Grace Presbyterian Church
December 6, 2015, Advent 2C
Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79; Philippians 1:3-11
Peace, Not Corruption
This Christmas finds us a rather bewildered human race. We have neither peace within nor peace without. Everywhere paralyzing fears harrow people by day and haunt them by night. Our world is sick with war; everywhere we turn we see its ominous possibilities. And yet, my friends, the Christmas hope for peace and goodwill can no longer be dismissed as a kind of pious dream of some utopian. If we don’t have goodwill toward men in this world, we will destroy ourselves by our misuse of our own instruments and our own power.
These are the opening words of a sermon preached by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., during the Christmas season of 1967. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to suggest that they have every bit as much relevance now as then; if anything, the “paralyzing fears” are perhaps more intense and more present than ever. We have been at war for fourteen unbroken years; violent attacks across the world jolt our sense of security; even the most sober-minded and emotionally restrained individual has to consider the possibility that, no matter where they go, a mass shooting could break out. No, we are not at peace, within nor without.
If we turn to the scriptures seeking consolation, today’s offerings are a mixed bag. The reading from Philippians, one of Paul’s more effusive and loving greetings found at the beginning of his letters, seems a cheery prospect, as Paul rejoices in the Philippians, giving thanks for them, “constantly praying with joy” for them, expressing confidence that “the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ,” and so forth. It does, though, take a slightly less joyful turn by its end, when Paul expresses the hope that “in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless,” which at least carries the implication that something will put that purity and blamelessness to the test.
The other readings offered for the day put that difficulty, or at least potential difficulty, more in the foreground. The gospel reading for today, from Luke 3 (which was not read), features John the Baptist beginning his work of stirring up trouble, while citing the words of Isaiah about one crying in the wilderness and rough places being cleared out. The morning’s canticle offered in the place of the psalm, from Luke 1, takes us back to John’s father, Zechariah, and his prophetic exaltation upon John’s birth. The story of Zechariah and Elizabeth is a heck of a story itself, as two senior citizens are jolted out of their comfortable if lonely lives by the announcement of a son to be born to them. When Zechariah’s doubts come tumbling out of his mouth in unguarded fashion, he is struck mute by the heralding angel, his tongue to be released only upon his son’s birth and naming.
The words Zechariah utters are words of rejoicing, yes, but that rejoicing in the gloriousness of God and celebrating of the newly-born child is underscored with danger. God has been required (yet again) to redeem his people, to save them from enemies and those who hate them; the newly born son John will be called upon to “give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.” This newly-born herald of the Messiah is not being born into a peaceful and calm world.
And then, there is this passage from Malachi. Yikes.
It sounds promising at first. The messenger will come (we Christians have tended to interpret this a prophecy of John the Baptist), and then the Lord will come to his temple. Indeed, the one “in whom you delight” is coming! Joyful stuff indeed, and entirely suitable to our celebratory impulses as the day of Christmas approaches.
But then, the ominous question: “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?”
This passage makes up one of the familiar early sequences of the oratorio Messiah, by George Frideric Handel, that is often heard from large choirs this time of year. Handel, of course, is working from a different translation so the text will be different, but he clearly gets the difficulty and portent of this passage – [sing] “But who may abide the day of his coming, and shall stand when he appeareth?” Not a song of comfort.
It’s as if Malachi has taken the encouragement of the first verses and turned it on his head. The one in whom we delight is coming … and we cannot possibly endure it?
Novelist and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner gets at something like this in his book The Alphabet of Grace, writing about doubt:
Not the least of my problems is that I can hardly even imagine what kind of an experience a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience would be. Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me.
We have, in modern Christianity and particularly in modern American Christianity, become rather saturated with the notion that Jesus is our buddy, our best friend, maybe even our boyfriend in some settings. The ancients would have been utterly baffled by this idea. For all that Jesus undoes our understanding of God by coming down to walk among us in human form, what does not change is that God is a mighty God, powerful, fearsome, even terrible. To be before the face of such a God was not, in the mind of the ancients, something a human could expect to withstand without being fearfully and terribly changed by the experience, even in the face of a God who is also loving and merciful and compassionate. The love and mercy do not erase the fearfulness and terribleness.
What comes next is also a challenge:
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, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.
Being refined by fire and purified by the harshest soap there is, again, seems in discord with the Lord in whom we delightappearing in his temple, and certainly seems at odds with the shepherds and angels and Baby Jesus and all we associate with Christmas.
And what does all that have to do with peace?
Perhaps it has to do with the things that prevent peace.
We know we are not at peace. We know ourselves, when we’re honest to be fallen, to be corrupted, even if we don’t use the theological language. We know ourselves to be sinful. And that sin, no matter how great or small, leaves us unable to know genuine peace.
We cannot stand before God in that state. But who may abide the day of his coming?
But we are not destroyed, Buechner’s concern notwithstanding. The Lord is like a refiner’s fire. A metal like silver, or gold, was in those times purified by fire. The silver or gold was changed, but it was not destroyed. The corruptions and impurities were removed, purged away by the fire. The worst stains were purged away by fuller’s soap.
So it is with us, in the day of the Lord.
If we truly seek the child of the manger, we cannot avoid the purifying and refining God. As much as it seems a paradox, it is all part of the same package. The terrible and fearsome purging away of our fallenness and corruption is that end to which the babe of Bethlehem takes us, even if we dare not contemplate it. And this is our deliverance, this is our hope, and yes, this is our peace, even amidst the refiner’s fire.
For the refiner’s fire and the fuller’s soap, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (all PH ’90): “Prepare the Way” (13), “Song of Zechariah” (602), “Come Down, O Love Divine” (313), “O Lord, How Shall I Meet You?” (11)