Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Family Business

Luke 2:41-52

    Oh, how they do grow up!  They start out as cute little babies, but before you know it, they’re twelve, and that original cuteness has begun to wear off.  12-year-old kids are liable to speak their minds – even to their parents.  So, would it surprise you to learn that Jesus is no different? 

   When last we gathered on Thursday Evening, we found Jesus lying in a manger, surrounded by proud parents and some rather dirty shepherds.  We filled the night with carols, such as O Come all Ye Faithful, the First Noel, and Silent Night.  We sang songs of joy and thanksgiving to the one lying in that manger, all wrapped up in swaddling clothes.  Yes, along with the angels and the shepherds, we sang: 
    “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly, for his bed a cattle stall;
    Oxen lowing, little knowing, Christ the babe is Lord of all.” 

These much beloved songs project an image of a gentle glowing baby, and we all seem to like babies.  Little children like them, as do the oldest among us.  But, like I said, babies do grow up, taking on their own identity, and breaking free of their parent’s grasp.  In most societies this begins to happen around age twelve, and while we have a long period of preparation called adolescence, ancient societies lacked this intermediate period of life.  You went from childhood to adulthood almost over night.
1.  The Maturation of the Messiah

    We don’t know very much about Jesus’ process of maturation.  The gospels are rather silent about his growing up years, with Matthew being the only other canonical gospel that even offers a birth narrative, and he is silent on the years between birth and baptism.  This doesn’t mean that we lack stories about this period of Jesus’ life.  It’s just that these other stories seem rather odd.  They’re more akin to watching Superboy grow up in Smallville, learning to manage his super powers.  These apocryphal gospels depict Jesus as a miracle worker, who uses his super powers mostly to benefit himself.  So, if you cross him, be careful, because this Jesus hasn’t yet learned to rein in his powers, and you just might end up dead!

    What we have before us in this morning’s text is the lone canonical picture of Jesus’ growing up years, and it’s just one snapshot.  The picture comes from a trip south to the annual Passover celebration.  Jesus is twelve and the family had traveled from Nazareth to Jerusalem in a caravan.  On the way home, about a day into the trip,  the parents discovered that Jesus was missing.  That sounds sort of odd to us – we would probably report parents like these to Child Protective Services, but this is a different time and place. 

    Upon returning to Jerusalem, the frantic parents finally stumble upon the young Jesus after a three-day search.  He’s just sitting there in the Temple courts, talking theology with the teachers of the day.  Everyone is amazed at his level of understanding.  This is a precocious child!  He might not be turning his clay pigeons into real ones, but he confounds the wise with his own wisdom.  It might be worth noting that Jesus ends his teaching ministry in the same Temple precincts – but his message isn’t as well received. 

    When the parents confront Jesus, he’s rather surprised that they were worried.  As he saw it, they should have expected him to be about his father’s business!   If you read between the lines, it would appear that his tone isn’t all that pleasant.  It almost seems as if he is talking back to his parents.  Maybe he thinks they’ve embarrassed him in front of his new friends –  You know how it is to be age 12.

     But, however the conversation may have gone, in the end, he returns home with his parents, and Luke says that he grew in wisdom and stature, and in both divine and human favor.  And the next time we see Jesus, he’s an adult, who has come to John to be baptized.  But, as Luke tells the story, Jesus doesn’t need to be forgiven his sins – he just needs to be commissioned to take up his life work.      

2.  The Family Business

    In the ancient world you didn’t normally choose a career for yourself.  If you were a male, you followed in your father’s footsteps.  Joseph is said to have been a carpenter or some kind of builder or even a laborer, and so it would have been expected that Jesus would take up the same trade.

    I’m glad things have changed -- Although my father enjoyed history and even preached a little when I was really young, selling specialty advertising isn’t my cup of tea!  And I don’t think Brett is planning to follow in my footsteps either – at least not the preaching part. 

