No More Visions of Sugar Plums

Refiner's Fire (Lin Lopes, SouthAfricanArtists)
“Refiner’s Fire”, by Lin Lopes

Advent 2C


See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me… 2But 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; 3he 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. (Malachi 3: 1a, 2-3)


What is all this talk about fire? Fire is painful; fire is destructive; fire leaves ashes in its path. This is supposed to be the season of joy, full of carols and Christmas trees and visions of sugar plums. Why are we reading about this in Advent? The truth is that we would rather jump ahead and let the visions of sugar plums dance in our heads. We would rather this be easier. And so we back away from the fire.


Now, read it. It doesn’t predict fire. It says that the coming of this messenger is LIKE a refiner’s fire. In other words, the messenger’s job is to prepare us, to get us ready, to change us. Maybe it is a promise that those things in our lives that do not serve us and do not serve God will be metaphorically burned away or cleaned and bleached and beaten the way a fuller would do to cloth to make it clean and full. Yes, I think we’re talking in metaphors (or, as my translation uses the word “like”, I guess that’s technically a simile.) But the point is that we will all be changed. And so we back away from the fire.


The truth is that most of us would rather not have to change. We would rather sanitize our lives and ward off those things that create chaos and shake the foundations of our existence. We would rather just live with visions of sugar plums even though they are not that good for us. But here we are in Advent anyway, trying to navigate the darkness and the unknown, trying to find our way, trying to prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ into our lives. But we have the wrong vision. The vision is not one of sugar plums or sappy sweetness. The vision is not one where God comes into our midst to tell us how great we’re all doing at running our lives and running our world. The vision is not one where the Kingdom of God comes in its fullness and looks exactly like the lives we’ve created for ourselves. You might as well put those visions with the sugar plums.


We are all called to change, called to grow, called to become a New Creation that God envisions we can be. It is not easy. Sometimes it may be downright painful. But like a refiner’s fire, this process will allow our true beauty to emerge. Like fuller’s soap, it will make us clean and full, a fabric worthy of clothing our King. And, as we’ve been shown before, from the dark of chaos, a new order, a New Creation will come to be—a Creation where those we’ve deemed enemies are our brothers and sisters, where homelessness and hunger and suicide bombers and weapons of mass destruction are archaic words that no longer need translated, and where the visions of sugar plums that we thought would fulfill us have been replaced by the vision that God has always held for us. But we have to be open to change and, especially, to being changed. We can no longer back away. And whatever the Vision holds, assume that it will be different than what you’ve planned! Thanks be to 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 everyone who has a conscience. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)


Grace and Peace,



Drawing Near

Advent 13A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (Isaiah 40:3)

Tis the season! Do you believe it? It’s here—the turkey leftovers are in the refrigerator, the glass pumpkins are being packed away, and now we begin to drag out the Christmas decorations and enter into the mad scramble to get the perfect gifts before Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, Extended Black Friday, and the Last Minute Tuesday Sale that ends at 12:05 where you can still ship your Christmas gifts for a mere $29.99 sales are gone.

Sad, really…I mean, intellectually, we know that this is not what Advent is, It’s the time of preparation, rather than decorating. It’s the time of self-reflection rather than gift-buying. It’s the time of looking for the coming of Christ rather than planning the perfect Christmas celebration. It’s a hard line. We want so badly to sing Christmas carols and buy presents and get them all wrapped so that we can enjoy our Christmas Eve and we forget that Christmas isn’t really here yet. What?!? (Because you see,, Target, Macy’s, and their myriad of brother and sister stores do not, as opposed to what it appears, tell us when Christmas comes.)

Christmas comes when it comes. Christ comes when Christ comes. God comes, well, really, all the time. God has drawn near. God is waiting for us to do the same. God is waiting for us to draw near to God. Have you ever thought that in our scramble to prepare for Christmas, we have missed the notion that God is here, that God calls us to draw near to God rather than vice versa? So what does it mean to “prepare the way”? After all, good grief, I’m dragging out all those decorations! The neighborhood Christmas lights are beginning to appear. And I’ve got a party planned for two weeks from today. (TWO WEEKS???? ARE YOU KIDDING???) Prepare the way of the Lord…

What if this Advent in the midst of decorations and presents and flurries of activities for which we are not ready, we prepared the way of the Lord? What if all the groceries you buy included an offering to the food bank nearest you? What if every dollar you spent on gifts was matched in a donation to a clothing bank or something like that? And what if rather than spending more money on decorations other than what you already own, you made a donation to the nearest homeless shelter? (I mean, do you NEED that last poinsettia or centerpiece?) What if this first candle you light is the beginning of you preparing the Way of the Lord?

God will come when God will come. But we are called to prepare the Way. What if the Way is already there, laid out for us to follow and this Advent is the time that we are called to follow it, the time to draw near?

The Advent mystery is the beginning of the end in all of us that is not yet Christ. (Thomas Merton)