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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Advent 12/09/2018

By now we should expect him because he does show up every year at this time, but still, it always feels like John the Baptist crashes into the lectionary like the guy from work that you hoped wouldn’t show up at the staff Christmas party. He’s too much of a downer, tending to put a damper on the “holiday” season. John the Baptist isn’t exactly a welcome guest, but in the context of today’s out of step Second Sunday of Advent readings, he really fits right in, with all of the readings today pointing directly or indirectly to a future “Day of the Lord,” so the Baptist isn’t the only party crasher.

Malachi, from whom today’s first reading comes, might seem like a more welcome guest at the party, at least if you’re familiar with and enjoy Handel’s oratorio, Messiah. Handel uses Malachi’s words as part of what I think of as the Advent section of Messiah, the opening section,and of course the music and singing are beautiful in typical Handel fashion. But, if you pay attention to them, the words are harsh, being about purification and judgment. Following the caution of “Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears,” as was the case last week with Jeremiah, Malachi uses images to convey his prophecy, a prophecy which concerns the arrival of the messenger of the Lord, a messenger who brings judgment. The images he uses are that of a refiner’s fire and a fuller’s soap.

Those may not be images with which we are overly familiar but both assume that something is wrong, something is less than what it should be and therefore needs attention; it needs to be made better. The purification and cleansing referenced are necessary and even welcome, but the processes by which it happens may be less than pleasant. The refiners white hot fire would burn away what was worthless to make gold or silver pure. The fuller would use searing, harsh soap to clean a garment. The end product is improved, but not without the use of elements that could be dangerous, elements that could do real damage if not used properly.

Obviously none of this is very Christmas-y. Advent is about the arrival of God but we’d prefer something about the arrival of the baby Jesus in Bethlehem, not something that points to Jesus’ second coming “in glory to judge the living and the dead” as we say in the Nicene Creed. We like baby Jesus, but we’d rather not think about Jesus as judge.

These images of the Day of the Lord are a little scary if we take them seriously, but we don’t. During Advent I think we find voices and verses like these more of an annoyance than anything, perhaps part of a liturgical conspiracy to keep us from singing Christmas carols. Whatever the case, we don’t take the threat of Malachi very seriously. Personally, I think there’s a significant portion of the people out there who don’t think about any kind of final judgment at all but it’s not just them; as justified by grace through faith Lutherans, we too have largely lost our fear of judgment; if grace prevails and covers a multitude of sins, we’ve got nothing to worry about, or so we think, but is that what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called cheap grace?

Many of us remember, or at least think we remember, more fire and brimstone, fear of God, judgment sermons from our youth so I was thinking that this lack of fear was a relatively new phenomena, but apparently not. Bonhoeffer himself wrote about it in an Advent sermon back in 1928, 90 years ago saying, “We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message. The coming of God however, is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for anyone who has a conscience.”

It might seem that Bonhoeffer was pounding the pulpit, trying to kindle fear among those he preached to, but that wasn’t really his point. He continued by saying, “Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness as God comes to us with grace and love.” In other words, you can only appreciate the gift of grace when you recognize your need for it and…when you recognize that you don’t deserve it. You can only appreciate the gift of grace when you understand that if it’s about what we deserve, no one can endure the day of his coming; no one can stand when he appears.

Today’s readings kind of hearken back to when Advent was approached more as winter Lent. Many of you probably remember that too; the color for the season was not blue but purple as it is in Lent. The themes for Advent were more like they are in Lent when recognizing our sin and our need for forgiveness are the primary focus. All this is still the case in the Catholic Church where prayer and penance and fasting are encouraged as part of Advent preparation.

During Lent the words of Malachi about the need for refining and cleansing would seem to fit better, to be more appropriate. During Lent, the proclamation of John the Baptist about a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be appropriate. Zechariah’s prophecy that was used as today’s psalm, a prophecy concerning John the Baptist preparing the way and giving knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of sins would fit nicely in Lent. Paul’s words to the Philippians about being pure and blameless and ready for the day of Christ would also be appropriate.

How does all this fit into our current observance of Advent though, with the color blue symbolic of hope, joy, peace and love? Quite easily actually. The refining fire of Malachi, while being white hot and dangerous, makes gold and silver what they are supposed to be with all the impurities gone. The soap of the fuller, while harsh, removes unwanted stains from the garment. That’s all good.

John the Baptist does call for repentance but he also quotes Isaiah’s words about a level path of return, a path where valleys are filled and mountains and hills made low, the crooked made straight and the rough ways smooth so that all flesh will see the salvation of God. Zechariah’s prophecy includes words about the dawn from on high breaking upon us to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. The passage from Philippians includes words of grace and compassion, words of love, knowledge and righteousness. All of this fits nicely under an Advent blue banner of hope and joy.

In their fullness, the texts for today illustrate the tension that Bonhoeffer articulated 90 years ago which is really the same tension that Martin Luther articulated 500 years ago when he talked about law and gospel. We hang our hat on, we depend on the grace and hope of the gospel, but the gift of grace is not meaningful without feeling the threat of the law, the reality that on our own, we can’t endure the day of his coming or stand when he appears. Without knowledge of the law, we can’t fully appreciate what it means to have the rough ways made smooth or to experience the dawn from on high breaking upon us.

We need the purification and the cleansing that Malachi called for. Like the gold and silver in the refiner’s fire, we need to be made what we are supposed to be, refined and cleansed with impurities gone. With that in mind, these texts today are more Christmas-y than we might have thought. It’s easy to get caught up in the sentimentality of Christmas but Advent reminds us that the Incarnation has to do with that process of refining, the process of becoming who are intended to be. God becoming human in Jesus opens the way for the image of God in us to be restored. We can’t restore the image on our own, so by grace God has done it for us in becoming like us in our humanity.

By grace the divine image has been restored and by grace, the way, the path has been prepared for us to grow into that image. It starts with the repentance John the Baptist called for. That means acknowledging that we aren’t who God intended us to be, that we do need refining. From there, for each of us the path might vary but what we all have in common is that the life of the church is part of the path, part of the way. The church too is a gift of God’s grace and in the life of the church we are nourished through word and sacrament.

The church isn’t a religious social club, it’s not a place to come to be entertained. At its best, it’s a step outside of time, a revelation of the Kingdom of God. We experience the presence of God as the word is proclaimed. We are nourished and strengthened through Jesus’ real presence in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. With that, refining and cleansing take place; we grow in God’s image and come closer to being who we are intended to be.

We are still out of step today and we’re not quite ready to sing Christmas carols, but when we get past sentimentality and consider what God becoming human in Jesus means, there’s more Christmas in these lessons today than you might have thought.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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