The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
“Bring Jacob Back”
Scripture Reference: Matthew 2.19-23
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”
A few weeks ago I sat in on the confirmation class. Pete Bellisano was leading the study; he led them in a program called, “The Bible in 45 Minutes.” It was a great study. Pete confessed on a number of occasions, “there is a lot of the Bible you can’t cover, if you only have 45 minutes.” True. But covered a lot.
The value of the presentation was the focus on a theme. Pete walked the confirmands through the long biblical theme of covenant, or promise. God made promises and kept promises from the beginning. Most scholars contend “covenant” is a core element of our theology. As such this is a good place to understand a book composed over the course of centuries with multiple authors; it’s like a thread running through the whole cloth.
In our first reading today, we have another such theme, a core element of our faith expressed in Scripture. Today’s theme or element is found in the phrase “bring Jacob back.” Covenant is a consistent theme of God reaching out to us and promising a loving relationship; you can find this theme throughout. And “bring Jacob back” is such a theme as well. Only it is the opposite to covenant. “Bring Jacob back” is the persistent theme of our flight, our running away, our getting lost, losing this loving relationship.
As in all things essential to our faith, “bringing Jacob back” is not only true of the Bible, this is also true of our life. Most of us have endured a fractured relationship. Divorce, disdain, bad blood: it’s not hard to find this in some form at some time in most families or people. We lose people; we get lost. Hard words are spoken, mistakes are made, hurtful moments cut deep wounds. And we become estranged. We get lost and we long to come home or to have someone we love return. Bring Jacob back is part brokenness and part longing for reunion, homecoming.
The Scriptures are filled with this truth, this reality. We get lost and we want to come back; we lose people and we hope they will return. We can see it the time of wandering the desert; we can see it the exile; and then it becomes Judaism in the diaspora. Things fall apart; we separate. We become strangers to each other, to ourselves.
Each year, at Passover, Jewish families pray about this longing to come home. Each year they pray, “Next year, Jerusalem.” This means, next year we will return home.
You can read the bible as the long faithfulness of God in covenant; you can read the bible as a long struggle to be true, to be whole, to be right. God is faithful; we just seem to fall apart, fall away.
The need to come back, to come home, to return to a place we lost: this is not just the bible. Again, this is life. Where did you go Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you. What a great expression of heartache. Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away.
The desire of returning home is at the heart of the prophetic message; Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Amos, they all are calling people home, calling them to return, turn back. Bring Jacob back runs through each prophet’s heart; it’s the heartache of the prophets. Isaiah hears God speak with a heartbreaking love: bring Jacob back.
Before he was a metaphor of loss and being lost, Jacob was the son of Isaac and Rebekah. He grew up in a divided home, a heated battle for acceptance in a dysfunctional family. The divisions and strife reached such a point that Jacob had to flee. His brother Esau was most likely going to kill him. He left his home and sought refuge with an uncle.
Jacob stayed away for twenty years. After twenty years he returns, and his return is one of the most powerful moments in the Bible. Jacob doesn’t know if Esau will kiss him or kill him. When Esau rushes to meet his brother, Jacob is still not sure if this is to end his life or begin it anew. When Esau embraces him and kisses him and weeps, the scene reaches a hope deep within all of us, the hope for reconciliation, to come home, to be back home.
The desire for reconciliation is the theme of one of Rembrandt’s most famous paintings. The famous painting seeking reconciliation is certainly not his best. The fame of the Prodigal’s Return is not found in brilliant use chiaroscuro or the realism he mastered. The fame of this painting, the Prodigal’s Return, is that Rembrandt refused to sell it.
Near the end of his life, strapped for cash, he sold everything, everything except this one painting. More than not selling it, he never finished. He tried to complete it many times, but the subject matter eluded him.
What Rembrandt wanted to paint in the Prodigal’s Return is the big moment when he and his estranged son would be reconciled just as the father and son are reconciled in the parable. Rembrandt and his son had a terrible falling out. Again and again he tried to paint this big moment, the instance of healing because he wanted to live it, he wanted to experience the joy of reconciliation. He could never paint this as he and his son never reconciled. So, the painting was never sold as he kept trying, kept trying to imagine what love’s return would look like, the big moment of embrace. He could never see it.
I have been deeply moved by many works of art, but I was surprised by what it meant to stand in front of Rembrandt’s Prodigal . . . all I could do was weep. It’s so uncertain, so unclear. You could feel the long struggle when love fails. The message of the parable Jesus told is so clear. The son comes back home and is reconciled. The painting is so powerful in its failure. It is impossible sometimes to find your way back.
Henri Nouwen was a theologian, a scholar teaching at Harvard. He was an author of many books and sought-after speaker. He was at the top so to speak. But he felt like he was at the bottom. His life should have been clear, but it was not.
