The great North Carolina author, Thomas Wolfe, of Asheville, used a character by the name of George Webber to describe the angst of many Americans living in a post-Depression-era. In the good old days, the 1920s, there seem to be plenty of jobs, plenty of money, and plenty of frivolities. But the depression took everything away. In his novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, Thomas Wolf has his character, George Webber, an author who has written about his hometown, going back to his hometown with rising anticipation only to find door-shutting disillusionment.
“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting, but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”
Perhaps, we can’t go home again. But can home come to us? I would say, as a pastor, that “home” is inescapable. It is who we are. And it can be where we are today. I pray it is a place we have in mind as a life destination. Let me explain.
I have often thought about the concept of home. Home is not only the place we used to be, perhaps, where we grew up, it’s also the place we are today. And Home is also the place where we are going. When you think about it, home is made up of both people and place. In fact, you really can’t have one without the other.
Certainly, people — parents, our spouse, children, family, dear friends, and, one day, our eternal home with God —are the most important part of the quaint couplet. However, people inhabit place. People transform place. But there is always place. It’s not just the fading gray–tone photograph of grandmother. It is grandmother standing on the front porch of the old house at the end of the long gravel driveway, that little lane where you would walk barefooted in the summer, the hot gravel hurting your feet, making the soft, green lawn of grandmother’s yard even more wondrous. It is not only a snapshot that captured a moment in time, oh, say, you and your little brother wrestling on the cracking, linoleum living room floor; it’s also the floor of that certain house where the memories were made. It’s the fiery red coals in the heater. It’s the rich smell of freshly plowed earth in April. But it’s incomplete without you and your older mean cousin chasing you down the field row. So, people and place are inseparable. The Bible speaks a lot about home. The Hebrew word is “ha Eretz”—the Land. Some biblical scholars believe that “ha Eretz” is the central theme of Genesis, if not even the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible). Eden was “ha Eretz,” the land; the land that was home. But we got lost, so lost. And we could never find that home again. There was always an angel posted at the place we thought was home, barring any entrance there. But God knew that we needed a home, and so he began to set our eyes on the home that he was building for us.
The Lord gave Abraham a promise that involved people as well as place. The place promised to Abraham was a pagan–pantheistic–polluted piece of ground lodged between the desert and the Mediterranean Sea. It was far East of Eden. Others lived there, but in open rebellion against God, in a way similar to Genesis chapter six, when the wickedness of sinful humankind brought about an unreserved judgment on the earth and its violent inhabitants. This scenario, on a smaller scale, was the sin-infested and the sin-infected land of the Canaanites.
God promised Abraham not only a land. He promised that people, more specifically, a nation, would arise. Israel, the children of Jacob, that cunning–compassionate grandson of Father Abraham, became a small but formidable nation in the Ancient Near East. Her profound influence far exceeded her diminutive size. Much larger nations of both land and people would never come close to the wide-reaching influence of little Israel. Literature, law, the arts, construction, commerce, government, and the very foundations of a present worldwide civilization were embedded, proleptically, within that little seed of a nation. The people which God promised to Abraham would extend from Israel to the rest of the world. The earth would become “the Holy Land.” Yes, God promised Abraham the earth. And the nation would encompass other nations. Israel would become like the innumerable grains of sand that make up the seashore, people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. Such a vision had to have been an impossible and unreachable concept to grasp. Abraham could only imagine his larger, future home that God had promised — the entire earth as well as a world of people—by being promised something he could never comprehend. He could see the land of his new home. He could see his wife. Later, he could put his old man on Isaac’s head. Now, that helps us to conceive how we can think about heaven and how we can imagine a family of believers in heaven.
The incomprehensible becomes comprehensible when we follow the biblical pattern. You don’t have to worry about what heaven is going to look like (the Apocalyptic vision of John employs metaphorical representations like a golden road and a glass sea to guide our imaginations to the otherwise indescribable). Thus, the little havens of habitation here on earth are holy hints at another home. Want to imagine heaven? Just take in the most wonderful memories you have of the home where you grew up. Then, breathe in the sensory experience of your own home today. Don’t forget the aroma of bacon frying, biscuits baking, and the spicy aftershave lotion your father used. Don’t neglect the sights of thick, faded old quilts, or ten–o’clock–in–the–morning sunlight, waves of translucent buttercream dappled in random patterns across cotton–white bedspread. Remember the view from the window in your bedroom? People and place converge in your most comforting dreams to remain (or, perhaps, to hope for) home. You just think about that, smile, be warmed by precious memories, and you will be able to understand heaven. Picture the sight of your sweet old dad on a brick–red Massey–Ferguson tractor, your favorite elementary school teacher as she smiles at you (“Well done, Honey. That’s a really nice ‘R’ you just made.”), or mom setting the table, not the Christmas china, the everyday china. Then—then—you will be able to comprehend the Church triumphant. A new heaven and a new earth begins with our own pleasurable memories and our most cherished experiences of home: people and place. What did Jesus say?
“Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also” (John 14:1-3 King James Version of the Holy Bible).
A place and a person: that is home. That is where we’ve been. That is where we are now. And that is where we are going.
I can just imagine it.
Edwards, Jonathan. God’s Sovereignty in the Salvation of Men: A Sermon by Jonathan Edwards; Sermon IV of Seventeen Occasional Sermons, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume Two. Vol. Two. Two vols. The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Edinburgh; Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2007. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/sermons.gssm.html?highlight=abraham,sermon,jonathan,edwards#highlight.
Robertson, O. Palmer. The Christ of the Covenants. Phillipsburg, N.J: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Co, 1985.
Steinbeck, John. East of Eden, 2017.
Wolfe, Thomas. You Can’t Go Home Again. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1940.
 Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again, 407.
 “Then Cain went away from the presence of the LORD and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden” (Genesis 4:16 English Standard Version of the Holy Bible). The complex relationship of brothers frames the plot and informs the title in the classic, Steinbeck, East of Eden.
 For a study of the covenantal structure of the Holy Bible see Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants.
 See Edwards, God’s Sovereignty in the Salvation of Men.
Dr. Milton is the Provost and James Ragsdale Chair of Missions and Evangelism at Erskine Theological Seminary where he also serves as the Director of Chaplain Ministries, and President of the D. James Kennedy Institute of Reformed Leadership.
Milton’s life verse is from Philippians 1:6: “Being confident of this, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it unto the day of Jesus Christ.” Or, as Milton puts it in the title of his autobiography, “What God starts, God Completes.”