    When Jesus told his parents that he was in the Temple doing his father’s business, he wasn’t talking about doing carpentry or stone work, he meant, talking theology.  In a sense he was redefining his family boundaries.  While he would return home with his parents – Luke says that he was obedient to them – in the course of time he discovers both a different vocation and a different sense of family.  For him, family would be defined by faith and not lineage.  Instead of Joseph being his father, God would be his father, and therefore, his calling would be take up the Father’s business.   

So, what does this have to do with us?  Does it not redefine our own sense of family values?  We’ve just finished celebrating a holiday that tends to be defined by family connections, and yet even as Jesus discovered a new sense of family, the same is true of us.  And like him, we have been called to join in this family business.
3.  Growing in Wisdom and Stature       

    As we contemplate what it means to take up the family business, I hear another word in the text calling out to us.  It’s a call to consider what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. 

    In the verse that precedes this morning’s text, in a passage that bridges the infancy narrative and this story of Jesus’ youth, we hear that the child, living in Nazareth, grew strong and was “filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him” (Lk 2:40).   Then, in the closing verse of today’s text, we hear that “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor” (Lk 2:52).  These two verses provide a set of parentheses for the story about the Temple encounter.  They both speak of Jesus growing in wisdom and in favor.   

     The way of discipleship involves growing in wisdom and in the favor of God.   As we prepare to enter a new year, one that is full of new possibilities and opportunities, we hear in this text an invitation to prepare ourselves for taking up the family business – that is the business of the kingdom of God. 

    In thinking about what this means, I turned to a new book by Philip Clayton, in which the author writes that “in recent years Christian churches have been losing the battle of significance.” 1 Part of the reason for this is that we simply don’t know our story very well, which means we have trouble living our lives from this story.  Many Christians find it difficult to say why their faith makes a difference in their lives.  This makes the call to bear witness to the love and grace of God in Jesus Christ difficult, because we’re not certain of our place in God’s vision of the world. 

    Clayton suggests that we need a robust theology, one that is reasonable, inclusive, engaging, and rooted in the biblical story.  In order to gain this confidence, we must grow in the wisdom that comes from our encounters with Scripture, tradition, and in the faith experiences that emerge from our encounters with God and with each other.  In this, we discover a vision of the kingdom of God, one that invites us to work with God “for the salvation of this planet and all its inhabitants” (Clayton, p. 153).   Jesus had that sense of vision, and it was one that he developed as he grew in wisdom and in stature.  

    The church year, which begins in Advent and continues to and beyond Christmas, serves to remind us of the full-orbed nature of the Christian story.  It begins with a promise that bears fruit in the birth of Jesus, and continues on as we encounter God in our daily lives, wrestle with the questions of faith, engage in matters of life and death, and then hear the call to join with the community of faith in the work of God.  This may be circular, but as we tell and retell the story, it becomes part of us, and we discover in this story our connection to the family of God.  And as we find our place in God’s family, we also discover our calling to take up the family business.

1. Philip Clayton, Transforming Christian Theology for Church and Society, (Fortress Press, 2010), p. 152.

Preached By:
Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
1st Sunday after Christmas
December 27, 2009

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Shepherds on Watch -- A Christmas Eve Sermon

Luke 2:1-20

    When it comes to casting a Christmas pageant, shepherds rank low on the list of desirable parts.  The most coveted roles, of course, are Mary and Joseph.  After that, I expect that the three wise men get top billing.  Being one of the magi is nice, because you get to wear fancy robes and bring gifts to the baby Jesus.  While angels don’t rank with the wise men, at least they have more star power than shepherds. 

    As for the shepherds, they get to wear bathrobes with blankets over their heads – You need to think Linus here.  No crowns and no wings, just blankets and bathrobes.   No gifts and no grand songs to sing.  While the angels hang out in the heavens, broadcasting the good news, they hang out in the hills with the sheep and the dogs.  There’s nothing too exciting about these roles, except that Luke seems to think that they’re important. 

