“Come Down Home”
“Come Down Home” – those words evoke a sense of warm hospitality. Perhaps the phrase “down home” carries the meaning of “down home cooking” or “down home music.” It seems to invoke pictures of gathered family, and depending on the season of either of iced homemade lemonade in rocking chairs on a porch to wide that it has to be called a veranda because not even “wrap-around porch” does it justice. Or in the winter of a cracking fireplace and hot chocolate with fat sugar cookies that melt in your mouth. Lights and coffee or tea in warmers left on for late arrivals. These are our images of a “Come down home” welcome – and we long for that kind of welcome, that kind of feeling at Christmas.
The first Sunday of Advent always has images of interruption, so this year is no different. Into our anticipation of holiday parties and feasts and family gatherings, Isaiah interrupts. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.” That doesn’t fit into our holiday plans. There’s a part of us that resents the intrusion of these apocalyptic texts every year on the first Sunday of Advent. We want to move to either the warm feelings that hopefully, but not always, surround the birth of a baby – or to the joy of Christmas. Isaiah interrupts.
Isaiah interrupts our Christmas anticipation with an announcement that all is not well with us. That despite God’s instruction, leadership and even appearances over the millennia, we are far from being the people God envisioned for us to be. We are sinful, unclean and broken – a far cry from “those who gladly do right.” We do right grudgingly, occasionally, and want full credit when we pull it off. There was a conversation here in the kitchen on Thanksgiving evening. A leader from another church was thanking everyone who had come to help, especially since it was Thanksgiving. Most of the volunteers had left family celebrations to come. And someone said, “But really, is there any place better to be on Thanksgiving than here serving our neighbors?” And he replied, “Well, it sounds nice to say that – but I’m sure all of us have places that we would rather be than here tonight.” No – we haven’t quite made it to “those who gladly do right” yet.
Isaiah sees the state of the world with a kind of double vision. In the time it was written, the people of Israel had been defeated and most of the treasures of the nation including those considered skilled laborers were carried off as spoils of war. If you stood in the ruins of Jerusalem and looked up to the Temple mount, the once beautiful and beloved worship place was destroyed by fire, the golden decorations and jeweled worship accoutrements carried off to adorn another nation’s capital. It is was ruins. That was then.
-- Worship. Now, Isaiah’s vision speaks of another kind of desolation. Our worship places are mostly empty on Sunday mornings. People have so many choices of things to do and weekly worship of God seems to not be a high priority. Even fifty years ago, our nation was mostly in church – but times and priorities have changed while the church has changed very little.
--Cities. “Your holy cities have become a wilderness,” Isaiah says. We may call it “urban blight” but Isaiah’s description rings true for us as well. Our cities lie desolate with people working two or three jobs to get buy, or sleeping on the streets when they don’t have enough because our shelters are full or require entrance at certain hours when they are still at work. Families a bit better off may be huddling in mostly unfurnished apartments chewing on food wrappers salvaged from the dumpster just trying to survive one week at a time -- while the feasts and banquets under dazzling chandeliers just miles away would feed the city for a week. And our nation’s leadership has become a Millionaires’ Club that votes for tax laws to increase their wealth and protect their special interests so much that we wish they, like Nascar drivers, would wear badges on their Hugo Boss suits so that we would know who had bought and paid for their loyalty. And the Statue of Liberty is veiled in shame, weeping with her huddled masses yearning to breathe free while our National Guard is ordered to lob tear gas over the barbed wire borders at families with children seeking asylum from violence and poverty in their own countries that evolved, at least in part, from our foreign policies and corporate activities. (Slow down and take a breath.) And so Isaiah interrupts our preparation with cries, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”
Estrangement and Longing
We begin our Advent season with a sense of estrangement from God. It seems that God, who has walked with God’s people for thousands of years, has given up on us. Our generations, with bright and shining technology, exploring first the moon and now Mars, seems often to feel little need for God. But not always. There are times when we LONG for a word from God because our world seems out of control. But we also know that the estrangement we feel is largely our own fault. It happens with all of our relationships when we neglect them in favor of our other activities. And then find ourselves longing for a previous closeness. We’re like the family who sits around the Thanksgiving table, each with eyes on our own screen, and then wonders why there isn’t laughter at the table as in years past.
