December 6, 2015
William G. Carter
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
A couple of men were chatting over coffee last week. They were talking over the news of the day, holiday traffic, and neighborhood light displays. Inevitably the conversation turned to Christmas, and one of them asked, “Is there anything you want for Christmas this year?” The other one chuckled, “I want to get through Christmas unscathed.”
It was the first time I ever heard somebody say it, and I knew exactly what he was talking about. Despite all the excitement and the artificial light, this is a difficult season for a lot of people. If you have any sickness in your family, it’s hard to keep up with your own expectations. If your loved ones have scattered across the country, there will be lines at the post office, and worse lines in the airports. If money is tight, your kids and grandkids are still bombarded by commercials for toys that cost way too much money. And if you are still grieving the loss of somebody you love, there is the weight of carrying on long-established traditions while there is an empty chair at the kitchen table.
Yes, this can be a tough time for a lot of us. It is hard to simply say so. If you are feeling blue, somebody could accuse you of being a Grinch. If you are watching your budget, you could be renamed Ebenezer Scrooge. It may be enough to just keep your head down and get through it all, unscathed and intact.
Today’s scripture texts don’t relieve the difficulty. John the Baptist is sent by God to the Jordan River. In the name of God, he barks out a message of change: “God is coming,” he says. “It’s time to turn around and come home.”
Maybe you saw the Christmas card on Pinterest. There’s the snarling face of John, who says, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you from the wrath that is to come?” And inside is the message, “From our house to yours, have a wonderful Advent!”
Or there is the prophet Malachi, whom we heard a minute ago. Someone mentioned a trip to the shopping mall. The parking was terrible, the crowd was surging and impatient. Over top of it all, the management had decided to play some classical music, perhaps to calm the crowd. There was a selection from Handel’s Messiah: “Who can abide the day of his coming?” – but from the looks of it, nobody was abiding it very well.
Handel took that text from the prophet Malachi, a shadowy figure who spoke almost 500 years before the birth of Jesus. Five hundred years is a long time to keep sounding a warning. Malachi is the prophet who says God is going to come and burn up all the evildoers and the arrogant (4:1-2). When John the Baptist appears, he uses pretty much the same script. God is coming. Who will be able to stand before him?
In fact, when an angel predicts the birth of John, he repeats some of the phrases that the prophet Malachi used: “There will be a messenger like the great prophet Elijah. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children.”
The point of all this is the necessity of change. God is coming, we can’t stay the way we are. And to hear the prophet Malachi or the prophet John, nobody gets through Christmas unscathed. That is, not if it is to be a holy day.
So here is the Advent question: where in our lives do we need to make a change? What are some of the bad habits that we can’t do any more? Where have we tripped and fallen, and need to get back up? What regrets are we holding? What mistakes have we made?
And then the big one: how have we lived without God – and, in any practical sense, how are we going to return? Anybody have a list? Let me give you a minute to inhabit your own list . . .
The prophet speaks of change. No doubt, each of us can think of some correction of behavior or some scrubbing of the soul. But listen to how the prophet Malachi understands this. It’s not primarily a matter of self-improvement, although all of us are imperfect and everybody can do something to improve. In fact, if you listen to Malachi, the emphasis is not so much on us and our efforts, but on God. It is God who will change us, God who will purify.
Malachi uses two pictures to describe the work of God. It is like a refiner’s fire, he says. Something as valuable as silver or gold will be heated in the furnace, and all the impurities burned away. All the unnecessary material will be removed. All the ugliness will be purged. The fire of God's Spirit will do this.
What I haven’t pointed out, of course, is that when Malachi says this, he’s taking aim at the clergy, at the professional religious people. In his short little book, he has nothing good to say about the ministers and priests of his time. They have offered second-rate sacrifices to God (1:7-10), they’ve preached lousy sermons (2:4-9), and they haven’t kept up with their tithing (3:8-10). God says, “You are robbing me! You are not giving your best.” With this, God says, “I will purify you as a furnace refines silver.”
And Malachi speaks of fuller’s soap. That was a strong lye-based soap that scrub out the dirt from your clothes. It was very caustic, but it got the job done.
I remember when my mom taught me how to throw a dirty pair of blue jeans into the washer. I never knew you could lift the lid and put them in; she always did that. One day, she said, “Throw your dirty clothes in the washer.” I had some blue jeans with some grass stains, so I threw them in. Then I did something that I had watched her do – I added some bleach. In fact, they were really dirty, so I added a half-gallon of bleach. That will do the job!
Can you imagine what kind of job it did? All the grass stains were gone, along with most of the color and a good bit of the cloth. But whatever was left of my blue jeans was clean!
So here’s what I am wondering: maybe we aren’t supposed to get through Christmas “unscathed.” Maybe, just maybe, God is doing something to shake us up, to invite us home, and to make us more like Jesus.
Take a moment to go back to your list of imperfections: is there anything on that list that God is changing in you? That could be a sign of the seasonal scrubbing that God wishes to do with you. Consider a few things:
If you are worn out by the hustle and bustle of the shopping season, why not stand up to it? Rather than purchase a lot of gifts, invest in some experiences. Who are the people you love, and how can you spend time with them? Spending time is more costly and generous than merely spending money.
If you are dismayed by the ceaseless reports of violence in our world, and they are many, find some way to work for peace. One way to start is to seek out somebody who is not like you, and work to befriend them. Take seriously the differences between you. Work to understand the other’s point of view. Find places where your common humanity intersects. Invite them to eat with you, and pay for the meal. Peace has to start face to face. Will it fix the world? Not yet, but it might begin to fix you.
If you are sad, lonely, or angry for any reason, don’t try to outrun how you feel. Let the feelings come, because we can’t turn off our feelings. At the same time, we don’t need to let our feelings possess us. There is more to this good life from God than how we happen to feel about it on any given day. So enlarge your point of view – go for a walk and get some fresh air, do something for somebody else, reach out to a person in need. Or my favorite: pray your discontent - name it and hand it off to God. If you can’t fix something, let God be the Savior. That is God’s job.
One more thing: if there’s any part of Christmas that seems empty to you, listen to what Malachi said to the religious leaders of his time: they made half-hearted sacrifices to God that really weren’t sacrifices at all. They went to the temple to offer their leftovers, and never offered their hearts. They looked for shortcuts, rather than keep the covenantal commitments. They said all the righteous words, but their souls were not engaged.
Here’s the invitation. God sets a Table before us. God offers to meet us here in bread and cup of Christ. God invites us to come, and promises to welcome us as we are. So here is the place, now is the time. Come to the living God and offer yourself. Bring your doubts and your fears, drop your burdens and forget your impurities. Hear once again how much God loves you, and welcome the grace of Jesus Christ.
Maybe you think you can get to this Table unscathed, but I will be praying that you will be transformed.