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Returning Home

April 7, 2019

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Preached by Canon Mark Collinson using Romans 7.21 – 8.4 at Evensong on Sunday 7th April 2019, the Fifth Sunday of Lent.

When I moved with my young family to the Netherlands in 2001, it took quite a while before our new house became home. Whenever we came back to the UK on holiday, especially to visit our families, it felt particularly odd to be returning to a foreign country to the place we called home. Only after a few years, did our Dutch house feel like home. That’s because home is where you feel familiarity. Home is where you feel safe; after a 12 hour drive back to Amsterdam it wasn’t just my own bed that I looked forward to climbing into, there’s a sense, a feel, a smell about home that speaks of comfort and security – a place where you can rest and recover, and more than that, where you grow and thrive.

The imagery of Isaiah 35 speaks of the people of Judah returning home to Jerusalem. They are currently in exile in Babylon. They are currently suffering under God’s judgement. Isaiah prophecises that God is going to bring their punishment to an end and rescue them, just like he rescued the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. God is going to bring them to safety, to a land where the desert itself will be full of blossoming flowers and fresh pools of water, where people find rest and recovery and healing, where no ravenous beast will threaten them, a place where they feel safe, a place they call home.

I think there are two ways in which Isaiah’s prophecy is relevant for us today.

First, the destiny of people and their land is tied together. The people and land rejoice at the homecoming of the people of Judah. It is tempting to think that people who lived 2,500 years ago were closer to the land than we are today because they relied directly on the land for the food they produced. That’s just not true. Our destiny is just as intimately linked with our relationship with the earth as it was at any time in history.

Isaiah imagines a world in which God reigns, in which God’s will is done. He announces the presence of God: he says, ‘Here is your God’ rescuing you, bringing you back home, restoring a right and just relationship between humanity and God’s creation. Justice is served not just on God’s people bringing them to freedom, but the very soil becomes watered and fruitful as well.

The School of Mission visit to Rwanda in February showed me that, despite the enormous economic differences between here and there, they seem to be taking the challenges of climate change more seriously than we do. There an average wage is £50/month, and there is no way that they contribute to CO2 pollution on the scale that we do. But even so they have made more far-reaching reforms than we have.

We saw how one of the social enterprise projects of the diocese made clay cookers that reduce carbon emissions by 70%. They have completely banned plastic bags across the whole country. People always and only ever use durable and reusable bags. As a consequence there is no plastic pollution, and in fact there is no litter at all in public places and on roadside verges because people value cleanliness.

They are also investing in solar panels – one of the diocesan technical colleges we visited had large industrial wood- and metal-working machinery and welding equipment – all of which was powered by solar panels. Even the drying oven they used to season wood was solar powered.

If we in the West continue to take a lackadaisical (and dare I suggest, a market) approach to climate change then we are demonstrating the utmost naivety about our relationship with the earth. Humanity will suffer if we do not bring justice and righteousness to creation.

Second, Isaiah reminds us where home is.

On Wednesday this week our curate Katie Lawrence organised a service for people who are involved in and affected by homelessness. The testimonies that homeless people shared were deeply personal, humbling and hopeful. One lady shared how her home wasn’t safe. She realised that if she didn’t get away from her husband she was probably going to die there.

Being homeless isn’t safe. Living on the streets, sleeping in shop doorways is a dangerous place to be. Sixty names of friends of local homeless people who had died were read out and remembered during the service.

The homeless charity Shelter reckons 320,000 people in the UK are homeless. (Imagine all the people that live in the city of Winchester and multiply it by seven). We see them, don’t we, in a little tent by the station, doing art in a doorway in the High Street, sat on the pavement with a cardboard sign.

We all need homes where we can rest, recover, feel safe, flourish and thrive.

There are good social and economic reasons for addressing the problems of climate change and homelessness that any secular person could and should sign up to. However the prophet Isaiah suggests that the presence of God makes a difference. The reign of God is more than a market orientated theory that charges 5 pence for a plastic bag to put your groceries in when you pop to the shops on your lunchbreak. The reign of God is more than the cooperation of local government, Christian and other charitable agencies that help people who have fallen into homelessness find hope and a future.

The reign of God begins with what the apostle Paul says in our Romans reading, delighting that the law of God is in my inmost self. It is when the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus sets us free from all that drives a society to allow homelessness to happen and a careless attitude to the environment. When God reigns in our hearts, we find that he changes our hearts’ desires.

As the Dean said on Wednesday, our yearning for home is met when Jesus makes his home with us. So may we seek to offer our hearts and lives to be a home where Jesus lives, and so may we find safety, security, comfort and rest, with Jesus dwelling within us, and so may we grow and thrive with an inner core that is changed by his presence, seeking justice for creation and homes for the homeless.