    You might notice that Luke’s birth story doesn’t include wise men, kings, or magi – whatever name you want to give them.  That’s Matthew’s version, and he has a different agenda.  Maybe he knew that Christmas pageants would someday need some staring roles, and so he added them into the mix.  But Luke doesn’t seem impressed with star power, and so instead of the three kings, he has shepherds watching the sheep by night. 

    Despite the fact that David was known to be the shepherd king and the 23rd Psalm calls God our shepherd, shepherds lived on the margins of society.  They were dirty, smelly, rough kinds of people.  This may explain why no one really wants to play a shepherd in the Christmas play, although you would think that maybe Pigpen would have made been especially equipped for the role!  It’s too bad that Lucy gives him the role of the inn keeper. Of course, Linus already had a blanket to throw over his head! 

    As we hear this story, I would invite us to step back in time, so that we can share in the shepherd’s night time vigil.  As we’re watching the sheep, making sure that none of them wanders off or gets poached by a wolf, the silence of the night is interrupted by a heavenly song and a great light.  What you hear in this song is the good news that in the city of David, the Savior, Christ the Lord has been born.  Consider for a moment that the news comes first, not to the palace of the king, but to a group of shepherds sitting on the margins of society.  It’s just one more reminder that the ways of God often turn our expectations on their head.    

    As we come tonight, let us remember that not only did good news come to the shepherds, but the news they received tells us that the Creator of all things chose to be revealed to us in a babe, born in a stable’s feeding trough.  In telling the story this way, Luke continues the story he began with Mary’s song about God’s preferential option for the poor, and God’s willingness to bring down the high and the mighty.  This is the news that the shepherds have been called upon to proclaim to the world.

    The angel’s song rings out: “Gloria in excelsis Deo!” And it rings out on the lips of the shepherds as well.  And the message is this:

    God’s love made visible!  Incomprehensible!
    Christ is invincible!  His love shall reign!
    From love so bountiful, blessings uncountable make death surmountable!
    His Love Shall reign! 
 (Iola Brubeck, “God’s Love Made Visible!”Chalice Hymnal 171). 

     As we return to our homes this evening and celebrate Christmas over the next day or so – gathering as we shall around trees to open presents, and dinner tables, may we remember who it is we have come to honor.  May we remember that the King of Glory has been revealed to us in a babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes, surrounded by lowly shepherds. 

  Remember as well that this is only the beginning of the story. Jesus doesn’t stay in the manger –  lest his cuteness lull us to sleep and cause us to forget the purpose of his coming.  That purpose is to reveal to us God’s work of transformation in the world, a task God has invited us to share in. 

  Therefore, as we come tonight to the Table and share in  the Lord’s meal, may we bear in our hearts this news:  Although the journey begins in a stable it will lead to a cross, and from the cross to the resurrection, for as the words of Iola Brubeck makes clear – “His love shall reign.”   So, as we celebrate this great day, may we join together at the table and “open hearts and pray.  His love shall reign!”  May this be the message the shepherds bring to our hearts this Christmas Eve.   

Preached by:
Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
Christmas Eve 2009 

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Good News for the Humble -- An Advent Sermon

    LUKE 1:39-55

    When Alex Rodriguez signed his ten-year 252-million-dollar contract with the Texas Rangers a number of years ago, baseball fans were scandalized. They wondered – who could be worth that kind of money?  While no baseball player has caught up to him yet, several are nipping at his heels, and his salary doesn’t even compare to what Tiger Woods brought in with his winnings and endorsements – at least prior to his recent scandals, or  Oprah gets from her empire, or the typical Bank CEO receives in compensation.

    If you’re like me, it’s kind of hard to grasp the magnitude of this kind of money.    What do you do with that much money?   How many homes and cars do you actually need?

   Andy Rooney asked just this question in his 60 Minutes commentary last Sunday evening.  Pointing to the recently released Fortune 400 list of richest Americans, he opined: 

    I’ve often wondered at what point spending money no longer is any fun for a rich person.
In other words, when is enough, enough?  I must confess, I’ve not reached that point where I can say that I have everything I want!  But still!

