Homesickness For God
Have you heard the story about the very boring, negative, extremely judgmental preacher who had been invited to preach at Yale University’s chapel? In his sermon, he took the word “YALE” as his outline and let each letter Y-A-L-E serve as a point in his sermon. He said the “Y” stood for YOUTH and he preached twenty boring, wearisome, negative minutes on the failing of today’s youth. He said the letter “A” stood for APATHY and he preached twenty more judgmental minutes about the apathy in our nation these days. Next he said the letter “L” stood for laziness, and he droned on and on about how lazy people are in our time. Finally, he came to the letter “E” in the word Yale and he had already preached for over an hour. He said the “E” stood for EMPTINESS and he railed on for twenty more boring, negative, tedious minutes on the subject of emptiness. Well, finally, finally, he was through. At the conclusion of the service, the choir and the guest preacher recessed down the center aisle. On the last row, the preacher saw a freshman student down on his knees, praying fervently. The guest preacher was thrilled to see that his message had so inspired this Yale student. The preacher stopped and asked the young man what he had said in his sermon that had so moved this freshman student to such fervent prayer. The student answered: “I was just thanking God that I go to Yale and not to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology!”
Well, God forgive us when we take the exciting, thrilling, life-transforming message of the Christian Gospel and make it boring or negative or judgmental. God forgive us when we take the greatest news this world has ever heard and turn it into something tedious, dull and wearisome. The word Gospel literally means “Good News” and the good news is that we can come home to God. No matter how far away we may have strayed or drifted or run, we can all come home to God and He will welcome us with open arms.
Let me ask you something.
Do you ever feel uneasy or anxiety-ridden or cynical? Do you ever feel out of sorts or out of sync? When we feel those negative vibes rumbling around in our souls, those are dramatic reminders that we are “homesick” for God. Here is the best illustration of that truth that I know. It’s a true story.
Many years ago in England, a circus elephant named “Bozo” was very popular with the public. Children especially loved to crowd around his cage and throw him peanuts. Then one day there was a sudden change in the elephant’s personality. “Bozo”, the elephant suddenly seemed angry and irritable, even hostile toward the children. He tried on one occasion to attack his keeper. The decision was made that “Bozo” would have to be destroyed. The circus owner, a greedy, crude man planned to stage a public execution of the animal, and in this way he could try to sell tickets and try to recoup some of the costs of losing such a valuable property. The day came. The huge circus tent was packed. “Bozo” was in a large cage in the center ring. Nearby stood a firing squad with high-powered rifles. The manager was about ready to give the signal to fire, when out of the crowd came a short, inconspicuous man in a brown derby hat. “There is no need to do this”, he said to the manager, quietly. The man brushed him aside and said: “He is a bad elephant and has to be destroyed before he hurts someone.” “No”, the man insisted.
“You’re wrong about that. Just give me two minutes in the cage alone with him and I’ll prove that you are wrong.” The manager turned and stared in amazement. “You’ll be killed”, he said. The man replied: “I don’t think so. Do I have your permission?” The manager, being the kind of man he was, was not about to pass up a dramatic spectacle like this. Even if the man were killed, the publicity alone would be worth a fortune.
“All right”, he said. “But first you’ll have to sign a release absolving the circus of all responsibility.” The man in the brown derby hat signed the paper. He next removed his coat and hat and prepared to enter Bozo’s cage. The manager informed the people in the crowd what was about to happen. A hush fell over the crowd. The door of the cage was unlocked, the man stepped inside, and when Bozo the elephant saw the stranger in his cage he threw back his trunk, gave a mighty roar, and bent his head ready to charge. The man stood perfectly still, a faint smile on his face as he began to talk to the animal. The audience was so quiet that those on the front rows could hear the man talking, but they couldn’t make out the words. He seemed to be talking in some strange, foreign language. Slowly, as the man continued to talk, the elephant raised his head. Then the crowd heard an almost piteous cry arise from the elephant as his enormous head began to sway gently from side to side. Smiling now, the man walked confidently toward the animal and began to stroke him and pat his long trunk. All the aggression seemed suddenly to be drained from the great elephant. Docile as a puppy now he wrapped his trunk around the man’s waist, picked him up gently, and the two walked slowly around the ring. The crowd stood to their feet, cheering and applauding in amazement. After awhile, the man turned and left the cage. He said to the manager, “He’s all right now.” The manager, astounded, said to him: “What in the world did you do?” The man replied: “You have to understand. He’s an Indian elephant and none of you spoke his language, Hindustani. I would advise you to get someone around here who speaks Hindustani. You see, Bozo was just homesick.” With that, the man picked up his coat and hat and left. The astounded manager wondered who in the world the man was, and then he remembered the release slip the man had signed. He pulled it out and read the name: Rudyard Kipling.
The point is clear. When, like Bozo the elephant, we get sullen and irritable and ill-tempered; when we feel grouchy and grumpy and fractious; when we become selfish and hostile and antagonistic; those are sure-fire signs of homesickness for God. That’s what the Psalmist is talking about here in the 42nd Psalm—homesickness for God. Listen to the words: “As a deer longs for the flowing streams, so my soul longs for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” Another writer expressed the same truth in different words: “There is a God-shaped vacuum in our hearts that only God can fill.” The fact is that when we try to fill that vacuum with something other than God, then like Bozo the elephant, we get out of sorts and out of sync because we are homesick for God. The Good News of the Gospel message is that we can come home, and God will welcome us home with open arms.
Now let me tell you something.
There are many things in our world that fascinate me beyond my ability to describe. The miracle of the telephone is one of them. It boggles my mind to think that we could push a few buttons on our telephone and, in a matter of seconds, be talking to someone quite literally on the other side of the world. I’m also fascinated by television and computers and fax machines and the Internet. I can type in a few words on my computer, push a button, and immediately get driving instructions to anywhere I want to go, with maps and a step-by-step guide of every turn. It’s absolutely amazing what computers on the Worldwide Web can do.
But as impressed as I am with the miraculous technology of our time, I’m even more in awe of the phenomenon that happens year after year on the day of March 19th. Do you have any idea what I am talking about? For more than 200 years, on March 19th, the same thing happens every year. On March 19th, the swallows have faithfully returned to San Juan, Capistrano on exactly that day. They will do it again this year. Now March 19th is officially the last day of winter. Spring begins each year on March 20th, whether there is snow on the ground and the temperatures are below freezing, or whether the skies are balmy and the temperatures are in the high 80’s. March 19th marks the end of winter. March 20 begins the spring season, and somehow, miraculously, these little birds know that that day is the day for them to return to Capistrano. Now think about that for a moment. How do they know, for example, every four years there is a leap year? Instead of there being 28 days in February, there are 29. Apparently, that doesn’t phase those little swallows at all. Somehow they know how to compute that subtle difference and to show up again exactly on March 19th. It’s phenomenal really—one of the great mysteries and marvels of nature that no one understands. On that day every year, they just come home.
Recently as I was thinking about this, I realized that deep down inside of us there is a “homing instinct”. There is something deep down inside of us that hungers and thirsts for home. Whether we realize it or not, we all yearn to come home to God. That is precisely what Psalm 42 is about and that is what St. Augustine meant when he wrote what has become his most famous line. He wrote: “My soul is restless, O God, until it finds its rest in Thee.”
The hymn-writers of the faith realized that to be true as well. So often they write of coming home to be with God. You remember the words of the famous Gospel hymn … “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling; calling for you and for me. Come home, come home, Ye who are weary. Come home.”
Maybe tonight it’s time for you to come home—home to God in Jesus Christ.