Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“Spit and Polish”
Rev. Art Ritter
December 9, 2018
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.
As visitors to Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford museum know, Henry Ford had Thomas Edison’s electrical laboratory moved from Menlo Park, NJ to Dearborn. The reassembled building was opened on October 29, 1929 – a day famous for a certain stock market crash. After the ceremony, Henry Ford asked Edison what he thought of the new laboratory. Edison replied, “It is ninety-nine and a half percent perfect.” Ford, who prided himself on the accuracy of the reconstruction, was a bit put-off. He asked his friend, “What could possibly be wrong?” Edison answered, “Well, we never used to keep the place so clean.”
Laura and I are empty nesters again. In June, Amelia moved into an apartment in Lansing and Max and Maren moved to Louisville, KY to begin their new life adventure. Unlike our previous empty nest experience, Laura moved quickly to change things. She immediately emptied one upstairs bedroom of stuff – with some things going to the church rummage sale and some going directly to the curb. Two bedroom sets and some cabinets found a new home. Once Max and Maren left the confines of our basement, Laura made arrangements for our exercise equipment to exit the other spare upstairs bedroom and return to a more convenient spot in the basement. We now have two bedrooms almost entirely free of furniture and clutter. I know that when it got done, Laura felt really good about things. It was a lot of work and a lot of organizing, but upon completion of the cleanup, it was a job well done. I think there is some kind of special feeling that you get when you have completed such a project. You notice the difference between what was and what is. Cleaning adds brightness and energy to things. You can look upon it and say, “This is good!”
A colleague of mine wrote about a unique Christmas gift that he received every year. One of his parishioners, a woman in her late eighties and early nineties, would proudly give him a bar of homemade lye soap. Just reading about it brought to my mind images of Granny on the old television show The Beverly Hillbillies. I could just picture her stirring the big pot by the cement pond, with almost lethal smoke rising from the mixture of household chemicals that would produce such a strong soap. My colleague wrote that he never had the courage to use the soap in the shower or for regular bathing. Perhaps he too had seen The Beverly Hillbillies! But he did find a use for it. He kept the soap in his basement workshop. He said it was fantastic in taking off tough grease and grime on old mechanical parts, along with a layer of his skin. He added that whenever he used the soap he could feel its sting upon his fingers. His hands not only looked clean but they felt clean.
Today we observe the Second Sunday of Advent, that period of preparation for the gift of God’s presence to us that is celebrated at Christmas. Today we reflect upon the words of the Hebrew prophet Malachi. Malachi, whose name can be translated “my messenger” lived about 450-500 years before the birth of Jesus. The book itself is the last book in the Christian Old Testament but was probably not the last book written in the Hebrew Scripture. Certainly the book of Daniel was written much later. But because it is the last book in the Old Testament, directly proceeding the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Christians might be guilty of too easily using Malachi’s words about a messenger and about the one who is coming, to point directly at John the Baptist and Jesus without considering the historical circumstance in which they were delivered.
Malachi probably was written following the return of the Hebrew people from years of exile in Babylon. At first things had gone rather well. The walls of the city of Jerusalem had been rebuilt. The Temple had been rebuilt. But the promise of a greater restoration of Israel seemed unfulfilled. There was no king on the throne to continue the line of David. Jerusalem was still rather small and insignificant in comparison with its neighbors. The Temple, while rebuilt, was nothing like Solomon had built it. There was a certain apathy and lack of spirit in worship. There was a profound sense of despair born of life that seemingly fallen short of divine promise.
The people of Israel felt that they had already paid deeply for their sins. They had been conquered and taken away from their homeland. Yes, now they had returned and had done their best to return everything to the way it was. But as years passed they grew tired of waiting for God to do something great again for them. They were beginning to wonder if God really blessed them or if that blessing had been given to the apparently less faithful around them.
In their despair they lost all enthusiasm for the worship of God. Tithes were ignored. The Sabbath was broken. Even the priests had become lax in their behavior. They lost sight of what was sacred and holy. They had fallen into corruption. Israel’s priorities were out of whack. Obedience to God’s intention was a poor second to actions that were more pleasurable and self-satisfying. The people had forgotten their call to serve the poor and needy and sought way that lined their own pockets with wealth and raised their own importance at the expense of others.
For these people in despair, Malachi had some good news. God was coming. God was going to act. “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” But then Malachi message got a bit more puzzling and certainly a lot more serious. “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 fuller’s soap, he will sit as a refiner and purifier….”
Ouch. As one commentator wrote, “Currier and Ives, Malachi is not!” The coming of God will be like a refiner who heats things up in a roaring furnace so that the waste products can be separated from the precious good stuff. The coming of God will be like a good scrubbing in the backyard with Granny’s lye soap, leaving your body technically clean but sore and red and terribly blistered.
These images remind us that Advent is not so much about preparing for a “Merry Little Christmas” as it is about judgment and repentance, refining and a good scrub brush. We are apt to spend our December days planning our wish lists and social calendars, doing our baking and decorating, and frantically completing all of our shopping. Yet Malachi seems to be saying that the way to prepare for Christmas is through honest confession, a re-ordering of priorities, and a serious examination of how our practices of faith line up with God’s intention. While we want to focus on the picture of a choir of angels surrounding a newborn baby, Jesus’ birth does not mean that we are supposed be left unchanged. The birth of Jesus challenges as well as comforts. We must be refined and cleaned before we can truly experience the joy and good news.
In an Advent sermon preached in 1928 Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “It is very remarkable that we face the thought that God is coming, so calmly, whereas previously peoples trembled at the day of God…. We have become so accustomed to the idea of the 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, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.”
Tolstoy once said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing themselves.” The God who comes to us at Christmas comes not just as feel good story of a little baby born in a tiny village, but as the very presence of God that cares enough about us that even in the face of overwhelming darkness and wickedness, speaks to us the truth. Our gracious God loves us so much that it is God’s desire for us to be freed from the grease and grime of wrongdoing and bad intentions. In the birth of Jesus, God calls us to be honest about ourselves, to change, to clean up our act, to rid ourselves of those things which separate us from God’s love and God’s intention; all those things we must do to truly experience the joy that awaits us at Christmas. As Dr. Scott Johnson prays in his words about this text, “O God, as we prepare for this Christmas give to us clean hands to hold the baby Jesus.”