Sunday, December 9, 2018

Second Sunday of Advent
Malachi 3:1-4
Luke 1:68-79
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

For he is like a refiner’s fire, and like launderer’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 to Yahweh offerings in righteousness.

We have, for the past few years, hosted an open house for our friends on the second Saturday of December. It takes a lot of work: cleaning, decorating, shopping, baking and cooking. We always give a homemade ornament to our guests, so we’ve had that work to do, too. It is a crazy time. It seems as though I finish one task and find a dozen more to do. I clean up clutter and discover dust. I clean up the dust and realize I need to vacuum. By the time I finish those tasks, something else pops up to be done. It takes constant vigilance to complete the work.

Advent, of course, is a time for more just a party; it is a time of joy and friendship, of happy times and pleasant experiences. We are waiting for the coming of the Christ child, but while we wait we are attending parties with friends and family and gathering for programs starring our little ones who sing with great passion and gusto even if they are a little out of tune. We are lighting our homes with Christmas lights and filling our kitchens with the most delightful smells of Christmas cookies, cakes and other goodies. We are listening to, and humming, Christmas songs all day long. I can’t help but think to myself, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” as I go through my day.

Yet, what does Christmas look like? To the world it is Christmas trees and Santa Clause and perhaps even a nativity scene here or there. It is “Joy to the World” and “Silent Night” but how does that line up with scriptures like the one from Malachi in today’s lectionary?

John the Baptist does not portray a typical image found in Christmas cards or children’s stories. He is rough, wild, and harsh. He cries out in the wilderness for the world to repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand. Isn’t it funny how we prepare for Christmas by overspending, overdrinking and overeating, but John brings us the message of repentance.

Malachi foretells of John’s coming as a witness and messenger to prepare for the coming of the Lord. However, the messenger won’t bring a happy story or expectation of a silent night. Instead, Malachi warns that the coming of the Lord will be sudden and that He will come like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. Something is going to happen when the Lord comes and it will mean transformation, cleansing. There are two very different images of cleansing in this text. It takes a great and hot heat to refine metals, a heat that is almost unbearable even for the refiner. For the element being refined, it means destruction of everything that is impure, burned away by an unimaginable heat. This is not a typical image of Christmas for us. Neither is the launderer’s soap. Today is laundry day in my house. There is bound to be some garment that will need extra care. I will have to spray the item with a special cleaner and perhaps scrub it a little before throwing it in the washer to be cleaned.

One image - the refiner’s fire - is harsh and perhaps a little distant. Though the refiner must remain close to the metal while it refines, he does not become actively involved in the refining. The fire does all the work. On the other hand, the launderer is thoroughly involved with the cleansing of a garment, handling each item with the special care necessary. We are reminded by these two images that our God is both distant, refining with fire, but also very near, intimately involved with our very souls. He cleanses out the impurities in whatever way is necessary to make us as He has created and redeemed us to be.

God has always had a plan for us, but we have not done well to stay on the right path. We need to hear the words of the Law and the cry of John calling us back to life in God’s kingdom. Adam and Eve failed in the Garden of Eden and we fail today. Even then, however, God had a plan. He knew that human beings would need to be saved, and He promised to do so when the time was right.

Advent brings us to the moment when that plan became flesh and blood. The birth of Christ was a carefully orchestrated series of events. God planned every detail long before the day Jesus was born. The story began hundreds, even thousands of years in the past as God foretold of His birth through the patriarchs and the prophets. The story includes not only Jesus, but families whose stories are woven throughout the history of Israel.

John was just one of many. John’s mother Elizabeth was very old, the wife of a Levite. Zechariah, his father, was a priest who served in the Temple. They had both almost lost hope in having a child, Elizabeth’s child bearing years had long since past. Yet, Zechariah still prayed for one day when he was serving in the Temple an angel came to him. Zechariah trembled in fear, but the angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zacharias, because your request has been heard, and your wife, Elizabeth, will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.”

