It was an Advent Sunday twenty years ago. We’d just finished a hanging of the green service at the congregation I served in Washington, D.C., when a friend with whom I worked at the church walked down the center aisle and quietly said,
I think we need to go home.”
Before I could ask what Paul meant, he added, “There may have been a fire.”
“Home” was the co-op development where Paul and I both lived. Other members of our congregation also lived in the development. When they arrived home that Sunday, they saw fire trucks outside my building. After asking some questions, they figured out the fire had been in my unit. That’s when they called the church and spoke with Paul.
The fifteen-minute car ride home remains something of a blur in my memory. Paul and I had ridden to the church together that day. As he drove my car toward our development, I sat in the passenger seat and wondered aloud how the fire might have started. But more than anything I kept voicing the hope that my dog Max was OK.
Paul parked the car in my garage spot, and we took the elevator up to my floor. As soon as the elevator door opened, we could smell the smoke. Soot marked my front door, which we opened it to go inside.
Although the fire fighters were finished, signs of their work were visible throughout the unit—windows broken out, a hole chopped through a wall, furniture shoved out of the way, pools of water on the floor. There, however, was no sign of Max.
As Paul and I walked back toward the elevator, we saw a building maintenance person. Paul quietly asked if he knew anything about the dog who’d been in the unit.
Although the fire fighters hadn’t been able to save the contents of my unit from smoke and water damage, they’d been able to rescue Max. He was waiting for me in the co-op office.
As Max and I walked with Paul to his unit that afternoon, I had no idea that it would be six months before I’d be able to return home.
I was fortunate. I had a safe place where Max and I could stay during those months. I had insurance that allowed the work and purchases needed to return my co-op to how it had been before the fire.
But I remember how long those six months felt. There was an underlying sense of being unsettled. The comforts I’d taken for granted weren’t always at my fingertips. At times it felt like I’d might never get to go home.
So it’s difficult for me to imagine how the people of Israel felt when they heard the words that we so often read from the prophet Isaiah during Advent.
For 150 years they waited to hear the now familiar words “Comfort, comfort my people.” For 150 years they waited as the power of balance would shift among the foreign nations that were Judah’s neighbors. For 150 years they waited as peace was shattered and security evaporated—as Jerusalem was destroyed and many of the people of Israel were deported to Babylon. For 150 years they waited as God seemed silent and the exiles voiced their grief and dismay and began to imagine a world without God’s presence.
And then—after 150 years—God finally speaks. The people will go home.
A highway will run across the desert between Babylon and Jerusalem for an easy, triumphant, and dazzling return home. Onlookers to this victory parade will recognize that it’s the God of Israel who makes this joyous return possible.
But in this passage from Isaiah God isn’t simply pictured as a conquering warrior whose power and majesty make this homecoming possible.
God also is portrayed as a gentle shepherd, who in mercy cares for those who are vulnerable. This poem from Isaiah encourages us to image God as more than marching in a victory parade. It invites us to imagine God as gently shepherding us home.
After 150 years, that must truly have been good news for the people of Israel. But it also continues to be good news for us today. For the longing for home seems to be as deep a need today as it’s been throughout history.
The author Frederick Buechner contends that “no matter how much the world shatters us to pieces, we carry inside us a vision of wholeness that we sense is our true home and that beckons us.”
Buechner believes he comes closest to truly being home when he allows the “life-giving, life-saving, and healing power” with which God graces us to be alive in and through him. While he says he can’t by a long shot claim he’s found the home he longs for every day of his life, he believes in his heart that he’s found “the way that leads to it.”
As we near the end of this Advent season, perhaps we too can trust that we’ll find the home for which we long if we’re willing to travel the way that God provides for us, to follow the shepherd who offers to lead us.
Six months had seemed like a long time. But on a warm and sunny June day it finally was time to do what my friend Paul said I needed to do on that Advent Sunday—to go home.
All the smoke and soot had been removed. All the repairs had been completed. All the damaged items had been replaced. All that was missing was for Max and me to return.
Throughout the restoration process, Max had balked at going into my unit whenever I’d stop by to check on the progress. He’d stand at the front door and whine until it was time to leave. But something changed as we walked down the sidewalk toward my building on that June day.
I asked Max, “Are you ready to go home?”
In response, he lunged ahead, pulling hard on the leash and doing his little Max dance.
On that day, Max reminded me of the great joy and peace we can find in going home. May that same joy and peace be ours this Advent as we allow God to shepherd us home.