ruins Christmas, spoils our fun, curdles our eggnog. Today is not a day to feel bad about things related to home. Let’s try to be happy instead. We even prayed that we would be. At least for today. For the kids. For mom. For ourselves. We should at least pretend all is well on the home front, past and present.
Or maybe not. Listen: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.” With God. The Word, the Son of God, the one we now hail as Christ and know as Jesus: he was with God. That’s just as well because, as John’s opening verse goes on to say, that Word just was God, too. In the beginning. Way back when, even back when technically there was no “when.” Once upon a time and before time; once upon eternity the Word was with God. The Word was, well, home. When God was all that there was and all that there had ever been–and even after God made a universe such that there was something other than just sheer divinity around–even still for the Word of God, to be with God was to be home. In the beginning the Word was home. With God. Home.
But by the time you get to verse 10 of John’s prologue you read, “He was in the world.” In the world. That’s different than “with God,” isn’t it? If you tell me that when you were little, you grew up with your parents in Sheldon, Iowa, then I’ll know where home is for you. But if you later tell me about that time when you were “in Vietnam,” I’ll know that during that time of your life, you weren’t home. Not by a long shot.
So here: in the beginning, “with God”; then, “in the world.” That’s not home. The Word had crafted that world, true, but it still wasn’t home. The proof was in the fact that no one recognized him. If people had seen the Word of God when he was at home, when he was dwelling in light inaccessible, crowned with glory and radiant with luminescence, well, they would not have failed to recognize him then. Not when he was home. But when he was “in the world,” he wasn’t home, and so he blended in as a face in the crowd. They didn’t recognize him. They didn’t receive him.
Small wonder, because John has more to say about the Word’s journey from home. Verse 14 famously tells us that this very Word who in the beginning had been at home “with God,” this Word became flesh. Actually, what it says is that the Word was made meat. The ethereal, eternal, divine Word of God became as meaty as a t-bone steak, as fleshly as you or I or any other person, cow, horse, or dog on the planet. The Word was made meat, flesh, skin and bones, and once that happened, he pitched his tent among us.
Literally in verse 14 John says he “tented” among us. He went camping. Camping is, after all, what you do when you’re not home. You pitch a tent and camp. When you go camping (and now I mean real camping and not the thing you do when you drive a WonderLodge with indoor plumbing and a satellite dish in which the only inconvenience over against home is that the microwave is a bit smaller), but when you are really camping, you know it. None of the conveniences of home is there and that’s why this can rightly be called “roughing it.” If it rains, you’re damp in the tent. If it’s hot or cold, so are you. When you camp, you’re not anywhere near “at home” in the usual sense and that’s why people either love camping or they hate it.
In the beginning the Word was with God. He was home. Then he wasn’t. He was in the world. No one recognized him because he was one of us now, living on a kind of extended camping trip, and not a day went by when Jesus didn’t sense this. After all, if you are deep-down the eternal Son of God, then even the most plush mattress from Sealy Posture-Pedic must feel hard as a rock compared to living on clouds of glory with the Father and the Spirit. The Word was made meat, and he went camping.
Maybe that’s why, even many, many years later, when someone said to Jesus, “I’ll follow you anywhere,” Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no home, nowhere to lay his head.” Maybe that’s why when mother Mary came to fetch Jesus and pleaded with him, “Son, come on home now to your family,” he said, “I don’t have a home or a family, except for these disciples who travel with me now.” In the beginning the Word was with God. So long as he was in the world, he could never be duped into thinking he was home.
Are you going home for Christmas? An odd question when you realize that the One we tout as “the reason for the season” created Christmas precisely by not being home. Christmas is about the homelessness of the Word. Christmas is about the One who knows as keenly as anyone ever has what it means to have a longing for home, to have reason to feel displaced. “He was in the world. He made every person in the world, but they didn’t give him the time of day.” That’s what Christmas is all about.
Are you going home for Christmas? He didn’t. The Word of God did not go home for Christmas but created Christmas by letting himself get exiled from home. Theologians sometimes make a big deal about saying that although Jesus was a human being who was always in just one place at a time the same as the rest of us, the divine side of Jesus was still able to be everywhere at once. But that’s not what John says. The Word was made meat and he pitched his tent, he made his dwelling here, among us. Jesus was not nursing at Mary’s breast in a cattle shed and at the same time sitting on a cloud chatting amiably with the Holy Spirit. He was there, all there, because that’s what it meant for the Word of God to come down here. He wasn’t home. That’s what it was all about.
And that’s why there is hope on this Christmas Day for every one of us who knows he or she isn’t home yet, either. To varying degrees each one of us can or cannot get back home today, or ever. Sooner or later we all lose our homes on this earth. Parents die or are exiled to the nursing ward. Children fly the coop, leave the nest, strike out on their own. In short, they leave home, and they take a little bit of home with them when they do. They wave goodbye, go off to establish their own homes, and parents may take joy at that, but at the same time are stabbed with the realization that because little Joey is now married with a home of his own, mom and dad’s own home is the less for it.
Or, as I said earlier, maybe you never had a good home to begin with and so although in one sense you’ve got nothing to be nostalgic about, at the same time you sense you were robbed of something all along. Somebody somewhere owes you a good home, and that sense of something lacking in your life makes you either angry or despairing, or maybe both.
Are you going home for Christmas? It doesn’t matter how you answer that question, it still evokes some longing in your heart. But if you can’t go home or won’t go home; if you can go home only to regret how much it’s changed or if you’re still basically at home but you know it won’t last forever–whoever you are and whatever your circumstance, the news of Christmas Day is that the One we call Jesus understands. If he didn’t, we would not have a Christmas to celebrate to begin with. But we do.
Because the One who left home for our sakes came down here. He was meaty and fleshy and undeniably human. He lived his life like an extended camping trip, replete with all the inconvenience, dirt, and mess of it all; replete even with death. And yet he lives. He’s alive. And so we, John says, have seen his glory. We’ve seen that the homeless one of Nazareth was full of grace and truth.
And what is the result of that grace, what is the core of that truth? That for those of us who believe, he has given us the right to be called “children of God.” Children. Of God. He has given us a Father, and children belong with their Father. If you are the Father’s child and he loves you the same as you love him, then the day will come when the Jesus we know as “Immanuel,” “God with us,” will reverse the formula to allow “us with God.” With God. The same as for the Word in the beginning. With God.
Are you going home for Christmas? Because Jesus did not go home for Christmas, one day we all will. With God. Home. As it was in the beginning, so forevermore. Home. Amen.
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