Are we listening?
Silver bells, jingle bells, sleigh bells ring, are you listening? Advent is a period of preparation for Christmas. So how are you preparing? In my family we started at Thanksgiving with baking fruitcake and putting up the tree. We even exchanged pre-Christmas presents. These started out as a little something related to Christmas: a Christmas pin or earrings, an ornament for the tree or a decoration. My mother was so into Christmas, that every room in the house was decorated, including the bathroom. And then there was more decorating and shopping, card sending, gift wrapping, holiday cooking and party giving. Advent was observed for an hour at church on Sunday, but during the week it was all Christmas; somehow Advent was lost. Have we become so complacent, so jaded that we no longer hear the message of Advent? Advent calls us to prepare our hearts through repentance for the coming of the Lord, the coming of the Lord as a baby on Christmas, but also as the Messiah King in the second coming. The ancient prophets of the Old Testament foretold the coming of a Messiah who would bring in the kingdom of God. Before that coming there needed to be a refining, a cleansing. The prophet Malachi, in our reading this morning, warned: “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 fuller’s soap.” Refining metals and preparing cloth were images the people Malachi was addressing could understand. In refining metal, the metal is melted over a hot fire, the pure metal falls to the bottom and the impurities float to the top and are discarded. Metal refineries are hot, dirty, and dangerous places. Being refined like metal would be uncomfortable at best and certainly painful. So it will be when the Lord comes. He will use fire to separate the pure from the impure. Likewise with the preparation of cloth. The fuller’s soap that Malachi speaks off is a very caustic substance. The fuller bleached and dyed the cloth. This process included washing the cloth with lye and stomping on it. Then the cloth was spread on the ground to be bleached by the sun.This fuller’s soap will get things clean, but it’s very hard on the cloth. With the coming of the Lord, it will be us the messenger intends to wash and refine.Echoing this prophetic tradition, the voice of John the Baptist hundreds of years later called the people to “prepare the way of the Lord.” John called for a preparation of repentance, just like the prophets from Isaiah to Malachi: “Make ready the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” (Mark 1:3)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer lamented this lost theme of the preparation of repentance in an Advent sermon he preached in 1928:
“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. 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.” (Bonhoeffer, 1995: 185-6)
Bonhoeffer associates terror with Advent. Terror is found in the suddenness of the event. Malachi says the Lord will come suddenly without warning. Here suddenly means unexpectedly. We don’t know when he will come. Our terror is found in the cleansing of oneself. Acknowledging our sins to God and ourselves can be very painful. In early Christian interpretation, the messenger in Malachi is consistently identified as John the Baptist and so it follows that “the Lord whom you seek” and the “messenger of the covenant” are identified with Jesus. It is Jesus who is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap. He will purify the people of the covenant. He cleanses and refines us today.
Malachi, God’s messenger, speaking as God, uses the imagery of God refining his people by burning away their evil ways or laundering them with soap, processes that test and cleanse or purify. He names several groups whose ways have defiled the people and the temple, including Levites, sorcerers, adulterers, perjurers, defrauders of laborers, oppressors of widows and the fatherless and oppressors of foreigners. Jewish laws include prohibitions against sorcery (Deuteronomy 18:10-12), adultery (Exodus 20: 14), and swearing falsely (Exodus 20: 16) in some cases punishable by death. Hired workers, widows, orphans and foreigners were considered to be vulnerable, so there were special provisions for their protection (Deuteronomy 24: 14-15). Malachi focused on the victimization of vulnerable peoples as did Jesus.
Of importance today also are those identified as violators of the law: sorcerers, adulterers, perjurers, defrauders of laborers, oppressors of widows and the fatherless and oppressors of foreigners. The church is threatened by false prophets and practices that recall the sorcerers of ancient times with promises of prosperity and attempts to influence others for their own benefit. As we consider present attempts at legislation aimed at oppressing aliens/foreigners with threats of deportation and walls separating us; when we look at tax reforms aimed at benefitting the rich rather than the poor and attempts to abolish health care reforms and threats to Medicare and Social Security, we are being again called to the forge for refinement.
We again need to be cleansed with the fuller’s soap as we consider the treatment of those whom McKenna in her book Prophets: Words of Fire called “beloved of God,precious in his sight in the writings of the prophets: refugees; the poor – the majority of human beings on the earth condemned to subhuman living conditions by the unfair distribution of resources and finances; children who are slave laborers or are driven into being children soldiers; children who are drugged, kidnapped, and sold into prostitution; political prisoners of conscience; all those caught in long-standing wars of racism, nationalism, and ethic cleansing; peoples caught, because of political decisions, with no rights, no land, no homes or livelihoods; widows, orphans, and the old dying from starvation and destruction of water and soil. And those who are the victims of biological and nuclear warfare between marauding nations who care nothing for either their soldiers or civilians.” (McKenna, 2001: 223)
As Bonhoeffer preached, it is when we are able to feel the terror of Advent that we can experience the incomparable love that God has for us. God comes to us in the midst of evil and death. He judges that evil in us. He judges that evil in the world. It is with this judging that God is able to cleanse and purify us and the world. He comes to us with love and grace. (Bonhoeffer, 1928)
In Advent we celebrate that coming. God is coming. He is coming as a baby in Bethlehem and he is coming again “in glory to judge the living and the death” as we proclaim in the Nicene Creed. And how do we respond. With joy at his coming, but also with a sense of fear. We would do well to feel some fear. In Advent we are far from Bethlehem and the sound of Christmas carols. We are closer to the banks of the Jordan where John the Baptist preached repentance. Repent. “Make straight the way of the Lord,” John cried. (John 1:23) Despite our fear, despite the terror, this is good news. Our sins separate us from God and we are helpless to change that by ourselves. We need the refiner of metal, the cleanser of cloth. It is not an easy process, but it is a necessary one to prepare us for the coming of the Lord. God comes to us as a baby in a manger, as Emmanuel. He comes to cleanse and refine us. He comes to bring us out of death into life.
Malachi and John the Baptist both preached repentance. Are we listening? Or have we been seduced by the commercialism of Christmas to the extent that Advent has been lost? May we open ourselves to the forger’s fire and the fuller’s soap that we may be cleansed and purified as we travel during this Advent to the manger. Let us approach the coming of Christ with awe and wonder and, yes, fear, With repentance let us greet the Lord as we celebrate his birth this Christmas.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, A. 1995. A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Ed. Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson. New York: Harper.
McKenna, Megan. 2001. Prophets: Words of Fire. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.