How many of you traveled this week to a place that you would call home? What was it that made it feel like home for you? Was it a certain smell? A food? Or a certain tradition? Was there something that made you take that deep breath and say, “Ah, I’m home?”
This year, for the first time at least since we’ve been married (eleven years), we spent Thanksgiving at home in Pittsboro. Normally we load up and travel either to Virginia to see my folks or to the Wilmington area to see Natalie’s, but this year, we didn’t go anywhere. Instead, Natalie’s parents came to us.
It was a lovely day, but there was this moment in those last few minutes before we were about to eat — when everything was coming out of the oven and the microwave was beeping and the kids were shrieking in the next room — this moment in which I felt a twinge of heartache. It was a moment that reminded me of home.
Because in that moment was a smell — the smell of every dish sort of melded into one. Do you know that quintessential Thanksgiving smell? Of all the food wafting through the house — and you can’t really distinguish the mashed potatoes from gravy from the green bean casserole?
And my heart ached a little because you know how powerful smells can be at triggering memories. That smell, in particular, took me back home to Thanksgivings of years past — Thanksgiving feasts at my childhood home in which my parents would host each year for family and friends.
It was a smell that not only marked the moment the table was set each year, but a smell that lingered day in and day out as breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the days to come consisted of some variation of leftovers. It was a smell that persisted.
And it was also a smell that immediately brought to mind the faces of those who’d gathered each year — family from both sides including the relatives you’re not quite sure how they’re related to you, but you know they are. And my mom would often also invite friends who she knew needed a place to call home that day, too.
And when that smell took me home, I felt the twinge of sadness over so many from around those tables who are no longer with us — like my Aunt Laura and Aunt Katie and my grandparents, Doris and Harry, and others — those we’re sure to see again at another feast in the future.
For me, this is the smell that reminded me of home. That transported me there in my mind. A smell that made me long for home.
That longing is what this season is all about.
Today marks the first Sunday of the season of Advent.
The church in its wisdom through the ages has set aside this four-week season in the liturgical calendar — the four weeks before Christmas — to pause. To stop. To listen. To watch. To wait. To lean into the discomfort. To embrace the tension. To take a look around at our world — the world outside and the world within — and to realize that all is not as it should be.
And what is it we’re waiting for — longing for? The word, “Advent,” literally means "coming" or "arrival,” and this is a season in which we not only wait for the hope of Christmas and the coming of the Christ child, but it’s also a time in which we look ahead to the arrival of God’s promised day when Christ comes again and puts all things right. When all things are made new. When the world is, at last, as it should be. We’re longing for the day when heaven and earth kiss and the world, at last, feels like home for all.
But in the meantime, we find ourselves in between — in between the coming of Jesus and the arrival of God’s promised day. Between the already and the not yet. And the season of Advent brings that reality, that longing, into sharp focus — that while we are close to home, we’re not there yet. In other words, God’s kingdom, God’s dream, has broken into our world, but it’s not fully here. God’s promised day — our everlasting home — is not fully realized. So the power and purpose of Advent is that it beckons us to pause in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the holidays and take time to name our deep longing for God to come close to us, to come near, to be made local, and to make a home of this place.
This tension, this longing, this feeling of already and not yet is what we’re exploring this Advent through our series, “Close to Home.” It’s the feeling you’ve carried with you this morning of that thing that reminds you of home. A feeling that is at once comforting but also perhaps fills you with a deep longing. You’re not where you were. But you’re not home yet. Here in Advent, we’re close to home.
That’s where our Advent journey begins this morning — with a word for that longing I felt on Thursday and one that maybe you feel, too: homesick.
And what a way to start the season of Advent. Nothing says, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” like “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves…”
Nothing says, “Have a holly, jolly Christmas,” like “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world…”
If you came here looking for comfort and joy, you won’t find it in these first few verses.
So what’s going on here?
This passage from Luke’s gospel — Luke’s biography of Jesus — comes toward the end in the lead up to Jesus’ arrest, death, and resurrection. And in this section, he’s been teaching about the future. About what is awaiting his followers and friends on the other side of his death and resurrection. And to paint this picture for them, he uses this language — language they’d be largely familiar with because it’s rooted in language often used in the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible — the first half of the story of God and God’s people and God’s love for the world before Jesus.
It’s a type of language called apocalyptic. The word, “apocalypse” doesn’t necessarily mean a cataclysmic event like in a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. Instead, apocalyptic literally means “revealing” or “unveiling.”
What happens in apocalyptic literature is that, through images and metaphor and cryptic, poetic language, God reveals something hidden. God pulls back the curtain, so to speak, and unveils something you couldn’t previously see. It’s most common in books of the Bible like Daniel or Revelation, but we find it a little here, too. In fact, Biblical scholars call this section of Luke’s gospel “The Little Apocalypse.” Apocalyptic language is meant to shake us up a bit. It’s meant to awaken us. It’s meant to be somewhat jarring that we might pay closer attention and see what God wants us to see.
