Sermon for the 2nd Sunday in Advent - December 9 2018

Sermon for the 2nd Sunday in Advent, Year C
December 9, 2018
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Malachi 3:1-4; Canticle 16 (The Song of Zechariah, Luke 1:68-79); Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

Something like 50 to 100 years after the exiles returned from Babylon, we hear from the prophet Malachi.  The Temple has been rebuilt, and people have settled into patterns that are rather disturbing.  The voice of God is saying, “Oh, my priests have wandered and my people are lost in the wilderness, asking ‘Where is God’s justice?’”

Malachi, in this passage, says the Lord will come – but warns the people it may not be quite in the way that they expect.

Who can abide the day of his coming?  Who can stand when he appears?

The people must be purified, and thereby become righteous.

So what does he mean – to be purified, as with a refiner’s fire; to be righteous?

Purification?  Anyone?

OK, how about refining, and the “refiner’s fire”?  Anyone here a metallurgist?

OK, have you ever seen a video showing molten steel being poured out of one of those great big buckets into a mold?  Good.

Steel is made from iron ore, and a mix of other metals, such as manganese and nickel.

First the iron ore must be purified – that is, the rock in which the iron is mined must be removed.  So the ore is placed in a refinery furnace, and the impurities – nitrogen, sulfur, phosphorus, and so on – burned off.  Once the iron has been purified in this way, then the other metals are added in, according to a recipe for any given purpose, and the whole mess is heated and mixed, then poured out into molds and cooled until it can be removed and put to use.

As you can imagine, it takes a lot of heat and energy to remove the impurities, but the end product is worth the effort.  Malachi says we need to be purified, too, and that can also take time and energy and feel pretty uncomfortable at times.

Now his hearers wouldn’t know about steel – that wasn’t invented for a couple more centuries, and even then, it was invented in China; it was even longer before “Damascene steel” was known in the Mediterranean world.

But they would have know about refining silver and gold – and the process was similar, although the amount of heat required was not as high temperature as steel.  Silver, once purified, would be polished to a high sheen, so that the maker, or the buyer, might even be able to see their face reflected in the surface.

Malachi was, in effect, suggesting that God knew there was metaphorical silver and gold in the people – and also some other things – but the idea was that that which is most precious in human beings could be reclaimed and polished until it shines with God’s grace.

Jennifer Ryan Ayres has suggested that this reflection in the silver showing the image of its maker, might be considered a parallel to seeing the image of God in the people we meet.[1]  In Genesis, we read “And God said, let us make humanity in our image.” 

Imagine being so washed of all impurities, that we can see the image of God in one another, and see ourselves just as clearly.  Now there’s an image!

The process of refining may be uncomfortable, or painful, even excruciating, but the end result is beauty and joy beyond imagining.

The end result is righteousness – being so attuned to the way of the Lord as to be able to act confidently and out of deep love, a love so deep as to be the vessels of God’s grace and mercy in our earthly lives, for those around us.

I see a connection, then, with John the Baptist, who counsels a baptism of repentance – like the refiner’s fire removing impurities, baptism is a washing, a cleansing of our being as we turn back – or repent – toward God and God’s way and God’s desire for us: to have life and to have it abundantly.

All barriers to our redemption will be removed, all the impurities burned or washed away, all the steep places and deep valleys, all the rough terrain will be leveled and smoothed and the way straight, as we earnestly seek the things of God: justice, not judgment; forgiveness, not punishment; reconciliation, not antagonism; and love, not dismissal and disrespect.

We can share Paul’s prayer for Philippi and extend it to one another:
“that [our] love may overflow more and more with the knowledge and full insight to help [us] determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ [we] may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”

What does purification look like in our own lives?  What is the “dross” – the impurities and waste products that must be burned or washed away, and how do we do that?  We each must answer that for ourselves.

For me it has been overcoming my unwillingness to reach out to those who disagree with my views on matters of theology, economics, politics, climate change – to avoid falling into the trap of calling others ignorant or uncaring or worse.  I have to remind myself that they are beloved children of God, as much – and perhaps more – than I am myself. 

I say more, because they may not know the love of God, may never have been told that they are beloved, valued, necessary, worthwhile, silver and gold.  If we are never told we are loved, if we have never been loved, or treated with respect, or heard, or met even half-way, how could we ever learn how to love others, how to treat them with respect, or meet anyone half-way?

You may have heard of Abraham Maslow, who in the 1940s, explained his theory of human motivation  with a “hierarchy of needs.”

Here’s one explanation:
Maslow's hierarchy is most often displayed as a pyramid. The lowest levels of the pyramid are made up of the most basic needs, while the most complex needs are at the top of the pyramid.

Needs at the bottom of the pyramid are basic physical requirements including the need for food, water, sleep, and warmth. Once these lower-level needs have been met, people can move on to the next level of needs, which are for safety and security.

As people progress up the pyramid, needs become increasingly psychological and social. Soon, the need for love, friendship, and intimacy become important. Further up the pyramid, the need for personal esteem and feelings of accomplishment take priority.[2]

But I think he’s wrong, at least in some aspects.  I think the first thing – as well as the last thing – we need is love.  Now, sure, we have to survive in order to receive and give love, but what’s the first thing all of us – okay, most of us – want to do with a baby?  Human, feline, canine, whatever?  HOLD that baby.  Hug that baby.  LOVE that baby.  Only then do we worry about food and diapers and a warm place to sleep; only then do we think about safety and security – because of the LOVE we feel and want that small life to know and feel.

Love comes first.

And we know the cost when babies aren’t loved.  I remember reading about the troubles families had who adopted abandoned babies from Romania, where they had been placed in cribs, fed and diapered and warm, but never held.  They suffered from a severe and traumatic attachment disorder; they had PTSD from not being loved.

Honestly, I don’t know if that’s the root of the problem we see reflected in regressive public policies enacted by government, but I suspect that is certainly a part of it; and indeed a crucial part of it.  We can read on Facebook the statements of people praising their parents for spanking them; of “strong men” who brag about how harsh their fathers were; and of women who think that their husbands should tell them what to do, and should beat them if they don’t.

The lack of love is and always has been, in my view, the major issue facing us.  This in the face of reading the words, “For God so loved the world that he sent his Son.”  This in the face of reading, “It is very good.”  This in the face of reading, “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly.”

We do not love as we ought.  We cannot love as we ought as long as we refuse to let go of our impurities – our insecurities, our supposed need to control, or our imagined need to triumph over those who disagree with us.  Let it go.  Let it all go. 

Let the love of God flow into your heart and fill your spirit until it overflows and spreads out in all directions around you. 

Then you, too, can be purified and righteous, washed clean and made whole.  And you, too, can bring light into the world.

And if we do this, we shall have peace.

 


[1] Ayres, Malachi 3:1-4, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Kindle Location 1100.

[2] Kendra Cherry, https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-maslows-hierarchy-oTf-needs-4136760  Updated November 11, 2018.  Accessed December 4, 2018.

 
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