Prepare the Way: Refine (Pt 2 of 7)
Have you ever seen glass being made? There are two basic ingredients: Sand and fire. You have a very hot kiln or oven and dump some sand into it, then it melts into sort of a lava, and when it cools again, and you will have glass. It won’t be beautiful — it might not even look like the glass we think about, but it will be transformed from sand into glass. To make the glass beautiful, it must be — what’s the word I’m looking for? Refined — the title of our message today in this sermon series that brings us from Advent to Epiphany. Has anyone ever been to the Corning glass museum in Corning, NY? It’s a great and fun place to visit… I have a giant glass marble that I got when I visited the glass museum as a small boy. Somehow, I’ve managed to keep it for forty-something years without losing it or breaking it. There are several imperfections in it tho— On the outside are the nicks and scratches from moving it around or having it fall off the shelf more than a few times. But if you look inside, there are several imperfections there too. Little air bubbles that didn’t quite escape through the glass-making process. For all intents and purposes, we might say the marble is “fine” just the way it is. It works just fine, and it looks just fine. But is it perfect, flawless, without blemish? No. For that to happen, it would need to be “re-fined.” Malachi Keeping in mind that we’re now in the second Sunday in Advent, we are told to focus on what is to come — this is the very definition of the word Advent: To come. What is to come actually has already come, but at the same time, is yet to come. Jesus already was born. He came. Yet, Jesus will return — what we call the Second Coming. And at that time, God will make the world anew. Another word for that could be refined. Today, we’re going to talk about what it means to be ready to be refined and what we are called to do. So we spend these four weeks of Advent turning back the pages of the story of Christ, rewinding the tape, listening once again to those words that lead to Isaiah 9.6: “For unto us, a child is born.” Isaiah’s words were prophetic, as were the words we just heard in Malachi. Who was this Malachi? I’m glad you asked… We know nothing about him. In fact, we can’t really say there was a person named Malachi who wrote this book; the name Malachi itself simply means my messenger. Was Malachi the messenger? Or was the book written about a prophecy of a coming messenger? See the book was written as the Jewish people were returning to Judah after Babylon conquered the people and scattered them hundreds of miles from their homes. That was beginning in 597 bce, if anyone’s counting. Upon returning, they had to rebuild. The temple — the place where they believed God had lived — had even been destroyed, ruined. so there was no physical indication for them that God was among them. It was a hard, hard time. And the message of Malachi — from what we read today — was that a new messenger — my messenger was coming to prepare the way for the Lord. The author of Malachi relates what is coming as a refinement process. The author uses the metaphor of gold and silver being refined in the fire — filtering out the impurities and imperfections. Making us presentable to the Lord. Who is this messenger? Any classical or chorale music fans out there know that we often sing and at least hear “The Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s “Messiah” this time of the year. The coming of the Lord. But Handel was rushing it a bit; he missed something here. The messenger wasn’t Jesus — the Messiah; the messenger was John the Baptist. Still a good song… Malachi tells us a messenger is coming to usher in the Lord, who will refine us. But first — and this is important — we must be prepared. In one sense, we’re talking about the birth of Christ here. The coming of the Lord. The messenger preparing the way for the Lord. But in another sense, we’re talking about the refinement in the fire. The Second Coming of the Lord. We’re the sand, the Lord brings the heat… And we are transformed. This is the yet and not yet image that we recount, especially in Advent. Mark & Luke If we were to read Mark 1.2 — which we didn’t today — we would hear these familiar words taken from Malachi and sprinkled with a dash of Isaiah: “As it is written… I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way.” We’re talking about John the Baptist. Let’s look at our reading in Luke that tells us the same thing: First, we get some history: Pilate was governor of Judea and Herod over all of Galilee. The God’s word — message — came to John, the son of Zechariah, to prepare the way. And where did that message come to him? In the wilderness. Mention the word wilderness to any good Jew — which Luke certainly was — and what is the image that first comes to mind? The Exodus. The release of God’s chosen people from bondage in Egypt and the 40 years spent where? In the wilderness. When Luke recalls the words of the prophet — “A voice crying out in the wilderness” — and where John the Baptist receives the message, it’s a clear indication that once again, God’s people are wandering in the wilderness. They’re not home yet — metaphorically. But they have been freed from their captivity. For Isaiah and Malachi, God’s people were returning to the Promised Land after their exodus — literally. And they must be prepared for what is to come. Luke introduces John the Baptist here in the same way. Here, all of Judea is under Roman occupation and the early stages of persecution. Things are not well. They are basically working and living in an increasingly hostile society as indentured slaves, in a sense. Everything they earn is so heavily taxed to support the Roman Empire that they have nothing left over. They are in exile again. They need to be released — saved. They need a savior to do that. John comes along and tells them the savior, the Messiah, anointed one — which in that world, anointed means king — a new king is coming to save us