Rev. Stacy Swain
Luke 3:1-6; Malachi 3:1-4
Advent — the time to make ready once again for the coming of God in our lives. And in this our second week, our preparations are well on the way. The wreathes have been hung, the poinsettias arranged just so. Two Advent candles, the candle of hope and of peace now burn.
At home, the boxes have been brought down from the attic. The banister wears a garland of green. White twinkle lights wrap the rail around the front porch. The advent calendar is hung by the door. And we have even managed to get our self a haircut.
And all of this getting ready for Christmas; all of the preparations well they are mostly about making things look good, festive and special. Dressing things ups a bit. Using our finest things. I actually have a whole set of dishes, Christmas dishes that I use only at this time of year. But on those Christmas plates even an ordinary scrambled egg and toast somehow seem special.
Now I love wreathes and poinsettias; the Advent candles; the twinkle lights; and my Christmas plates. And, there is nothing wrong with decorations and festivity.
But I do think we need to be clear. We need to be clear that this kind of preparation is not the kind of getting ready that the season truly requires. Preparing to receive the presence of God in our lives again on Christmas Eve is not about putting out the finest and dressing our selves up in our best.
Instead the getting ready that the season truly requires— the preparation that is needed in order to receive the presence of Jesus and the salvation that he brings, is about taking a good hard look at what is really not so fine. It requires taking a good hard look at our faults and failings, telling the truth about them.
Listen again to the words that the prophet Malachi speaks. “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me;” “The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming;” “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.”
These post exilic Jewish people who heard these words of Malachi were longing for the day when the glory of the temple would come again. When the temple again would be a sight to behold and when God would again dwell in the house of the Lord. Malachi tells the people that this day will indeed come but that a messenger will first come to them to help them get ready. A messenger will come to prepare the way, and that preparation will looks a lot like the refiners fire. It will looks a lot like burning away the dross, the impurities, in a furnace until only the purity of the silver remains.
And getting ready will look a lot like the fuller’s soap. The fuller was someone who scrubbed away all the dirt and debris from the wool fibers and then bleached and beat the fibers so that they could be ready to be made into cloth. And a fuller usually worked down by the river, where there would be plenty of flowing water so that all that was not needed would wash away.
And in the Gospel, the preparation that is needed to make ready to receive The Lord, looks a lot like John the Baptizer dressed not in the season’s finest but in a rough haired camel hair coat. John the Baptizer standing not in the finely decorated palaces and court yards of power but out there on the edge, in the wilderness, waist deep in the Jordan’s baptismal water. John the Baptizer with his blazing eyes scanning the horizon line for the one who is coming calling out with words on fire for the telling of the truth, for repentance.
So if we are to hear the Bible’s fiery insistence that the preparation needed to receive God into our lives requires the hard work of scrubbing away debris, of being refined of our impurities, that it requires the hard work of repentance, I think we need to ask “why?”
I mean isn’t it central to our theology that God’s grace is freely given regardless of our merit. Jesus after all is not a reward for good behavior. And isn’t it true that God came into the world in the person of Jesus and comes to us all in each moment of our lives right now even in the midst of the muck and mire of our living? After all, wasn’t Jesus born in a manger with cows and sheep looking on? I mean talk about muck and mire?
So why all this fiery talk of preparation and repentance? Can’t God handle us just fine just the way we are?
Yes, of course, God can handle us just fine just the way we are. But the thing is — we cannot handle what God offers, unless we come to grips with the truth of who we are.
Without being willing to be purified in the fiery furnace of repentance and scrubbed clean of the debris on our hearts, we cannot know what it is to be forgiven. And if we cannot know what it is to be forgiven than how can we truly receive the peace that God so freely gives? Peace, the salvation that Jesus brings, the rightness and fullness of living that is Shalom.
We are walking to the manger but we know that the manger lies in the shadow of the cross. Jesus comes into a broken world. He speaks his word to a broken people and Jesus will be broken by the world. But that is not the end of the story. In the light of the empty tomb Jesus steps into the brokenness and forgives. He comes to the disciples on the far side of the cross, in the light of the glow of the empty tomb and forgives. He opens his heart in love to a broken world and peace rushes in.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu presided over the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as South Africa did the hard work of moving from Apartheid to peace. Week after week he sat with hands folded upon his chest, folded upon the cross he wore around his neck lying against his purple robes as he listened to over twenty two thousand stories and testimonies from people who endured unspeakable suffering or those whose loved ones were lost under the hand of injustice and cruelty.
And when asked why go through all of that why listen to all of that pain, why dredge up all of that suffering, he said “The reason for the commission is so that the wounds can be opened and cleansed so that they do not fester. What has been must be dealt with not denied. We must look the beast in the eye,” he said.
And then when asked how those who had suffered so much could be asked to even entertain the idea of forgiveness, he smiled and replied “Forgiveness is not easy. It is not cheap. But in the telling of the story there is a catharsis, a healing happens when people know their suffering was not unnoticed. And in listening to stories of people who by right should be consumed by anger and revenge, instead what you see is the emergence of a magnanimity of spirit and a willingness to forgive.”
Only after twenty two thousand stories were told through veils of tears and trembling could the nation move through the door of forgiveness and into a future of peace.
“Prepare the way of the Lord.” How? By telling the truth about our own brokenness and about how what we have done or left undone has broken those around us and contributed to the brokenness of our world.
So I wonder. What suffering or hurt we may need to speak in order that the magnanimity of our own Spirit may lead us to forgive?
I wonder. How have we perhaps wounded those we love, in our families in this community? Did judgment, anger, pride, or indifference lead us to say things or act in ways we truly regret?
And I wonder. Have we neglected to care for the gift of life that is our own? Have we neglected our bodies, minds or spirits in some way? Have we lived just a portion of the life we were given to live?
And I wonder in what ways we may have denied the truth of our own participation in the destruction of God’s creation. How have we neglected to live in balance on this earth? In what ways have we hungered for more even when our lives were well satiated with all that it is we need.
I wonder what it is that John the Baptizers is calling us out on. What preparation do we need to make, what truth needs to be told. Not because we should be ashamed, or feel bad or guilty for our failings. But because if we do not open the wound and cleanse it, it will not heal. Jesus comes in the manger and will come again in the empty tomb. Jesus meets us in our brokenness and failings and forgives so that we may more and more fully receive the peace that God gives.
Let us go ahead and “deck the halls.” Let us put on our finest and eat those scrambled eggs off those Christmas plates.
But let us also hear the words of John, of Malachi calling us
to the hard work of taking a good long look at ourselves. Of turning over to God the places in our lives where we have not lived as God would have us live, where we have not loved as God would have us love. And let us know that the point of our truth telling is so that we will not be met with condemnation but instead so that we will know forgiveness. And so that the peace, the sweet shalom that was God’s vision for creation and is God’s promise still will draw closer, even as we draw close to the birth of peace that is coming.