Sunday, December 6, 2009

Second Sunday in Advent
Malachi 3:1-4 or Baruch 5:1-9
Luke 1:68-79
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

Because of the tender mercy of our God, Whereby the dayspring from on high shall visit us, to shine upon them that sit in darkness and the shadow of death; To guide our feet into the way of peace.

I don’t know about you, but every year I promise myself that I am going to make this Advent and Christmas much simpler. I promise myself I won’t do too much. I promise myself – and God – that I’ll focus more closely on ‘the reason for the season.’ I fail, every year. I suppose that’s why it is good that we meet John the Baptist so early in Advent. John reminds us what is happening and calls us to prepare.

We are waiting for what? If you ask any children this question, and perhaps some adults, they will tell you that we are waiting for Santa and presents and parties. For most people, especially Christians, the story of Christmas is about the Nativity, the birth of Jesus. While this might be true in the sense that we remember an event like we remember the birthdays of long dead presidents, the nativity was a historic event that took place two thousand years ago. We might focus on the manger and the story of Jesus’ birth during this time of preparation, but this is not what John is proclaiming. After all, John was born just a few months before Jesus. He was not crying out in the wilderness, calling for people to come see a baby. John was only six months older than Jesus. John and Jesus were contemporaries whose preaching and teaching overlapped.

John was one of many prophets sent to the Jews over the years. He was the final prophet calling the people to repentance. The Kingdom of God was near. It was time for the people to finally turn around to really see the God of their forefathers and His promises. The people in John’s day weren’t much different from us. They were easily distracted by the promises of other prophets. They were weighed down by worries and fears. They were caught up in the cares of the day. And worst of all, they were focused on God as they thought He should be, not as He really was.

Malachi reminds us that facing the Lord is not a walk in the park, an image of God that we prefer to keep. Malachi, which means “my messenger,” asks, “Who can endure the day of his coming?” In the past few weeks we’ve seen apocalyptic images and experienced the fear that comes with curses of fire and brimstone. We see a similar image in today’s Old Testament passage. Malachi writes, “For he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fuller’s soap: and he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi, and refine them as gold and silver; and they shall offer unto Jehovah offerings in righteousness.”

In this promise, or curse depending on how you look at it, the refining will come to the sons of Levi. The sons of Levi were the priests in the Temple. The Levites were the ones who continued to man the altar of God, to present the offerings, to do the work of bridging the gap between the people and their God. Zechariah, John’s father, was a priest. He was in the Temple when he learned that his elderly wife would bear a son. This was such an unbelievable promise that Zechariah questioned the angel that gave him the good news. They were old, well beyond childbearing age. When he asked how he could be sure of the good news, the angel answered, “I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and I was sent to speak unto thee, and to bring thee these good tidings.” He wasn’t meant to believe based on any tangible proof, but to trust the Word of God brought by His messenger. Because he doubted, Zechariah went silent, unable to speak until the promise came true.

Zechariah was able to speak again when John was born and named according to the Word of God. John was an unusual name, not chosen based on tradition or family practice, but because it was the name given to the baby by God. When all was done, and God’s Word was proven true, Zechariah began to sing the hymn that is our psalm today. The people who saw this marveled at what had happened and wondered what would become of this first born of Zechariah.

It was certainly expected that John would become a priest like his father. Have you ever wondered about his life? John was born to very elderly parents. How long did they live after he was born? What happened to him? Did he end up living in the desert alone from a young age or did Zechariah and Elizabeth have family nearby who could care for him? We do know that John was an unusual man. He wore sackcloth made of horsehair and ate desert insects. He was a wild man. The description we have seems almost unreal. It would be easy for us to write off John the Baptist as a mythological character in a story made up by some ancient author.

However, Luke puts John into historical context in our gospel lesson. Luke gives an accounting of the leadership, both Roman and Jewish, those who were in power when John the Baptist began his ministry. These same characters continue to play a role in the story. Since there is a historical record of these leaders, it adds a note of credibility to Luke’s story and gives us the assurance of knowing that John the wild man was real. We can also rest assured that the rest of the story of Jesus Christ—His birth, ministry and death—is also real.

Zechariah’s song praises God and prophesied about the life of his newborn son. “Yea and thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Most High: For thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to make ready his ways; to give knowledge of salvation unto his people In the remission of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, Whereby the dayspring from on high shall visit us, to shine upon them that sit in darkness and the shadow of death; To guide our feet into the way of peace.” John came to bear witness to the coming of forgiveness, to proclaim the grace and mercy of God.

