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Happy Return
October 23, 1988


The title of this sermon does not refer to IRS tax returns; nor does it refer to the Dodgers return to Los Angeles. We are talking this morning about going home. The lesson this morning describes the return of the Jews back home to Jerusalem after the years of exile in Babylonia. In the year 587 BC. the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem. Jeremiah was the prophet who lived during this devastation. His poems and his sermons evoke feelings of despair and agony. Jeremiah has often been called the weeping prophet; in fact, a portion of his writings is called Lamentations, a book in the Bible. Few of us can imagine what it's like to see your home, your city, your church, your beloved temple, the temple that King Solomon built, devastated, razed to the ground; to see everything you've ever had and everything you've ever loved, destroyed.

And not only the destruction, the Babylonians carried off with them many of the people, especially the leaders of the Jews, so that they would not be able to organize a resistance movement. And the Babylonians also needed workers. So the Jews found themselves once again, like in the ancient days of Egypt, enslaved, and there in Babylon they sat down by the river and wept. They dreamed, they longed for a happy return to their homeland. The books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and latter portions of Isaiah reflect their dream, their hope of return. They are rejoicing in the future hope of return, praising the Lord who will save His people. The Lord will bring them from the north country and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth. God will bring the blind and the lame. God will bring the pregnant women and those who are in labor. There will be a great company of people and they shall return home. With weeping, Jeremiah says, they shall come. With prayers of thanksgiving they shall return, a happy return.

And in that dry and arid desert country, Jeremiah says, God will lead them by brooks of water. Water is so precious to people who live in that land. And the Lord will lead them in a straight path so they will not stumble and so they will not drift. Do you recall a passage in Isaiah made famous by Handel in the Messiah, “Every valley shall be lifted, and every mountain shall be made low”? Why? So that the road is level and straight back home. The rough places shall be made smooth. All creation will cooperate in rejoicing at the return of the exile— they're going home.

This dramatic story was repeated in our time, beginning in 1948, when the State of Israel became a nation by order of the United Nations. The last sovereign state existed in Judea in the days of Zedekiah, approximately 500 BC, which fulfilled the prophecy of Jeremiah that was read this morning. Since that time, Jewish people have been strangers, foreigners in lands. Few countries wanted the Jews through all those centuries. They were persecuted by Europe throughout the Middle Ages. They were victims of vicious attempts at extermination. Mass extermination by Eastern European countries and in this century in the vilest attempt of all—extermination by the Nazis when 6 million children, women and men were executed, exterminated like insects in death camps none of us can imagine so horrible. We Americans cannot visualize it. In 1948 David Ben Gurion, then Prime Minister of Israel, made an appeal to the Jews of the world to come home. Can you imagine what that meant—the emotion of that “Come home, we've got a land.” He told them they now had a country where they would be welcome. Since then, Jews have been returning to Israel from over 100 different countries. Go home! No wonder Israel is so important to modern Jews. Sunday, November 6, from this pulpit we will hear Rabbi Bloch from Congregation Beth Am tell us what that land means to Jews. The previous Friday evening, November 4, I will speak in the synagogue and attempt to tell them what that land means to us Christians. I hope you're all there to support me. I wonder what I will say.

We sympathize with the plight of refugees, with folks who are uprooted from their home and forced to go to another land. We sympathize with them. We can understand to a degree because deep down inside all of us is a pain, a pain called homesickness. There is a homing instinct in all of us, like a dog or a cat that can travel hundreds of miles to go home, immortalized in that delightful song “And the Cat Came Back”, like a homing pigeon that can find its way home from great distances. We humans have a homing drive within us. It propels us, it calls us, it drives us, it gives us a feeling of restlessness and dissatisfaction. Do you know people who are constantly dissatisfied, changing jobs, changing spouses, changing locations, constantly moving? Probably they are homesick, homesick for something they have not yet identified. We all want to go home.

And few of us realize that our true home is in God. Augustine said we're all restless until we find our home in God and put our roots in the kingdom of God, in God's heaven, in our soul home. Besides our geographical places, besides the family homestead some of you may have, we each have a soul home where our spirits long to be and that home is in Jesus Christ. That's our home. The impact of this yearning is often felt in old age. I often hear folk I visit in nursing homes and hospitals say, “I pray God to take me home. Why won’t God take me home?”

