Preached at Fountain UMC December 2015. (I don’t edit spelling and grammar on the written part of my sermons! Sorry!)
My youngest son was born on January 5th. (He missed the new millennium by 5 days…) I preached right around his birthday last year and in my research I discovered that January 5th was Christmas Eve for much of church history, and still is in some parts of the church. And I thought that was the coolest thing ever! So, I ran to his room and told him… “You know what? We’re both born on Christmas Eve!” I was born on December 24.
The thing about our family that makes us unique, is that my birthday, on December 24th, is the third birthday we celebrate the week before Christmas. My oldest son was born on the 18th and my husband on the 22nd. It makes for a very long week!
In years, like this year, where we cooked Thanksgiving dinner, it makes for a very long holiday season! Our season begins the weekend before Thanksgiving and ends on the first weekend of January. The weekend before Thanksgiving, we clean the house, from top to bottom. And somehow, we pull it together for the rest of the season and keep the house somewhat clean. We subconsciously put new routines into place…we almost have to with the calendar so full of birthday parties and Christmas celebrations!
It is truly a time of preparation and expectation.
As I vacuum and sweep, and dust…I can almost hear John the Baptist crying out… “Prepare the way of the Lord…”
“Prepare the way of the Lord…” John the Baptist was not the first to utter these words of course, he was quoting the Book of Isaiah. Even Isaiah was probably using a phrase that was commonly used when a King was coming to town.
Just like a presidential visit today, a community would have to prepare for a Kings visit. An advanced messenger would come to announce the royal visitor…and everyone would tidy up their homes and their city and themselves… “Prepare the way of the Lord…”
For hundreds of years the Jewish people had been expecting a Messiah, the one that would deliver them from oppression, that would save them from sin and death. A King was coming, and when it was time, God sent before the Lord an advanced messenger. “Get ready it is time. Get yourselves ready, it’s time.”
For John the Baptist, preparing for the Lord was tied closely to repentance. Stop doing what you are doing, turn from your old ways, and turn to God. Get yourselves cleaned up, do what you are supposed to do, pay attention to the details…prepare, for the King is coming…
We have reduced John the Baptists idea of repenting to a few short steps…I found one list, repent in12 easy steps…it was my favorite list…just because of the first step…Listen to your preacher! But there was another even shorter list…6 steps. Yesterday when me and Alan were wandering around an antique store we ran across a set of videos…transform your life in seven days.
Seven days to transformation. Six steps to preparing for the coming of The King.
I love the first line of The Chronicles of Narnia novel, Voyage of the Dawn Treader, “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it…” Now, I don’t know if he deserved that name, but if any imaginary child did, it would probably be Eustace! He was whiney, and selfish, bossy, and a bully. And he really didn’t like his cousins, Edmund and Lucy. But during a summer visit, the three of them found themselves transported to Narnia, travelling on a Narnian ship…on a small ship where it was hard to avoid each other…Edmund and Lucy were trapped with whiney, bossy, Eustace. Finally, after about a month of sailing, they spotted land!
And when they landed, Eustace decided he didn’t want to have anything to do with the hard work of unloading the ship and setting up camp, so he wandered away. Quickly becoming lost.
Unfortunately, for him, as he tried to find his way back he wandered into a dragon’s valley. And in the magic that is the world of Narnia, he became a dragon. And he didn’t like it very much. And although he did find his way back to his cousins, he couldn’t talk. He could not tell him what hurt, what was bothering him, he could not tell them how scared he was, or how alone he felt, so even when they were around, he was miserable and alone in his selfishness.
But one night, a large moonlit lion, Aslan, the Christ like lion, came and brought Eustace, the dragon, to a pool of water. And he knew, when he saw the water, that it would be healing. But Aslan let him know that he had to remove the dragon first. And Eustace did. He scratched and scratched, pealing his dragon skin right off! Until it was laying on the ground beside him. But as he took a step towards the water, he saw his foot…still very much a dragon’s foot. So, he tried again. Scratching and scratching until his dragon skin was laying on the ground beside him. He took a step towards the water, and again he saw, he was still a dragon. He tried again, but again, no matter how deeply he scratched, he was still a dragon.
Isn’t that how it is with us? We prepare for a King, for THE King, by cleaning our homes, buying new Christmas clothes, setting the table, following six steps to repentance…and when it is all over, we go back to the way it was. Nothing really changed at all.
But there was another text in the lectionary this week. Another text on repentance…Listen to these words from the book of Malachi:
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 the LORD in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.
The process of refining silver is long, and detailed, and to be honest, pretty boring to watch. If you watch the process, it looks as if the silver smith isn’t doing anything…
A few years ago, my dad called me to let me know that my grandma had cancer. They were going to do all they could to make her comfortable but she had elected to not fight it. So, over the next eight weeks, we took turns at her bedside. Sitting with her, comforting her, feeding her until she couldn’t eat any more…one night, we knew it was nearing the end, my aunt, my dad, and I were sitting by her beside. As the night wore on, my dad and I fell asleep. But my aunt, she didn’t sleep. She sat there watching my grandmother’s every breath…quiet, still, silent…but there was nothing passive about her presence with her mom that night. At about two in the morning, she whispered into the darkness, that she had taken her last breath, it was done, her pain was no more.
This image of God’s presence in our lives, the silversmith, still but intense and active…It is a powerful image.
The silver smith adds silver to a container that can handle the heat, and then he starts applying heat. For a long time, you can barely tell that anything is happening. The silver smith is just sitting there. Adjusting the heat, just a little, here and there almost imperceptibly. As the silver begins to melt, it starts separating from the impurities. The silver smith actively, even if in his stillness adds heat where it is needed and just at the right moment, so it isn’t too hard to work, he removes the silver from the heat, poring it into a mold…not to fast…not to slow…
It is a beautiful image. God making small adjustments here and there, still…not passive, but with the eternal patience and stillness of God.
But then I realized that we are not the silver smith…but the silver…Ouch.
This is not an easy, cheap image of repentance. This isn’t temporary change; it isn’t simple…it is not pain free. Turning away from the old and towards God…hurts.
Back in Narnia, Eustace could not remove the dragon skin that he found himself living in, no matter how many times he tried. Aslan, finally said… “you will have to let me…”
“I was afraid of his claws,” Eustace said, “But I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it. ‘The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. …He peeled the beastly stuff right off-and there it was, lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been…”
This is repentance. The thing is when you discover something that needs to change…really needs to change…in a “you’re the silver. God’s the Silver Smith” kind of way…it will cause you fear…in a clutching your fist, “there is no way I am letting this go” kind of way.
It is in this moment that you begin preparing for The King. Preparing for This King has less to do with getting it done yourself, and more to do with letting God do God’s thing. Hearing His voice calling…whispering to you… “you will have to let me” … “trust me” … “have faith in me” … “you’re just going to have to let me” …
Eustace, finally swimming and splashing in the cool, refreshing, healing water “found that all the pain had gone”…and then he saw why. He’d turned to a boy again. The dragon, and his selfish, bossy, bullying ways…gone.
The silver smith, holding us, shaping us, refining us…Watching so closely that he knows when the silver is fully refined; when the impurities are burned fully away…It is when the silver smith sees his image reflected in the silver, that the silver is finally prepared.