Home Starts Here
A Sermon by Revd Jonathan Evens
Readings for this service: Isaiah 2.1-5, Romans 13.11-14, Matthew 24.36-44
It’s coming home, it’s coming home, it’s coming…
Football’s coming home.’
The England football song ‘Three Lions’, which was written by David Baddiel, Frank Skinner and Ian Broudie and was first released in 1996 for that year’s European Championships, perfectly captures the sense of hope and longing mixed with realism that comes with supporting a national side which has won the major trophy once and come close on other occasions without quite repeating that pinnacle moment. Those of us who sing it when England qualify for the World Cup or European Championship, sing with a sense that this could be the moment of triumph revisited, but probably won’t be.
Advent seems to contain that same mix of hope and unfulfilled longing. The word ‘Advent’ is derived from the Latin word adventus, meaning ‘coming’. Advent has traditionally been observed as a time of preparation for both the celebration of the first coming of Jesus at Christmas and as a time of prayer for the return of Jesus at the Second Coming. It is this second aspect to Advent which results in passages like today’s Gospel taken from Jesus’ end times sermon featuring heavily in the readings during this season. Advent asks us to reflect on the nature of Jesus’ first and second comings and on how we are to live in the time in between. But Christ’s second coming seems a long time delayed and we wonder, as with the England team winning another trophy, whether that day will ever come.
Our Gospel reading seems to suggest that even the realisation of our hopes for Christ’s return can involve a similar sense of hope fulfilled and hopes dashed. It has often been understood as describing what will happen to believers and non-believers when Christ returns and has been used as an evangelistic appeal with the aim of scaring us into salvation. As a teenager, for example, I listened repeatedly to a haunting song by Larry Norman based on today’s Gospel reading. It is called ‘I wish we’d all been ready’ and the second verse includes these lines:
‘A man and wife asleep in bed
She hears a noise and turns her head he’s gone
I wish we’d all been ready
Two men walking up a hill
One disappears and ones left standing still
I wish we’d all been ready
There’s no time to change your mind
The son has come and you’ve been left behind’
These images, based directly on our Gospel reading, of people being suddenly separated are taken from a block of teaching given by Jesus during his final week in Jerusalem that have become known as his eschatological sermon. In my view, Jesus’ eschatological sermon was not actually about the end of the world but rather about the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem which occurred in AD70. The destruction of the Temple by the Romans was a time of sudden exile and separation, persecution and loss, as graphically described in today’s Gospel reading and as it affected the majority of Jesus’ disciples. There was a sudden attack that resulted in some who were in Jerusalem at the time dying and others separating and fleeing the city; just the kind of events which are described in today’s Gospel reading.
In other words it is a passage that describes the kind of sudden crisis that can cause separation and loss. That is the kind of experience which can often lead to people losing their homes and being separated from those they love. The kind of experiences that we are highlighting through this year’s BBC Radio 4 Christmas Appeal with St Martin-in-the-Fields with its theme of Home Starts Here. We are saying that Home Starts Here, with the work of The Connection at St Martin’s in supporting those who are rough sleeping or the Vicar’s Relief Fund with those vulnerably housed, because, for many of those helped, home has originally been lost through a crisis like the loss of work or a divorce or the onset of illness. Sudden crises that cause separation and loss and can often, in these days, lead to people being on the streets.
For Phil the crisis was losing his home because of the drug dealing that he was allowing to go on in that home. He got on the first train leaving Hull and found himself in London. He came out of Kings Cross and stood outside and cried his eyes out for an hour, thinking ‘What have I done here? What can I do?’
When he came to the Connection 2 years ago, he was already scaling down his drug dependency and has managed with medical help to come off drugs. With help from the Connection he now has a flat in west London. He says, “It’s a studio. In a big house. Apart from sharing the kitchen I’ve got my own room, my own shower, toilet, sink, fridge, microwave, all that sort of stuff. Having your own key to your door, you can close it, lock it, that’s it. It’s your own place. No-one’s telling you ‘you’ve got to get up at 7 o’clock. You’ve got to be out by half past 7. You can’t go in till this time…’ Having that independence makes you feel good in itself. Anything where you’ve got your own door beats living on the street, sofa surfing. You can’t beat having your own door just to close it and shut the world off.” For Phil, home started here at The Connection. The work of The Connection and of the Vicar’s Relief Fund means that there can be hope in the middle of such experiences; that home can start here, that we can come home.
Similarly, the message of Advent is that we are not alone in such times. Advent prepares us to celebrate Christ’s first coming into our world. The incarnation involves God, in the baby Jesus, coming into our world and moving into our neighbourhood to be God with us as he makes his home with us. But, as we reflected earlier, our experience of hope and of opportunities to genuinely come home is mixed. Like England fans singing ‘Three Lions’ there is a mix of optimism and realism. The work of The Connection means that for people like Phil home can start here, but we know, through our annual service for those who died homeless in London, that others don’t make it in the same way and therefore we seek to remember them and honour their passing.
The message of Advent though, is not so much that we find a new home but more that Christ comes to us and makes his home with us. This means that, as an old children’s song perhaps rather simplistically puts it, with Jesus in the boat we can smile in the storm as we go sailing home. The disciples experienced separation and loss when Christ died and when he ascended but he then came again when his Spirit filled them on the day of Pentecost and made his home within them. Home for God started anew at Pentecost when he moved into our neighbourhood to live there permanently.
Now, with the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, we can say that Christ plays in a thousand places and faces, so that we can greet him when we meet him and bless when we understand. This is the light in our darkness for which we are praying through our Advent meditations. It is the calm in the storm that the disciples experienced on the Sea of Galilee and it is what took the disciples through the separation, loss and exile that they experienced following the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in AD70. Because Christ was with them, because he had made his home in them, they could take the good news of his love and presence with them to the far corners of the Roman Empire.
Home starts here; both through the support that the appeal provides to those who are homeless or vulnerably housed and through our Advent reflections on Christ’s coming to make his home with us.
The 17th century German mystic, Angelus Silesius, warns us:
Though Christ a thousand times
In Bethlehem be born
If he’s not born in thee,
Thou art still forlorn.
If Christ is not born in you as you listen and sing this Advent, our time together will be pleasant but not life changing. But, if Christ is born in you, then the whole story will be transformed. It will become your story. You will be able to say:
Christ born in a stable
is born in me.
Christ accepted by shepherds
Christ receiving the wise men
Christ revealed to the nations
be revealed in me.
Christ dwelling in Nazareth
You dwell in me.
Let us pray: Wilderness God, your Son was a displaced person in Bethlehem, a refugee in Egypt, and had nowhere to lay his head in Galilee. Bless all who have nowhere to lay their head today, who find themselves strangers on earth, pilgrims to they know not where, facing rejection, closed doors, suspicion, and fear. Give them companions in their distress, hope in their wandering, and safe lodging at their journey’s end. And make us a people of grace, wisdom, and hospitality, who know that our true identity is to be lost, until we find our eternal home in you. Amen.