07 December 2009

Transformation Required

Malachi 3: 1-6 & Luke 3: 1-6

Second Sunday of Advent/ 6th December

We could say that Ol’ Man Malachi needs a little Christmas cheer. He’s full of venom and judgment and warning. This is not the kind of text we really want to hear this time of year, is it? It’s not very Christmassy – at all. Instead of sugar plums, Malachi gives us soap – fuller’s soap, strong lye-based soap. Instead offering a festive spirit, Malachi gives us fire, not the warm-glow of a fire in a hearth, but a refiner’s fire, a fire’s forced-air, a white-hot blaze that melts metallic ores. With fuller’s soap and the refiner’s fire, God’s messenger prepares Israel for the coming of the Lord. “Who can endure the day of the [Lord’s] coming, and who can stand when he appears?” That’s the question before us. How does one prepare for such a day?

We're probably more familiar with the Luke text for today; we know how John asked us to prepare, bellowing out warning in the wilderness. Both texts are Advent texts because they offer some indication of what's required before the coming of the Lord. I want to focus on Malachi, for demanding as this text might sound it offers an amazing word of promise and hope, believe it or not. It tells us what is required before an encounter with God.

Malachi is the last prophet of Judah, the last book in the Old Testament. After Malachi there’s 450 years of prophetic silence. Before the end of the prophetic era Malachi extends a word of hope, “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” Malachi, as Yahweh’s messenger, envisions a day when God will fully dwell in the temple and all will know it. Judah is tired and weary (and wearing God down with their weariness), “You have wearied the LORD with your word,” he says. The people are asking, “Where is the God of justice? (Mal. 2:17)” They are people hoping, longing, desiring for the presence of God, for an appearance of God, eager for a time when the Lord of hosts will be seen, will be tangible, fully known by them. Malachi gives them this assurance. That time is coming and is near. The Lord is coming; one needs to prepare. But he never said when. And for centuries they waited and waited for a future promised by the messenger.

Yet, the people never gave up hope. The Lord, who is coming, is on the move. Israel’s God isn’t static. Malachi has a dynamic vision of God. God is about to do something new, to show up, to make an appearance, to “stand” before their eyes. By the time Jesus was born that sense of anticipation was enormous. As a people weighed down under Roman oppression, the Jewish people we’re waiting, hoping for something to happen. That’s why the crowds were flocking to John out in the wilderness. God is on the way, so prepare. But how? That’s the question before Malachi and the question before John and the question that’s before you and me whenever we anticipate a moment of encounter.

How does one prepare for an encounter with God? For, “who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” How does one stand before the Holy One of Israel, the Lord of Hosts, the great I AM? How does one stand before Holiness? Who can withstand the penetrating gaze of the God’s piercing eyes? Who can bear the “weight of glory,” to use C. S. Lewis’ (1898-1963) wonderful phrase, who is strong enough, who is holy enough, who is good enough, pure enough? Who can withstand the awesomeness of God? (1) That’s the question.

How we prepare for a divine encounter is largely conditioned by one’s image of God. Our image of God is of paramount significance. Our images of God are more often conditioned and fashioned by psychological determinants than from a theological reflection upon who we know God to be, particularly in the face of Jesus Christ. Wondering who can “endure” and withstand the coming of the Lord might seem that God’s coming is terrible and to be feared, filled with vengeance and anger instead of a spirit of joyful expectation; more awful than awe-filled. If we see God as only a fierce judge who is coming to judge and then destroy, well that’s going to have considerable impact upon how we relate to and prepare for God. If we’re conditioned by fear, then the coming is certainly not an occasion for hope. Malachi and John both see the coming of God as an occasion of hope. Yet, a destructive God image can easily be reinforced in the way one hears this text; it all depends upon that internal interpretative filter that processes verses 3 and 4. “For [the Lord] is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers soap” – ouch. How is this good news? (2) Why should one get so excited about the coming of a God coming with fire and lye? It doesn’t make sense.

