We are in week 2 of our Advent Series: Coming Home. Last week, we started by expanding the idea of “home” to be something bigger than merely our physical earthly homes. We said that home, for Christians, is the full coming of the kingdom of God. I mentioned that Advent isn’t just the preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, but that advent is also the preparation for the fullness of God’s kingdom.
I said that we can fully celebrate the beginning of the story because we have the ending in mind. Or as I put it another way, we celebrate the first coming of Jesus because we have his second one, the full reign of God’s kingdom of justice, righteousness, love and mercy, we have that in full view.
Today, we are going to talk about an aspect of going home that we don’t often like to admit. Sometimes, home isn’t where the heart is. Sometimes, it’s where the pain is, but pain is not the only thing present in that place.
From the time I was 10 until somewhere in my early to mid 30s, Christmas time was not a fun time for me.
When my dad died when I was 10, my mom did her best to make Christmas good. She gave me the one thing that I had been asking for: a Nintendo Entertainment System! And while I have never looked back from my love of video gaming, that present that year began what would become an intimate association between pain and joy for me.
Video games and pain seemed to be linked for many, many years after that. I don’t think I ever got a video game system upgrade that wasn’t attached to some kind of traumatic event until Angela bought me an XBOX seemingly out of know where one year. And that broke the cycle.
Like I said, my parents didn’t do anything intentionally to make Christmas bad. In fact, I’d argue that many of the things they did which soured the holiday for me were done specifically in their attempts to “give us a good Christmas.” My parents tried, y’all. They really did. And as a parent myself now, I have some understanding of the mindset my own parents must have had.
But, as the years progressed and my family became one embroiled with addictions, Christmas just started to look different. And I’m not going to go into all the ways things were pretty terrible for me most Christmases. But it should be good enough for you to know that even AFTER I became a Christian, Christmas was something I did not look forward to most years. And the thought of having to endure more of the traditions my family held made me want to stay as far away as possible.
Time marched on, some people changed, and some people didn’t. But the pain and fear of engaging my family every Christmas stuck with me for a long, long time. For me, “I’ll be home for Christmas” sounded more like a threat than it did a hopeful promise.
How about you?
I know I’m not the only one here that has pain and anxiety attached to the holidays.
Your experiences could be better or worse than my own. That isn’t important. What is important for you to know in this moment is that if you experience fear, anxiety, or pain that prevents you from enjoying and celebrating the holidays like “normal” people…I want you to know that you are not alone. There are many like you and me. It’s okay. And it’s normal.
We all, for one reason or another, have something that causes us discomfort during the holidays. For some of us it was a traumatic experience or a series of traumatic experiences.
My friend Shannon shared a story with me this week. She told of one Christmas season back in the 90s. It was a few days before Christmas. Her parents got into a big fight. Her dad had held some suicidal ideations in the past. During the fight, her dad stormed off upstairs. Shannon began following him up the stairs….and that’s when she heard the gun go off. She stopped dead in her tracks thinking what you are thinking right now. It was a short amount time, but it must have seemed like an eternity before her dad came back around the corner showing that he had not done the worst. Other events transpired that day, but one of the images that has seared itself into my friend’s consciousness is the bullet hole mere feet from where she was on the staircase. That traumatic event still bears fruit every year act Christmas. It does not hold the same grasp as it once did over Shannon, but she carries that emotional scar with her into every Christmas season.
For some of us, the pain and anxiety we will carry into this Christmas season comes from loss (whether actual or potential). We’ve had a number of funerals in this church this year, not to mention the countless losses we’ve experiences prior to this year. There’s an empty seat in every household. But, as I said, it could be merely the fear of a near loss.
This week, a 15-year-old boy opened fire at his high school killing 4 students and injuring more. I didn’t know any of those people, so my initial reaction is the one I always have to these events of which there are still FAR too many. My reaction was one of lament and prayer. Then, an interesting thing happened.
Checkpoint Church is a digital church plant pastored by Nerd Pastor Nathan Webb. He’s built and amazing community through various means and methods. One of the ways the community “gathers” is by playing online games with each other or by watching each other play games. I know, you might think it is weird to want to watch others play games, but it is a huge hobby for people like me and many younger folks. And honestly, it’s not too weird. I mean, how many of us watch sports? That’s just watching someone else get payed to play a game. But I digress..
In real time as news of that school shooting was being released, one of the members of Checkpoint Church shared on the live stream that his niece attends that school and was present for that traumatic event. My friend, Xando, shared with us online that she was okay but that the experience brought him face to face with the potential loss of his niece. He will carry that worry for a while. Not to mention the fact that his niece is scarred for life now. They will carry that experience into this Christmas. Yes, they get to spent it together and there is joy in that, but the cloud of potential loss will still linger.
And no matter how far removed we are from trauma, it still lingers. We can process it. We can seek therapy for it. It may not control us to the degree it once did, but it walks with us into places we’d rather it not follow.
We carry our burdens and anxieties, and experience our pain most acutely, in part, because we have forgotten (or maybe never even knew) one very important thing that we can take from our Scriptures today:
God was with us. God is with us. God will be with us.
The journey home can be hard and even scary, but we can have peace in our hearts amid all the pain and fear because we are not alone. God is with us.
The greater context of the book of Malachi points to a history of God with God’s people. And it speaks to a future of God’s presence while critiquing the contemporary Jew’s lack of awareness that God was still among them and moving.
