Tuesday, December 11, 2018

"Prepare the Way: Refine" - Sermon, December 9, 2018

Community UMC, Quincy
“Prepare the Way: Refine”
Rev. Andrew Davis
December 9, 2018
Malachi 3: 1-4
Luke 3: 1-6

         This past week as I was reading through our texts for this morning, parts of Handel’s Messiah immediately came to mind. How many of you have had the opportunity to sing the Messiah, have it on CD, or have seen it live?  The Messiah by George Friedrich Handel is a beloved choral masterwork that often gets associated with Christmas, although it is a work that was written to tell the entire story Jesus’s life through music; from the prophets announcing his birth all the way to the resurrection.  As I read these two texts this morning, I hear the words, “But who may abide, the day of his coming” or “Every valley…every valley, shall be exalted…” playing through my mind.  Now, I could sing both of these solo arias from the Messiah, although they are a bit demanding to sing without extensive rehearsal, especially “But Who May Abide” where it talks about the refiner’s fire and all the notes in that part.
            As we continue our Advent journey, now in its second week, we began our series, “Prepare the Way” last week by talking about Jesus’s second coming, or Parousia, as the first Sunday of Advent begins with Jesus’s second coming. When we come in expecting to talk about Jesus’s birth, it can be a little bit unsettling and jarring if you’re not used to dealing with hearing about the second coming, or hearing apocalyptic language and seeing such imagery.  And yet, there is still hope even in the midst of the chaos and the vivid imagery, because we have this hope of redemption, salvation, and this hope of peace, love, and joy that can be born in each of us at Christmas each year.  Likewise, Advent is a time of waiting, watching, preparing, and taking some time of stepping out from the hustle and bustle of this time of year.  As I shared last week, I’m finding that similar to the season of Lent, adopting spiritual practices during Advent is a meaningful way of stepping away from this busy time to spend some time in quiet and spending some time with God.  Just like Lent, Advent “calls for a time of reflection and even repentance and mourning, [while it] also invites people to a joyful celebration in anticipation of a radical divine intervention with the coming of the Messiah.”[i]Even in the now, but not-yet between his first arrival and second coming, we as followers of Christ are the ones that can bring that joyful celebration and anticipation to those around us. 
            As we engage with our texts this morning, we hear this message of someone coming, whether it’s in the form of a messenger in Malachi’s prophecy, or John the Baptist calling on the people around him to ‘prepare the way of the Lord’ as he cites the prophecy from Isaiah 40 (Luke 3: 4). In Malachi’s prophecy, we get the imagery that when this messenger does arrive, he will be “like a refiner’s fire” or “fullers/cleaning soap” that will “purify” everyone who crosses the Messiah’s path (Malachi 3: 2-3).  Yet what exactly is this “refiner’s fire” that Malachi is talking about?  Rev. Dr. Irving Cotto talks about how refining in this case 
stems from the effects of the coming messenger’s work.  It is a call to renewal on the part of God’s people.  It is not so much the idea of punishment as it is the idea of being convicted in light of the Great Day of the Lord and a time of new beginning.  The prophet concludes [the Book of Malachi] with a promise of hope.[ii]