That is unless we view this text as a purification process, as something done in and through grace in order to prepare us for an encounter with the Holy One of Israel. God comes with not just any kind of fire, but with a refiner’s fire – it’s the kind of fire a metal worker uses to melt metallic ores in order to bring their impurities to the surface and remove them, to leave in place something pure, of considerable value. And fuller’s soap, not just any kind of soap, filled with lye, is used to remove the impurities from material and cloth, especially wool. There’s nothing in the text – frightening as it is – that says the Lord will come and completely annihilate or destroy. If that’s how we hear it, well then that says something about our image of God, how we view God.

Malachi tells us that something has to happen before we stand before the Lord, a purification that prepares us to stand before a Holy God. For without this we’re not worthy or equipped or able to approach the holiness of God. Yes, there is judgment here, but it’s a judgment of all the impurities, of all that is sinful within us, everything within us that distorts God’s image in us. God judges sin in order to save us. Judgment is never for judgment sake. It’s sin that is judged so that we might be free from sin. It’s the impurities within us that are purged, leaving behind something – someone – better in its place, the people we were created by God to be. God judges to save. God purges to save. All is done in order to prepare us for a face-to-face meeting with the Holy.

Malachi’s focus is on meeting the Lord and he wants to prepare us for it – for an experience, that sense of holy awe and wonder when we stand before God’s glory, the Holy of Holies, that feeling of holy fear and trembling when we stand before God, the Wholly Other – not the god of our understanding, not our domesticated and trivial notions of god, not the god who agrees with our worldview or our opinions, not the god who always reassures and comforts us, but the Holy One who disturbs and shocks and offends and challenges us with the shattering grace of presence. It’s the experience of God in burning bushes that burn and burn, yet do not consume (Exodus 3:3). Before such encounters, before this awareness of God we take off our shoes, for we stand on holy ground. To see the Lord in the temple – or in a manger – calls for a change.

All this talk of purification, refiner’s fire and fullers’ soap, probably doesn’t speak to us. What the prophet is really getting at here is transformation (or as John the Baptist would say, repentance), a change in thinking, in behavior. If we really want to experience God, really want to have an encounter with God, then we need to know that something has to change. It’s as if there’s a door and on the other side of that door is God in all God’s holiness. The door is closed. To all who wish to enter, facing us is a sign of caution that reads: WARNING: TRANSFORMATION REQUIRED.

The Swiss psychoanalyst, Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1962) said the critical turning point in analysis, when healing and transformation take place, often follows this searing realization: that “there are things higher than the ego’s will, and to these one must bow.”(3) What does it take for us to bow? It’s not unlike what Malachi and John the Baptist are saying, our hearts, our lives need to be “purified,” our impurities acknowledged, our brokenness, our sin confessed, everything that separates us from our neighbor or ourselves or God, a confession that we are not in control of the universe or of our lives. It all needs to be “burned away,” even our “virtues,” as Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) reminded us, need to be burned away, because they too have impurities that corrupt.(4) All this is done in grace, for the one doing the purifying is the Lord – who burns away all that which corrupts, all of our impurities, leaving in place the finest gold and silver, our truest holy selves as a gift to the Lord.

When you go to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, down in the undercroft of the nave there are two holy shrines. One marks the place of the manger; the other marks the site of Jesus’ birth. In order to see the site of his birth and the candles surrounding it you have to get down on your knees and look under a stone slab, you have to lower your heart and your head in order to see. This is how we “endure” or withstand or prepare for such an encounter. In a sense, we do not stand, but we bow, we kneel in awe before the coming of the Lord, before an infant whose weight of glory the world beheld with holy fear, before an infant whose weight of glory we behold with holy fear and trembling and exceeding joy.

1. C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, Edited, and with an Introduction by Walter Hooper (New York: Collier Books, 1980), 3-19.
2. Kenneth E. Kovacs, Lectionary Homiletics, Volume XXI, Number 1(December 2009-January 2010): 8.
3. C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Recorded and edited by Aniel Jaffé (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), 181.
4. See Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation.”

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