Zechariah was so taken aback by the statement that he responded, “How can I be sure of this?” We will hear similar words from Mary, but for Zechariah this was the wrong question. It showed doubt and a need for some control in the situation. Yet, can we blame him? After all, he was elderly; he was so old that having a child would be a strain on both his wife and on him. Would they be around to help the child grow? Would they see him successful? Would they see him married? Would they see him even walk and talk and laugh?

Zechariah doubted the angel and he was struck speechless until the day of the child’s birth. The words in today’s psalmody are the first things Zechariah said after the promise of a son was fulfilled.

When John was born, Elizabeth did as she had been told; she said that the child’s name is John. The people who were there for the happy occasion were shocked. After all, it was customary to name the first born after the father, so the child should have been called Zechariah. Zechariah asked for a writing tablet and he wrote, “He is to be called John.” And so it was. Then Zechariah’s voice returned and he sang this song of praise, this prophetic psalm of grace. He foretold the coming of the Messiah and blessed the child. The song tells of John’s place in the unfolding story of God’s salvation, as the one who would prepare the way of the Lord. For Zechariah, the Lord was God. We know that the Lord is manifest in the child for whom we are waiting: Jesus Christ.

Zechariah did not speak these words on his own. They came by the power of the Holy Spirit. They continue the prophetic heritage that had been pointing toward the coming of the Christ for generations. The psalm reflects the promise found in the prophets, such as the words from Malachi. John came to cry out in the darkness to prepare for the coming of the light. Zechariah knew by faith that they were on the edge of a new day, the dawn of a new beginning. His doubts long since passed, Zechariah gave his beloved son to the Lord to do as had been planned so long ago.

During the Christmas season many people tend to think of the Nativity as just a story with characters. There are characters that we love and characters that we hate. We wonder at the way things happen, but some of the details are so extraordinary that it is hard to believe them to be real. The Nativity is more story than history, particularly in a cynical world.

There was once a program called “Studio City on the Sunset Strip.” The main character Matt was a producer and the head writer for a hit comedy variety show. He was a cynical man who lived in a cynical world; he had no real sense of the importance of faith. As a matter of fact, he thought people of faith are brainwashed wacko nut jobs. His writing often focused on the absurdity of faith and the Christian lifestyle. Some of the skits were funny, particularly if you can laugh at yourself.

Another character named Harriet was a brainwashed wacko Jesus freak Christian and she was one of the actresses who starred on the program. Matt was in love with her. Their relationship was like a roller coaster, partly because Matt couldn’t take Harriet’s faith seriously. On one episode, Matt decided to focus on Christmas. Knowing Matt’s opinion of Christians, the writing team kept looking for the absurdity of Christianity. They found many websites proving the unreality of the Christmas story: the star was a comet, Mary wasn’t really a virgin, the first Christmas could not have been in December. They thought Matt wanted them to find everything that is wrong with Christmas and make fun of it. In reality, Matt wanted to do a Christmas show, funny but real.

There are plenty of people who will try to criticize the Christian perspective about this time of year, to reduce the Nativity to nothing more than a nice story with a creative plot and characters. What we see in today’s passage, however, is that Luke found it essential to include historic references in the midst of his telling of the story. He placed John in history, putting him in the context of other people who lived in that time.

As we look at the story of John, it is easy for us to think that it would be ridiculous and perhaps even compare him to the ancient myths. John was born to elderly parents and was likely very young when they died. Though he may have been raised by family or friends, his adult lifestyle was so unusual it is reminiscent of stories of feral children. Perhaps his wild man persona with horsehair clothes and bizarre diet was because he lived alone in the wilderness from a young age? We might assume that John is little more than a myth, like the story of Romulus and Remus. However, Luke puts John in the context of history which gives us some reference in time and space for not only John, but also the birth of Jesus. The Nativity is not just a story; Luke gives us a report of an event that changed the world. Even though some of the details seem unbelievable, we can be assured that the birth of Christ is real and is worth our time to know and experience in this world.