A good friend reached out to him and asked him to consider spending time with him in a different kind of community than Harvard. L’Arch is an intentional community for the disabled, for those with special needs. Nouwen was invited to come and be a part of this community. It was not an easy decision, but a year after the first invitation to visit, Henri Nouwen left Harvard to live in a L’Arch community in Ontario.
In the decade that followed, Nouwen came back. He was reconciled to life, to himself, to God. He described in great detail the way he needed to shed his very complex and scholarly impulses for the clarity of honest friendship. Where before he could rely upon his powerful mind, at L’Arch he needed to navigate the purity of his heart. What he thought was disabled was able to heal him and make him free to live.
In our reading from Matthew today we have a great truth about how Jesus brings Jacob back. When Jacob comes back in the gospels, the return is unto a new life, a new freedom, something more. Yet, like Nouwen at L’Arch, the homecoming is unto a home he had never known. Matthew paints such a picture of return in our reading today. This is not the triumphant return, the big moment, the great scene of love. This a return unto simplicity, humility, a kind of emptying. In Jesus, Jacob comes home to Nazareth.
Matthew describes a long journey, an odd path, lots of misdirection. The messiah is born in Bethlehem but is put to flight to Egypt. He must go a long distance in the wrong direction. He returns to Judea, the place unto which Jesus will walk to his cross, only he goes on, in the wrong direction to a small, obscure hilltop village. The king of kings grew up in a carpenter’s hut in a poor town.
If Jacob was to come back as a king, he should return to Jerusalem, to a lavish palace, something close to being raised in the court like David did with Saul. Nazareth is not the likely choice. This is the wrong direction, the wrong place if we are speaking in terms of power, the power of ancient kings.
Nazareth is wrong until you consider Henri Nouwen leaving Harvard for L’Arch. In the end it was not the wrong direction; it was the way home. He left everything aside to be born again by the power of humility. Losing all he had, he gained everything good. In L’Arch Nouwen could not rely upon his fabulous education, his social status, his pedigree, his resume. In L’Arch he was Pastor Henri; he came home. Jacob came back.
His homecoming was not in a moment, not a big moment like Jacob and Esau embracing or the prodigal’s return. His home coming was a slow emergence unto life.
This is what Matthew is hoping we hear today. Nazareth was a poor village in Galilee when Jesus lived there. Nothing big happened in Nazareth. It was slow and humble and without fanfare. Matthew wants us to know when Jacob came home in Jesus, it was a quiet moment of many days, decades, a long unfolding of humility. After this moment Matthew has nothing to say of Jesus for decades.
I have lived enough life to know what I love and what is important to me. The path has not always been clear; the path has often felt like a kind of wandering. Yet, I have been brought back home. In Jesus I have seen Nazareth.
I did not leave Harvard from an intentional community of people with special needs, but I have found what Henri Nouwen discovered. And the finding is the joy of life. I found this joy in lots of small, simple gestures, words and sounds and songs, each one like a root reaching deep for life, bringing me back to life. I made my way back home to a home I didn’t know, a place of simplicity and humility. Like Nouwen I have found Nazareth.
And yet, like Rembrandt, I am still painting. The canvas is incomplete. The images are still unclear. There are pieces far from finished, far from home. The big moment of reconciliation, I want to see that painting without the halting and awkwardness and confusion. This is the strange beauty of Rembrandt’s Prodigal. Its beauty is the absence of beauty; the clarity is found in the confusion.
Do you know what I mean by the unfinished painting; the restless hope of what is lost being found? It is so exhausting waiting for the painting to be finished.
Have you found Nazareth? The joy of humility, the freedom of casting aside anger and control and pride, have you found this joy? Do you know what it means to live in Nazareth, to find your way back to God?
In Jesus Christ God is keeping the promise of the covenant, the covenant that was in the beginning. In Jesus of Nazareth God is bring us back, bringing Jacob back, unto freedom.
The good news is that Nazareth is here. The way back home is found here. You can find Nazareth in a few weeks when wild baby cows dance; you can find Nazareth in the person sitting next to you, a stranger not yet a friend or the life-long friend. Each part of our life together is a way unto freedom, a way unto the hope we are just now beginning to realize. Here we are finishing the painting. Here we can give and receive the grace that completes the reconciliation.
Peace may seem so far off, impossible even. Reconciliation may appear a kind of dream. And they passed through Judea and went to Nazareth. In Nazareth peace becomes possible; in Nazareth Jacob comes back. What if this is our Nazareth? What if here and now Jacob is coming home, we are coming home? Amen.
- Isaiah 49:1 - 7
- Matthew 2:19 - 23