all. And God will do this all. Same words as Isaiah. Same idea as Malachi. “All humanity will see God’s salvation,” Isaiah 40.5. How do they prepare for refinement? For the prophets, it was repentance — turn back from their old ways. For John, it was Baptism by water. Ceremonial cleansing to stand as pure as possible for the Messiah. Again, turning away from the old ways. Coming, will come again Christ already came once as an infant. He grew up, he taught, and he sacrificed himself for all of us. But there’s something more, isn’t there? This wasn’t the end of the story, was it? Jesus’s birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension… Is that it? Are we living in the world made anew — refined — yet? No. We have been transformed by all that Christ has done for us, is doing for us and will do for us; but we still anticipate Christ’s return. ### We might say to ourselves, “well, my life isn’t all that bad… “Christmas is coming, and I’ve got all my shopping done and I had a great breakfast this morning and it was nice to have time to sit by the warm fire in my living room before driving my relatively new car to church in a very safe neighborhood this morning, where all my friends are.” Tell that to someone in Yemen this morning. Or Haiti. Or Ethiopia. Our world is much bigger than ourselves. We forget that. Which is evidenced by the number of empty churches and empty seats within those sanctuaries on this very day all around the world. Probably not in Yemen or Haiti or Ethiopia this morning, tho; they’re probably jammed packed with people waiting for the Savior’s return. Do we need to be rescued like them? Saved? Or are we all good with the way our lives are right now, as well as the life of the world? Your ID, please… Who are we? Do we even know? How do we identify ourselves as Christians? Are we somehow related to the line of David? Do we carry Christ’s blood in us, in a literal sense? No, for the most part, we identify as Christians — as the old hymn goes — by our love. “And they know we are Christians by our love.” That is in what we do, how we act, how we love indiscriminately. At least we’re supposed to… The same thing was true for the Jews returning from their exile: Fifty, sixty years after being exiled some 500 miles away to a different country and culture, the Jews come back and find a whole lot of foreigners back in their homeland. As the Jews were sent away, others were sent in to live and marry among their former homeland, bringing with them all sorts of influences. A melting pot of sorts now. They are still scattered, their identity has been lost. Is there some DNA test the Jews can do to identify themselves with Father Abraham? No. It’s not a paternity test anymore that proves the blood ancestry; what identifies them now is their character and behavior that is consistent with Father Abraham. Abraham was devout, faithful, charitable and hospitable toward strangers. This is they way the Jews now would identify themselves. They needed to change, be transformed. Be … refined. Refined. All that time spent away from home, being pushed and pulled and contorted and reshaped by the Master’s hands. All to be ready for what is to come. For what is Advent. Return Well, Luke tells his audience the same thing. You’re a people in exile. Be prepared, be cleansed … clean up your act. And be excited because your salvation is near. Not near in a chronological sense, like in time; Near in physical proximity, distance. See, like Handel, we want to rush right to the Messiah. But John is the messenger, and the message to us remains: We also are to prepare the way for the good news of the gospel to be received by others, as well as to live it out in where we are today. When is Christ coming again? No one knows. But we must prepare ourselves and our world for it. When we’re prepared and we effectively are bringing love into the world — do you hear me? — then we bring Christ. And we expect results. We anticipate them. We can’t anticipate that which we do not expect… Our world is not perfect, although our lives might be pretty good. Especially in comparison those we named a minute ago… But we, too, are a post-exilic people, having been saved from our exiles. We’re on our way home, but not there yet. But we’re still wandering through the wilderness, waiting… anticipating… Don't forget, as John shows us, who you are. And more, where you are. We might be a people who were returned to the Promised Land. But our address doesn’t define us; It’s who we are in God that defines us anymore. We still have one more exodus to go then, don’t we? That’s when we’ll be refined by God. Every time we share Christ’s love in this world to make it a better place, we take another step out of the wilderness and closer to the Kingdom to come. What we are waiting for is a return to our home. It’s been awhile. We’ve assimilated to the new culture of a broken world. The voice in the wilderness is calling to us this morning. Not to be scared or fearful. Malachi also tells us in Chapter 4, “I will not come and strike the land with a curse.” But we do have to pay attention to what surrounds us —not out of fear or desperation — but with the joyful expectation that God will break through all of this — for us. For each of us here, and for all those around the world. And we have the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us to be courageous, to act courageously, and to love courageously. Isn’t it exciting to imagine the world anew? Don’t get caught up in all the lights and glitz of the season that masks the true meaning of Advent; we can be happy with all that too, but that which transcends all this material stuff is almost too big to imagine. Malachi, Isaiah, John and Luke tell us to use our imaginations and then work to make what we imagine come true. That is refinement now. So let us work to bring Christ’s light and love into this world now, and be prepared and excited for a world made new when Christ comes in final victory and we are made perfect. Perfectly refined.