Sunday, December 13, 2020

Sermon: "Expectations Defied: Home", Luke 2:1-5 (December 13, 2020)

(This is the third of five sermons in our Advent series about our expectations around the holiday season. The first and second can be found here and here.)


“Oh, there's no place like home for the holidays/'Cause no matter how far away you roam/When you pine for the sunshine of a friendly gaze/For the holidays you can't beat home sweet home.” In just a few words, Perry Como is able to embody a seemingly universally human sentiment: home is a place of comfort, joy, and belonging. Home is where you can let your hair down and be yourself. Home is where we should be at Christmas, because home stands for everything that Christmas is.

These feelings seem to be heightened this year, in this time of anxiety and strangeness. Everything around us feels so wrong, so we’re desperate to go somewhere where all feels right with the world. We want to bask in “the sunshine of a friendly gaze” instead of the same grumpy expressions that we’ve been looking at for eight months of quarantine. We’re tired of our “bubble”, and we want to see the faces that we associate with better times, years that weren’t, to use a colloquialism, such a dumpster fire.

But for all his good intentions, our friend Perry is misleading us with these lyrics. He’s feeding into our desperate expectations of home, and we gobble it all up greedily like Christmas dinner. Let’s be honest. There are very few times when the places that we call “home” are the comfortable, easy places that we idealize the concept of home to be—especially around the holidays. Hosting the festivities usually means several days of frantic preparation, involving shopping, cooking, and cleaning to the point of exhaustion. Perry probably won’t be adding a verse about that. And if you’re the one going home, you have to navigate the strangeness of being a guest in a place that you lived for years. Memories of all your buried childhood insecurities and traumas are waiting there to greet you. The reality of home rarely measures up to our fantasies about it. No wonder Perry limited his commentary to pumpkin pie and a passing reference to travel that somehow makes traffic sound cute.

Mary and Joseph probably wouldn’t have found this song very relatable, either. When we read about them traveling to Bethlehem, we should be picturing a more, shall we say, AUTHENTIC homecoming, anxiety and chaos included. It wasn’t a cheerful trip to visit beloved family; it was a grueling, obligatory trek. When they arrived, conventions of hospitality dictated that they’d have a place to stay with family, but since EVERYONE was in town for the census, the family homestead would have been pretty cramped. When scripture says there was “no room in the inn” (or, more accurately translated, “in the guestroom”) we should be picturing the first century equivalent of people sleeping on couches, in recliners, on the floor, in the bathtub. On top of all that, Mary wasn’t even related to any of these people, and Joseph probably didn’t know very many of them, either. Not the homecoming that they might have expected or wished for. Certainly not the place one would choose to welcome a baby into the world, and definitely not a place one would expect to meet God.

We’re quick to consider our Christmas “ruined” when we don’t experience the warm, comfortable, sense of home that we crave during the holidays. Sometimes, it might be because you burn the turkey, or your kids decide to spend the day with the in-laws instead, or you get in a shouting match with your crazy uncle. This year, it might be because there won’t be any visits at all. We’re convinced that this is the worst thing that could ever happen, and we blame the pandemic, mask mandates, and travel bans for taking away our sense of home for the holidays.

But by these standards, the very first Christmas was “ruined”, too. It was probably about the worst “welcome home” party humanity could have thrown for God incarnate (grumpy people exhausted from travel and crammed together in close quarters don’t tend to make the best first impressions). And yet, nobody, least of all God, would say that God’s terrestrial debut was ruined.* Even though it might not have been the way Mary and Joseph expected it to be, Jesus was still born. Even in a place full of chaos and strangeness and imperfection that that didn’t feel anything like home, love came to earth.

Frankly, this unsettled sense of not being where we should be, of not being able to go home for the holidays, gets us much closer to the real spirit of Christmas than Perry Como’s saccharine version does. We shouldn’t anticipate the coming messiah with the idea that his arrival will immediately fix everything. We shouldn’t assume that Jesus’ sudden appearance will flip the “comfort and joy” switch on. And we certainly shouldn’t be expecting the time leading up to this event to be all cozy and perfect. The reason that we celebrate “God with us” is precisely because it’s not any of that.

Humanity is exhausted and quickly approaching complete despair. We don’t feel at home in this world. People are refusing to care for one another in the name of personal freedom. Nazis are proudly proclaiming their presence among us.[1] Some of our leaders are abdicating responsibility in order to shield themselves from criticism;[2] others are unable to practice the leadership asked of them because of angry protesters harassing their families.[3] Where we are Does. Not. Feel. Like. Home. We’re in the midst of the coldest days and longest nights of the year (both literally and figuratively), and we cannot keep going on our own.

Our anticipation of Christmas is about a glimmer of light in the midst of the darkness, the cold, the sadness, the exhaustion. It’s about “a thrill of hope” that gives the weary world a moment of respite. Like the Christmas lights that adorn so many houses and public spaces this time of year, Jesus’ birth doesn’t banish the darkness, making the night as bright as day (we can talk more about that at Easter). What it does is provide just enough light to remind us that the night won’t last forever, to give us comfort and hope, to promise us that no matter how dire things may seem, evil cannot ultimately win. It’s about making a home right where we are, in the places that feel the least like home.

No one would say that Mary and Joseph failed just because Jesus was born somewhere that wasn’t perfect. God met them where they were, and while it may not have felt like “home”, it was where they needed to be in that moment. On Christmas Day, it may not feel like “home” without your extended family around you, but it’s where you need to be to keep them all safe and healthy. The current state of our society may not feel like “home”, but it’s where we need to be in order to stand against hatred and fear. And in each of these “not-homes”, God is here. A light shines in the darkness, and small as that light may be, the darkness will not overcome it. THAT’S what home should be for the people of God—not the place where everything looks and feels perfect, but the place where we welcome God even when everything isn't.

I don’t know how they celebrated birthdays in first century Palestine, but I’ll bet that when Jesus’ first one rolled around, everything felt much more “homey” than they did that first Christmas. The holy family was probably back in their own home, surrounded by their close friends and neighbors, singing and laughing and celebrating together. But just because they finally got to be “home for the Holidays” doesn’t make their experience in Bethlehem less sacred in its strangeness. It doesn’t mean that God hadn’t been present that year. All it means is that for a little while, “home” had looked and felt different than they’d expected. It wasn’t where everything was perfect; it was where miraculous, holy things happened in the midst of the imperfection.

Don’t let Perry Como entice you with his impossible description of being “home for the holidays”. It’s not where we are right now. Instead, maybe we should let Judy Garland take the lead this year with a song she recorded 15 years earlier: “Someday soon, we all will be together,/if the fates allow./Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow/So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.” Our circumstances may be far from perfect, but Jesus is still coming. God will not be deterred. Be prepared to welcome Christ home, whatever and wherever that may be this year. Don’t dwell on this season being “ruined” because it needs to be celebrated differently. Have yourself a merry little Christmas…NOW. Amen.


*Well, Michael Scott might:


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