Home is Where God is
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, September 15, 2019
Reading: Isaiah 60:1-9
It is human nature to love winners. We love those who triumph and succeed, those whose hard work manifests results in victories. We love parades for those who win major international titles. We love to celebrate those who rise above the ordinary. We love winners, and there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s a tribute to hard work and dedication in any sphere of life. But not everyone is a winner. Not everyone receives the accolades or the trophies, or recognition for their achievements. Sometimes all they get is anonymity; no parades, no glory, no exultation.
Sometimes that manifests itself in more serious moments. Many of you will recall that a few years ago, Canada was involved in the peacekeeping work in the Balkans, and peacekeepers involved with UNPROFOR. They were in Bosnia, and Kosovo. Those were difficult times in the Balkans war. This past week I was thinking of it, when I realised that the English football team was playing Kosovo, and it was Kosovo’s first time playing a big-name nation. It made me go back to an article that was written by a friend of mine, who was a lieutenant in the Canadian Forces in Bosnia. In this article he talked about the horrors he saw, the things he endured, and the incredible boredom along with the incredible intensity of violence, and the ubiquitous fear.
When he talked about coming home, he explained how he got off his plane at one of the bases here in Canada, and there was no fanfare, no red carpet, no trumpets playing, no one there to greet him. He just got off the plane with his luggage and simply walked away after debriefing. Finally, he got home where he was greeted by his wife, who, of course, was delighted to see him. It was a wonderful homecoming. He said that before he got home, he was anonymous. No one seemed to know who he was, or what he’d seen and what he’d done. More profoundly, he came home expecting joy and peace and fulfilment, but he said that home was never the same after war. Home had changed because he had changed. Home seemed almost like a foreign place for him. It was a profound insight from a caring man.
I think if Isaiah could talk to that soldier who’d come home from Bosnia, he would say, “I know exactly how you feel.” This passage is about homecoming and finding that when you do come home, not everything is as it was, that you have changed so home has too. It’s a powerful passage. It might seem on the surface to us, twenty-five hundred years on, that these references to places that we’ve never been and never seen, seems a far and a distant thing. But when you go right into the heart of the prophet, you realise, this had profound meaning, because it talks about home, it talks about God, and it talks about life.
There are, as scholars suggest, two schools of thought about this passage. One of them is that it was written during the exile in anticipation of Israel and Judah returning home, back to the Promised Land. There are others who suggest that it was written after the return from the exile, and that the people felt unfulfilled and questioned whether the home that they had come home to, was really the place where God wanted them to be. In essence, it matters not whether it was written before or after they returned because Isaiah is captioning what God is like in the midst of their struggles. Because of that, it is powerful, and reaches into the very heart of anyone who reads it. While it was written twenty-five hundred years ago, and while it was about a return to Israel and to Jerusalem and to the temple and to Zion, it’s always about, and always will be about how people come home to God, and how God is their home. That’s what’s powerful in this. That is why there are themes that arise out of this that speak to us and have done so for millennium. They have spoken and continue to speak with a power and a resonance, the likes of which we rarely see.
It talks about the power of home as a place of restoration. Isaiah writes, “Lift up your eyes and your sons are coming from afar, and your daughters are coming in nurses’ arms.” There is a sense that the people of Israel, scattered for decades in foreign lands, many of whom had been born in those foreign lands as refugees, are finally coming home. He says, “Lift your eyes, look, see, your sons are coming from afar, look, your daughters are in nurses’ arms, they are returning. They're being restored, they're coming back to where they belong.” There is this hope, this expectation that the people will be reunited, that the tribes of Israel that had been divided and forced to live in dispirit lands in a diaspora, are now coming home together. The sons and the daughters and the families, all coming back, all being restored, all being one.
The problem is, in their exile, in their darkness that they'd been living in, there was this sense, I believe, of absence. Isaiah is addressing this absence, this feeling that God abandoned them, that God was no longer part of their lives. He’s pointing to God’s presence and glory being manifested amongst them. How true it is in life that only when we experience absence, do we fully appreciate presence.
I had a conversation last week with a young man in my building who lost his dog, Choco, two days after we lost our dog, Humphrey, and we were in mourning. He said to me, “You know, Doctor Stirling, sometimes I realise the power of absence. I realise that what was there is no longer there, the life that is around me at my feet, is no longer there. We spend all our time on presence, on those things that exist, and we try to fix them, mould them, and correct them, but when it’s absent, there is nothing we can do. Then he said, “But doesn’t it make the presence, when it is there, all the stronger? Does it not reinforce the value of where things are and how precious they are?”
Isaiah is saying this to the people, “Lift your eyes, you are mourning, they are down. Lift your eyes, because your sons and daughters are coming home from afar.” Come and appreciate what God is doing, for home is a place of restoration, reuniting us, that’s what home is. Home is a place of light. “Arise”, he says, “shine, the glory of the Lord is upon us.” You see, it’s not all darkness and it’s not all exile, nor is it a lack of fulfilment, as if the people had come home and things were not what they expected, like my soldier friend. Oftentimes that darkness becomes so overwhelming in our lives, that not only is it absence, it’s darkness. Isaiah is saying to them, “Arise and shine.” Why? Because your Lord has come, because it is God who shines on you.
That’s why this light and darkness motif is so powerful in the Bible, and why the New Testament writers bring Isaiah 60 to life themselves. They know and they see that in Christ there is light that shines in the darkness. There is God at work in the dark places. That’s why, in the Gospel of John, you can almost hear Isaiah speaking into his ear: “The Light has come into the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t understand it, but it’s here.”