John the Baptist was the end of an era. He was the final prophet to live and die under the Old Covenant. He came, as was promised, to point the way to the One who would make all things new. All the prophets were tasked with the same message, "God will save His people." Some of the earlier prophets spoke to the very real needs of their own people, but in doing so, God also revealed the ultimate promise, "A Messiah will come." John was not really different that those who came before him, and yet he was much different. John met the Salvation of the world face to face. God gave the words of hope and warning about the coming of the Day of the Lord to the other prophets, but John saw the fulfillment of those promises in the flesh.

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. This year is no exception. As I prepare for our party, it seems as though I will never get everything done that I need to do. I suppose that’s why it is good that we meet John the Baptist so early in the Church year. John reminds us of the reason for Advent.

Advent is not just a time for warm fuzzies or getting ready for the festivities of the season; Advent is a time of repentance. Repentance means turning toward God, renewing our faith and hope and trust. When we get caught up in the hustle and bustle of the season, we forget that Jesus came to bring forgiveness and transformation. He came to cleanse us, to make us new. He came according to the prophecies of the prophets throughout time to be both Judge and Savior for His people.

Paul’s flowery language in today’s epistle lesson might seem a bit overwhelming. Did he mean to be so gushy when he was writing to the church in Philippi? These verses are part of the formal greeting, which in Paul’s day would have included a formal word of thanksgiving and reassurance of continued relationship. For Paul, it was incredibly importance that the Philippians know that he was with them in spirit, bound by the Holy Spirit, and that he cared for them very much. Even more importantly, he cared about their everyday lives.

Among our many tasks this season is writing Christmas cards to be sent to friends and family members in the next few weeks. Many people include some sort of newsletter in the card to get those far away up to date with what’s happening in their lives. These newsletters are filled with good news, highlights and remembrances of the big events. Or, they are filled with bad news of illness or death, difficulties and hardship. When you have just a small space to share a year’s worth of news, you pick the most important things. Yet many people do not like those newsletters because they are sound too boastful or depressing.

Paul’s letters aren’t always pleasant to hear because he does speak forcefully about living rightly and righteously. He corrects and rebukes the churches for their failures and failings. He demands much from the Christians under his care. However, he cares very deeply for each and every one of them. He cares about their hearts, about their souls and especially about their eternal life in Christ. This is evident in his words. He writes to encourage them to be all they can be, to continue living in God’s grace to the fullest. He writes to build up the church from the inside, so that work that Christ began will be perfected and will flow out into the world.

During this busy time we have lists of things we need to accomplish. I once joked on Facebook that I did not get half of what I had hoped to get done and I often still feel that way. There is so much to do and so little time. “What should I do?” we ask ourselves as we see everything that needs to be done.

“What should we do?” This is the question that the crowds asked John as He was preaching and baptizing at the Jordan. They were busy doing all the wrong things and were missing the life God was calling them to live. The multitudes asked John what they should do and John told them to give clothes and food to those in need. The tax collectors asked and John told them not to extort more than their due. The soldiers asked and John told them to act justly in their work and to be content with what they have earned. John answered them with a call to repentance and faithfulness to God's Word.

And so, in this second week of Advent, we ask, “What should we do?”

John answered, “Bring forth fruit worthy of repentance.”

Paul answered, “This I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and all discernment; so that you may approve the things that are excellent; that you may be sincere and without offense to the day of Christ; being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.”

When the refiner is finished and the launderer is done with the work, the finished product is pure and clean. The same is true of the work God does in our life, and yet we never seem to be complete. Christ finished the work of salvation, but we are still being refined and cleansed by our God until that day when Christ will come again. It is like my housework: there will always be something to do. During this time of Advent, we long for the peace and joy that comes with the child in the manger, but we should never forget that we are longing for something even greater: the Day when Christ will come again. Even more so, let’s constantly remember that Christ comes to us daily in mercy and grace, and let’s live in faith so that we will experience the peace that God has promised to those who believe.

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