Preparing for What Is Next

Malachi 3: 1-3

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 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.

We all know that Advent is the Season of Preparation.  And each of us is all too aware how much preparation that really entails and what we have to do over the next 19 days (Ahem…19 days!).  But, sadly, most of us are kind of missing the point.  Advent is not just meant to be a 4-week lead up to the big day.  It’s really it’s own thing.  And in this time, we are called to prepare ourselves by allowing God to guide us down a new pathway so we really will be ready for what is next.  But we have to be open to change.  We have to be open to BEING changed.  It’s not easy.  It was never promised that it would be easy.  This season is about more than preparing or getting ready for Jesus’ coming.  It is also about preparing ourselves, opening our hearts to the change that comes with that.

The passage from Malachi echoes that same thing.  Malachi literally means “messenger”.  We don’t know if that was someone’s name or what.  But the messenger carries a promise of God’s coming, a promise we’ve heard before.  But this time it is compared to a refiner’s fire or fuller’s soap that will reform the society in preparation for the day of the Lord’s coming. 

But we’re probably a bit uncomfortable with the whole fire thing.  Fire is destructive.  Fire burns.  But it also purifies.  It purifies by burning away the ore so that the precious metal inside is revealed.  It is intense.  But the point is that one has to get close enough to the fire to work with the metal for that to happen.  It is risky.  It might even be painful.  But it is the only way for all the impurities to be gone.  We have to endure our own impurities, our own shortcomings, being burned away until we are made new.  Part of it is up to us.

I’ve used this before but there is a wonderful illustration from an unknown author that tells the story of a woman watching a silversmith at work.  “But Sir,” she said, “do you sit while the work of refining is going on?” “Oh, yes madam, “replied the silversmith, “I must sit with my eye steadily fixed on the furnace, for if the time necessary for refining be exceeded in the slightest degree, the silver will be injured.” So as the lady was leaving the shop, the silversmith  called her back, and said he had still further to mention, that he only knows when the process of purifying was complete, by seeing his own image reflected in the silver.

That’s what God is doing for us—refining our lives, preparing them, burning away the impurities until God’s own image in which we are made is finally revealed.  John Wesley would have called the journey of sanctification, or going onto perfection in Christ.  And then this image of the fuller’s soap may be lost on us who are more accustomed to throwing Tide pods in a washing machine.  When the weaving of a fabric is complete, it is sent to a fuller, who cleans it and gets rid of the loose threads and makes it more tightly bound together.  The process means that the fabric becomes “full”, just as our lives do on this journey toward the Divine.

But we tend to concentrate on the easy and enjoyable part of God’s coming, focusing solely on a God who will make our lives better.  In that way, we are no different than those that looked for the Messiah the first time.  The truth is, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in a 1928 Advent sermon, “We [become] 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.”  Lays claim…asks us to change…asks us to become something new…asks us to let go of all those things that we hold, of all that we are so trying to control in our lives and travel down the pathway that God has laid.  Prepare the way?  Yeah…it’s not talking about your Christmas decorations; It’s talking about YOU.  It’s talking about preparing yourself for what is next.

Make many acts of love, for they set the soul on fire and make it gentle.  (Mother Teresa)

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

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,

 

Shelli