My wife and I have a running joke between the two of us about an additional wedding vow she made me take. In addition to promising her my love and faithfulness as long as we both shall live, she also made me vow that wherever we lived, I would find a way for her to watch the Pittsburgh Steelers. Oh, you may laugh, but I’m not sure you’re aware how important the Steelers are to a person from western Pennsylvania. At least I wasn’t aware of it until I lived there. The tradition of gathering around the television set on Sunday afternoons to watch the men in black and gold is central to what it means to hail from that area. It has to do with the demise of the Steel industry and the sudden loss of thousands of jobs and a whole region having little but a successful football program to cling to. Melinda knew that, as she became the wife of a pastor, there would likely come a time when she no longer lived in her home territory of Pittsburgh. She would be a member of the Steeler Nation-in-exile. As much as a Steeler fan may love living somewhere else—as Melinda and I do Richmond—the sight of the men in black and gold swarming across Heinz Field can take them back to the place they will always consider home. And so part of my duty is to provide this bit of comfort and consolation. Little did I know that the Redskins’ market share in Richmond would make it so difficult for me to be a faithful husband in this regard.
A former boss of mine from North Carolina spent a good portion of her young adult life in Florida. Even though many people would consider Florida part of the south, she still found herself seeking comfort and consolation from the things of home. Every time her family came to visit, she required them to smuggle in case of North Carolina-brewed Cheerwine, which she then carefully rationed out until their next visit.
Exile is really no laughing matter, especially if you’re in it. The one thing that brings comfort and consolation more than anything else is the thought of going home, the vision of being reunited with that place you belong. Nobody could tell you that more than the prophet Jeremiah. He had seen God’s people, the Israelites, repeatedly turn away from the life of promise that God had laid out before them. He had seen them forsake a society of justice and compassion in order to be like the other corrupt, military powers around them. And he had watched them become ransacked and rampaged by the armies from Babylon that came streaming across the desert as God’s judgment on them. The Babylonians had pillaged their villages, looted the treasuries and desecrated the holy Temple. They had killed by the thousands. And those who were left over were rounded up and carted off to live in exile in Mesopotamia, thousands of miles away. They had no one to promise them access to the things they loved or smuggle in reminders of the land they left. They only have the words of prophets like Jeremiah to guide, chide, and offer instruction.
So, imagine, if you will, the comfort and consolation they hear in Jeremiah’s words from the thirty-first chapter:
“See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth.
With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations I will lead them back…
For the LORD has ransomed Jacob,
And has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.”
The homecoming God promises them through Jeremiah’s words is bursting with such joy that young women break into dance and the men young and old make merry right there on the path home. They crack open the cans of Cheerwine and festoon themselves with Steelers gear. God has spoken, and the Word is good. He is bringing them home, and they shall be radiant over the Lord’s goodness, radiant over God’s generosity and grace towards them, radiant “over the grain, the wine, and the oil.”
Even though, in their case, the prophet Jeremiah concludes that it is their own waywardness that led God to scatter them into exile in the first place, their exuberance is not tempered one bit. In fact, this little fact perhaps amplifies it. God, who had first allowed the opportunity for Israel’s self-destructive behavior, is now going to reverse those ruinous effects. Where once they had been scattered by God’s hand, now God was showing them undeserved mercy and grace. Their life will be like a watered garden, and they will never languish again (v.12)
That this text from ancient Israel’s history is appropriate to the message of Christmas should be no surprise to us. In the person of Jesus Christ, God has brought us home. In the Word made flesh, God has brought us back to where we belong, and, as the prophet says, redeemed us from hands too strong for us. In the only Son begotten from the Father, God has gathered each human being from farthest parts of the earth, the darkest corners of sin and self-centeredness, and returned them to himself. It is a perfectly natural fit, as Jeremiah says, “proclaim this message to the coastlands,” because Jesus is our final and full deliverance from the exile. One early church theologian claimed that “the Incarnation is the most blessed and joyful thing that could have happened to the human race” (St. Isaac, in The Orthodox Way, Bishop Kallistos Ware, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, pg 70). God chooses, out of his love, to identify himself with his creation by becoming human and bringing us to the only true home we have: a life in reconciled communion with Him.
In a few days Melinda and I will begin packing up our Christmas decorations, part of which are a few nativity scenes. Like many of you, we like to bring out the nativity scenes at this time of year. I’ve been quite impressed with how the nativity scene out front here at Epiphany changes from week to week, the different characters slowly making their way to Bethlehem. I’m also quite impressed with how well they can withstand the wind. I came to church this week and huge gusts of wind had the wise men practically on their backs before the baby Jesus, like his glory was blowing them down.
But it has occurred to me that at Holy Week or Easter we never unpack and set up our nativity scenes. Or, we rarely see anything like Calvary scenes or Empty Tomb scenes, little depictions of Jesus’ death or resurrection. Can you imagine it? One could be made relatively easily: the cross, the two criminals on either side, Mary and John standing by with a few Roman soldiers. You could even have Joseph of Arimathea, the man who took Jesus’ body and buried it, standing off to the side. The disciples could be facing the other direction, so that the wind would blow them away from the cross, full of denial and fear. A Calvary scene would be easy to set up, yet we never see them, though, ultimately, that is what God’s incarnation means. Because the Word takes on flesh and lives among us, God opens God’s self up to the whole gamut of things that happen to human flesh. He is not just born and set aside Mary and Joseph and the shepherds. He also grows up, suffers pain and, in the end, his flesh dies and begins the decomposition process. Yet, miraculously, God raises his Son’s flesh from death three days later. God sees to it that his begotten Son will redeem us from all the hands that are too strong for us. God sees to it that his Son will go the length of all our self-imposed exiles, no matter where they lead, to bring us home.
What are the hands that are too strong for you? What is it that is holding you back from a life of true communion with God? Hear the word proclaimed to distant islands: God has redeemed you. In Christ, God brings you home to him, where you belong. Be radiant. Grace abounds from this God whose Word becomes flesh to live among us and save us.
Today, little one-year-old Ashley Grayson Mays sees the end of her own exile as she is united to Jesus, the Word made flesh in the waters of baptism. It has been a big day for her as she sits there in the first pew along with three other generations of her family, all of whom have been nurtured in this congregation’s family. Denise and Chris, her parents, are members of a Lutheran congregation in Ohio, but they chose Epiphany for their baptism because of the strong family connection here. Her great-grandparents are founding members. In that sense, you may say Ashley has been brought home. But in a larger sense, Ashley has been brought home to God today. As she is claimed by Christ and marked with his cross forever, she receives the promise of a life when God will always be with her. No matter which path her life takes, no matter how far away she wanders, no matter how distant she may end of feeling God is to her, she has the promised that Jesus has really ended her exile of sin. God has broken her free from all the hands that will be too strong for her.
This is the promise we all have in baptism. It is the promise God bestows on creation with the news of the birth of the baby in the manger. It is cause for great celebration! Be radiant over this good news, over the the lengths to which God goes in Christ to have us back, over the distance he travels to end our exile! The Word becomes flesh lives among us! Make yourselves radiant over this Table’s grain, over this wine, and this oil of anointing! He has brought us home! Young women, dance! Men, young and old, pass the Cheerwine around and make merry!
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.