Sunday, December 6, 2015

A refiner's fire

Scripture Lessons: Malachi 3: 1-4 and Luke 1: 68-79 Sermon Title: A refiner’s fire The annual Christmas parade is tomorrow evening, and West 7th Street, which is truly an ideal street for a parade, will be ready. In fact, you could probably make the case that West 7th Street has been ready for the Christmas parade since before Thanksgiving. The wreathes have been up on the lamp posts, the store fronts downtown have been decorated. Columbia is ready – we are prepared for the grand Marshall of the Christmas parade to arrive. I had hoped to be named the grand marshal myself, but I lost out to Santa Clause. Now even if I’m a little jealous, as we drink that hot chocolate provide by the Fellowship Committee on the front steps of our church I’ll be prepared to cheer as he rides by on that great antique firetruck. To prepare for Santa Clause our city cleans the street and calls on the marching band. Our own Millie Landers rehearses her young dancers to somehow dance as one while also processing down the street. This whole display that welcomes Santa Clause into Columbia requires so much preparation – we need to be ready – we want our city to look her best whenever an out of town guest comes to visit. The children know this too, especially when that visiting guest is Santa. On Monday night not only will they be in attendance to watch the parade, but the children will probably have already prepared their lists, and in some way or another, prepared their reputation knowing that the old song has some truth: “You’d better watch out, you’d better not cry You’d better not pout; I’m telling you why” because Santa Clause is coming to town. When it comes to the city of Columbia and the Christmas parade, we prepare the way adults prepare – we prepare by putting our best foot forward as though Santa were like any other out of town guest. The house must be cleaned and decorated. But when it comes to children – they prepare a different way. They prepare with a time of purification, you might call it. This time of year they are mindful of their behavior knowing that good children will receive gifts and bad children coal. For them, Santa Clause coming to town is an event that must be prepared for – but you prepare by preparing your life and not your house. That almost sounds like the prophet Malachi. Bible scholars know little about the author of this book, little about the historical events that prompted this prophet to write, but what is clear is that Malachi knows that someone is coming to town and knows that with his coming preparation is necessary – but it is not the kind of preparation that we see on the eve of our Christmas parade – you don’t prepare for his coming by sweeping the streets and putting up lights – you prepare for his coming by purifying your heart, mind, and soul – for the one who is coming is “like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap.” According to Suzanne Richard, professor of Old Testament at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, a fuller – or one who used fuller’s soap – was the ancient world’s version of a dry cleaner. Clothes soaking in lye were stomped as you might imagine a group of people would stomp on grapes to make wine. The clothes were then spread out on the ground to be bleached by the sun in what was called a fuller’s field, which was always outside the city or town. It’s significant what people put outside a city or town – the dump, the cemetery, the jail, and the fuller who no doubt used the kind of lye that would clean those clothes according to his customer’s specifications so he probably used a pretty serious cleaning agent. If the one who is coming is like “fuller’s soap” then don’t imagine one of those “Dove Soap” commercials where the soap is so gentle as not to irritate the skin – the sales pitch for fuller’s soap would be that it is so abrasive that it will bleach that skin right off. The book of Malachi is about a coming messenger whose sole purpose is to say, “He is coming. The Lord is coming. So get ready. Be prepared, for he will be like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap to all who are defiled and impure.” If you ask me, the fuller’s soap is disturbing enough with its imagery of harsh cleaning agents, feet stomping, and being left to dry out in the sun, but have you ever seen a refiner’s fire? I had the opportunity to tour one of the two aluminum recycling plants in Mount Pleasant. It’s an incredible place, amazing really. You have to put on these safety glasses, a helmet, and a protective coat before you go in and once you do – the tour begins with a look at the finished product. The finished product from the process is called an ingot. The ingot is a great big slab of refined aluminum, but to make an ingot you have to start with used or unrefined aluminum, so the next part of the tour is looking at these big piles of car parts, stacks of old computers, bicycles, soft drink cans, and old wire. This part of the plant is so full of junk that the trucks and bulldozers have special tubeless tires that won’t puncture when running over scrap metal. All of this junk is placed in a furnace and the furnace building is one of the hottest places I’ve ever been. It’s one of those places where it feels like your eyes are sweating. It’s so hot in there you can almost see the heat, but you can go up in the control room and watch as the junk is melted until the impurities – the paint from the drink can, the plastic casing on the wire - all those impurities are burnt off to create something new and pure. I think of that when I read, “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.” Now here’s something interesting. The Bible uses silver and I’ve been telling you about aluminum, and these two metals are two of the most reflective of all the metals. When aluminum is heated and purified something called a “lighting sheet” is created so that the metal has a mirror like quality. Apparently that’s also true for silver, that when it’s heated the silver smith knows that his metal is pure because he can see his reflection in it. Think about that then. The metal is refined when it reflects the maker’s image. We were created in God’s image, but easily enough we gathered impurities the way a white sweater gathers stains, the way metal is painted and wrapped and treated. The human condition is one of starting out pure in the Garden of Eden, but because our creator instilled in us a capacity to choose for ourselves, so our decisions, our circumstance, and our world has corrupted and defiled what was once pure. Refining is what we need, and you know it as well as I do. It doesn’t sound like a wonderful process, but when you look out on the world can you really think for a moment that everything is as it should be? Just this week the shooting in San Bernardino is the one that got the attention. The two suspects wounded 17, killed 14 before they died themselves in a gunfight with police, but what’s worse, back in October the Washington Post reported, “So far in 2015, we’ve had 274 days and 294 mass shootings.” 274 days and 294 mass shootings. It’s so hard to believe I double checked this statistic twice. Something is wrong. And some blame the guns. Some blame our health care system, saying the care we provide the mentally ill is inadequate. Others blame the politicians, assuming that what we need are better laws. While others blame parents, thinking that if children were just loved than they wouldn’t turn into monsters. Reading from our Scripture lessons this morning, there is no guidance with it comes to who we might blame or how we might make all this right. The message for today is that one is coming who will. And he will not tolerate the kind of denial that distracts us from the real issues. He will not tolerate the half-hearted apology or the lie that masquerades as truth. No – and “who can endure on the day of his coming” is one question, but “will we endure if he doesn’t” is another. A new day is dawning, and Scripture is clear that getting to that new day is as painful as being washed with fuller’s soap, being refined in the fire, it’s like a mother giving birth to a new child. Indeed, there is weeping before the shouts of joy. There is confession before forgiveness and purification before redemption. John the Baptist, born of Zechariah the Priest, told us to get ready for it. Therefore, we have in our Second Scripture Lesson the promise of what is to come: The dawn from on high will break upon us, To give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, To guide our feet into the way of peace. We have yet to learn the ways of peace. But he is coming, and he will teach us. Amen.

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