more than a candle
6 December 2009, Advent 2C
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. But 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; 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. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow, and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.
For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished.
I always think Advent is both the most wonderful and the most jarring season of the year. Outside, there are twinkle lights and blow-up Santas in the yard, while in here we have deep purple and a few candles. Out there are peppy songs about reindeer and snowmen and presents, and in here are songs in minor keys, songs about waiting, darkness, and promise. The commercials encourage us to buy more things, and the scriptures encourage us to shed things we don’t need and to make room for the One who is coming. Out there everything is saturated with forced Christmas cheer, and in here we have Malachi.
In spite of our consumer culture’s desperate attempt to make Christmas into a season that lasts from sometime in October until December 25, our faith tradition says we first must go through Advent—that waiting time, that preparation period, that reflection in the darkness. The Christmas of the Christian tradition begins when our consumer Christmas ends, and lasts 12 days. And so, just as we wouldn’t sing “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” during Holy Week, during Advent we wait for our favorite carols, we practice God’s presence in the darkness rather than rushing into the light, we hope for a day that has not yet arrived.
There are lots of ways to get ready for that day, of course. Some get ready by decorating the house, wrapping presents, baking cookies. Others get ready by reading Advent e-votionals, serving the hungry in our neighborhood, shopping from the Heifer Project catalog. However we prepare, I think what the prophet Malachi wants us to consider is that we have absolutely no idea what we are doing.
I know, we all say we’re getting ready to welcome the Christ-child, to see what new thing God will do among us. And there are time-honored ways of preparing and welcoming and looking. But, Malachi says, we seem to have forgotten something important. Our whitewashed version of what God among us would be like is really a fantasy. It’s not going to be Christmas-card perfection, it’s not going to be the beauty of one small candle burning in the dark—this is way more than a candle. This is the light of the world we’re talking about. This is a fire that burns so hot that injustice can’t stand it. This is messy and sometimes difficult. Our Christmas cards and nativity scenes and Macy’s windows don’t even begin to get at the reality of God-with-us. And, in spite of our best intentions, we can’t possibly begin to prepare for something like this.
There is a sort of motto of the Presbyterian church—Reformata, Semper Reformanda. It’s often translated “Reformed, and always reforming.” But the more accurate translation is actually “Reformed and always BEING reformed”—being re-formed, re-created, by the Spirit of God who is continually at work. I wonder if that motto might also apply to our advent season. We prepare the best we can, but what’s really important is that we are BEING prepared—God’s messenger is coming, the messenger who prepares us to be the living Temple so that God can enter and be brought to life again and again, right here among us and within us.
The preparation isn’t easy—it’s hard and painful and sometimes we might wonder if it’s worth it after all. The refining fire is not a pleasant place to sit, and I’d be willing to bet that none of us want to consider what it is within us—as individuals or as a community—that needs to be burned away. But we all have something—something that keeps us from housing the living God within us. And whatever that something is, when we are the ones being prepared for the coming of God-with-us, it will have to go, painful though it may be.
This wasn’t quite what any of us had in mind when we thought of preparing for Christmas, I’m sure. We like to be in control, to make the preparations ourselves. And we like for Christmas to be neat and tidy and full of good feelings and children singing Away in a Manger. But that’s not what God gave us. Instead, God gave us something we really needed—God’s own self among us, God’s image restored to wholeness right here, in the body of Christ and in the faces of those sitting in the pews with us today.
A few years ago, a group of women in a bible study were looking at this same verse we just read from Malachi, “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver” (Malachi 3:3), and they wondered what on earth it could mean. One of them decided to find out about the process of refining and purifying silver, and promised to report back at their next meeting. That week, the woman called a silversmith and made an appointment to watch him at work. She didn’t mention anything about the reason for her interest beyond her curiosity about the process of refining silver. As she watched the silversmith, he held a piece of silver over the fire and let it heat up. He explained that in refining silver, one needed to hold the silver in the middle of the fire where the flames were hottest as to burn away all the impurities…Look around you. Go ahead—look into the faces of the people around you—they’re next to you, in front of you, behind you—take a moment and look at them. You may not know their stories—you may not even know their names—but you do know something very important. Right now, as you look at these people, you are seeing the image of God, the glory of God revealed. You are seeing someone who is called by God to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly together with the community of God’s people. You are seeing a reflection of love so deep it would come to live within us and sit inside the refiner’s fire with us, who will never let us go.
She asked the silversmith if it was true that he had to sit there in front of the fire the whole time the silver was being refined. The man answered that yes, he not only had to sit there holding the silver, but he had to keep his eyes on the silver the entire time it was in the fire. If the silver was left a moment too long in the flames, it would be destroyed. The woman was silent for a moment. Then she asked the silversmith, “How do you know when the silver is fully refined?” He smiled at her and answered, “Oh, that’s easy—when I see my image in it.”
May we continue to be prepared by God’s spirit in the coming days.