Returning home

Text: Isaiah 61:1a,2,3
The Sovereign Lord has filled me with his Spirit. He has sent me to proclaim
That the time has come when the Lord will save his people and defeat their enemies. He has sent me to comfort all who mourn, to give to those who mourn in Zion joy and gladness instead of grief, a song of praise instead of sorrow.

A newspaper ran an article headed A Mother’s Search for Russell Love.  A mother had not seen her son, Russell Love, for four years and not heard from him in two years.  She knew that he was homeless somewhere and longed to get in touch with him.  She talked to the police but they couldn’t help.  So she decided to run an ad in the paper.  It read, RUSSELL LOVE – Anyone knowing where he lives please call his mother (and she gave the number).  Russell, your mother will never forget you.  She loves you!  Maybe someone who knows her son will see the ad and get in touch with her.  Someone did.

Ralph Campbell who had spent 25 years living on the streets had given some extra sandwiches to a friend.  The friend had turned to another friend and said, “Russ, do you want a sandwich?”  Campbell phoned the newspaper.  He led a reporter to the place where he thought Russell Love might be living.  They came across a young, blond-headed man rolled up in a bright yellow blanket.  He said he was Russell Love.

“Your mother wants you to call her,” the reporter said. He gave Russell the ad.  Russell rolled up his blanket and walked off down the street with the paper tucked under his arm.  Russell called home.  His mother told him how much she had missed him.  They talked on the phone three more times over the next five days.  She sent him a cheque to buy train tickets to get home for Christmas. Russell had to call home for some identification to cash the cheque. His mother said, “I’m going to see that he gets all the ID he needs to get home.  I’m going to try to make it possible for him to rethink his decision and come back into the world he came from and to make a better decision.”

That’s what Advent is all about, isn’t it?  It’s about being contacted from home and given a chance to make some better decisions about our lives.  God has come and reached out to us and said, “I love you, and I’m looking forward to your coming home”.

Russell Love did go home.  A follow-up article showed a picture of him and his mother together.  It told about the way they “grabbed each other and hugged and hugged and hugged” when he showed up.  “It feels great to be home”, the article quoted Russell as saying.  “It’s nice to be a family again after being on the streets.”

In Old Testament times the people of God had turned away from him and in spite of warnings from the prophets, they decided to go their own way.  They decided to leave the loving presence of God and go out in the streets and do their own thing in their own way.  And consequently their city and their temple were destroyed, and the people taken away to a foreign land.  They were really “street kids” now – nowhere to call home, at odds with their heavenly Father, feeling unloved, confused about what will be their future, feeling helpless to do anything about their situation.

Into this forlorn, sorrowful, gloom, the preacher speaks, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. . . Prepare in the wilderness a road for the Lord! Clear the way in the desert for our God!  Fill every valley; level every mountain. The hills will become a plain, and the rough country will be made smooth.” Isaiah 40:1,3-4). 

It’s the announcement of a divine highway construction program through the wilderness, the desert, from the Babylonian exile back home. Note that it’s a straight road. Ordinarily, the way back from Babylon to Israel followed the rivers and the fertile land around the river system where food was plentiful.  This was the long way to Israel but the safest way.  No-one in their right mind would take the short cut and go through the desert.

But the Lord is making a straight road right through the middle of the wilderness.  There is no skirting around the dangers.  The Lord will be travelling that road, leading Israel homeward through all the dangers and threats that the wilderness represents.

Remember that when the people of Israel heard the word wilderness they thought of an unfriendly place – place of hunger, thirst, wild animals, temptation, sin, being lost like their forefathers on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land.

It was in the wilderness that John the Baptist appeared, quoting Isaiah, Get the road ready for the Lord; make a straight path for him to travel!” (Mk 1:1-3). The wilderness is not only a geographical description of very desolate countryside, but it also a description of the desolation, the lostness, the sin in people’s hearts.  John makes full use of the wilderness picture and calls people to turn away from their sin and lostness and come home.

In today’s Gospel reading we hear John telling the confused crowd that he is not the Messiah but that he has been called to give testimony to the light that God had sent into the world.  This light is proof of God’s love for his people.  This light will lead God’s people back home.

