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Coming Home - The Bishop of Guildford's Christmas Sermon

Date: 25 December 2018

Christmas Eve Communion, Guildford Cathedral, 24.12.18
Isaiah 52:7-10, Hebrews 1:1-4, John 1:1-14

So what did it feel like when you walked into church for the very first time?’ I asked Paula an hour before she was due to be baptised and confirmed. She paused for a moment, and then, with tears welling up in her eyes, said: ‘It felt like I was coming home’.

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Coming home. It’s a big theme at this time of year, as many seek to be home for Christmas, crossing nations and even continents to see that ambition fulfilled. Home is about place: the house where we were brought up, perhaps, or the village in which we’ve settled. But home is also about people. When my parents moved to Hong Kong in the early eighties, and invited us to join them at Christmastime, people would ask, ‘So where are you going for Christmas?’ to which I would instinctively respond, ‘Oh, I’m going home’. I’d never lived in Hong Kong or anywhere near it, but even then – as a young adult – home was where my parents were.

There’s another, darker, side to this cosy domestic picture, of course, which becomes all the more heart-breaking at Christmastime. There’s the crisis of refugees and rough sleepers, who have no place to call home. There’s the crisis of those who are isolated and lonely, who have no people to call home. And even where there’s a place and there are people, there’s the crisis of those caught up in the cycle of family tensions, relationship meltdowns, even domestic abuse – you may be amongst them – where the idea of home as a place of sanctuary has been horribly violated.  

And yet, whatever the realities, ‘coming home’ remains an aspiration for almost every man, woman, young person and child on the planet – the vision of a place and a people where we can be truly loved, truly accepted, truly ourselves. We may not have the pinpoint accuracy of the swallow or sheerwater to navigate the thousands of miles back to our nesting grounds. But the human homing instinct is every bit as strong as that of our avian cousins.

It’s a theme picked up in our first Bible reading this evening, as the prophet Isaiah speaks of the ‘beautiful feet’ of the messenger announcing Good News. For seventy long years, the Israelites had been living far from home, exiles in the land of Babylon, leaving a Jerusalem in ruins behind them, with a burnt-out Temple at its heart. Some had settled down, making a life for themselves in Babylon as best they could; others had sat by the rivers and Babylon and dreamt dark dreams of revenge, even of taking Babylonian babies and bashing their heads in. And meanwhile they were regularly taunted by their Babylonian captors along the lines of ‘Our god is bigger than your god’; and at times it was hard to disagree.

But now a miracle had happened. The Babylonians had themselves been defeated by the Persians, and Cyrus, the Persian King, was allowing the Israelites to return to Jerusalem once more. ‘Your God reigns’ – that was the beginning of the Good News that Isaiah’s messenger was to proclaim - not the gods of the Babylonians, but ‘Your God’, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and then: ‘we’re all going home’: home to a Place, yes, back to Jerusalem and the land of Judah. But also home to a Person – to the living God, who had seemed so absent during all those years of exile. It’s no wonder that Isaiah thought that everything about this messenger – from the top of his head to the bottom of his dirty, calloused feet – was quite simply beautiful.

So move forward 600 hundred years to our Gospel reading this evening, and here again is Good News aplenty as we read of the mysterious Word of God who was there from the beginning; of the life that is the light of all people; of the power to become children of God, born ‘not of blood, or of the will of the flesh, or of man, but born of God’.  

The background to this proclamation is another kind of exile: not the physical exile of the Israelites as they sat by the rivers of Babylon and wept, but the spiritual exile of all those – then and now - who somehow feel lost, dislocated, unsure of their own identity, distant from God, a long way from home. And yes, there was a new messenger here, whose name was John – and everything about him – from the top of his head to the bottom of his dirty, calloused feet, was beautiful. And yet this John was not the light itself, we’re told, but just a witness to it: for God was preparing a more radical, costly way to gain our attention.  

‘Long ago’, as our second reading puts it, ‘God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son’. The Word became flesh’, as we read in the Gospel, ‘and lived among us… full of grace and truth’.

So how does Jesus, God’s Son, the Word-made-flesh, speak to our sense of exile, of dislocation, of being somehow far from home? Ironically when he arrives on the scene he doesn’t seem at home himself. St. John tells us that he came to his own but his own people didn’t accept him. St Luke tells the story of Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem only to find that there’s ‘no room at the inn’. St Matthew records how the holy family are then forced to seek asylum in Egypt so as to escape from Herod’s paranoia; and even once these childhood perils are past, it doesn’t get a whole lot better: ‘Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests’, as the now adult Jesus puts it, ‘but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’.

It’s a reminder to us, of course, that God is with us even if we find ourselves among the refugees or rough sleepers – that the One who started his life in an old rugged manger and ended his life on an old rugged cross understands the bleakest aspects of our human experience. But there’s something deeper going on here too. It’s pictured in some of Jesus’ most memorable parables - the lost sheep, the lost coin, the prodigal son – and here it is: that in Jesus, God has sent out a search party to call us home.

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This home is a place where we are truly loved, truly accepted; where we can be truly ourselves. This home is a place where we find our true identity as children of God, with unique gifts and a unique destiny. This home is a place where Almighty God becomes accessible to us in Jesus – God in a shape and a size that we can all understand - drawing us around Himself; and not just us, but a wonderful array of others from ‘every tribe and language and people and nation’ who are now our brothers and sisters. And the Church is very far from perfect, of course, and even the best of it is only the palest reflection of all that awaits us; but what a joy to experience this homecoming for ourselves. ‘Lord, you have made us for yourself’, as St Augustine famously put it, ‘and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you’.

‘So what did it feel like when you walked into church for the very first time?’ I asked Paula. She paused for a moment, and then, with tears welling up in her eyes, said: ‘It felt like I was coming home’: not a nostalgic return to some cherished childhood memory, because Paula had never been to church as a child, but rather a joyous realisation that through Jesus her heart had truly found its rest.

Let’s pray…

Father of all, we give you thanks and praise, that when we were still far off you met us in your Son and brought us home. Dying and living, he declared your love, gave us grace, and opened the gate of glory. May we who share Christ's body live his risen life; we who drink his cup bring life to others; we whom the Spirit lights give light to the world. Keep us firm in the hope you have set before us, so we and all your children shall be free, and the whole earth live to praise your name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

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