How do we get back on track so that we are not estranged from God? Taylor Burton-Edwards talks about Advent as like a rerailer track on an electric train. He explains that HO electric trains have couplers to keep the track together, but that the wheels on the train have to be aligned just right for the train to move. Even just one misaligned wheel would cause cars to derail and even fall off the track. Hence the need for rerailer tracks. The rerailer aligned the wheels of each car as it went over it. It kept the cars aligned despite motion, despite track shifts, so that the train would run. Advent, he says, is like a rerailer track. Each time it comes around it gets us back on track, pointing us to Christ as the main purpose of our lives. It helps realign us to the purposes of living as God’s kingdom people in our own present. It reminds us that God is at work to bring renewal to all things. It also reminds us that God wants to meet us where we are, and to partner with us in the creation of a world that better reflects God’s kingdom.[i]
For Advent to realign us, we need to be willing to be honest about where we are. The first Sunday of Advent reminds us of our sin so that we can turn to God with a sense of repentance. The world is facing devastation right now.
-- Fires in California that continue to rage, with people losing homes, with loss of life to those who are in their ways and those who fight the fires.
-- Earthquakes in Alaska that bring a different devastation. Hard to fathom their destruction when the wilderness is so great and communities so spread apart that supply lines only exist by helicopter anyway.
-- Hurricane Devastation is still undone in Puerto Rico and on the east coast.
In 2018, “for the fourth year in a row, tropical storms formed prior to the official June 1 hurricane season start date, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration pointed out. And for the first time in a decade, four storms were active at the same time.
The 15 total tropical storms were higher than the average 12. Florence and Michael were the most destructive, ravaging the Carolinas and the Florida panhandle, respectively.”[ii]
Our sin regarding God’s creation has escalated and we have sown the wind and are reaping the whirlwind. Sure our repentance this year needs to include a serious reexamination of our policies regarding the environment – what the Bible calls creation.
For Advent to realign us we need to examine how we value human beings. We were already the nation with the highest percent of our citizens behind bars – disproportionately people of color. But now, we are putting families with children behind bars without trial or due process -- and again, disproportionately people of color. Racism is entrenched in the systems of our nation. We need to confess our sin and realign ourselves with God’s priorities – which in the Bible are disproportionately IN FAVOR of the poor, stranger, and abused people. In fact, the child we so eagerly anticipate arriving at Christmas was a brown, Jewish boy whose parents, so Matthew tells us, were forced to flee violence and persecution in their own country to travel, probably on foot, as asylum seekers.
Isaiah challenges us to see our world through an awareness of our own sin and participation in structures of sin. We are estranged from God because we resist this awareness and are misaligned with our own priorities instead of God’s. Advent provides an opportunity to get back on track.
Come Down Home
We long for God’s presence. And it’s more than a feeling. It’s more than a sentiment. What we really long for is a relationship. The HOME” that we long for is beyond place or the “feels” of the season. It is even beyond the memories.
Our sense of longing, our desire to find hope, is bound to be disappointed unless we are centering our longing and hope on God. St. Augustine wrote in his Confessions, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”[iii] Or Robert Frost’s quotation from his poem, “The death of the Hired Man,” : “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
When we come to the table…there is a sense of home. MARY’S STORY. (Woodlawn)
Perhaps Isaiah’s vision does offer us a challenging interruption in the midst of our holiday preparations. But it also offers a word of truth with the possibility to get things right that have been so very wrong. And a reminder that the God who seems so far away is as close as our breathed prayer of repentance. And then, only then, are we able to find our true home.
Note: This week's sermon ended differently -- but the ending wasn't tightly scripted.
[i] Taylor Burton Edwards, “Advent as Realignment,” Discipleship Resources, 2017.
[ii] https://www.theadvocate.com/baton_rouge/news/environment/article_7da69ba8-f4c2-11e8-b613-0fae15bf505f.html Steve Hardy, “2018 hurricane season a notable one ... except in Louisiana; here's why” November 30, 2018
[iii] Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, Book 1.