Who needs fire and brimstone during the season of good cheer?

A sermon for Advent  2 | Jamie Howison

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ear again these words from the prophet Malachi:  “The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.  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 like gold and silver…”

Come on, preacher; we’re into December, the city streets are lit up with strings of lights and stylized angels.  My work-place or college dorm is just about to hold its annual gift exchange, and the tree has been up for a week… can’t we have something a bit more festive?  Who can endure?  Who can stand?  He is refining fire… Couldn’t we have a little bit of  O little town of Bethlehem already?

If we imagine that this season of Advent is primarily about getting ready for Christmas – that it is a kind of lead up to the telling of the Nativity story – then we will find these words from Malachi a bit puzzling.  After all, who needs fire and brimstone during the season of good cheer?

But Advent is only secondarily about preparation for Christmas, and a distant second at that.  Primarily, this is a season in which to prepare for the end of the world… or “the end of the world as we know it”, to borrow a line from Chris’s sermon last week.  It is the season in which we are to confess that God is not yet finished with this world – with each of us – and that it is all being drawn toward its completion, to the culmination of all of time and all of history.

So we read from the writings of these oftentimes cranky prophets, who said extraordinary and jarring things about the nature of God’s decisive interruption of the world’s way of being.

Tonight it is from Malachi, a short book set generations after Israel had experienced its crushing defeat and hellish exile under the iron rule of Babylon.  They’ve been released from the exile to return and rebuild the city, rebuild the temple, but there is this strong sense that what they’ve rebuilt is not quite what it once had been.  This second temple will not equal the grandeur of Solomon’s temple, but worse, there is this abiding fear that when that first temple was flattened the glory of the Lord departed… and it had not returned in the rebuilding.

“(A)nd the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple”, says Malachi.  The glory of the Lord will return.  But first a messenger will come, to make things ready.  And that “making ready” will be like refining fire, like the fuller’s soap.  “This might hurt a bit.”

Interesting to note, though, that this refining has as its subject “the sons of Levi,” the priests.  They’ve apparently become part of the problem, and before their offerings – their ministry – is going to be anything like it was in the former days, things are going to get a bit wild.  And that is all part of what we have to confront in Advent.

In an Advent sermon preached in 1928, Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed that,

It is very remarkable that we face the thought that God is coming, so calmly, whereas previously peoples trembled at the day of God…  We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for every one who has a conscience.

In the gospel today, we were introduced to another cranky prophet, John the Baptist.  Just barely introduced, mind you, as we’ll meet him a bit more fully next Sunday.  Today we heard a bit of a review of the political setting in which this was taking place – “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius” and so forth – a quick introduction to John’s message – “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” – and then a connection of this cranky prophet John to Isaiah, one of the least cranky prophets of the whole ancient tradition.

The listing off of the political leaders of the day is not incidental.  It has the force of saying, “In this place, in these times, with this political and military reality swimming all around us, God is doing something.”  This God is not about being generally present as a generally friendly or nice force that will generally make things a bit more bearable.  This God is not like “the force” from the old Star Wars movies; just waiting to be tapped into by the people who figure out how to do it.  This God is at work in a very particular way, drawing on particular people at a very particular point in time.

And again, the message is “we’re on the verge here… it is the very thing that Isaiah sang of so many, many years ago… get ready”:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’

And what is that final line from the prophet?  “And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”  That’s the promise.  That is when we begin to see how this particular set of events from that particular time and context will echo throughout and within all things.  As an Advent people, says N.T. Wright, we anticipate, “the more literal fulfillment of Isaiah’s cosmic prophecy, when the whole created order will be set free.”

The anticipation of that fulfillment, of that promise and that freedom, is one that must ask hard questions about what it means to face the glory of the Lord.  We can’t just sit around and sing kum by ya – or Away in a Manger for that matter – self-satisfied that it will all come out in the wash.  Remember, alongside of “refiner’s fire” is the image of “fuller’s soap”.  Who can endure?  Who can stand?

Well, maybe we won’t be able to stand on our own, but I suspect that after our knees have gone weak and our legs have collapsed under us, we will find ourselves lifted up and put back on our feet.  For through the particular life that is Jesus the Christ, we have been claimed as beloved of God.

Again from Bonhoeffer:

Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness. God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love.

And that is why we need Advent.

Amen.

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