    This morning we near the conclusion of our Advent journey and the text before us turns our world upside down.  As we listen to Mary’s prophetic song of praise, we learn that God has different priorities than the world has.

I.  A Song for the Ages

    Our gospel text is one of the great texts of Scripture. It has inspired works of art, poetry, and music.  Traditionally we know it by its Latin title, the Magnificat.  So beautiful is the poetry that we might forget that the one who gives voice to this prophetic word is a young woman – probably still in her early teens and likely poor.  Not only that, but she is quite unexpectedly pregnant.

    The passage begins with Mary, having been visited by an Angel bearing news about the blessing that would come with her pregnancy, hurrying off to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who lives in the Judean hill country.   We’re not told why Mary would do this,  but if you read this passage carefully, you discover that this isn’t just a meeting of cousins, this is a meeting of prophets, both of whom happen to be pregnant.  One woman is quite young and unmarried.  The other is older, and typically beyond childbearing years.  Both of these women see themselves as blessed by God.
    First we hear from Elizabeth, whose child leaps in her womb.  Moved by the Spirit to speak a word of blessing, she pronounces Mary blessed to be the bearer of her Lord and Savior.  And Mary, for her part, breaks out in song, giving thanks that God would bless her, despite her own life circumstances.  Maybe that’s why she visited Elizabeth.  She needed a word of confirmation.  Fred Craddock helpfully summarizes the message of Mary’s song:  

    She sees God's grace and goodness toward her as but a single instance of the way of God is in the world.  God blesses the poor and oppressed and hungry; and in the final eschatological reversal, God will bring down the proud and rich oppressors and exalt those who have been disenfranchised, disregarded, and dismissed.1

Yes, this God we worship does the unexpected and tends to turn things upside down. 

    There is a danger in preaching this text.  It’s easy to take it with such seriousness that we preachers break out into a harangue, berating the congregation for wasting money on presents and trips.  Here we are, having maxed out our credit cards to buy gifts for family and friends, and the last thing we need is a sermon to make us feel guilty, because we didn’t sell everything and give it to the poor in response to Mary’s prophetic Word.

    I wasn’t intending to preach that kind of sermon, but it’s easy for that kind of message to slip out as we focus on the God who turns things upside down.  Charles Campbell suggested that if we take the message with too much seriousness, our presentation of it can become  “sourly prophetic and angry.”  And that’s not the message we need to hear this morning, as we come to bask in the light of the candle of God’s love.  What we need to hear instead is the message of the feast of the holy fool, a feast inspired by this hymn during the middle ages.2

    Think for a moment of St. Francis.  He was rich and yet he gave up everything, but in doing so he didn’t become dour and solemn.  No, he experienced great joy – just as Mary experienced great joy in her calling.

II.  Turning the Tables on the Proud

    I don’t know how each of us should hear the message of this hymn.  In part that’s because we come to the text from different vantage points.  But what I hear in it is that the God we worship and serve has a tendency of turning things upside down.  It’s not that God is just mysterious.  God tends to act contrary to our socially defined expectations.

    Our culture keeps saying to us that God is on the side of the strong, the mighty, and the proud.  This is a sentiment that we often hear on the lips of the winning Super Bowl quarterback:   “I want to thank God for helping us win this game!”  Indeed, athletes sometimes have some of the most interesting views of God and of Jesus.  They often want to see Jesus as the big winner – and therefore their inspiration.  Consider this baffling picture of Jesus provided by a former NFL lineman: 

    Christ would be the toughest guy who ever played this game . . . If he were alive today I would picture a six-foot six-inch 260 pound defensive tackle who would always make the big plays and would be hard to keep out of the backfield for offensive linemen like myself.
As you can tell the person who made this comment played a few years ago, because today’s defensive tackles tend to be around 300 pounds and run as fast as a running back.  But the point of this is simple:   If Jesus is worth serving then he must be a winner, and a winner must be a  “manly man.” 

