SERMON Advent 3C Zephaniah 3: 14-20
“Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays….”
What exactly IS home?
For some it is a very specific building full of memories and smells and sounds. It’s the smell of your grandmother’s house –old books and wallpaper and flowers. It’s the sound of the creaky floorboard at the top of the stairs. It’s the furniture that’s been in the house for generations, and the kitchen sink that drips if it isn’t turned off just right.
For some, home is the rituals and traditions –knowing to take your shoes off when you come in the house, baking and decorating a gingerbread house with your mother and siblings, getting all dressed up to worship together on Christmas Eve and opening just one gift when you arrive home –your hearts warmed by the love and light of the Christ child.
For many, home is not just the building or the traditions, but most importantly home gathers together the people we are closest to –those whom we love and have history with. Home is the smiles, the inside jokes, the hugs that comfort like nothing else.
For many, the thought of being at home with dear friends and family is the most joyful thing we can think of.
But, for some “There’s no place like home for the holidays” evokes longing and deep sadness.
Where is home when your childhood home has been sold? Where is home when your loved ones live too far away to visit for the holidays? What does home even mean after a loved one, who was always there, has died?
This 3rd Sunday of Advent is JOY Sunday, and it may seem strange to be dwelling on such sadness on JOY Sunday, but Joy is not the same as happiness. You may be happy this holiday season, or you may be very sad indeed. Happiness and sadness are emotions, and such they are fleeting. Happiness and sadness are temporary, and are determined often by our external life circumstances.
But Joy is not an emotion. Joy is an orientation of the heart. Joy is our response to the grace we have experienced from God. And joy is not determined by our external circumstances. When St. Paul penned “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice,” he was sitting in a jail cell, unsure if he would live or die in the days to come.
The prophet Zephaniah, who wrote our first reading today, wrote during a time of great corruption, oppression, and idolatry in Judah. He spent the first two chapters of his oracle, warning the people that the day of the Lord, the day of judgment, was coming, and that God would wipe everything they knew away because of the injustice of their society and the way they put their love and trust in everything but God. Twenty years after he shared these warnings with God’s people, the day of the Lord did indeed come in the form of the Babylonian exile. Everyone was carted off to Babylon, and everything they knew and loved they had to leave behind. Words cannot describe how disruptive and shameful the experience of the exile was for God’s people. A whole generation never saw their homes in Judah ever again.
Whatever you find yourself struggling with this time of year, whatever sadness the concept of home may evoke, God’s people in Judah faced similar loss and longing.
It is into the painful experience of the exile, and the painful experiences we ourselves face today, that God speaks these words of joy and hope and wholeness:
“Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!…
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak.
17The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
18as on a day of festival…
I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
20At that time I will bring you HOME…”
“If you want to be happy in a million ways, for the holidays you can’t beat home sweet home.”
According to scripture, our loving God offers us something better than happiness- even a million ways of temporary happiness. Our loving God offers us enduring joy!
God calls us to rejoice –even while still in exile- for the day of salvation is surely coming! God rejoices over us! God loves you and delights in you so much that God breaks out in festive song at the sight of you. Imagine that. God sings festive carols for YOU this time of year, for you are God’s pride and joy!
And God promises to renew you through the comfort of his loving, gentle presence. The Lord is in our midst, and that is the very best news. While we wait for the day of salvation, for the day when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, we are not abandoned. The Lord is in our midst and exults over us.
Our Christian joy bubbles up from this knowledge of God’s faithful promises. The God who created the heavens and the earth delights in us and dwells within our midst –wherever we are! God promises to BE our home and to LEAD us home to a sense of familiarity, joy, and peace, no matter what we’re going through.
A powerful example of this comes to us from saint and martyr Dietrich Bonhoffer. While sitting in a prison cell –much like St. Paul- in Nazi Germany, seventy-five years ago tomorrow, he wrote this letter home to his parents:
“Of course you can’t help thinking of my being in prison over Christmas, and it is bound to throw a shadow over the few hours of happiness which still await you in these times. All I can do to help is to assure you that I know you will keep it in the same spirit as I do, for we are agreed on how Christmas ought to be kept. How could it be otherwise when my attitude to Christmas is a heritage I owe to you? I need not tell you how much I long to be released and to see you all again. But for years you have given us such lovely Christmases, that our grateful memories are strong enough to cast their rays over a darker one….
For a Christian there is nothing peculiarly difficult about Christmas in a prison cell. I daresay it will have more meaning and will be observed with greater sincerity here in this prison than in places where all that survives of the feast is its name. That misery, suffering, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt look very different to the eyes of God from what they do to man, that God should come down to the very place which men usually abhor, that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn- these are things which a prisoner can understand better than anyone else. For the prisoner the Christmas story is glad tidings in a very real sense. And that faith gives the prisoner a part in the communion of saints, a fellowship transcending the bounds of time and space and reducing the months of confinement here to insignificance. On Christmas Eve I shall be thinking of you all very much, and I want you to believe that I too shall have a few hours of real joy and that I am not allowing my troubles to get the better of me….
It will certainly be a quiet Christmas for everybody, and the children will look back on it for long afterwards. But for the first time, perhaps, many will learn the true meaning of Christmas.”
Trusting in God’s promises of love, no matter what circumstance we may find ourselves in, we are already –and always- home for the holidays. For the Lord will be our home and will lead us home, and that is worth rejoicing! Amen.