Most scholars believe that Malachi was written during the Second Temple Period, or what you might have heard called the “post-exilic” period; the time after the Babylonian Exile. Malachi is addressing concerns in the Jewish community that point to a community that has grown complacent in its routine.
Malachi serves as a kind of arbiter between the people and God in a series of disputations. In these, the people are complaining about God’s lack of involvement in their mundane lives while Malachi is providing the prophetic “response” from God. These responses usually come in the form of rebukes and divine judgements centered on God’s justice.
Why is any of that background important in our discussion of the fear of going home during the holidays….or as I pointed to last week…the potential fear of facing God when the Divine Kingdom comes fully upon this earth?
Understanding the context of Malachi gives us an entry point into a very important aspect of the book. Malachi is, first and foremost, a book about the presence of God. For the Jew to which Malachi is prophesying, they believed that God abandoned them in the past when they were exiled. They believe that God came back to them to return them to the Promised Land. And, again, here in the time of Malachi, they believe that God no longer cares for the concerns of their daily lives. As one commentator put it, “The danger to faith that is being explored in this book is indifference and cynicism to the presence of God in daily routines of the people of God.”
The daily routines of our lives include coming and going. The regular rhythms of our relationships involve leaving and returning. Throughout all of it, God is present…and God cares. But, like the people in Malachi, we often forget, don’t care about, or even worse, we think God causes the pain and discomfort attached to our coming and goings, to our leaving and returning. We become indifferent, cynical, or oblivious to God’s presence in our lives…and so the anxiety and pain we collect when we think about the future as it relates to our past…well, it can keep us from taking the steps forward along the journey toward the places God wants us to be.
Malachi, like all of the prophets before him and all of the mouthpieces of God after him, knew one thing to be true: God was with us. God is with us. God will be with us.
Like Malachi and John the Baptizer and so many others before have done, let us assume God will be present with us in the future because God has been with us in the past.
People are going to hurt us. But God is with us to share the burden and to comfort us in the middle of it. God is there taking every step with us through the pain as we walk closer to kingdom fullness.
That sounds like an easy idea to grab onto. Yeah! God is with us. But….one thing bothered me as I was studying and preparing this week. One question kept gnawing at the back of my mind. It bothered me so much that I decided to ask people in the coffee shop to share some experiences with me. I asked them all this question, and maybe it has already come into your mind:
What does it mean that “God is with us.”
I mean, that’s an easy thing to say, and in our hearts, we know it’s true: God is with us. But what does that LOOK like practically?
What does it mean that “God is with us” along the painful journey?
We love to talk about this idea in a very abstract way. Or in a time like Advent, we point to the past as though that is our present. We prepare and celebrate the birth of Jesus and then sing songs like “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” In Hebrew, Emmanuel literally means “God is with us.” And this was true 2000 years ago when Jesus was born and walking among people. God was with us in human form. But what does that mean for God with us today when we know that Jesus was murdered?
Some with rightly say, that we have God with us in the form of the Holy Spirit, who according to Scripture, is the Advocate that Jesus sent in his place after his death. God’s Spirit, the Holy Spirit, is God with us acting as a muse, as an inspirer, as an agent to jostle our consciences. But, the idea of the Holy Spirit as God with us is still too intangible for most of our Western, post-Enlightenment period minds to accept as “real.” We believe it, but we can’t grasp it, and so for many of us, the reality of God’s Spirit being God with us is no more use than just saying the word or believing the idea. No, we need something with more…texture.
In the real, lived experiences of most people and throughout the whole of the Bible, we learn time and time again that God is most often “with us” as humans are with each other. Remember, I mentioned last week that many of God’s miracles were worked in cooperation with human action. It should not come as a surprise that human involvement is our main way of experiencing the miracle of God’s presence.
We do not focus on a distant God who did amazing things for us in the past. Nor do we only anticipate the work of a God that will again do amazing things for us in the future. No, we live in this present moment with a God that is fully present with us in every moment. And we see God’s real, tangible presence in the physical and digital spaces where we connect as human beings in shared experience.
My friend Shannon looks back and sees God’s presence in that horrible pre-Christmas gunshot event in the fact that she wasn’t slightly faster, which would have likely resulted in her being wounded or worse. And she also sees God in the comfort and processing she has done over the years when sharing this experience with others. God was with her then and God is with her now.
My friend Xando saw God in the Discord and Twitch communities rallying around him to offer comfort as he sat helplessly learning of the details surrounding his niece in the school shooting this week. God was with him through us. And God was with his niece and their family as Xando was with them.
I have made no secret on who God has manifested through most obviously in my life. Christmas is now one of my favorite times of year. And I actually seek out spending time with various members of my family (even my in-laws! Crazy I know.). And it’s all because I’ve experienced God most directly in my relationship with my wife, Angela. She is not God no matter what she tries to make me believe. But I consistently hear God talking to me through her. I consistently feel God’s love for me through her. And it was through her infectious love of Christmas that I began to love it again. And now, as she works her way through her own trauma each Christmas, I get to remind her that God has not left her alone either.
Home might not be where the heart is. It might be where the pain is. But God is there too. And there is no pain too big, no anxiety to great, no fear to horrible that can drown out the love of God manifested through our relationships with each other.
God was with us. God will be with us. But imagine what this Christmas season will feel like for us if we fully accept that God IS with us! Amen? Amen!