  This, however, isn’t the picture that Mary paints.  In her picture, God is the one who has  "looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant,"  and who scatters the rich and the powerful, even as he lifts up downtrodden.  In choosing Mary, God had chosen the one who would bear Emmanuel – God With Us – from among the poor and the marginalized of society.  It’s good to remember, as we celebrate this Advent and Christmas season that  God could have chosen a daughter of Herod or Caesar for this purpose, but God didn't.   God could have broadcast the message from the roof tops, but God didn't.   No, Jesus didn’t come into the world with all the trappings of power and wealth; instead he was born into poverty and insignificance.

III.  Lifting up the Marginalized 

    Now, I don’t think we should idealize poverty.  It’s not something we should normally seek out, indeed, it’s not something that I’ve sought out, although I know that there are those who are called by God to live with great simplicity so that they can be in ministry with those who are in deepest need.  And I don’t want to give the impression that unless we’re poor, God won’t love us. I don’t think that’s true.  But, this song does remind us that God will bless those whom society fails to bless.  It reminds us that power and might and money aren’t necessarily signs of divine blessing, nor does poverty mean that one is not loved by God. 

    When I hear Mary’s song, I think of people like Mother Teresa and the recently sainted Fr. Damian of Molokai.  I find it interesting that both of these figures, who have recently been honored by the Catholic Church – one as a saint and the other beatified, which is a step beneath sainthood – gave their lives to ministries serving lepers.  In fact, Fr. Damian contracted the disease and died a leper. 

    When we re-gather on Thursday evening for our Christmas Eve service, we’ll hear a continuation of this story.  We’ll hear the message that on the day the Savior was born, the angels proclaimed the message of his birth not to kings but to shepherds.  Then, if we continue reading the story, as he matured into adulthood, we discover that Jesus spent his time ministering among the same kinds of people –  fishermen, tax collectors, women of ill repute, the sick and the despised.  The only time he had an audience with the movers and shakers of society, they we’re standing in judgment over him, deciding how best to get rid of him. 

While this might not be the kind of message that would stir the hearts of most mothers it led Mary to "magnify the Lord."  As we continue our journey through Advent to Bethlehem’s stable, may we view the world through the eyes of Mary.  And may we give thanks to the God who  turns the world upside down by filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty.  And as we hear this message, may we ask God to reveal to us, how we, who have been blessed with every good and perfect gift, might be a blessing.

1. Fred Craddock, et. al., Preaching through the Christian Year C, Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1994), 22.

2. Charles L. Campbell, in Feasting on the Word, Year C, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Eds., (Louisville: WJK, 2009), 1:97.

3. Norm Evans quoted in Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Thought I Knew, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 19. 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
Advent 4
December 20, 2009

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Radical Expectations

Luke 3:7-18

The key to success in life is to lower expectations. If you set the bar low enough, then it won’t take much energy or effort to succeed.

Let me give you an example. If, back in August, you expected the Lions to make the playoffs this year– not to mention the Super Bowl -- you were probably setting yourself up for a big disappointment. After all, it’s been a while since the Lions last had a winning season, and they’ve been to a Super Bowl, not even when Barry Sanders was roaming the backfield. But, if all you expected was an improvement upon last year’s results, well then, this year has been a roaring success. Just think, last year the Lions lost every game, making them the first NFL team ever to do so. But this year, the Lions have not only won one game, they’ve already won two games. I’m not a mathematician, but that’s a 200% improvement. What more can we ask of them?

Quite often what would seem to be bad news can be portrayed as good news – if we set a low bar of expectations. Consider the recent report that GM lost “only” $1.8 billion in the last quarter. Now that may not sound like good news, but it beat expectations, and so GM could hail their loss as a gain – simply because the experts thought they would lose a lot more money.

