This evening is the second in our series of sermons on the theme of ‘Salvation Revisited.’ We are exploring the theme of salvation, which is central to the faith of the Church, and to the season of Advent, when we are promised a ‘Savior.’
Next week the theme will be ‘The sacred and Imperishable Proclamation’ and the final week’s theme will be ‘Salvation – from What, to What?’
My theme today is ‘Coming Home.’
When I was a teenager I rarely went to church. I was confirmed at 12, at school. Almost everyone in my class was confirmed – mainly so as not to let the house down! But for me, it was a kind of ‘passing out parade.’ No more church. I was interested in religious ideas, but thought Christianity rather facile. I preferred the more exotic Eastern forms of religious expression – far more interesting ways of trying to make contact with the divine. But one day, in my late teens, on one of my rare visits to church, I heard a Gospel which kind of stopped me in my tracks. It was the Gospel we heard read today: the parable of the Prodigal Son. What really moved me, was this image of the Father. Day after day, his father had been longing for his son – missing him, longing for him to come home. Scanning the horizon. Please, my son, come home. And then, one day, he sees him, way in the distance. He is so overjoyed that he runs – runs out to meet him, and welcome him home.
The story made such an impact on me, because until then, I had conceived of God far away – in heaven—waiting to be found. But here, the story reflects a God who comes looking for us. “Thine Almighty Word leapt down from heaven, from thy royal throne!” (Solomon 8:15) A majestic image – but also quite scary! That God is actually coming to look for us – looking for you.
Like the Good Shepherd who comes looking for the lost sheep. He never gives up, until he rescues us, and “on his shoulder, gently lays us, and brings us home, rejoicing.” (Henry Williams Baker, para. of Psalm 23) That was my first experience and understanding of what salvation means. And many years later, it is still the most potent metaphor for me of how God rescues and saves us. We get lost, we go to a far country, but God comes looking for us, to save us, and bring us safely home.
In my experience God does this again and again. God longs to save me, day after day – saving me from myself, my bad choices, my tendency to wander off. God keeps rescuing me – and I experience it as being brought home. One of my most powerful experiences of home coming was when I first came to visit this country. The first Office I attended was Evening Prayer: I remember it vividly and dear Br. Eldridge was the Officiant. Midway through the worship I had a profound sense of coming home. This was where I was meant to be.
As I have read the Scriptures and talked to other Christians about their experience, I have come to see that this action of rescuing and bringing home is central to God’s very nature – like it was to the Father of the Prodigal. It is absolutely central to salvation history.
Perhaps the greatest and most formative experience of salvation in the Hebrew Scriptures is the story of the Exodus. God’s people are enslaved in Egypt: brutalized by Pharaoh. And God raises up Moses to be their savior. It is he who will lead them on the epic journey across the desert to the Promised Land. Although the desert was experienced as a journey into the unknown, it was actually a great journey home. The land flowing with milk and honey was the very land of Canaan that their ancestors had left behind so long ago. God’s salvation was a home coming.
“The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and to know the place for the first time.” (T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding)
A similar experience of exile and eventual homecoming was to happen again to God’s people when they were taken into exile in Babylon, and longed and yearned to go home. “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered you O Zion.” (Psalm 137:1)
And during the time of slavery in this country, many of the themes of the spirituals were about going home. One of the most moving songs is simply called, “Want to go home.” “Where there’s no rain to wet you, no sun to burn you. No whips a-crackin’, no tribulation. O, yes, I want to go home.”
All through the pages of Scripture, there is this great theme of longing for salvation, but of salvation seen as the recovery of something which has been lost: a nostalgia for a lost love, or a lost paradise. The sense of loss, of alienation, is wonderfully and classically expressed in the poetry of the first chapters of the Book of Genesis. God has created humankind to live in a beautiful world and in a perfect relationship of love with his creation. But through a fateful act of pride, disobedience and hubris, humankind ruptured this relationship with God and with creation. They are ejected from Paradise: Paradise Lost.
The human condition thereafter is to be one of loss and alienation. But, still deep down, a nostalgia, a deep memory of what was. A yearning for Eden. And it is this ‘memory’, this nostalgia, this aching ‘restless heart’, as Augustine calls it, which, like glowing embers, can be fanned by God’s Holy Spirit, burst into flames, and can lead to salvation.
I have always appreciated the writings of the second century bishop and theologian, Irenaeus. Writing about the Fall of man in Genesis, he reflects that, when we disobeyed God, seeking to be like gods ourselves, we lost our likeness to God – but not God’s ‘image.’ Genesis says that we were made “in the image and likeness of God.” Although we lost our ‘likeness’, we can never lose the image – the ‘imago Dei’ deep within our souls. It is as if we have a profound memory of who we truly are. And it is this image, this memory within us, which can cooperate with God’s grace, to begin the journey home.
Like the Prodigal Son, we can ‘come to our senses’, and say, ‘I want to go home.’ And when we do, the Good Shepherd is there, waiting and longing to pick us up, lay us on his shoulders, and bring us home to God.
When we do turn around, repent, long to come home, when our restless hearts find their rest once more in God – we begin that wonderful journey of salvation – into the heart of God. We who were made in the image and likeness of God can begin to recover that lost likeness. Every day can be a new experience of salvation, of conversion – as we take on more and more the likeness of God – as we become day by day more like that unique person whom God called us to be.
I wonder where you are right now in your life with God? Have you had or do you have experiences of salvation? What are they like? Do you have a ‘nostalgia’ for God – a restless heart? A desire for prayer? A deep inexplicable longing, which no amount of ‘things’ can satisfy?
Maybe you’ve had one big experience of salvation or conversion, which was so important it really changed your life, and set you on the spiritual path home to God. The Psalmist experienced that himself. He writes in Psalm 18, “He reached down from on high and grasped me. He drew me out of the deep waters: he brought me into an open place, he rescued me – because he delighted in me.”
“He delighted in me.” I love that. God longs to save us, rescue us, to bring us home, because he delights in us. Like the Prodigal’s father, God misses you – longs for you to come home.
This understanding of salvation changed my prayers – and maybe it can change yours. Sometimes, when we decide to have a time of prayer, we think that we are initiating it. How am I going to get God’s attention? What words should I say to ‘get things going?’ But in fact, it is always God who initiates prayer – the God who is always seeking us, prompting us, inviting us.
When I go to my prayer corner in my cell, I often say these words from Psalm 18: “He rescued me, because he delighted in me.” So now I realize God’s already there, waiting for me, longing for me to come and pray – to spend time together.
God delights in each one of us so much, that he misses us, when we ignore or forget about him. Like the Prodigal’s father, he can’t wait for us to come into his presence. Here I am God!
So maybe God’s waiting for you. Maybe God has sent Jesus, the Good Shepherd down to come looking for you. Maybe you’ve strayed far from home – maybe feel God might not want to see you again. But however far you’ve wandered, God has never, ever, stopped longing to rescue you, to save you.
Maybe Advent is a good time to come home.
Please support the Brothers work.
The brothers of SSJE rely on the inspired kindness of friends to sustain our life and our work. We are grateful for the prayers and support provided to us.