A beautiful moment occurred on Facebook two weeks ago when Anna Robbins, who had spoken at our Being Christian conference a couple of years ago, posted something on during the storm unleashed in Nova Scotia. Anna has now been appointed President of Acadia Divinity College, and started this month, and we congratulate her. But I congratulate her for something else: In the midst of the power outage, her phone was still working and she posted a picture on Facebook of a candle in one of those wonderful storm lanterns, placed on a book entitled Light of the World, the windows of where? Timothy Eaton Memorial Church. I couldn’t pay for advertising like that. I thanked Anna in a very quick note back. She understood that in her fear – it was a bad storm – that the Light of the world was present, God’s glory shone.
Home is also a place of mission. The calling of Israel and of Judah were to be a light unto the nations. They were not simply called into existence for themselves, only to bring their sons and daughters back when they were in exile. They were not only appointed to be the great city on a hill of Zion, and the glory and the majesty of Jerusalem. When God called Abraham at the beginning and said, “Your descendants will be greater than all the grains of sand on a beach. When He called Moses and Joshua to go to the Promised Land and said, “I will go before you. Have no fear, I will make you a great nation and give you a great land.” When God spoke to the prophets and called Israel to repent and to change, it wasn’t only for the sake of Israel and Judah, it was that they themselves might bear witness to the light of God.
This is the excitement that you feel in Isaiah. If you look at this passage, he is consumed with joy about what is going to happen now that God has let His light shine on Israel. That because of God’s redemptive, restorative power. Other nations are going to know the very God that they worship and celebrate. He says that camels are going to come from Midian, gold from Sheba, goats from Kedar, ships from Tarsus, and frankincense. All the places surrounding Israel, bringing their goods and commerce with them. Things that will help them rebuild the temple, things that will restore the people. The image is not only of the sons and the daughters coming home, but indeed the whole world coming back to God. That which is now broken, and that which has lived in exile and death, is now being put back together.
I have always been fascinated by the American Civil War, I don’t know why, for it’s not my country, but I think perhaps, as Marial will tell you, ever since we went to Gettysburg I’ve always loved to read about the civil war. It had a profound impact. Maybe it’s the notion of an internecine conflict that is domestic. Maybe it’s because some of the characters were so strong, or the issue of race and justice, or the suffering, of families who were divided – there are many things. But one story I read was about singing during the Civil War. Oftentimes the soldiers would sing songs that would identify them and where they came from. Those from Dixie would sing certain songs, and Yankees would sing others. The North and the South had different songs that they sang. When they came into battle, those songs went with them. On one Sunday – and we don’t know the details, it’s just in lore – someone started to sing “Home Sweet Home” and those both from the South and the North knew it. Rather than singing their own songs, they sang together. For a moment, they had come together. Isaiah wanted the people of Israel to sing and all the nations to sing “Home Sweet Home” because – and this is the most profound truth – home is where God is.
St. Augustine wrote, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, oh Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.” This is why we are made; this is why life is precious; this is why all creatures are precious. It is life, and God made life in order that life may know God. For the people of Israel, they could have all their ornaments, all their reunions, they could have their political liberation, they could have it all. But what they needed more than anything else was God, and this has ever been true.
There are in this life, in this earthly home, many travails, many difficulties, many obstacles from us seeing it at times. Our hearts go out to the people of the Bahamas and those who have lost their homes. It is devastating. Our hearts go out to Yazidi families who are separated, and children and parents not able to go home together, because of conflict. There are many travails in this life, and many times when home seems a very difficult place. Sometimes homes are a difficult place, not easy, or safe. But home with God, regardless of the travails and the challenges of life, is always welcoming.
For the people of Israel, they weren't so sure; they had had their doubts, Isaiah knew this. When they were still gathered in the encampments in the foreign land, or even if they had returned home and things did not appear as they were, it matters not, they often wondered whether in this brokenness, God was there for them. Isaiah is saying, “He is and He was and He will be. Arise and shine, for your Lord has come.” In the brokenness of home, that is where God is active.
I read a wonderful story in a magazine about a man who in the very earliest days of the automobile, broke down in his Ford on a country road in Michigan. He decided he would try to fix it himself. He got out, opened the hood, got out a hammer and a spanner, looked at the engine and thought, “Nah, I can't do anything here.” He hit a couple of things with the hammer, a couple more with the spanner, and nothing changed, the car didn’t start. He thought, “Well, I'm stuck here now, I’ll just look at the engine and that’s about it, it’s not going anywhere”. Ever done that yourself by any chance? (Don’t open a modern engine, you haven't got a clue what’s in there.) Suddenly, this big, luxurious car drove along. It was a Lincoln. A man in a suit gets out, comes over and says to the stranded man, “Can I help you?”
The stranded man says, “My car won't work, I don’t know what to do, I've had a look at it, but I don’t know what to do.”
This man said, “I will fix it for you.” He takes off his beautiful jacket, rolls up his sleeves, gets out a hammer and spanner from his own car, puts his head in the engine and bangs away for a couple of minutes, then says, “Now start it up. “
The man started it up, and it purred like a kitten. He says to the other man, “But you're not a mechanic. How do you know how to do this?”
He says, “My name is Henry, and I made these cars from the very beginning. They are mine.”
This is exactly what Isaiah is saying: I have made you from the beginning and you are mine. You might not have lived at home, but now you are home, because home is where I am. For more on home, come next week for the Prodigal Son. Amen.