Yes, if we set the bar low enough, we can all be successful in life! But, what if someone raises the bar? Indeed, what if someone sets up for us radical expectations? How should we handle this? How will we define success?

Well, this is the problem this morning’s Advent lesson poses for us. And, the one who
brings to us this high bar of expectation is none other than John the Baptist -- that locust-eating, scraggly-bearded, crazy man of the desert. It is John who invites us to consider a new path, a new way of living in the presence of God. John says to us, God is going to do a new thing, and so we have to get ready.

1. The Way of Baptism – It Washes Us Clean

I don’t know about you, but I find John’s first question to the gathering crowd a bit disconcerting. At the very least, he’s not very polite. He doesn’t welcome the crowd with open arms. There’s no warm up, no flattery. He just calls them a “brood vipers” and asks who had sent them to be baptized. This isn’t the way to grow a church!

Although John might not have the best marketing skills, he does ask a good question. Why are you here? What is your motive? By referring to them as a brood of vipers, he seems to be pointing back to Genesis 3 and the story of the Fall. It would appear that while they claimed to be the children of God, he saw them as the children of Satan. So the question remains – why have you come to be baptized? Are you willing to go all the way and renounce your allegiance to the evil one? This question was part of the ancient rite of baptism. No wonder the Emperor Constantine delayed his baptism until he lay on his death bed. Apparently he decided that being Emperor and being a baptized Christian weren’t compatible. But, here we are, having been called to be baptized, to be washed clean, so that we can take up the journey that leads for us to Bethlehem’s manger and beyond.

2. The Way of the Spirit – It’s Radical

John announces a way forward that isn’t about a set of doctrines, but a way of life. It’s a way of sharing in God’s presence even as we live in the world. According to John, this way forward involves high expectations.

In the verses that precede this morning’s text, Luke points us to Isaiah’s declaration that on the day of the Lord the path forward will be made straight, the valleys will be filled, and the rough ways made smooth so that all flesh might see salvation together (Isaiah 40:3-5). As you listen to this statement from Isaiah, perhaps you can hear the stirring strains of Handel’s aria “Every Valley shall be Exalted.”

John comes into the picture, with Isaiah’s mantle, preparing us for a journey that will transform the world. This is a tall order, and John wants us to look closely at our motives – why are we here? What is our agenda? He asks this question because baptism initiates us into the way of the Spirit. While we may claim to be children of Abraham, John asks whether we have demonstrated this allegiance with fruit. Advent promises a new direction for humanity, but what does it mean for us to enter this new age that John heralds? What does it require of us?

Harvey Cox, Professor Emeritus of Religion at Harvard, wrote a new book called the Future of Faith. In this book, Professor Cox suggests that we’re stand at the edge of a new age of the Spirit. This new age looks back to an age of faith that existed at the moment of the church’s birth in the first century, but it also will look very different from the one we’ve known at least since the day of Constantine. In this new age of the Spirit, we’ll no longer depend on culture or society to define our faith. Instead, we’ll look to God’s Spirit and the bar of expectation that the Spirit sets for us. In this new age of the Spirit, we will again look at the world through the eyes of Jesus, letting his life, his teachings, his death, and his resurrection define what it means to live before God. This is the new Advent that lies ahead of us, as we journey toward the revealing of the God who comes to us in the babe born in Bethlehem.

3. Living Up to Radical Expectations – Bearing Fruit

John’s ministry involved two things – preaching a message of repentance and offering baptism as the way of receiving God’s salvation. Although John seems to speak harshly to his audience, like Malachi, he assumes that his audience both belongs to the people of God and that they have gotten off track. They need to be washed clean so that they can be made whole.

