|stained glass windows at St. James Episcopal Church, San Francisco|
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: “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 shall be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:1-5)
Isaiah speaks these words of comfort to a people suffering in exile in Babylon, longing to return home to Israel. They were bereft of hope, their Temple in ruins, certain that God was punishing them for their sins, when along comes the prophet to proclaim forgiveness and a vision of homecoming. This is good news indeed! Then, in 539 the Persian King, Cyrus, conquered Babylon and a year later declared that the exiled Jews were free to return home and rebuild their Temple.
Baruch appropriated this vision of homecoming more than three hundred years later, after the return of the exiles to Israel and the rebuilding of the Temple. Even when we are “home” we can feel alienated and unsafe. Israel was home again, but now under the rule of a Syrian king, Antiochus, who profaned the Temple and executed Jews who refused to forsake their religion. When home becomes an occupied territory, when one’s culture and identity is being suppressed, it doesn’t feel much like home anymore.
Thus, the promise of homecoming must be renewed: “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory of God . . . For God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of his glory, with the mercy and justice that come from him.” (Baruch 5:1, 9) This promise was fulfilled, in part, by the Maccabean revolt against Syria that restored the Temple and re-established Judean independence.
Then, along came the Roman Empire. Judea and all of Palestine became an occupied territory again, leading to further revolts in opposition to Roman oppression. Some two hundred years after Baruch’s writing the Temple was destroyed again; Jerusalem became a wasteland. Many Jews went into exile again, fleeing their homeland.
Not long afterward, Luke’s Gospel appeared conveying the message of yet another prophet, John the Baptizer, who once again appropriates Isaiah’s promise of homecoming for his own time and place. John gathered a new community that was preparing for the renewal of Israel. God would once again make a way for the return of the exiles, a true homecoming in which all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
Do you see a pattern here? Exile and return, occupation and liberation, alienation and homecoming: this seems to be the way of the world. It isn’t merely a long ago and far away story. It is our story. It is the story of millions of refugees around the world: Palestinians, Sudanese, Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghanis, fleeing occupied territories they long to reclaim as home. It is the story of brave U.S. servicemen and women serving abroad in a tragic exile not of their own choosing. It is past time for them to come home. It is the story of Central Americans fleeing across our borders, many of them children, hoping to build a new home here free from destitution and violence.
It is the story of people living with disabilities, struggling to feel at home again in their own bodies. It is the story of people caring for loved ones with dementia: exiled to a forgetfulness that can leave them feeling lost, while their loved ones grieve the sense of home they once shared. For many of our neighbors, exile and the fear of exile has to do with rising housing costs and the threat of eviction. Their sense of “home” in San Francisco feels tenuous at best. “Home” can also be a relationship that is no longer viable, with divorce feeling like a kind of exile from what was at least familiar, even if it wasn’t always happy.
We are all characters in the story of exile and return. Sometimes the home for which we long is a place on a map; sometimes we find ourselves exiled from the landscape of our own heart. Too often, we live in exile from both. We long to come home to our people, to our family, to our self. Even more, we long to come home to God, in whom we find our true and lasting rest.
Thus, we find ourselves here again in the season of Advent, listening to the voice of one crying in the wilderness: “O God, make a way for us to come home again. Let us, all of us, see your salvation. We’re tired of wrapping ourselves in threadbare garments of sorrow and affliction. Dress us instead in the beauty of your presence, in the warmth of your peace and justice, in the splendor of your compassion and forgiveness. Please, please, dear God, bring us home again.”
This Advent Season, I invite you to reflect on your own experience of exile and return. In what sense are you grieving a lost sense of “home?” What does “homecoming” look like for you? How can we find our home in God together at St. James?