Advent 2: Repent and Repair
A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday of Advent, December 4, 2016
Malachi 3:1-4 Matthew 3:1-12
Our second reading this morning comes from the Prophet Malachi. Malachi is the last of the prophets. His writings appear in the Hebrew Scripture, or Jewish Bible, as part of the Book of the Twelve. But in the Jewish Bible, the Prophets are followed by the Writings: the histories, legends, and wisdom, as well as the poetry and psalms. Not so in the Christian Old Testament. Christians give the prophets the final word, and Malachi the very last word of all: and that word is expectation. Malachi writes of God’s deep and abiding love for ancient Israel, of the hypocrisy and failure of its temple leaders, and of a coming Day of Lord – a day of judgment which will be (quickly) followed by a kingdom of heaven.
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 God in justice. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to God as in the days of old and as in former years.
Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who (lie and) swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow, and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the immigrant and alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.
* * * * * * *
Wow. Malachi announces that the messenger of the covenant is coming. We, like his first hearers, are delighted, and the announcement generates excitement and hope. But we must be careful, Malachi warns, the messenger we long to receive will come “like a refiner’s fire” to painfully purify us. Will we be able to stand it?
When it comes to the New Testament, all four of the gospels place John the Baptist, another prophet, at the very beginning. John appears dressed like the prophet Elijah, quoting the prophet Isaiah, and talking about a coming judgment in ways that sound similar to Malachi. He too is looking forward to one who is to come.
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out (in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord), make his paths straight.’” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
As Christians, we hear the words of these prophets in the context of the birth and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. We have a tendency, though, to keep focused on the impending happy event of the birth and can miss the other dimension of Advent – Christ’s coming in judgment. Our passage from Matthew 3 alludes to this dimension of Advent. Prepare a straight path for God’s coming. John the Baptist quotes from Isaiah to capture the impossible possibility of a world utterly rearranged in the time of God’s coming.
With the social pressure and commercial hype leading up to Christmas, it is easy to trivialize the coming of the covenant messenger (to stick with Malachi’s title). At the worst, it’s a time of wild acquisition and social obligation. At its best, we romanticize it into a starry-eyed day of universal good-will, when (we hope) the world will take a “break” from war, violence, and hatred. But Malachi’s and John’s message is a stern one: God doesn’t want us to “take a break” from injustice and violence. We are not to be amnesiacs who forget our connection to the world in both its splendor and its horror. Instead, God wants us to repent and repair our world so that our celebration upholds covenant faithfulness rather than simply rote convention or warm platitudes.
Malachi invites us to ask: Do our lives and the excesses of the holiday season honor God’s covenant? Who made the running shoes that we bought for our daughter? Was it another child? Who is enriched by our excessive consumption? Who is made poor? Are we ready to answer for the ways in which our purchases and other daily choices disrupt and rend our covenant with sisters and brothers around the world?
Needless to say, these are not the kinds of words we want to hear during a busy holiday season. Stressed out by family, church, work, and social expectations, we long for a God who will come to affirm, not refine, us! But perhaps the ‘messenger of the covenant’ offers us something ultimately more valuable than affirmation and that is freedom – freedom from the hopeless cycle of getting and spending that does not truly create the kind of family or world we desire. In this Advent season, we are offered a way out; it may burn, but it will save us. Will we choose it?
One response to Malachi might be to try and withdraw from the world and in that way keep ourselves “pure”. Being “pure” does not involve being separate from the world, but rather having priorities different from those of people who simply follow what he vividly describes as “the god of the belly.”
Paul echoes this call in his letter to the Philippians when he encourages and prays for the church, that they will be found pure and blameless on the day of Christ because they have produced a harvest of justice. He explains that we are to live on earth – but as citizens of heaven. Indeed, as Jesus’ followers we pray every day (and every week with our children here) that it may be “on earth as in heaven.” But our heavenly citizenship means that we work to make heaven’s priorities those of earth as well, that we may produce a harvest of justice that gives honor to God and assures our neighbor’s – all our neighbors – well being.
In concrete terms it means that for those of us who are poor, for those of us who are on the underside of power, for those of us who already are pretty exhausted with figuring out how to make ends meet, how to keep a roof over our and our family’s heads, how to stay safe – it means stepping up to chart the way forward for our church, our community, our society. It means those who are poor and vulnerable are the ones – the only ones – who know how to turn a crooked path into a “straight path for God’s coming.” They are the ones to chart the path forward, to lay the blueprint.
And those of us who are not poor help turn crooked paths straight by working side by side, hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder with those who are poor. This means show “hesed” – loyalty – to not walk away, to not allow money or job or seeming security to anethestize or insulate, but to put our power, our social standing, our resources at the disposal of this re-charting of the way from crooked path to straight so that God’s vision of covenant community can move from dream to reality, from what should be done to what we are doing together.
This is not a fantasy – glimpses of God’s covenant community have been seen in different ways in different times, from farmworkers of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and consumers across the nation compelling the largest retail corporations in the world to utterly transform the tomato fields of seven states from sites of exploitation to exemplars of human rights in the workplace. To truth and reconciliation committees in 1990s Peru that exposed and memorialized the violence of the Shining Path and Peruvian Armed Forces that shattered the republic and whose horrors claimed so many lives, allowing these lessons to be woven into the nation’s democracy. To movements afoot right now in our nation, such as the growing awareness and the more than 2,000 military veterans who are standing with Standing Rock: crooked paths are made straight by repentance and repair. But they can only be made straight when those who have been made vulnerable architect the way and those who have more power help re-route the road.
May this Advent be a time of planning and construction. In our own relationships, church, neighborhood and world, may we join the hopeful and essential work of making crooked paths straight.