Many of us travel during the Christmas holidays. AAA reported last week that 98.6 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home this Christmas season, 91% of whom or 89.5 million will be traveling by car, up 4.2% from a year ago. Those traveling by air will number some 5.7 million. It helps that gasoline prices continue to drop and at $ 0.69 less/gallon than last year, prices nationwide average $2.55/gallon. Just to give us all some perspective, how many of you have traveled or are traveling away from home this Christmas season? How many have come home or are going home at some point? I know it can be a little confusing since I have not defined what I meant by “home.” Occasionally, in the course of a conversation, I might ask people I meet where home is. They will tell me Columbus, OH or St. Louis, MO or Denver, CO or Tampa, FL. What they really meant to say was Westerville, OH, which is 10 miles NE of Columbus; or East St. Louis, which is on the other side of the Mississippi River in neighboring Illinois; or Aurora, CO, which might easily be mistaken for a suburb of Denver; or Temple Terrace, which isn’t even found on most Florida state maps. So already, people edit their response to the question for reasons they may not wish to reveal. Maybe they don’t like where they live. Maybe they’re just renting. Maybe they would have less to explain if they named the next big city close by. Maybe they’re afraid of being judged if they name some hick town in the boonies. Sometimes I surprise them if I actually knew where their little hick town in the boonies was. Mostly, I nod my head and go, “Aaah.” And we marvel at how far away they’ve wandered from home.
When people ask me where home is, my quick and easy answer is VA Beach although I haven’t lived there in 20 years. Then I’ll get that one WW2 veteran who was in the Philippines in 1945, hoping I might know someone they knew way back when. I try to be polite, but there are 98 million people in the country, and I wasn’t around in 1945, and I haven’t lived there in 30 years. But it doesn’t matter because they assume the Philippines is home. So I just thank them on behalf of the 98 million for fighting the Japanese expansionists. But how many of us still live where we were born? I guess VA Beach is home because my parents live there, and it’s where I go to visit most of my family. Ultimately, despite all my excuses, home is where my dog lives, where I pick up my mail and where most of my earthly belongings are to be found. So, for now Waynesboro is home. And I often add it’s 20 minutes E of Staunton, a half hour W of Charlottesville, 1.5 hours NW of Richmond, 1.5 hours NE of Roanoke. And we marvel at how far I’ve wandered from home.
Tonight/today we call to mind how God came to dwell among us, born a child in a manger where animals were kept by night. God went wandering a long way from home. But unlike most of our wanderings, God was not lost or on vacation. God was not just passing through. From a place of eternal light and splendor, God chose to enter time and root himself in the human condition. In the obscure village of Bethlehem in the Judean countryside far removed from the trappings of earthly splendor, the “image of God’s glory wore an image like our own.” God came to Bethlehem, and every year at Christmas, we come to meet him there. Yet Bethlehem is no longer just one place in time and space anymore. It is wherever we encounter God in our own time and place.
On that first Christmas, each of the characters we read about in the gospel arrive at Bethlehem by a different way. Mary and Joseph came to Bethlehem on foot, obedient to the decree of an earthly king. They did not have a lot of time or resources to prepare where they would encounter God. God found them “on the road,” so to speak, far from home and its comforts. Angels came to Bethlehem from heaven in a vision of glorious light and song, proclaiming glad tidings to shepherds watching their sheep in the plains nearby. The shepherds met God in Bethlehem at the prompting of angels, caught in the routine of peasant livelihood away from home and family. The wise men who would arrive later would come to Bethlehem on the conviction or curiosity that comes from intellectual pursuit. They, too, would set out on a journey leaving behind their homes and loved ones. Although they had an idea of what they were looking for, they were never truly prepared for what they would eventually find.
Notice that everyone in the gospel story sets out from home to encounter God. Each leaves behind the familiar and the comfortable without really knowing what they would find. Not everyone is prepared for the divine encounter. Some will arrive as the result of learning and intellectual pursuit, after many questions and seldom as many answers. Some will set out on the journey with purpose and determination but without knowing all the details in advance. And some others will be caught unsuspecting by glorious visions and an invitation to wonder and awe. There is not only one way to encounter God, not only one adequate level of preparedness suited to the occasion. This Christmas, we come upon Bethlehem once again and the glorious mystery of God made flesh in our time and place. Some of us are far from home, having made some kind of journey to get to Bethlehem. Yet we can also claim to be very much at home because it is where God has found us, in the midst of our brokenness and our conflicts, in the midst of our disagreements and our frustrations, in the midst of our need and our want. And there is not just one way for God to encounter us either, not just one acceptable form for God to appear in our midst. We must remember that God also set out on a journey far from home in search of us. It is not primarily to our credit that we find ourselves at this moment.
I believe there is a better reason still for this encounter in Bethlehem. I am convinced God is leading each of us on many other journeys to even more significant encounters. But whatever the reason is, wherever the journey leads, it cannot end here. Of this we can be certain because the child of Bethlehem does not remain a child. He soon invites us to discover God anew in wonderful ways, to experience God’s healing and compassion, to challenge us to forgive and serve others, to invite us in turn to proclaim glad tidings by our own words and example. Christmas is not just about us coming home. It is about God finding a home among us, us finding a home in God, and us reaching out to others to rest from their long journeys and to find their home in God.
May you find God for whom you long this Christmas, and may God in turn find you.