John invites his audience to participate in a process the ancient church called the “via purgativa.” That is, he invited them to purge their lives of the things that held them back from sharing in the things of God. John invites us to share in the same process, one that might involve fasting or giving of our money or time for the good of another, or it might involve gathering together with a small group of spiritual friends and sharing one’s vulnerabilities. Brian McLaren points out that this process isn’t the same thing as penance, because we’re not paying for our sins. We’re simply practicing humility and service before God.1

In answer to the question – what must we do? John offers his own methods of purging one’s self of the things that keep us from experiencing the fullness of God’s presence. At first, these words might sound rather dismal, but John says that they bear good news. If you can receive them, your life will be changed by the purifying fire of God that sets us free from the things that hold us back from experiencing the presence of God – that is, the chaff of life.
And what are these radical expectations? John tells those who have two coats – and most of us have more than two -- to share one of them with someone who lacks a coat. If you have food, then share what you have with the one who doesn’t have food. If you’re a tax collector then don’t charge more than what is expected, and if you’re a soldier, then don’t use your power to extort money from your neighbors. In other words, love your neighbors as you love yourselves.

This is the new way of the Spirit, which does set the bar exceedingly high. And, remember that Jesus told the rich man – if you want to be saved, then sell everything you have and give it to the poor (Luke 18:18-30). While these may be difficult words for us to hear, they do set for us a goal, a way of living life in the presence of God that will change not only our lives, but the world itself.

Although the road forward involves high expectations, we go forward lifted up and carried by God’s grace. We go forward knowing that in our own strength we will fall short, because the bar is set so high. But remember that the refiner’s fire doesn’t destroy, it purifies. And the one who baptizes with fire, simply removes the chaff, not the grain. It is, as theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote many years ago:
In its profoundest insights the Christian faith sees the whole of human history as involved in guilt, and finds no release from guilt except in the grace of God. The Christian is freed by that grace to act in history; . . .2

And this is the good news of Advent: We have been set free by God’s grace to pursue the upward call of God, which will transform not only our lives, but the world in which we live.

1. Brian McLaren, Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), pp. 156-157.

2. Reinhold Niebuhr in Reinhold Niebuhr: Theologian of Public Life, Larry Rasmussen, ed., (New York: Harper-Collins, 1989), p. 252.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church
Troy, Michigan
Advent 3
December 13, 2009

Sunday, December 06, 2009

House Cleaning Time

Malachi 3:1-4

If you’re planning to host a holiday party, you’ll have to get the house ready. That may mean doing some much needed winter cleaning. Dusting, mopping, vacuuming, polishing, cleaning the bathrooms, and washing and ironing those table cloths. Of course, you also have to prepare the food, unless you decide to save time and hire a caterer. Once you get all that done, you still have to get yourself ready. After all, a good host has to be properly bathed and clothed. At least that’s what you have to do if you want to throw a successful high society party. But, what if your anticipated guest is the Lord of creation? How should you prepare for such a visit?


This question of preparation is central to the season of Advent. Although, too often this is a season that gets swept aside by all the commotion of the season that follows. When it comes to Advent, we really don’t know what to do with it. We don’t know the hymns, beyond “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” The lectionary texts, well they sound so cranky and judgmental that not even interjecting the idea of hope can salvage the season. So, with all this talk of repentance and penitence, waiting and preparing, it’s no wonder everyone wants to skip over Advent and get on with Christmas. At least with Christmas, we know the songs. Still, Advent does have an important message to impart. It reminds us that we’re not perfect, and that we stand in need of God’s grace – the grace that comes with the promise of Christmas.

This morning’s text comes from Malachi, the very last book in the Hebrew Bible. This prophet speaks to Jews living after the exile. Their country is a province of the Persian Empire, the original Temple is gone, replaced by one that lacks the magnificence and grandeur of the earlier Temple. Many who hear these words, long for something they never saw or experienced. Still, what they now have before them, reminds them of what has been lost.

