Rev. George Miller
Dec 6, 2015
Christmas-time in Florida can be odd. We know it’s the Christmas season, we hear the songs, we see the TV specials, and we’ve begun the holiday-related over-eating.
But the decorations outside of Publix, the ads featuring snow, just do not match the green of the grass, the humidity of the last few mornings, and the fact that people at both the Avon Park and Sebring parades were in shorts and using insect-repellent.
Does it seem like Christmas? It probably doesn’t help that the scriptures thus far are not the traditional Advent readings we’re used to.
Where is the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah being told they will have a child named John? Where is the angelic visit to Mary? Where is the celebration of Joseph being man enough to love a child that isn’t biologically his?
Instead we have this reading from the last book of the Old Testament that uses images of fullers’ soap, refiner’s fire and bad news for adulterers and those who do not pay a fair wage to their employees.
Merry Christmas, anyone?
Yet, within these verses, throughout the brief book of Malachi, there is indeed Good News, and glimpses of Christmas cheer.
To find it, we can do what the writers of the Bible often do, which is to turn to lessons learned in nature, both the perilous and the purifying.
One lesson we observe, and have observed this week is that of cleansing. Creation has a way of making itself clean.
For example, the rain that fell on Thursday and Friday night. It seemed as if that rain had been held in the clouds for days. The humidity was higher than usual, salt shakers were clogged, and my poor cozy cottage felt like it needed to be wrung out.
Then thankfully, the skies opened, the rains fell, and it washed away the debris on the street, the stains on the sidewalk, and the gunk on our cars.
The flowers, trees, bushes soaked all the water up. And like that, the heavy and burdensome feeling that humidity bears seemed to vanish.
Yesterday, with the moisture gone, a cool breeze blew throughout Downtown. A relaxing breeze permitted windows and doors to be opened, allowing fresh air, and a refreshing spirit to flow through people’s homes.
I opened all the windows of my automobile, realizing just how funky cars can become when they sit in the sun for too long and don’t have a chance to air out.
Nature can be cruel, but nature can also be cleansing. Beside rain and wind, another way cleansing takes place is through fire.
Ever notice how you can gage how long someone has lived in Highlands County according to how they respond to fire?
For those who were raised in non-rural settings, the notion of a controlled burn is a foreign thing.
During the 1st one to two years here when a recent transplant sees a fire, or hears that the city is doing a controlled burn, they are fearful, wondering what’s happening, and doubting the wisdom of why anyone would intentionally set fire to an orange grove or a part of the Hammock.
They can be told the reasons, shown the evidence of how it’s beneficial, assured that the fire department has it all under control, but still there’s the sense of fear and trepidation about them.
I recall one day driving to church, seeing a fire in the groves, calling 911 to report it, worried that my home could be caught in the blaze. Nonchalantly the operator stated that they must’ve started a controlled burn sooner than scheduled.
That didn’t feel very reassuring, but alas when I got home, my house was still there.
Around year three one gets used to driving through the county and seeing plumes of smoke in the sky. There’s still the worry that it could be your house, coupled with the uneasy realization that it’s probably not.
You know you’ve lived here long enough when a burn takes place and you’re the one reassuring a newbie that all will be fine.
Such was the case when there was a fire alongside our walking path. Ruthie was all worried and fearful about her apartment’s safety. I was causally positive that a scheduled burn was taking place.
Around year 4 or 5 one gets to the point in which you see the smoke on the other side of Lake Jackson, and automatically think “Oh, there’s a controlled burn.”
You go back to driving your car, and thinking about what else has to be done that day, as if smoke in the sky is the most ordinary of things to see.
Like the rain and the wind in nature, fire plays its own role as well.
Fire can reduce the dangers of overgrowth, cut-back the spread of weeds, tree disease, the debris of litter and dropped branches.
It stimulates the germination of some trees, like the Sequoia, whose cones need the heat of a fire to open up and disperse their seeds.
Controlled fires don’t stop life; they actually help in regeneration and restoration, as they enhance wildlife habitats, improve spaces for grazing, and allow accessibility to the soil and nutrients on the forest floor.
Rain, wind and fire are all part of the natural order. They can be destructive; they can be life-giving. They can sully, but they can also cleanse.
It is the cleansing aspect that Malachi is focusing on today.
Written nearly 500 years before the birth of Jesus, Malachi is giving a message to the people of God, a message that things have not been so good.
Religious leaders have not behaved the best they could. There is corruption and misuse of authority.
People have forgotten that they’re united under the one God who asks for justice, kindness and humbleness.
Instead, they do what they want, refuse to give properly to God, and participate in gossip. Then they wonder “Where is God and why does God seem so powerless?”
But God has not been absent; God has not been inactive. God has been busy remembering; God has been busy waiting.
That once upon a time, God had made a promise to a childless couple named Abraham and Sarah that he will bless them with a family more numerous than stars in the sky, and that their family would bless all the families in the world.
No matter what, God remembers this promise. Even when the people seem to forget, God remembers. Even when the people seem just about to destroy themselves, God remembers.
In remembering, God is also actively waiting. Waiting for what?
For the people to turn back to God.
For the people to stop putting God last. For the people to stop giving their attention to false gods and idle distractions that don’t mean a whit in the real world.
But the people have been so caught up in their way of living, the systems that have been in place, that they don’t even know how they can turn back to God.
“How shall we return?” they honestly ask.
“How shall we return?” they wonder, and it’s heartbreaking that they have forgotten the very essence of who they are and what it means to be God’s people.
But fortunately, God does not forget, nor has God turned away. Fortunately, God is not inactive.
Nor has God forgotten or turned away today. Nor is God inactive, although recent events seem to say so.
If there is something we can learn from Malachi is that like a professional cleaner, God is right there, ready to remove our stains, ready to rinse us clean, ready to get rid of the things that are funky, so that we can start anew.
Like a refiner’s fire, God is ready to burn away the dross that dims our shine. God is ready to burn away the unnecessary stuff that holds us back from being the precious silver and gold we truly are.
Like a controlled fire, God is able to burn away that which chokes out new beginnings, and God can burn away any overgrowth that blocks the paths that lead to fresh starts.
Advent is a season of getting ready and focusing on what truly matters most.
Advent is a time in which we wait. We wait with Mary, we wait with Joseph, and we wait with the entire cosmos to experience the birth of the Promised Child who will redeem us all.
Advent is also a time in which we journey; we journey to that small town of Bethlehem, we journey to the manger, we journey to see, once again, the eyes of God.
As we wait, I believe Malachi would tell us that now is a perfect time to re-invite God into our lives. Now is a perfect time to seek a return to sacred holiness and unity in God.
As we wait, as we journey along familiar paths, we recall the ways in which rain, wind, and fire can work to rinse, to revive, and to refine.
As we ask “How can we return?” we find ways to invite God to wash away what needs to be washed away.
We invite God to refresh what has become stale and funky; and we ask God to burn away that which is preventing fresh seeds from being scattered.
When God responds, when God acts, when God refines, we are better able to do what God has always wanted us to do- to do justice, to do acts of kindness, and to fearlessly walk beside God, in grace and humility.
And when those stains, when that funk, when those moments of overgrowth reoccur, we can always turn back to God.
Because although we may from time to time forget, God does not.
God is righteous, God is ready to refine, and God is sending a messenger to prepare the way that is being set before us.
May we have eyes to see, ears to hear, and the heart to believe that this is always true.
Amen and amen.