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a sermon based on Isaiah 40:1-11 & Mark 1:1-8
by Rev. Rick Thompson

“Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays.” “I’ll be home for Christmas.” “Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house we go.”

Going home. For many Americans, that’s one of the chief meanings of the holiday season: it’s time to go home. We sing holiday songs about it. We fill the airlines months in advance, and juggle family calendars: we want to go home, and we want our loved ones to be there when we do. Even if we live nearby our loved ones, we know the importance of going home. Home is where we belong; it’s where we find our sense of place and purpose. One author wrote, “Home is where, when you go there, they have to take you in.”

Author Thomas Wolfe, though, had another idea about going home. “You can’t go home again,” was Wolfe’s observation. Home is never quite what we expect it to be, never quite as wonderful as we remember it.

Have you ever gone home to the house you grew up in—you know, that house with the huge yard, and the large rooms, and the endless happiness—only to be disappointed? The rooms weren’t nearly as spacious as you remembered, and the yard was not much bigger than a postage stamp, and the pleasant memories were few and far between.

The hilarious comedy movie, Home for the Holidays, takes a humorous look at the disappointment and tension that sometimes result when we go home. Three adult children are all beckoned home for the holiday. They don’t get along with their parents, and the don’t get along very well with each other, either! There is one tense scene after another, and the holiday is quickly spoiled. And the funny scenes are only funny in an ironic sort of way: we only laugh because it’s easier than crying when we realize how silly we act when we hurt each other.

Thomas Wolfe was right: Going home is not always easy!

I can be joyful and deeply moving, but sometimes going home turns out to offer nothing but pain and misery.

Which would it be for the ancient Jews?

They were about to go home.

That’s the message the prophet in our first reading is tapped on the shoulder to proclaim. The lengthy exile in Babylon would soon be over! Their longing, their aching to return home and rebuild their lives was about to be fulfilled. God was about to lead the people home! Those who wished would soon be crossing the desert to freedom:

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert

a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain

and hill made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places

a plain.” (Is. 40: 3-4)

Straight across the barren, threatening desert, God was going to lead the people home! Leveling the hills, smoothing the valleys, more powerful than giant road-building equipment—God was going to lead the people home! The exiles of Jerusalem were going home!

And not long after Isaiah spoke these words, God kept the promise. God set the people free, and they went home.

Soon, however, they discovered the truth of what Thomas Wolfe would write: “You can’t go home again.”

When they got there, it was far from what they expected. The city that seemed so great and mighty—it was small and it lay in ruins. The temple, where they had worshipped God faithfully and properly, had been burned to the ground. Their existence was dismal, hand-to-mouth, discouraging. What they hoped would be the greatest experience of their lives turned out to be a huge disappointment.

They had gone home, but it didn’t feel like home.

Centuries later, the people of God were still waiting: still waiting for freedom, still waiting for life to make sense, still waiting to be in a place where they belonged. Oh, yes, they were still in the Promised Land; but the land wasn’t theirs. They had little freedom, life was dreary, and they thought God had failed to deliver what God had promised. The people were filled with longing and expectation, and they desperately wanted to feel at home again.

That’s when John the Baptist burst unto the scene. John appeared in the wilderness, and it was such a monumental event that, as Mark tells us, “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him.” They had hope in their hearts, and they though John was sent by God to show them the way home to a fuller life, home to a deeper relationship with God, home to greater joy.

And this was John’s message:

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight…The one who is more

powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie

the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize

you with the Holy Spirit. (Mark 1:3, 7-8)

Apparently, being at home had something to do with the One who was coming. Being at home had to do with Jesus. And those who wanted to go home were urged to change their ways. They were to repent, be baptized, and receive the forgiveness of God in preparation for the coming of God’s kingdom. Then they would be home!

Going home requires leaving something behind.

Thos who go home for Christmas leave behind the comfort of their own home and re-enter the world of the past.

Those who went home to Jerusalem, in response to Isaiah’s urging, left behind the security of life in Babylon to take a chance on the return to Jerusalem.

And those of us who want to go home to God must leave behind our sin!

John’s invitation to go home to God requires a leaving behind. It requires repentance. It means we must allow God to take the lead, and to remove the mountains from our lives that get in God’s way, to smooth out the valleys where we are likely to get bogged down in our relationship with God.

God is planning to lead us home—home, to live under God’s rule, so that we will never have to feel displaced again.

We have a place with God—THAT is where we are truly at home!

Are you at home with God? If not, why not? What has to change? What mountains need to be leveled in your life? What gets in the way of your relationship with God? And what needs to be smoothed out, so that you can keep moving forward, keep following God’s lead? What sin needs to be repented, for what do you need forgiveness? What stubbornness and selfishness gets in God’s way and keeps God from working in our lives?

Don & Marie were on the fast track to social prominence in their community. Don had an extremely well-paying and important job. And the couple had a daughter, Erica, whom they sent, every Sunday, to church and Sunday School.

One of the things they did in climbing the social ladder was to hold lavish—and often wild—parties on Saturday nights. Their parties were the most sought-after invitation in town. Don and Marie were on their way to prominence!

And yet, every Sunday, there was their daughter—in church.

One Sunday, the little girl was in church as usual—but this time she had two adult friends with here. Later, the pastor realized the adults were Erica’s parents!

“I’m curious,” the pastor said after worship. “What brings you here today?”

“Do you know about our parties, Pastor?” Don asked.

“Yes,” the replied.

“Well, we had one again last night. It got loud, and rough, and there was lots of drinking. The noise woke up Erica, and she came downstairs, to about the third step. She saw the guests eating and drinking. ‘Oh, can I say the blessing?’ she asked. ‘God is great, God is good, let us thank God for our food. Amen. Good night, everybody’!”

Erica went back upstairs to her bedroom.

People began to say, “It’s getting late; we really must get going,” and “thanks for a great evening,” and “we had a wonderful time”.

Within two minutes, little Erica’s mention of God had chased all the guests out the door.

Marie and Don began picking up crumpled napkins, spilled peanuts, and half-eaten sandwiches. They emptied overflowing ashtrays and took trays full of empty and half-empty glasses to the kitchen. They looked at each other, and he said what they both were thinking: “Where do we think we’re going?”

The next day, they were in church with Erica.

The had decided that it was well past time for them to be going home—home to God!

That’s the invitation we receive from the prophets Isaiah and John the Baptist today: “Go home to God!” We’re invited to leave our sin behind, and follow God as a path is made through the desert, and to get on the route that leads us home.

When we go home to God, then we’ll have the kind of Christmas we long for.

When we go home to God, we’ll know where we truly have a home.

Are you thinking about going home for Christmas?

If you are then, remember this: we won’t be at home anywhere, until we’re at home with God. Amen.