The author Thomas Wolfe says,”You can’t go home again.” He tells of a young writer who returns home after many years of absence. He's returning home for his aunt's funeral and on his way he remembers his hometown with nostalgia, but he was unprepared for the changes. He remembered the values that made that town dear to him—the friendliness of the people, the conviction of their sense of community that held life together, but the town had changed along with the rest of the world. He remembered the hotel that stood on the hill. He remembered the lawns, the flowers and the trees. And now they built a shopping center where the hotel used to be. Gradually he concluded, “I can't go home again.”

But he's looking in the wrong place for home. The home for which we are deeply homesick is not our childhood place, although it is fun to return home. If you're prepared for change when you go home, it can be a delightful experience. But if you're not prepared for it, if you're looking for home, it'll be a deep disappointment. A social worker asked some inmates in a Kentucky prison who were illiterate why their families and their friends had not taught them to read and write. And the answer was, “You can't teach what you don't know; anymore then you can go back to where you ain’t been.” You can't go back to where you've never been. Trying to follow your homing instinct and return to some place on this earth is looking in the wrong place. Trying to fill the void, the emptiness and the homesickness with things— big cars, or mansions, or fancy clothes or trips around the world—trying to fill that emptiness with things is a dissatisfying disappointing pursuit because you can't go back to where you ain’t been. You're looking in the wrong place.

Your true home is not in things or in earthly places, but in Jesus Christ. One of the leaders of the Women's Walk to Emmaus this weekend is from Chicago. On Thursday she was preparing downstairs carrying materials up and down, running up and down our stairs, and she said to me, “I'm so glad to be here. This is a wonderful place to see all this activity here, all the wonderful people and every time I go past the sanctuary, I peek inside because it makes me feel so good.” Our soul home is in Jesus Christ and the church is the body of Christ—not the building, but the people. Have you noticed how buildings pick up vibrations from people, how buildings take on the personality of their inhabitants?” Your home, clubs, church buildings take on personalities. She said we have a happy personality here. I rejoice to hear a stranger from the east saying she picked up warm, happy vibrations in our place. Perhaps it's just the change in me, but I feel the sanctuary is changing. I believe the building is increasing in warmth, joy and love. As prayers are prayed here over the years, as lives are committed to Jesus Christ here, as people are healed and people are forgiven, we take on the body of Christ and it becomes increasingly our soul home. Last week after the service, one of our regular worshipers said to me, “I felt the presence of Jesus here like I have never felt before.” One of the women downstairs who is one of our members had a very moving worship experience in this space last evening. She committed her life to Jesus Christ. She said to me later, “I've been a member here ten years and now this sanctuary feels like home; it’s so warm and loving.”

A modern author and one of my favorites is John Steinbeck. In his short story The Wayward Bus, the dilapidated old bus gets mired in the mud up to its hubcaps. The driver goes off to find help and the passengers take refuge in a cave. They’re a very curious group—a naive stage-struck girl on her way to Hollywood, a pimpled face boy who is strongly oversexed, a traveling novelty salesman, a dancer in disreputable places, and a family consisting of a shallow principled businessman, his very proper and very repressed wife, and his liberated daughter. Steinbeck created a group of lost characters, lost not only in a cave, but lost as human beings. Above the cave someone had printed in large black letters, “Repent”. According to Steinbeck, “The painter let himself down with a rope to put up that great word, and had gone away rejoicing at how he was spreading God's word in a sinful world. But only the businessman pays any attention to the sign at all and he wonders who financed the venture!” They are completely oblivious. For them repent is an old fashioned word, a dead language. They continue to act out their drama of frustration, despair, lostness; oblivious to the fact that the way home, the happy return, is by way of the road called repentance. Repent is a biblical word which means turning around, turning from and returning, turning from the wrong road, and turning to God who made you, turning to that from which you came, turning to the arms of Jesus Christ, turning to your soul home.

Are you looking in the wrong place? Where is your homesickness driving you? Are you looking at things? What's important to you? Money, position, status, reputation, wealth? Will the accumulation of all those things really satisfy the homing instinct within you? Repent from pursuing things. Turn from that hopeless route and get on the bus that's going home to God where Jesus will receive you with open arms. Welcome home.

© 1988 Douglas I. Norris