The good news that John wants everyone to grasp is that God is bringing his homeless people back home. God has not given up on his people.  His love was still as strong as ever and so John is announcing, as Isaiah did to those in exile in the Old Testament, that their time of deliverance is at hand.  God wants his people to come home.  And nothing will stand in his way.  And so John uses the imagery of earthworks on a gigantic scale that will make sure that his people arrive home safe and sound.  “Every valley must be filled up, every hill and mountain levelled off. The winding roads must be made straight, and the rough paths made smooth. The whole human race will see God’s salvation!” (Luke 3:5,6).

And so we have this message from the prophet today and it these words that Jesus preaches in the synagogue at Nazareth saying that he is the fulfilment of these words.
“The Sovereign Lord has filled me with his Spirit.
He has chosen me and sent me
to bring good news to the poor,
to heal the broken-hearted,
to announce release to captives
and freedom to those in prison.
To give to those who mourn in Zion
joy and gladness instead of grief,
a song of praise instead of sorrow” (Isaiah 60:1-3).

Traditionally this Sunday of Advent has been named ‘Joy’ and our readings today reflect that joy – the joy that comes from knowing that our God doesn’t give up on us even though we get lost in the wilderness of sin, the joy that comes from knowing that we have a God who loves, gives freedom, releases, heals, comforts, and saves to use some of the words from Isaiah 61. The prophet says,“The Sovereign Lord saves his people and all the nations will praise him” (Isaiah 61:11).

With joy John the Baptist announces that God is faithful to his Word and that the one whose sandals he is not worthy to untie will bring God’s love to those lost in the dark streets of sin.

Nothing gave Russell Love’s mother more joy than to hug her runaway son.  Likewise our heavenly Father wants to hug his runaway and sinful people and nothing brings him greater delight than to say, “Welcome home. All is forgiven!”

The love of Russell’s mother would not stop at anything.  She was determined to find and rescue her son, and no matter what condition he was in, she was determined to bring him back home. Because she loved him she was ready to forgive him, comfort him and give him a fresh start, she was bringing him back home.  That’s the kind of love that God has for each of us.

One day a teenage boy walked into a little cafe and sat down.  It was a small place with only a few stools at the counter.  The boy said, “I’m hungry, but I don’t have any money. If you would give me some food, I will be glad to wash dishes”.

While the owner was getting the meal, he asked, “Why don’t you tell me about it son?” and the boy told him that he had argued with his father and left home.

Then the owner said, “You know, your story is similar to my son’s”.  He continued, “We got mad at each other a few months ago, and I said a lot of angry things I would give anything to take back.  He left home and I have no idea where he is.  I own this cafe.  It’s not much of a place, but I would give it up in a second to have my son back home”.

Then he added, “You have a father back home, and I imagine he feels like I do. You are away, he doesn’t know where you are; he doesn’t know whether you are safe.  If he feels like me he would do anything to get a phone call from you asking him to take you back home”.

Doesn’t that sound much like our heavenly Father?  He would give anything to have us back home.  In fact, he gave up more than a cafe; he did give up his own Son to die in our place on the cross.  He sent Jesus to leads us home out of lostness, sin, temptation, and exile from the Father’s presence.  He wants us to be home, to be a close part of his family.
He doesn’t mean some kind of loose connection with home.
He doesn’t mean the kind of drop in-every-now-and-then kind of connection with home.
He doesn’t mean you can drop out any time you have a disagreement or don’t like others living at home.
He doesn’t mean ignoring everyone else in the home.
He means Home, home in the truest and best sense – a close, personal relationship with him and with others in the home.

This text and the story of Russell Love’s mother and that of the run-away remind me of the well-known story of Charlotte Elliott.  She was the grand-daughter of an outstanding preacher but in her early life took religion in a light hearted fashion and not too seriously.  After she had rudely told a visiting pastor to mind his own business, she later apologised, adding, “I should like to be a better person but I don’t know how.”

“Come just as you are”, the pastor gently advised her.  Years later, Charlotte Elliott recalled the experience by writing that “Come as you are” theme into a hymn:

Just as I am, Thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
Because Thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come!        

That’s right, welcomed, pardoned, cleansed, relieved.  He did all this on the cross so that we can come home and be his chosen people.  We belong to God.

There will always be times during this life when we will find ourselves in exile, run-aways from the Father’s presence.  Like the runaway in the cafe, we forget that our Father does truly love us but the invitation always stands to come home.

Advent is a time to humbly celebrate the extent God has gone to flatten any obstacles to our returning home.  He has flattened sin and death; he has raised his Son from the dead.  He offers us the warm hug of forgiveness. We are his people at home now and we wait for the time when we will arrive at our eternal home.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy

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