Advent 4: Being at home with God

Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the LORD: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, "Why have you not built me a house of cedar?" (2 Samuel 7:5-7)

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God." Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.(Luke 1:26-38)

I think that Dorothy was onto something in the Wizard of Oz, when she said “There’s no place like home.”

Last night, as I turned out lights and moved toward bed, I paused in the middle of the living room for a moment, where all was dark except for the glow of the Christmas lights in the window. The room was clean and comfortable, with all the clutter stashed safely away in baskets and closets, save the box of crayons on the coffee table, and the drawing of a Christmas fireplace scene made by one of my nieces during the evening’s family get-together, which included carols by the piano and plenty of hot chocolate and cookies. I looked around the room and felt a warm “this is home” feeling in my heart.

Back in 2008, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, put out a video message for Advent. In it, he described the Advent themes of watching and waiting as “the longing to be at home with God again.” It’s quite a lovely phrase, “the longing to be at home with God again,” and it evokes warm and comforting feelings of our own beds, our childhood homes, and the safety and security of a slice of cinnamon toast. How many of us long to settle in with God in such a safe and warm way!

But Williams goes on to say more about God’s homecoming in Christ: “When Jesus comes into the life of the world,” he says, “it’s something unplanned, overwhelming, something that makes a colossal difference. We long for it, yet we don’t quite know what it’s going to involve.”

In other words, “being at home with God” is not the same thing as building God a permanent home of our own design.

In our first reading this morning, God scoffs at the idea of a residence being built for him. “Did I need a house for all of those years that you were wandering in the desert?” he asks. “Wasn’t I with you, even in the wilderness? And did I once ask for a permanent home with a solid roof and a warm bed?”

David doesn’t get to build God a house. Likewise, we don’t get to choose where or how God makes his home among us. We don’t choose walls for him, or boxes. We don’t get to wrap him up and tie a neat bow around him. God makes his own home among us, taking up residence of his own accord, moving and stirring in the world as his Spirit chooses, even in the unlikeliest of places.

Take Mary, for example. God, through the Holy Spirit, chooses to take up temporary residence in the belly of a teenage girl. Pretty inconvenient. Pretty controversial. Pretty unthinkable.

There is nothing predictable or tidy about God choosing to become incarnate - choosing to become God-in-the-flesh - through human birth via teenage girl. For Mary, the Spirit’s stirring is a messy business. How will she explain her pregnancy to Joseph? And how will the unmarried couple explain the pregnancy to their families and villages? Mary’s life is now taken over by planning for a baby, and enduring all of the physical ups and downs of pregnancy, and sorting out the crazy news that this baby is the Son of God. Not to mention the fact that she will end up having her baby while traveling far from home, and out in a stable, at that! Everything about the situation is irrational, messy, confusing, and disconcertingly open-ended. And yet Mary still says, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

I think of Madeleine L’Engle’s short poem, “After Annunciation,” which says,
This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
There’d have been no room for the child.
There is nothing reasonable about the way that God chose to come to earth. And there is nothing resonable about the way that God continues to work in the world. When the Holy Spirt stirs in our own bellies, there is no telling where that Spirit will lead. Things might get messy. Things might feel uncertain or incomplete. We might not feel that we have a clear picture of the way forward, or of the end results of God’s leading.

Maybe you’re like me, and this news makes you more than a little nervous. I am, by nature, a pretty rational and ordered person. My first two activities every Monday morning are 1) to tidy up my office, since Sunday mornings always leave behind a serious mess, and 2) to make my to-do list for the week, organizing my tasks so that I don’t forget anything. I like things to happen in reasonable ways, logical ways, nice, neat, ordered ways. I would much prefer to build God a house of my own making so that I could always know his comings and goings.

But God’s Spirit will have none of that. God moves and acts and lives in the world in wild and amazing ways. The Holy Spirit stirs in us when God dwells in our hearts, and this stirring rarely comes with a nice, neat, logically-ordered plan. Had Mary been filled with reason, there’d have been no room for the child.

I sometimes wonder if our hearts don’t look very much like our garages, our attics, or that one closet in the back of the house that no one’s allowed to open. Don’t we all fill our hearts and minds with an entire flea market’s worth of worries, hopes, burdens, and dreams? When we talk about “carrying the weight of the world” on our shoulders, can’t we actually feel the weight of all of our thoughts and feelings as they lean upon our physical bodies? Some of the clutter in our hearts and minds are things foisted upon us - illness, rejection, fear, loss. Some of the clutter are things that we choose for ourselves in hopes of determining our destiny or keeping our vulnerability at bay. Our hearts are filled with worries and woes, reasons and reasoning away.

What are those things that are cluttering up your own heart and soul? What are the worries or distractions that are filling you up, leaving no room for God to take up residence? What are the doubts or fears that keep you from opening the door of your heart to the movement of God’s Spirit?

The challenge of Advent - and the challenge of faith - is to settle into God’s open-ended future for us.

Mary said “yes” to God’s call before she knew the end of the story. And as it turns out, the end of the story is that her firstborn son, Jesus, is the one who healed the sick, tended the poor, taught the people about God’s love, gave up his own life for the sake of the world, and rose from the dead to break the power of death forever.

Christ in the manger assures us that our longing to be at home with God has been fulfilled, that the home of God is truly among mortals, that he is our God and we are his people. Because of this good news, we can open up our cluttered hearts to the stirring of God’s spirit - wherever and however that spirit leads us, to the unlikelest corners of the world, to all those places where God leads us to be his hands and feet in the world. Because we, with Mary, can trust that the unruly wind of the Spirit will ultimately lead us to God’s hope and joy. And so we, too, can say “yes” to God, even when we do not know the end of his story for us on this earth.

We cannot make a neat and tidy home of cedar for God to live in, but we can make our own hearts hospitable to God when he blows through the door. This is what being at home with God is all about.

As Mary Oliver’s poem “Making the House Ready for the Lord” says,
Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but
Still nothing is as shining as it should be
for you. Under the sink, for example, is an
uproar of mice—it is the season of their
many children. What shall I do? And under the eaves
and through the walls the squirrels
have gnawed their ragged entrances—but it is the season
when they need shelter, so what shall I do? And
the raccoon limps into the kitchen and opens the cupboard
while the dog snores, the cat hugs the pillow;
what shall I do? Beautiful is the new snow falling
in the yard and the fox who is staring boldly
up the path, to the door. And still I believe you will
come, Lord: you will, when I speak to the fox
the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea-goose, know
that really I am speaking to you whenever I say,
as I do all morning and afternoon: Come in, Come in.
Being at home with God might be unpredictable, and the stirring of God’s Spirit might be irrational and uncomfortable, but we, with Mary, are told, “Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.”

All that is left for us to do is to say back to God, “Here am I. Welcome. Come in, come in.”

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