Sunday, December 06, 2009

House Cleaning Time -- An Advent Sermon

Malachi 3:1-4

If you’re planning to host a holiday party, you’ll have to get the house ready. That may mean doing some much needed winter cleaning. Dusting, mopping, vacuuming, polishing, cleaning the bathrooms, and washing and ironing those table cloths. Of course, you also have to prepare the food, unless you decide to save time and hire a caterer. Once you get all that done, you still have to get yourself ready. After all, a good host has to be properly bathed and clothed. At least that’s what you have to do if you want to throw a successful high society party. But, what if your anticipated guest is the Lord of creation? How should you prepare for such a visit?


This question of preparation is central to the season of Advent. Although, too often this is a season that gets swept aside by all the commotion of the season that follows. When it comes to Advent, we really don’t know what to do with it. We don’t know the hymns, beyond “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” The lectionary texts, well they sound so cranky and judgmental that not even interjecting the idea of hope can salvage the season. So, with all this talk of repentance and penitence, waiting and preparing, it’s no wonder everyone wants to skip over Advent and get on with Christmas. At least with Christmas, we know the songs. Still, Advent does have an important message to impart. It reminds us that we’re not perfect, and that we stand in need of God’s grace – the grace that comes with the promise of Christmas.

This morning’s text comes from Malachi, the very last book in the Hebrew Bible. This prophet speaks to Jews living after the exile. Their country is a province of the Persian Empire, the original Temple is gone, replaced by one that lacks the magnificence and grandeur of the earlier Temple. Many who hear these words, long for something they never saw or experienced. Still, what they now have before them, reminds them of what has been lost.

Malachi understands their feelings, but he wants them to understand that they can’t dwell in the past. Instead, they must look forward to what God is going to do in their midst. He tells them someone is coming who will restore their fortunes, but before that happens they have to get ready, because "who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?" (Mal. 3:2)


We relish hearing messages about grace, mercy, and love, but there are also messages in scripture that speak of justice and righteousness. They tell us that the God of love is also a God who judges, and this message of judgment is prominent in the texts of Advent. Indeed, you will find strong messages about social justice, concern for the poor and the outcast. If you continue reading this third chapter of Malachi, you will hear a word of judgment against adulterers, those who bear false witness, and those who oppress the worker and the alien in our midst. This isn’t a message we like to hear, especially not at this time of year. I must confess. It’s not the kind of message we preachers like to give. But here it is, so how do we respond?

What I hear in this passage is a call to look inside ourselves and discover the obstacles and barriers that hinder God’s work in our lives – the things that keep us from truly experiencing the love of God and neighbor.

I also hear a question regarding what I believe about God? Is it possible that in my desire to embrace a God of love, I end up domesticating or taming God. While, we want God to be safe, is God safe? There’s a line in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, that fits here. It comes in a conversation about Aslan. Mrs. Beaver tells the children:
'If there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver than me or else just silly.'

'Then he isn't safe?' asked Lucy.

'Safe?' said Mr. Beaver. 'Don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.'

If the Lord of heaven who is coming into our midst is good and yet not safe, then how do we get ready?

Malachi’s advice for getting ready to meet God, may seem rather harsh. He speaks of the Lord coming in judgment 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." (Mal. 3:2b-3).

Did you notice that reference to Levi’s descendants, the ones who give offerings to the Lord? Malachi seems to be concerned about the behavior of the Temple’s priests. We could take this as a message for clergy, and clergy do need to hear it, but if we read this from a New Testament perspective, it’s important to remember that we’re all priests of God. Therefore, each of us stands in need of purification, if we’re going to stand in the presence of God.

Paul says in Romans that we all sin and fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23), and so even though God created us to be in relationship, there are impediments that mar this relationship. Reinhold Niebuhr, who was a pastor in Detroit before going to Union Seminary as a professor, wrote that true peace comes only as we recognize our own need for forgiveness.

Reconciliation with even the most evil foe requires forgiveness; and forgiveness is possible only to those who have some recognition of common guilt. The pain of contrition is the root of the peace of forgiveness. [Larry Rasmussen, ed., Reinhold Niebuhr: theologian of public life. (New York: Harper Collins, 1989), p. 133.]

Advent invites us to put our lives into the hands of the one who judges with refiners fire. That sounds ominous, but consider that the refiners fire doesn’t destroy, it simply removes the impediments – so that gold and silver can emerge from the ore. The message of the refiners fire is, therefore, one of transformation – and therefore it’s good news.


Like Malachi, John the Baptist also spoke of the need for repentance in preparation for the Lord’s coming. But what is required of us? Do we have to believe correctly or behave or dress in a certain way in order to belong to the community? If that’s true, then can any of us belong?

The prophet speaks here in a way that suggests that we belong to the community before we can either believe or behave appropriately. It’s not a question of whether we belong, but rather whether any of us are ready to be transformed by our encounter with the living God. The journey of faith, the progression from an infant’s milk to an adult’s meat, isn’t easy. In the course of our journey we will go through the refiner’s fire and be washed with fullers soap.

Although the news here doesn’t sound that great, if we listen closely we will hear a word of redemption and grace. We will hear a word of unconditional love. But, this love will not leave us as it found us. Our encounter with God will lead to changed lives, healing of brokenness, and power from the Holy Spirit to embrace God’s future. This process begins in baptism, where God begins to wash as clean. Then, as we leave the waters of baptism, we’re able to start our journey with God, a journey that is sustained by our gathering at the Table. Although we need to be cautious in how we use this text, Paul speaks of the transforming power of suffering. He says:

[S]uffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us (Rom. 5:3-5).

While some among us have experienced more than their share of suffering, this word can remind us that even in the most difficult of circumstances, God is there renewing our spirits.
May we this morning, as we continue our Advent journey, answer the call to prepare to meet the God who is revealed in Bethlehem’s manger?

1 comment:

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