A sermon on Malachi 3:1-4; Philippians 1:3-11 & Luke 3:1-6 by Nathan Nettleton
During this season of Advent, if we can manage to see and hear past the frenetic festivities and consumerism, we are being invited to stand on tip toes and strain our eyes towards the horizon of time to catch a glimpse of the future, of the new world that is coming towards us, and having caught that glimpse, to begin to live our lives in readiness for that new world. But what we see when we peer towards the future is interpreted through our understanding of the past and our consequent expectations of who God is and what God is up to. So different people end up seeing very different looking things.
One of the things that many of the angry Islamists say about Western culture is that it is morally corrupt and degenerate, and you don’t have to look very hard to see that there is plenty of evidence to support such allegations. There are lots of angry Christians who say exactly the same thing. From either religion, or indeed from several others, they loudly denounce this moral degeneracy and mount fierce campaigns to try to purify the world and purge it of these moral evils. Some of the rhetoric of angry Islamist groups like the Taliban and ISIS have this flavour, and they see themselves as weapons in God’s hand, purging the world and preparing the way for a new age of strict moral purity and righteousness. In today’s world, the Christian extremists are less likely to take up arms in their moral crusades, but we can’t pretend that we haven’t done so in the past. Church history is awash with blood and much of that blood has been spilled in the name of purging the world of heresy and immorality.
Tonight we heard two Bible readings that can easily be used to support such moral crusading. The readings from the gospel of Luke and the prophet Malachi both speak of a forerunner, a messenger who will prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. “But”, asks Malachi, “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 scouring soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify and refine people like gold and silver, until they are able to give the Lord what he wants.” Our liturgy during Advent picks up something of that image with the words we prayed earlier about yielding to the purifying fire that rages towards us. The gospels identify John the Baptiser as this promised messenger, and tonight we heard Luke tell us that John comes demanding repentance and calling us to prepare the way of the Lord by straightening out the crooked paths. Next Sunday we will hear Luke go on to tell us how John demanded that people change their ways and went on to warn people that the coming one whose way he was preparing would baptise not with water but with purifying fire. “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” It is not hard to imagine a tone of eager anticipation in John’s voice as he describes the coming fire consuming the unrepentant sinners who had failed to respond to his preaching. Many of today’s angry moral crusaders, whether Islamist or Christian or something else, certainly seem to sound quite eager in their anticipation of the unquenchable fires of judgement that will consume those who don’t agree with them and do things their way.
When we turn to our other reading, from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, if we just focussed on a verse or two, we could find ourselves going down the same track that Malachi and John the Baptiser seem to be on. Paul prays that “in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness.” Purity, blamelessness, righteousness. A hunger for these things seems present in each of these visions of the future. And indeed a passion for promoting these things and eliminating their opposites seems to burn fiercely in many of the most zealous followers of religion today.
But actually, in order to get Paul’s words to line up with the others there, I had to lift those words out of context and edit out something. The Apostle actually prays for something else first, in order that we may be pure and blameless in the day of Christ. And if Paul’s prayer was really to line up with Malachi and John and the moral crusaders, the something else would probably be something like “I pray that you might be strict in your morals and zealous in your opposition to sin and fierce in your endeavours to purge all traces of moral impurity from your midst so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless.” But actually, he says no such thing. Listen again. Paul says, “this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more, with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless.” Did you get that? “I pray that your love may overflow more and more so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless.” And if I reread the whole passage, you would also hear him speaking of God’s grace and of the compassion of Christ Jesus. And when you see how central love, mercy and compassion are to what Paul is saying, his words no longer seem to line up with the moral crusaders after all.
If we take Paul’s images seriously, then the purifying fire of God no longer seems to be all about moral behaviour. It would no longer seem to be raging in in a blaze of judgement to deal with people who drink alcohol, or play cards, or dress a bit too revealingly, or use the ‘f’ word, or dance to the wrong music, or sleep with the wrong lover. Instead the purifying fire would be raging towards us to consume all our hatreds, all our hostility, all our fear, all our judgementalism, all our ungraciousness, all our reluctance to extend mercy to others, all our refusal to offer welcome and hospitality. This is not just the word of Paul. It is very much the image we get from the words of Jesus who called us to extremes of love and mercy that extend even to our enemies. It is very obvious that those fierce moral crusaders quote the Old Testament a lot more often than they quote Jesus. Jesus doesn’t offer a lot of support to their vision of the future.
When we look again at the words of Malachi through the lens of these teachings from Jesus and Paul, we begin to notice that despite the note of trepidation, there is a wonderfully positive hope and promise in these words. The image of who we really are is warm and generous and very positive. Because when Malachi says that the fire will refine us like gold and silver, the assumption is clearly that we are like gold and silver. Sure there is a bit of muck obscuring that truth from view. Along the way we have been contaminated with some fears and bitterness and resentments and hatreds, but these are not the real us. These do not define who we are or what we can be. These things are no more real than the dirt and rock that clings to a gold nugget after it has lain in the earth for years. And when we yield to the purifying fire of God’s fierce and tender love, these things will be quickly burned away and our true beauty will be seen in all its glory, full of grace and truth and extravagant love, reflecting the glory of Jesus himself.
And of course, when you take that seriously and strain your eyes towards the future again, the approaching culture of God will look very different. No longer will we imagine that we are glimpsing a strictly regulated world where everyone lives in fear of punishment and so strives to rigidly adhere to every jot and tittle of a legal code of morality that drains the joy out of everything. Instead we will begin to see clearly the wondrous festival that is the culture of God. A great celebration of love and mercy and shared humanity. A place of unbounded welcome and hospitality and generosity. A festival of music and dancing and food and drink and wondrous colour and diversity. And a place of such extravagant forgiveness that all those sins of our pasts that have crippled us with the burden of keeping them hidden will be out in the open and not the least bit embarrassing because they will look so astonishingly similar to everybody else’s and so puny and irrelevant compared to the great big warm embrace of God’s joyous mercy. We will laugh together in joy and relief over the total absence of anyone who can or would throw the first stone. And probably the only thing we will really feel a bit embarrassed about is how thoroughly we had misunderstood our own religions and our God. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, whoever. We will laugh a bit sheepishly over our past attempts to turn the extravagant love of God back into systems of regulation that we could understand and control and police. But now set free from such foolish blasphemies, we will be able to join hands and dance for joy as forgiven people who have been reunited and reconciled as brothers and sisters. We will see ourselves and one another for the gold and silver we really are, and rejoice forever. And if you begin to catch a glimpse of that future coming towards you this Advent, that will really be something to begin leaning into, to begin living towards right here, right now, to the glory of God.