The First Sunday of Advent
“Today’s scripture is hardly the ‘deck-the-halls’ kind of message that we expect to hear at ‘the most wonderful time of the year.’ But for those with the faithful ears to hear, it is the message that we Advent people anticipate: God has work to do on us, refining, cleansing, preparing us for his purposes.” (textweek.com)
Malachi (whose name in Hebrew means “messenger”) gives an unexpected message. He’s been going back and forth with his audience (Israel) in the previous chapters, about the situation: Is God unjust or just not present, abandoning the Israelites in their need? Are humans incapable of telling right from wrong, even when it’s sooooo obvious? Who’s to blame The Israelites or God? It can seem like squabbling that can only be finished with a traditional saying in families : “Just wait until your father [or mother] gets home!”
Ironically though the promise of God’s intervention is not the threat of cataclysmic and destructive violence, horrific punishing of the unfaithful; but rather cleansing, purifying and refining. The image is not one of earthquake destruction, a bloody sun or a devouring fire; but of the refining work of a fuller and a metallurgist. A fuller is a fabric maker who , who cleans and thickens freshly-woven (usually woolen) cloth through the bleaching, wetting and beating the fibers until they are at a consistent and desirable condition. A metallurgist uses great heat to refine metals, separating of them from the impurities of ores (the state in which they’re found). The message of Malachi is thus that God is going to transform and liberate the people so that they can be his people.
The passage from Luke also contains a messenger with a message. But this message is long-expected, the long-expected promise of the Messiah to come (as we sing in the Advent hymn). But it comes in an unexpected package. The word of God comes not to the emperor or those with great political power, nor to the religious authorities who govern the Temple….rather it comes to this unknown guy John, who resides outside of society, in uncultivated and unpopulated lands…the wilderness, the desert.
Like Malachi, John the baptizing messenger, comes with a surprising word. God is coming to make all things new. John is sent to prepare the way – not for destruction, but for change: repentant hearts (don’t forget the word for repentance “μετανοέω” [metanoeó] means to turn around 90˚ and head in the opposite direction, recognizing your lost-ness) and forgiven sins [releasing the shackles of being separated from God]. And this isn’t just John’s agenda, or self-appointed quest. He is acting by the Spirit of God, in line with what God promised long ago through the prophet Isaiah (which is quoted in the text). This is done through baptism: a symbolic submersion in water, ritually symbolizing death by drowning and raising to a new reality and life. Preparing for Christmas: for the birth of Jesus, for the second-coming of the Messiah has to do then with refinement and purification, transformation and deliverance; recognizing the ways in which we are headed in the wrong direction, choosing the machinations of death over those of life. The Way of God is not just one of pats on the backs, or encouraging gifts from the sweet baby Jesus, but rather of peace found in refining transformation via unexpected bulldozers and wrecking balls.
Our world is one in which we argue about presence and absence of God, justice and evil. Think of the summit this week in Paris on climate change, the ongoing debate and demonstrations about the importance of black lives and policing, affordable housing in our area, hyper-over-priced drugs created by self-absorbed drug companies, situations in your neighborhood, work place, our church, or even your family. Advent preparation for Christmas isn’t just about gathering the necessary accoutrements, or checking off the to-do-list; it’s also about letting go of things, turning around to pause and really see what we need and where we are.
Questions for Going Deeper:
- What do you think is the message of this gospel selection?
- How have you experienced it as truth in your life?
- What invitation do you hear from God in this text to act, say, be or do?