Home-goings and homecomings. That’s what Thanksgiving is about for many people. Many will travel home or welcome family and friends home this week. The profound gratitude we feel for home and for reuniting with loved ones, are a big part of Thanksgiving’s timely importance to us.
There are many home-leavings, home-goings and homecomings throughout Scripture. And while some homecomings are happy occasions, many are not without challenges. Yet, somehow God seems to bring his people, especially his heroes, back home.
God sent Moses home to Egypt and to his people, after many years spent in exile. Out of a burning bush, God instructed and empowered this man of two worlds to bring his Hebrew people good news of God’s favor and God’s intention to rescue them from brutal bondage. God also sent Moses to tell Pharaoh to “Let my people go.” That was a powerful homecoming—a good one for the Jewish people; a bad one for their oppressors.
After many years of also hiding in exile, the Lord sent Jacob home to face his brother Esau, whom he had wronged. Jacob feared his brother’s wrath and prepared himself for defensive battle. But that was unnecessary, for Esau was ready to forgive his brother and welcome him home.
“Return to the land of your fathers and to your relatives,” God tells Jacob. “I will be with you.” (Genesis 31:3)
King David also returned home, to the city that bore his name. And he brought with him the Ark of the Covenant, amid great celebration. He danced wildly and nearly naked before the Lord in a joyous homecoming both for the Ark and for its worshipful host.
Centuries later, Joseph and Mary returned home to Bethlehem, ostensibly to be counted in the Roman census, but really because it was foretold that God’s Son would be born there, as a Savior to his people. Of course, they would soon have to flee their hometown to protect their son’s life from King Herod.
And later, that blessed son, Jesus, would return home to bring his ministry of preaching, teaching and performing miracles to his own family, his own people. But his own received him not. “A prophet is not without honor,” he lamented, “except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” (Matthew 13:57)
The Apostle Paul disobeyed the Holy Spirit twice—twice!–when it spoke to him through friends, telling him to not go home to Jerusalem, because it was too dangerous. Jews were waiting there to snatch him up, handcuff him and turn him over to the Romans, demanding that he be jailed and executed. But Paul went anyway.
Even though God told him not to go, he was determined to return to city where he had once zealously attacked and jailed Christians for teaching and worshiping Jesus Christ, just so he could now teach and worship and proclaim that same Jesus Christ as the Messiah, the Savior of the world.
Some homecomings are hard to resist. Especially when you have something important you want to share with your people back home.
Of course, homecomings can be happy affairs. But they can also be rough.
Much is said about how the Thanksgiving dinner table these days has become a time and place of more family conflicts and divisive, hurtful arguments. Many of those arguments, in many homes, are about politics, especially since the defining 2016 Presidential election.
Pastors and pundits urge people to keep politics out of their dinnertime discussions. Remember the reason for the season, they say, and keep the focus on love, faith and gratitude for the goodness of God.
And while many people are home-going and home-coming this week, we must remember and pray for the thousands of California residents who have lost their precious homes—homes that some have lived in for decades—to the horrific fires destroying properties and communities and leaving tragic deaths and losses in their wake.
Moreover, we must remain prayerful for the thousands upon thousands of migrants and refugees who have fled their homes in Central America, escaping domestic and gang violence, poverty, and threats to their lives. Many of them are now in Mexico, on the threshold of our U.S. borders, seeking safety and hoping to be accepted as refugees and receive protective asylum from our country.
They have left the homes they love to come seeking a new home here, either to live with relatives already here or to live as strangers in a strange land. They are hoping to be welcomed as neighbors, just as God instructs us to welcome and embrace sojourners with open hearts, open minds and open doors.
Homecomings, home-goings and home-leavings are all a part of the human experience around our nation and our world this Thanksgiving—a world we United Methodists say we want to transform by making disciples of a Savior who was once a refugee himself.
Jesus knows it’s like to live in two worlds. He left his heavenly home to come here. He left behind life amid unimaginable riches and hosts of singing angels, surrounding his Father’s majestic throne in a place where radiant light always shines… to be born here in the quiet dead of night, in an empty cave, among lowly shepherds and peasants, and to be laid in a dusty manger.
He came here appointed by God to be our pastor, our shepherd, to build his earthly church here, and to make new disciples in his own image, teaching them—teaching us—what it means to be thankful and gracious, to have the compassionate mind and loving heart of Him in whom we now “live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)
Once his work was done here, Jesus, our immortal, eternal pastor, retired from this appointment and returned to his real home, his first, last and forever home. He returned there to prepare a place for us, that where He is we may be also, in the fullness of God’s time.
We look forward to that eternal, heavenly homecoming someday. The popular song says “I Can Only Imagine,” and that’s about all we can do, because that homecoming will be more than any of us can fathom.
The Apostle Paul says, “We know that while we are at home in the body, we are away from the Lord. (But), we are of good courage… (and) whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. (2 Corinthians 5:6-8)
Because we want Jesus to welcome us home someday, we make it our aim to please him. We want to go where every day is Thanksgiving. We long for mansions not made with human hands, where there are no locks on the doors, no crimes and no need for flood or fire insurance. Where there are no property taxes or gentrification, no rich side of town or poor side of town, because all the streets are paved with gold. And where “everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the Lord Almighty has spoken.” (Micah 4:4)
We want to sit at that glorious welcome table with departed loved ones, in God’s awesome presence. We want to be “where all the saints of God are gathered home,” as iconic hymnist Dr. Charles Albert Tindley once penned.
That’s the homecoming we look forward to and should yearn for and live for daily. Yes, Thanksgiving, when we combine our gratitude with generosity, should become a habit of “Thanks-living” every day of our lives. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, let us all strive to make it so. Amen.
John W. Coleman is Director of NEWSpirit Communications for the Eastern PA Conference of The United Methodist Church.