            Even both of last week’s texts point towards a new beginning which all of us have the opportunity to experience at Christmas, even as we spend this time of actively preparing during the season of Advent. As part of this active preparation, we need to take the time to repent, to seek forgiveness from God, to forgive others who have wronged us, seek forgiveness from the ones we have wronged, and to allow ourselves to experience a new birth or beginning, and accept God’s grace.  To refine means to renew, so that we can be like that gold or silver, renewed and purified once again.  
Even in Luke’s gospel, we see John the Baptist, Jesus’s cousin who lives in the desert proclaiming a prophecy that something more powerful than him is coming, a messiah, one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.  Here in Luke’s Gospel, we encounter John being kind of like the hype-man that warms up a crowd before a TV or comedy show, or the guy we’ve been seeing on TV, Michael Buffer who says, ‘let’s get ready to rummmmmmmmbbbbbbbbbbbble,’ hyping the people up to prepare the way for Jesus’s ministry, ‘prepare the way of the Lord.’   John’s ministry involves calling on the people to repent, as their salvation is coming near, which is a major theme all throughout Luke’s gospel.  At the time Luke’s gospel was written, John is calling on “an ethical renewal in Israel, and the extension of the work of salvation to all peoples.”[iii]
Nevertheless, when we think about being purified, about changing our hearts, preparing the way of the Lord, and about new beginnings at Christmas, we still need to get ready.  Part of that is the need to remove the obstacles and barriers that get in the way, even the walls that we tend to put up around our hearts, which is what happens when the valleys are made plain and the mountains made low[iv].  Likewise, as we are on the journey towards sanctification, which is the Methodist view of salvation, we are seeking to ultimately having the mind and likeness of Christ. Yet as we are on the journey of justification, we have to constantly refine ourselves by accepting God’s grace, practicing self-reflection, being willing to be held accountable by our peers, studying God’s word, worshiping often, and seeking God’s will in everything we do.  
On the other hand, anytime I mention change which is akin to dropping a four-letter up here, I’ll encounter some who will say ‘well, I’m not going to change, so deal with it.’ Yet, all of us are in need of change; we’re all in need of refining; we all have something to repent of, myself included.  As much baggage that change or repentance might carry, it’s not a bad thing and is something that is necessary.  
It’s like weeding the garden, mowing the lawns, or at this time of year, pruning our trees and bushes.  
One of my favorite authors, The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor explains that 
As any good gardener knows, new life requires some assistance.  The life itself is entirely God’s gift, but the cultivation of it calls for work.  There is some tilling and fertilizing to be done, some weeding and pruning of dead branches.  Without such intentional participation in the renewal of life, the roses will eventually disappear under the poke-weed, and the [beetles] will eat all of the peaches.[v]

That’s what Malachi and John the Baptist are essentially talking about, as we need to be refined and we need to overcome the obstacles and barriers that we tend to put up as we prepare the way of the Lord during Advent, so that we can fully experience the new life that Christmas brings.  
            This week in our Advent study, Down to Earth, we’re going to be talking about lifestyle and as we think about what it means to look within ourselves, to be refined, and prepare the way of the Lord, Mike Slaughter writes that 
Advent is one of our best opportunities to perform the greatest act of service that anyone could ever commit: introducing another person into a life-giving and life-transforming relationship with Jesus Christ.[vi]

It doesn’t mean we have to have our stuff together and already be refined, but this walk of faith is not meant to be done alone either.  It means that we have others we can be refined with together, people we can prepare the way of the Lord with together, and even repent together because “God is still in the process of doing.  All who hear ‘the Word of God’ are called to declare what God is doing in our midst.”[vii]Like the Christmas gifts that we shop for, sharing your faith, sharing how God has refined you and has changed your heart with someone else, sharing that “life-giving, life-transforming relationship with Jesus Christ” is a gift on its own.[viii]
As we go into the new week and actively continue preparing the way of the Lord, think about renewal and what we can renew in ourselves at Christmas, both as individuals and a church.  Where do you need to repent and where might you need refining? What are some things that we can change within ourselves and our hearts?  And what are some obstacles that are still in the way, or as Luke says, “mountains and hills” that need “to be made low” as we prepare for Christmas? 
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, let the Church Say, AMEN!! 


[i]Rev. Dr. Irving Cotto, “Second Sunday of Advent 2018, Year C Preaching Notes" in Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church, accessed 8 December 2018, https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/advent-christmas-epiphany-2018-19-worship-planning-series/december-9-second-sunday-of-advent-year-c/second-sunday-of-advent-2018-year-c-preaching-notes
[ii]Ibid.  
[iii]R. Allen Culpepper, “Commentary on the Gospel of Luke” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol. IX (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 81.
[v]Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin: Recovering the Lost Language of Salvation (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2000), 49.
[vi]Mike Slaughter and Rachel Billups: Down to Earth: The Hopes and Fears of All the Years are Met in Thee Tonight (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016), 82.  
[vii]R. Allen Culpepper, 82.
[viii]Slaughter and Billups, 82.

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