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Worship and Sermons
Dec. 24, 2016

 

“Coming Home” by the Rev. Don Wahlig

Year A / Christmas Eve - Isaiah 9:2-7  •  Psalm 96  •  Titus 2:11-14  •  Luke 2:1-20

THEME:  Just as Joseph and Mary came home to his extended family in Bethlehem where they celebrated the birth of the Christ child, so have we come home to celebrate with our extended families this Christmas.  Jesus invites us to overcome our doubts and distractions by remembering that he is our focus and true host this Christmas.

 

          One of the things I love best about Christmas is all those classic Christmas movies.  At our staff Christmas lunch week before last, we had a little contest to see how many animated Christmas movies we could name. 

          I got up to 5:  Frosty the Snowman, the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, The Little Drummer Boy, a Charlie Brown Christmas, Polar Express.  I think Candace won – she got 13!

          The Christmas movies I really love are the black and white classics:  It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Carol – and one that I just discovered this year called It Happened on 5th Avenue.  It’s a gem. 

          Of course, there are some modern classics, too.  The best of them are comedies:  Scrooged with Bill Murray, Home Alone, and Elf with Colin Farrell.  (And, yes, Die Hard is a great movie, but it’s not a Christmas movie.)

          But there’s one that I think may be better than almost all of these.  You don't see it very much anymore.  Do you remember the hit TV series called the Waltons?  It ran for 9 seasons in the 1970s. It won all sorts of awards, including the prestigious Peabody award for its first season.  

          What you may not remember is before there was the TV series, there was a single made-for-TV movie called The Homecoming:  A Christmas Story.  It first aired on CBS 45 years ago this past week.

          It’s about the Walton family who live in the mountains of rural western Virginia. The year is 1933.  It’s the height of the Depression.  In order to support his wife, 6 children and his two parents who live with them, the family patriarch, John Walton, has taken a job 50 miles away.  He doesn’t get home very often.

          Now, it's Christmas Eve.  The family is waiting anxiously for John to come home.  But it’s begun to snow and he’s very late.  Everyone is worried.  

          I won’t spoil the ending for you, but what I love so much about this movie is that, along the way to a wonderfully heart-warming conclusion, we get to see how the characters develop and grow, not just emotionally but spiritually and morally.

          They’re all devout Baptists - except for John.  John is not a church-goer.  He’s what we would call ‘spiritual but not religious.’  And one of the great questions we’re left with is not only ‘Does John make it home for Christmas?’, but ‘Does he ever come home to Jesus?’

          As I read our gospel text, I heard that same question.

          Our passage from Luke tells the story of Jesus’ birth.  Luke takes great pains to place this momentous event in the context of Roman rule.

          It’s the time of the very first census, which will be the basis of a new & unpopular poll tax.  This is Luke’s way of reminding us that the Jews were living in an occupied land.  They were subject to pagan rulers – and it rankled.

 

          All over Judea, Jews are returning to their hometowns in order to register for the census.  Joseph and his very pregnant wife, Mary, make their way to Joseph’s ancestral hometown of Bethlehem, the City of his ancestor David.   

 

          But it’s late.  All the guest rooms are booked.  There’s nowhere for them to lay their heads.  So they’re forced to stay with the animals in the lower level of a home owned, in all likelihood, by one of Joseph’s extended family.  

         

          There, among the most humble surroundings, Mary gives birth to her first son, the Messiah, our Emmanuel.  The Angels and Shepherds rejoice along with them.

 

          There are lots of ways to think about this tender, joyful story of the very first Christmas.  At its heart, it’s really a homecoming story.  And one to which you and I can easily relate.

          Just as Joseph and Mary made their way home - and there, in the company of family members, rejoiced in the birth of the Christ child - so have many of us come home this Christmas to celebrate with our extended families. 

 

          The question this text asks is:  to whom are we really coming home?  Jesus not only wants to join our homecomings, he reminds us that he is their

focus and our host.  

 

          It’s so easy to lose that focus, though, isn’t it?  It seems to get buried beneath the avalanche of crazy busyness and crass commercialism, as well as our own doubts.

