Coming home to God

Sunday 27th January 2013
Year C, The Third Sunday of Epiphany
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Nehemiah 8:1-6; 8:8-10
Luke 4:14-21

Homecomings are not always as straightforward and joyful as we hope. We go away for a long time, facing homesickness and difficulties with strangers. Sometimes we achieve triumphs and hope to be congratulated; at other times we meet with failure and need comfort. And as we get nearer to home our expectations rise as we anticipate our reception in a home that we have probably idealised during the time we have been away. We remember the good times and not the arguments; we remember the cosiness and forget the rough edges; and we even subconsciously adjust the architecture and enhance the setting.

And then we arrive. Sometimes we receive the welcome and the congratulation or the comfort we seek; and sometimes the place is just as lovely as it was. But on other occasions the place to which we return has moved on and has grown used to being without us: there are new routines and rhythms; somebody has become comfortable in what was our bedroom; and there might be resentment that we went away in the first place. And all the expectation collapses like a failed Yorkshire pudding into disappointment, or worse.

Jesus had not been away from home all that long when he returned to Nazareth but he had undergone his Baptism in the Jordan, the descent upon him of the Holy Spirit and his period of trial in the wilderness and the temptations at the end of it. He was no longer just the son of good old Joseph the builder. Yes, of course, as a child he was a bit of a prodigy, a bit precocious in matters of Scripture; but he was supposed to grow out of that. And here he was, in the Synagogue, making an extraordinary claim about himself; that in him, the prophesy of Isaiah was being fulfilled: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me ... he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor." Who did he think he was?

The Reading from Nehemiah, on the other hand, is one of the most joyous passages in the whole of the Old Testament. It tells of the great home coming of the chosen people, the re-establishment of the Temple and god's Law in Jerusalem after a period of exile. And, yes, before very long after the return, old discontents will break out; the reality of living will soon dampen down the euphoria; but today is the great day when legitimacy is established and hope is restored. Instead of being an imposition, the Law is a joy and a deliverance.

Together, then, the two readings bring out three themes: liberation in God; being in the Spirit; and coming home in Christ.

I am sorry to say that Christianity has a terrible track record when it comes to understanding obedience to God as liberating, as a way of dedicating our lives to God as a form of worship. If you ask the man in the street who never goes to church to sum up Christianity he will very likely say that our main preoccupation is the restrictive regulation of sexual behaviour which, of course, is precisely the message we fatally transmit. This is part of a long and heretical tradition which links earthly behaviour with our prospects in the after-life through a system of dubious tariffs, the highest of which is for sexual misconduct; and, all the while, thousands are being slaughtered and are starving to death because we have given up on the good news. What God has offered us is the privilege of freely loving and worshipping not only in prayer but also in our daily life, including the way in which we physically give ourselves to each other. The Law of love and worship helps us to focus on our relationship with God.

And in offering worship we are in the Spirit and the Spirit is in us. When Jesus says this in his local synagogue you can feel the tension and hear people sucking air through their clenched teeth like builders assessing a problem. Some of our more charismatic Christian denominations may be a little flamboyant when it comes to living in the Spirit but at least they are joyful about it. We, I think, tend to be somewhat reserved in our religious observance but there is something deeply strange, it seems to me, in keeping a straight face when the news is so good; it is almost as if we want to keep it to ourselves. And although it is difficult to change the behaviour of a lifetime, we should try to be more up-beat about what the Spirit has done for us.

And, as for coming home to God in Christ, this is surely the easiest idea to understand because the human figure of Christ is the figure of the absolute, unconditional embrace. We will always be welcome, there will always be a room ready; there will be congratulation and comfort in unending supply and, as we all need it for one reason or another, there will also be unconditional forgiveness and unbounded hope.

And what we experience here in our sadness and struggles, in our efforts to make sense of ourselves and everything around us, culminating in reconciliations and periods of rest and calm before our restlessness carries us away again, is only a foretaste of what is to come. The moments of religious ecstasy personified in Ezra's reading of the Law, are very few and the moments of cynicism, such as that confronting Jesus in the synagogue, are very many; but we will all, ultimately, come home to God, in the power of the Spirit and in union with Christ.

That is why we should resist the temptation to be cynical which inevitably provides us with a pretext for spiritual and social idleness. If we can only bring ourselves to be a little more affirmative in our worship and social action, we will find ourselves much closer in life to what we will enjoy in death; a final coming home.