Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Saying "Yes".....To What?

This week's scriptures are Malachi 3:1-7 and Luke 1:26-38.

Luke tells us that Mary said "yes." In spite of her confusion; in spite of her fear; in spite of how out right impossible what the angel was telling her was...she said, "yes." Simeon, the old man in the temple when Jesus was taken for circumcision (Luke 2:34-35), would give her an honest appraisal that this child would cause "the inner thoughts of many will be revealed-and a sword will pierce your own soul too." Saying "yes"...even to being the mother of the Messiah, has a price to be paid.

This late fall and early winter have been interesting times for me of observing people saying "yes" to the uncertainties of life: my son got married in late October; three members of our congregation are becoming parents-two of them for the first time; a friend begins to think about returning to school. Each of these choices, each of these "yes" responses, is a moving forward in the face of uncertainty. It is, hopefully, a move forward to joy and fullfillment. But it is also a "yes" with a price. And it's a price that no one knows at the time what it will be.

Malachi and John the Baptist both present pictures of the "Day of the Lord" the coming of the One that has been promised. Their pictures are not gentle, pastoral scenes. Phrases like "refiner's fire", "fuller's soap", and "winnowing fork" run through them. This coming...though we look for it, thought we desire it, though we ache for it will call us to account and to change at the very core of our lives.

Malachi in particular paints a picture of the priests bringing second rate offerings to God. Sacrifices that were supposed to be "without spot or blemish" are replaced with ones that God declares are "tiresome"..."if you bring as your offering victims that are mutilated, lame or sickly, am I to accept them from you?" (Malachi 1:13). [This, by the way, is a struggle in humankind's spirituality and worship that's been going on since Cain brought a second rate offering to the meal with the Lord in Genesis] He goes on to say that God declares, "I shall appear before you in court, quickly to testify against sorcereres, adulterers, and perjurers, against those who cheat the hired labourer of his wages, who wrong the widow and the fatherless, who thrust the alien aside and do not fear me, says the Lord of Hosts." (Malachi 3:5)

Second rate devotion in my personal worship; and selfish injustice in my relations with others. How different am I from the priests and people to whom Malachi spoke? How often is what I bring to God in my own spiritual life less than what God wants and requires? I come to pray, but am I really honest-even with God-about what is going on in the depths of my heart? How much of my "social justice" is 'out there' where it makes no real demands on me personally? How often do I by-pass my neighbor in need...the one who would make a daily ongoing demand on my life...to pat myself on the back for helping the distant cause? These are my questions for me...they may not be yours-you may have an entirely different set-but I'll bet you have some.

But in Malachi God speaks after these words of judgement to say "I, the Lord, do not change, and you have not ceased to be children of Jacob" (3:6). After all this, God says that we're still family! The people in Malachi's dialogue respond with the question "how can we return?" How do we possibly come back from where we've gone to?

I would maintain that this is one of the primary truths about Advent for you and me: we don't return....we do say "yes" We say "yes" to the God who comes. Our response is to turn (the meaning of the word 'repent') and to say "yes."

That "yes" will be costly. It will bring the refiner's fire, the winnowing fork, the fuller's soap. It will engage us in an ongoing process of growth and repentance and moving toward what we were created to be (the meaning, I think, of the word "sanctification"). It isn't neat and clean. It isn't necessarily pretty. It's often painful. And it takes a really long time...a lifetime to be exact. I've often imagined that one of the reasons that we celebrate Advent each year is that each year we need to say "yes" again to this ongoing "coming of the Messiah" in our lives.

This week I listened to an acquaintance talk about picking up a "chip" for 17 years of sobriety in his 12-Step program. In the very next breath he was speaking about the struggles he was having with the next phase of his growth and emotional health and recovery. The "Day of the Lord" is not a 'one and done' proposition. It is an ongoing relationship that brings us incredible joy; but that also challenges and stretches and pushes us to our limits.

Let's be honest with one another. Advent isn't all about the soft and mushy underbelly of the coming of the Baby Jesus. I love the manger scene. I love the Infant Holy, Infant Lowly hymns...they speak to the lengths that God is willing to go to bring us home. But Advent is also about what it will cost us to say "yes" to this coming. Am I willing to stand in the refiner's fire? To bear washing with the fuller's soap? To have my life tossed skyward by the winnowing fork so that all that isn't truly valuable can be blown away?

It is an old image, but it bears repeating: the refiner, working with precious metal, knows that the refining task is done when she can look down into the metal and see her image. You and I are created in the Image of God...the Imago Dei. We can bend it, we can twist it, we can tarnish it til it cannot be seen by any but the Great Refiner...but we cannot destroy it. We are still part of the family, "children of Jacob." Advent calls us to the tasks of saying "yes" to the work of God in restoring that Image in us.

Advent is here. Let all the people say "yes".

See you Sunday.

1 comment:

kara said...


I think Advent is one of my favorite parts of Christianity - even though I don't think Jesus ever said to 'light candles and read pre-selected scripture in remembrance of me.' But I really appreciate the time away for the commercialism of Christmas - and even the platitudes of the religion - to reflect on what it means to be Christian and in essence to prepare to 'get better' at it.

It's really refreshing to be reminded that it takes a lifetime :)