And that’s what’s happening as Jesus points to the future for those he’s teaching — those who will remain once he has died, risen, and ascended. Jesus says, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
In other words, there will be times of devastation. Seasons of turmoil. It’s going to feel like the world is ending. And readers of Luke’s gospel in Luke’s day would know something about this devastation. These words would bring to mind the fear and foreboding they felt when followers of Jesus were tortured by the Roman Emperor Nero.
Later on, hearers of this gospel would resonate with that feeling of the powers of the heavens shaken when their temple — the center of their religious and cultural life — was destroyed.
They’d feel that longing for home when sunrises would again turn to sunsets day in and day out without the return of Jesus to put the world right. Again and again, they’d feel homesick for a home — a peace in Christ, a world set right, everything as it should be — that still seemed so far off.
And we know something about this, too. We know this longing. We know this homesickness. At a minimum, we’ve felt it over the last nearly two years of the pandemic.
We felt in those moments early in the pandemic when we were literally homesick — longing to see our loved ones, wondering when we’d get to throw our arms around them again.
We’ve felt it as we remember the hundreds of thousands in the US and the millions around the world we’ve lost to COVID. There’s homesickness to be sure among those whose loved ones are gone — homesick and now longing for reunion.
And when we consider the climate catastrophe facing us, this language about signs in the sun, moon, the stars, and roaring seas and waves doesn’t seem too foreign — as we look around at the world, a home that is sick, and long for a mended creation. An earth that is healed.
We might know something about distress among nations when we consider political division and racial injustice here in the US and conflict abroad in places like Belarus and Poland. Longing for peace. Homesick for a world without war.
And when we consider the plight of Afghan refugees among many others around the world forced to flee their homes, forced into a homesickness we can only imagine, these words about “fainting with fear and foreboding” might take on new meaning and perhaps even become enfleshed for us.
And that’s to say nothing of the homesickness we feel on a personal level — for repaired relationships, a safe and supportive place to rest our heads, belonging among friends, a vocation that gives you purpose.
What homesickness do you feel?
But pay attention to what Jesus does next. Jesus says, “When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
And then he offers this wonderfully pastoral image of a fig tree. It’s a tree that, like so many around here, loses its leaves in the winter. And yet, when you start to see fresh buds on them in the spring, you know that summer is near.
“So in the same way,” Jesus says, “when you see these things happening all around you, you know that the kingdom is near.”
You’ll know that God is close.
In other words, Jesus is saying that when you start to feel that homesickness, don’t give in to despair. Don’t lose hope. Keep your head up and you’ll discover those glimpses of home all around you. You’ll find that the kingdom is closer than you realized. You’ll find how God comes near. Like a smell that takes you back or a childhood blanket you hold on to or a song that was sung when you were growing up, you’ll discover that you’re close to home.
A few weeks ago, I received an email from someone here in the community about a foreign exchange student in the area. The email was heartbreaking. It described how this student was queer but was living with a host family who had decided that they couldn’t host him any longer due to their own beliefs not affirming his sexuality. And so the student needed a new home by Thanksgiving, and if the agency didn’t find one, the student would be forced to return home to a country where it’s much more dangerous to be a part of the LGBTQ community.
The person who emailed me told me that, so far, the agency had put out a bunch of feelers and posted on social media and on Nextdoor and other places but had no leads on a new home for this student with only about ten days to find one, and so they wanted to know if we could help.
I said of course. Some of you may have seen the post on TLC+. But one of the first things I also did was connect with a church member who posted about the situation to a Facebook group exclusively for the LGBTQ community here in the Triangle.
And let me tell you, that community came through. Whereas before was dead end after dead end, y’all, within 24 hours, there was not one, not two, but ten families who stepped up to say they’d be willing to host the student. Ten families who were willing to offer this student a place of peace, a place of refuge, a place of unconditional love. Ten families willing to offer this student a home in a homesick world.
If that’s not a glimpse of God coming near in the midst of the world’s homesickness, I don’t know what is.
There are many days where I can be cynical. Days I have a persistent raincloud over my head. Days I can tell you all about the signs in the sun, moon, and stars. Everything that’s going wrong.
But when I kept getting updates about this student’s situation — learning about people whose hearts were moved to help a stranger and to create space in their lives — to literally create home for someone else with no home — seeing God at work in and through not one, but ten families — I was so overwhelmed. It was like I was seeing bud after bud appear. Evidence of hope. God saying, “Look, I’m close.”
And in the same way, the invitation and promise of Jesus is that though we may, in so many ways, find ourselves longing for home, caught in between the now and the not yet, by God’s grace, we’re often much closer to home than we realize. Stand up, Jesus says. Redemption is drawing near.
In Advent, we discover anew that we are close to home. Thanks be to God. Amen.