Malachi understands their feelings, but he wants them to understand that they can’t dwell in the past. Instead, they must look forward to what God is going to do in their midst. He tells them someone is coming who will restore their fortunes, but before that happens they have to get ready, because "who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?" (Mal. 3:2)


We relish hearing messages about grace, mercy, and love, but there are also messages in scripture that speak of justice and righteousness. They tell us that the God of love is also a God who judges, and this message of judgment is prominent in the texts of Advent. Indeed, you will find strong messages about social justice, concern for the poor and the outcast. If you continue reading this third chapter of Malachi, you will hear a word of judgment against adulterers, those who bear false witness, and those who oppress the worker and the alien in our midst. This isn’t a message we like to hear, especially not at this time of year. I must confess. It’s not the kind of message we preachers like to give. But here it is, so how do we respond?

What I hear in this passage is a call to look inside ourselves and discover the obstacles and barriers that hinder God’s work in our lives – the things that keep us from truly experiencing the love of God and neighbor.

I also hear a question regarding what I believe about God? Is it possible that in my desire to embrace a God of love, I end up domesticating or taming God. While, we want God to be safe, is God safe? There’s a line in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, that fits here. It comes in a conversation about Aslan. Mrs. Beaver tells the children:
'If there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver than me or else just silly.'

'Then he isn't safe?' asked Lucy.

'Safe?' said Mr. Beaver. 'Don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.'

If the Lord of heaven who is coming into our midst is good and yet not safe, then how do we get ready?

Malachi’s advice for getting ready to meet God, may seem rather harsh. He speaks of the Lord coming in judgment 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." (Mal. 3:2b-3).

Did you notice that reference to Levi’s descendants, the ones who give offerings to the Lord? Malachi seems to be concerned about the behavior of the Temple’s priests. We could take this as a message for clergy, and clergy do need to hear it, but if we read this from a New Testament perspective, it’s important to remember that we’re all priests of God. Therefore, each of us stands in need of purification, if we’re going to stand in the presence of God.

Paul says in Romans that we all sin and fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23), and so even though God created us to be in relationship, there are impediments that mar this relationship. Reinhold Niebuhr, who was a pastor in Detroit before going to Union Seminary as a professor, wrote that true peace comes only as we recognize our own need for forgiveness.

Reconciliation with even the most evil foe requires forgiveness; and forgiveness is possible only to those who have some recognition of common guilt. The pain of contrition is the root of the peace of forgiveness. [Larry Rasmussen, ed., Reinhold Niebuhr: theologian of public life. (New York: Harper Collins, 1989), p. 133.]

Advent invites us to put our lives into the hands of the one who judges with refiners fire. That sounds ominous, but consider that the refiners fire doesn’t destroy, it simply removes the impediments – so that gold and silver can emerge from the ore. The message of the refiners fire is, therefore, one of transformation – and therefore it’s good news.


Like Malachi, John the Baptist also spoke of the need for repentance in preparation for the Lord’s coming. But what is required of us? Do we have to believe correctly or behave or dress in a certain way in order to belong to the community? If that’s true, then can any of us belong?

The prophet speaks here in a way that suggests that we belong to the community before we can either believe or behave appropriately. It’s not a question of whether we belong, but rather whether any of us are ready to be transformed by our encounter with the living God. The journey of faith, the progression from an infant’s milk to an adult’s meat, isn’t easy. In the course of our journey we will go through the refiner’s fire and be washed with fullers soap.

Although the news here doesn’t sound that great, if we listen closely we will hear a word of redemption and grace. We will hear a word of unconditional love. But, this love will not leave us as it found us. Our encounter with God will lead to changed lives, healing of brokenness, and power from the Holy Spirit to embrace God’s future. This process begins in baptism, where God begins to wash as clean. Then, as we leave the waters of baptism, we’re able to start our journey with God, a journey that is sustained by our gathering at the Table. Although we need to be cautious in how we use this text, Paul speaks of the transforming power of suffering. He says:

[S]uffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us (Rom. 5:3-5).

While some among us have experienced more than their share of suffering, this word can remind us that even in the most difficult of circumstances, God is there renewing our spirits.
May we this morning, as we continue our Advent journey, answer the call to prepare to meet the God who is revealed in Bethlehem’s manger?