Yet, the image of John in today’s Gospel lesson is not one of compassion and tolerance. It is harsher, calling the people to change their ways. “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough ways smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” This is not an easy process. To fill the valleys, the mountains have to be leveled. Making the road smooth takes digging and scraping and pounding. We have been warned repeatedly that seeing the salvation of God won’t be a pleasant experience.

This brings us back to the images in the text from Malachi. There are two images of cleansing in this passage and though the end is the same—purity and cleanliness—and they are very different.

The refiner’s fire is extremely hot because it burns out the impurities from the liquid metal without destroying the metal. The refiner is actively involved in the process, but from a distance. With launderer’s soap, the process is much different. The launderer is physically involved; he applies the soap directly to stains, scrubbing the stains until the garment is perfectly clean. Though these are two very different processes, they both describe the relationship we have with God. We are cleansed by the refiner’s fire and by the launderer’s soap. Impurities are removed both when we experience the harsh realities of life but also as we experience the loving kindness of our God. Through the tough times and the intimate moments we are made ready to stand before our God.

Imagine how hard this season must be for children, perhaps even more so than it was as we were growing up. The holiday season began after Thanksgiving. I remember how Black Friday was always like a holiday in itself. The malls were transformed between Wednesday night and Friday morning. Santa came during a special ceremony accompanied by pretty girls in reindeer costumes galloping in front of his sleigh. We stood in line for hours to meet the jolly old elf and give him our Christmas lists. This year I went to the mall a few weeks before Christmas and realized Santa was already there, bored by lack of children. The stores have had Christmas displays up for months, and radio stations have been playing the music of the season since before Thanksgiving. What used to be the twenty-five days of counting down to Christmas has become months of preparing. Children don’t have a sense of time. They see those first signs of Christmas and become excited about what is to come. But now that those signs come so early, it is easy to become disappointed and lose interest. Adults become frustrated because there is too much to do. We get lost in the busy-ness and forget the purpose. People don’t change. Just like those Israelites in Malachi’s days and the Jews who heard John the Baptist’s cry, we need to be called to repent, to turn around, to wait patiently and seek God.

That’s why the cleansing is not a once and done process. A refiner tempers the metal over and over again until all the impurities are gone. A launderer might have to rewash an item several times before the stain disappears. We have to be reminded over and over again to turn to God, to remember what He has done. That’s why we look forward to the Nativity year after year. In the story of the coming of the Christ we see God’s grace and remember His promise. In the cry of John the Baptist, we see the promise of forgiveness and are called to return to the God who is faithful.

Paul was concerned for the Philippians. He knew that though they were doing well at living the life they had been called to live, they would face difficult times. There were those who had gone into Philippi to stop the growth of the Church and destroy the faith of the young Christians. Paul wrote to encourage them to stand firm in their faith and to keep their eyes on Christ. We wait for the Nativity, but we are also waiting for the Day when the Lord will come again. We have to be ready for Christmas, but we are reminded to be ready for the Great Day when Christ will come in glory. Paul writes, “And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and all discernment; so that ye may approve the things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and void of offence unto the day of Christ; being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are through Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God.”

As it was Paul’s prayer for the Philippians, it is my prayer for you during this season. Whether we face the refiner’s fire or the launderer’s soap, now is the time to be cleansed and to be ready, for the Kingdom of God is at hand. He is coming to lead us home. He will make the mountains fall and the valleys fill so that our way will be easy. But that doesn’t mean the process will always be pleasant. But if we keep our eyes on God, we will have peace no matter our circumstances because He is always faithful.

Advent is indeed a time of waiting. It is a time for looking forward to the coming of the Christ. It might be a time of difficulty, a time of tempering by the refiner’s fire. It might be a time of cleansing by the launderer’s soap. Perhaps we are like those who are going home, traveling over mountains and through valleys with our eyes on the Lord so that it seems like a level path. Or we might be like those who are anxiously and longingly awaiting the return of those we love. Whatever it is we are experiencing today, Christmas is not just about getting ready for a holiday or about waiting for a baby in a manger. It is time when we are called to repentance, a time when we are to prepare for the coming of the King of Glory.

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