I'll be home for Christmas

I'll be home for Christmas
You can count on me
Please have snow
And mistletoe
And presents 'neath the tree

Christmas eve will find me
Where the love light gleams
I'll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams

Bing Crosby recorded this song in 1943 during World War Two, giving voice to the thoughts and sentiments of many GIs who were on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific at the time.

This song has subsequently become a Christmas classic because it gives voice to the distance that many of us experience this time of year between where we are and where we would like to be, separated from our loved ones by death or estrangement, by poverty or sickness, or by other circumstances beyond our control.

The hymn we just sang isn’t as emotionally appealing as “I’ll be home for Christmas,” but the lyrics, taken almost verbatim from Isaiah’s prophesy this morning, express the same longing that we have as Christians for our own spiritual home, Jerusalem:

Comfort, comfort ye my people, speak ye peace, this saith our God; comfort those who sit in darkness mourning ‘neath their sorrow’s load. Speak ye to Jerusalem of the peace that waits for them; tell her that her sins I cover, and her warfare now is over.

And just as Bing Crosby’s song had an obvious contemporary application in the context of World War Two as well as a timeless message for anyone who experiences distance, separation and longing this time of year, so also Isaiah’s prophesy [this morning] had a specific historical situation in mind as well as a message for God’s people in every generation since.

In Isaiah’s day, God’s people were far from home, living in exile in Babylon as punishment for their sins. Jerusalem, the ancient capital of all the cities in their Jewish homeland, had been destroyed several generations earlier. Jerusalem was the special place parents and grandparents spoke about to their children and grandchildren, sharing stories with them about their great king David and his son Solomon and the glorious Temple he built, stories that had been passed down to them from their own parents and grandparents. Consequently, very few Jews in Isaiah’s generation had ever laid eyes on Jerusalem, but many of them longed for Jerusalem like GIs longed to return to their own homes, knowing that they and their homes would never be the same as they were before the war began, but their home nonetheless.

Isaiah is told to speak tenderly to Jerusalem because of the humiliation she had suffered, like the humiliation of Manhattan after 9/11. What Jerusalem needed more than anything else was God’s assurance that she was still lovely and loveable in his eyes and that he was determined to restore her to an even greater glory than she had before she suffered his judgment on her persistently stubborn and unruly ways.

This season of Advent may be a time when we, too, need to be reassured and comforted by God that despite whatever we may have suffered, whatever the distance between our reality and the hopes we once had that may seemingly have been dashed, God still loves us, God has always loved us, and that, like a father who has had to send his rebellious child to his or her room to reflect on the pain of being separated from the comfort of his presence, or a father who has known the pain of a child who has defiantly left home in the vain hope that there is a brighter future somewhere else apart from him, we can come out of our room now, we can turn for home and know, like the prodigal son, that he has been looking for us on the horizon every day and is even now running toward us to meet us more than halfway. We can return to the love and fellowship of his home and of his family with a renewed appreciation for the fact that it is our home and our family too with a determination to speak and to act differently both inside and outside our home in the future.

In the case of the Jews, because the distance between Babylon and Jerusalem was so great, Isaiah promises that God will join them along the way and take care of the most vulnerable members of his flock, carrying the lambs and protecting the mothers. So unless the Lord returns in the next few weeks, none of us will be entering our heavenly Jerusalem this year, but to the extent that we set out or continue on our pilgrimage to our final home, God will join us and bless us as we care for those whose hope of ever finding or getting back home is the dimmest.

John the Baptist teaches us that there is a world of difference between our earthly home and our heavenly home. Those who left their homes in Jerusalem and came out into the wilderness to hear John preach came because they knew that the Jerusalem that they were living in was not the Jerusalem that God intended for them, that place the psalmist describes this morning where righteousness and peace kiss and where mercy and truth meet. By leaving home, confessing their sins and then returning back again, they were confessing their hope that their current Jerusalem might become that New Jerusalem with the coming of the one they were now prepared to meet, the one who would be greater than John the Baptist, who would establish Jerusalem as the capital of a kingdom not of this world, whether or not it is ever the capital of Israel again, but one with earthly embassies like our own parish planted throughout the world where our fellow human beings of every nationality can come and begin to experience in these suburbs of the New Jerusalem what the kingdom of God, built upon the foundation of the mercy, truth, righteousness and peace of Christ, looks like.

I can understand why the author of “I’ll be home for Christmas” ended his song, “if only in my dreams,” but dreams too often fly away and vanish so quickly. I think he would agree that it is even truer to sing, “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in this song,” because it is the inspired words of his song and the timeless melody that bridged the distance between the soldier on the battlefield and his loved ones back home, more than whatever light might have been shining in both places at the time the song spanned the distance between them.  

When Isaiah reminds us that you and I are like grass that withers or flowers that fade -  and we certainly know what it’s like to be separated from the spiritual roots that sustain us, that ground us in our true home - he reminds us that the word of God stands forever, and while that old Christmas standard may not be gospel, its lyrics do express the timeless hope that is the very heart of Holy Scripture, that God overcomes all separation and is shepherding us to his final home, feeding us along the way, not with locusts and wild honey, but with his own flesh and blood, united with those who have already arrived safely at our eternal home.

Jesus is the mistletoe that brings righteousness and truth together forever. His cross is the tree on which every gift appears. And Jerusalem is our true home, that place where the cross of Christ draws us across every divide and over any distance. AMEN.