Are you ready?
Well, you’ve survived another Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Giving Tuesday. Some of us ignore these days. Some of us embrace them. A colleague and friend recently noted a theological response his session made to these attempts to frame our experiences of consumerism and generosity. They resolved to call last Wednesday, “Give it a rest Wednesday.”
In like manner, today could be called “messenger Sunday”. Our Old Testament reading is from Malachi, whose name means, “my messenger.” Our New Testament reading from Philippians is a message of love and hope from Paul, and our Gospel reading is confirmation that John is the one preparing the way of the Lord as promised in Isaiah.
We hear this same message about this time every year, and I think that – if we aren’t careful – it can become like the Christmas music in the shopping mall. We hear it, but we don’t listen. It makes us feel good to know it’s there, but it doesn’t change anything. If anything it helps us keep things the way they are!
But the message is anything but an invitation to keep things the way they are. The words of the Prophet Malachi came at a time when the people had returned from exile, but they were still under Persian rule. The temple had been rebuilt. Reforms were being made to bring the people back to faith in God and away from other more convenient practices. The priests were not entirely helpful in this, however, and some still abused the power of their role. So, it is of no surprise that their faith as a nation was still a little shaky. If anything, they needed to know that God was still with them – working to restore them.
And so, a messenger is promised. This messenger will be a messenger of the covenant that God made with their ancestor, Abraham. But here’s the thing, this messenger brings with him the very presence of God, and who can stand before the creative force that wrought the heavens? No one can. No one can be in the presence of the purity of God unless they themselves have been made pure. And so the Lord’s coming will be like a refiner’s fire.
All that is self serving or dishonest simply gets dissolved. It has no hold on you because it no longer exists. The refiner’s fire removes everything but the pure element. Likewise, the fuller’s soap was used to separate the wool from dirt and oil so that the true white of the wool can be seen. It’s important to remember that this message of hope was given to a particular people at a particular time, and it carried with it the idea that some of those very people might be the impure things that God would separate from God’s people. It would be easy, and dangerously tempting, to use this passage as an excuse for cultural purity – and even ethnic cleansing.
But thanks be to God that we view this passage from the side of history that has happened after the resurrection of Jesus Christ – the one who came to a certain place at a certain time to fulfill the covenant of God. We are told through scripture that John prepared the people to receive Jesus during a time when the Roman Empire ruled over God’s people directly and indirectly, and Ananias and Caiaphas were the High Priests.
Time and place are certainly important, but there is another reason that Luke’s gospel drops these names. It is to say that these were the powers that tried to limit the power of God. Even Ananias and Caiaphas were the ones that handed Jesus over to Pilot. And yet the power of God was not limited by the greatest powers of the day. Because Jesus did not come to rule the world, he came to set us free.
But let’s not forget about that messenger. Just as the refiner’s fire or the fuller’s soap remove all that is impure, John’s message is to repent, and repentance is not just about saying, “Sorry”. Sincere apologies are still important, but that’s not quite the same as repentance. In Greek, the word is Metanoia, and it means something more like a transformation. True repentance requires you to see the attitudes and behaviors that separate you from God and from one another, and it requires you to let them go.
And letting go of the things that we feel like we can control can be a pretty threatening idea. I don’t mean to say that we abandon the things we care about, but repentance does require us to take a deep look inside in order to see what is of God and what is not. Repentance requires taking time and making space in your heart and your mind for God. It requires us to change our priorities because of what God is doing here and now in order to get ready for what God has promised to do in the future.
And while God has promised to save us from our sin and offered us eternal life through Christ Jesus, I can’t help but believe there is more to it than that. Our faith is not simply a ticket for a train bound for glory. If our faith is real, then it must impact our lives here and now. Our repentance must result in actions and relationships that challenge the powers that try to limit the power of God.
That might mean joining or forming groups to challenge the decisions of community leaders that harm others. It might mean going to the neighborhood meetings for Freetown just to find out what is important to the neighbors that live closest to our church. It might mean having real conversations with members of our community about racial tension, economic division, or gun violence. You know, we can throw statistics at each other all day long, but mass shootings are a problem that we need to solve.
I’m not sure that any one of us has the answer, but I think that’s why our faith calls us into community. I think that is why Paul was able to rejoice in prison and give thanks for the church in Philippi.
And Paul said three things about why he was so grateful for them. The first was that they were in it together – they were sharing in the good news of God’s grace and mercy. The second is that he had confidence that God would complete whatever good works they had started, and the third was that all of their sharing and all of their work to demonstrate God’s love was working to defend and to confirm the forgiveness and love and mercy that is God’s gift to us.
In other words, the fun thing about being the church is that you get to see grace and mercy, and forgiveness, and God’s power over sin and death in action! Even if you don’t see it, you definitely get to hear about it. And I have to tell you, those of us who were here for the CUPS Christmas Basket distribution yesterday definitely saw God’s grace in motion! Not only did I see it in the faces of the families who came to receive, but it shined brilliantly from those congregation and community members who came to serve.
There is still more work to be done, and there always will be until God brings our work to completion. But the question we are left with today is this, “Are we ready?” Are we ready for the refiner’s fire? Do we long in our hearts to be made clean? Because the Lord is coming, even as the Lord is with us here and now. The Lord is coming to pry from our hands all that we cannot let go of. Let us receive the message then, and repent of all that is self-serving – knowing full well that it might change everything about us; knowing that it might inspire us to make changes in our community; knowing that our brief transformation is but a foretaste of the Kingdom that is both present and yet to be revealed through the grace and mercy and forgiveness of Jesus Christ.
And as Paul said to the church in Philippi “This is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” Amen.