 

          That’s because you and I, like Joseph and Mary, live in an occupied land.  Our culture is all but overrun by pagan idols that can push our faith in Jesus Christ to the margins.

 

          One of the greatest of these idols is busyness.  Especially at this time of year, it’s as if we’re all competing to see how busy we can make ourselves.  If we’re busy we must be important and useful people, right?

 

          If you want to be known as a rebel, try this:  refuse to fill your schedule - and your kids’ schedules - to the bursting point.  Instead, let it be known you’re choosing to make time for yourself and those you love, even spending more time with God in prayer and worship.  It probably won’t be long before folks are whispering about you.

 

          Then there are those twin idols of commercialism and consumerism.  The mantra of those who worship these is ‘We are made happy by what we buy and consume.’  I can’t think of a more reliable route to unhappiness.

 

          The worst thing about chasing the idols around us is they make us doubt our faith in God.  So, when things go wrong in our lives and we’re at the brink of despair, we find ourselves blaming God instead of feeling his comforting hand on our shoulder.

 

          With all these obstacles in our path, I think it’s fair to ask, “How can we find our way home to Jesus this Christmas?”

 

          In a word, love.  Love is our north star.  It guides us home to Jesus, just as surely as it led the shepherds to the manger.

 

          No one I know has said this better than the great children’s author, Hamilton Mabie, who wrote, “Blessed is the season which engages the whole world in a conspiracy of love.”

 

          That’s exactly what Christmas is all about:  God’s great conspiracy of love.  In Jesus Christ, God came to earth to be at home with his beloved family.

 

          Does that sound strange to you?  God coming home to be with his loved ones here on earth?  Yet, that’s exactly what he did. 

 

          God loves this world – and everyone in it.  So much so that he couldn’t help but become part of it.  So, in Jesus he became one of us in order to transform us by his love, even if it meant he had to suffer and die. 

 

          When the time is right, he will return.  He’ll bring the new heaven down to a new earth and will firmly and finally establish his Kingdom here.   

 

          That’s the climax of this whole divine drama. It’s what you and I have been preparing for these last four weeks of Advent as we’ve journeyed toward Christmas.

 

          This was God’s plan from the very beginning.

 

          Roy Rogers, the famous TV cowboy, was absolutely right when he said, “Like God, Christmas is timeless and eternal . . .  It’s something even more than what happened that night in starlit little Bethlehem; it’s been behind the stars forever.  There was Christmas in the heart of God before the world was formed.”
 

          And it was never going to be a grand party for powerful people.

         

          It didn’t happen at the Temple in Jerusalem, amid the sweet scent of incense.  It happened in a rough manger in a tiny little town with the aroma of manure thick in the air.

 

          It didn’t happen to a powerful Emperor or Governor.  It happened to a poor, peasant couple from good families, but absolutely no power or status.

 

          The news didn’t come to the royal courtiers or high priests.  It came to a few poor shepherds tending their sheep out in a field not far away. 

 

          Friends, that’s good news for you and me.  It’s how you and I can be sure that, no matter where we’ve been, no matter how long we’ve traveled away from our spiritual home, or how far from our faith we may have drifted, it doesn’t matter to God. 

 

          Jesus has his arms wide open.  He’s ready to give us the embrace of a lifetime and welcome us into this grand conspiracy of love.

 

          I promised I wouldn’t spoil the ending of the Walton’s Christmas movie, but as you may have guessed, John Walton did indeed find that loving embrace when he finally came home. 

 

          Interestingly enough, the actor who played John Walton also found it. 

 

          His name is Ralph Waite.  He was an alcoholic when he began starring in that TV series. 

         
          But he found that the values of Christian faith and love that made the show such a success were also calling him to change his own life.  And, with God’s help, he did – he got sober.  Eventually he became a Presbyterian Pastor.

 

 

          For over 2,000 years, that’s how this conspiracy of love has been changing the world.  And it will change us, too – if we let it. 

 

          Why not put those distractions and doubts aside and come home to Jesus this Christmas?  He’s waiting - with open arms.

 
Last Published: July 3, 2017 11:40 AM
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