A homily I gave a few days ago at Holly Springs United Methodist Church, Holly Springs, North Carolina, at a mid-week Advent Evening Eucharist.

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.

Malachi 3:1-4

Let us pray:

From the cowardice that dares not face new truth,
from the laziness that is contented with half-truth,
from the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth,
Deliver me and all of us, O Lord. Amen.

Prayer from Kenya, United Methodist Hymnal no. 597, adapted

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Advent is my favorite season of the Church year. I wouldn’t say “it’s the most wonderful time of the year” since that phrase, as we know, has other associations. And now you have that sappy—I mean snappy—song stuck in Image result for advent modern liturgical iconyour head, don’t you? Sorry about that. Anyway, I don’t think the word “wonderful” gets at what is most profound about Advent.

The season of Advent is the Church’s ancient autumnal interval—a marking of the time between the end of the fall harvest and the coming spareness of winter, between November’s fading light and December’s inky darkness. Advent has a sense of the foreboding about it.

And not just because the trees are stripped bare and winter winds can come early—at least for those of us in the northern hemisphere. It’s because our inner landscapes can sometimes seem as desolate as the outer ones. Achy uncertainty can blanket our spirits like a late-fall Carolina snowstorm covering everything in slate-gray stillness.

This sense of foreboding, this Advent spirit of achy uncertainty is due in part, I think, to the scriptural texts that the Lectionary, year after year, cycle after cycle, asks us to hear, read, sing, pray, ponder. These texts can be startling in their bleakness, their harshness. They are at once familiar and yet ominous, perplexing, inscrutable.

Recall St. Luke’s solemn tone on the first Sunday of Advent this year, with his warnings about “distress among nations”; people fainting “from fear and foreboding”: the charge to be “on guard” that the Lord’s Day not “catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.”

This coming Sunday John the Baptizer—that most unsettling figure of Advent—will utter his famous words of welcome to those who came to him seeking baptism: “You brood of vipers!”

Anyone ever received that lovely sentiment on a Christmas card?

And then there is our text for this evening, the Old Testament reading appointed for the second Sunday of Advent.

The book of the prophet Malachi is a short one and the last book of the Hebrew Scriptures. Turn the page and you’re in the New Testament—ready to read about the birth of Jesus at the beginning of St. Matthew’s gospel. But Malachi doesn’t portend babies and mangers and shepherds abiding. Here we have, as we heard tonight and as you may have heard on Sunday, talk of fire and cleansing and purification. The coming Day of the Lord is not cheerfully summoned; there’s a question about whether it can even be endured.

And here we have more evidence of Advent’s sobering sensibilities, its achy uncertainties. This season is about the coming of a long-awaited messiah, yes, but it’s not only or even primarily about a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger. These few verses from Malachi remind us that we begin the Christian year every Advent not by embarking on a straightforward path to nativity joy but by acknowledging the gaping chasm that exists between our deepest human longings and the reality of God.

And God, according to the prophet Malachi, is “like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap.” A refiner’s fire.

These are familiar words, especially if we’ve heard or sung Handel’s Messiah a few times. But we can too easily make the familiar idolatrous. We can forget that before the gospel is good news it is strange news. We can miss that the whole of Israel’s prophetic tradition, including the slim book of Malachi, seeks to say loud and clear and often “that things are not as they should be, nor as they were promised, and not as they must and will be.”[1] And we can misunderstand that metaphors like fire and soap and their refining, purifying properties are meant to call into question the dominant social reality of both the prophet’s day and our own.

In an Advent sermon in 1928, German pastor and later Nazi resistor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, said this:

It is very remarkable that we face the thought that God is coming, so calmly, whereas previously peoples trembled at the day of God . . . . We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.[2]

Bonhoeffer’s words suggest to me and perhaps to you that Advent might be the season of the liturgical year that reveals most profoundly how our social location determines how we read the Bible.

I’ll say that again: Advent might be the season of the liturgical year that reveals most profoundly how our social location determines how we read the Bible.

Because what we discover when we take in the sobering, unsettling scriptures of Advent is that they are difficult not because they are willfully obscure but because we are often willfully lodged in places of privilege and power, incapable of hearing them from the underside of history from which they come.

Refining fire is a horrifying prospect to those who benefit from the status quo. To the powerless whose daily lives are a struggle for survival, for dignity, the fire that would purify unjust systems, the caustic soap that would clean out corruption and abuse of power can’t do its work soon enough.

For those of us whose way of life depends on political, economic, and social systems in which power and resources are accessible to a privileged few, refining fire and caustic soap and the winnowing fork and the axe laid to the root of the tree and any number of Advent’s startling images can make us long for cradles and creches and toddler-shepherds in bathrobes. We prefer soft candlelight to refining fire, thank you.

But here’s the good news in this strange text in this bleak season—and it’s Bonhoeffer’s words again from the same sermon in 1928:

Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness. God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love.

It turns out, as blacksmiths and jewelers know, that refining fire does not annihilate; it purifies to make something beautiful. We are forged in a fire that makes us able to “offer ourselves to the Lord in righteousness”—to see to the moral obligations that bind us to God and to our neighbors.

“Moral obligation” is the connotation of the Hebrew word for “righteousness” in this passage but it does not refer simply to the obligation of charity that we are so good at this time of year. Rather, it’s about the obligation to let go of what we think of as real, as stable, as ordered and uncontested—the systems, again, that serve and benefit us at the expense of others—and to inhabit that realm, that reign, that kingdom of righteousness which all of Advent is leading us to: where the proud are scattered in the thoughts of their hearts, the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up, where the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty.

I’ve included an image in our bulletin tonight by Everett Patterson, an artist based in Portland, Oregon who created this illustration in 2014. It is rich in JoseyMariaWebvisuals, in symbols and associations with the familiar story of a displaced couple in dire straits: an illegitimate pregnancy, harassment from political authorities, shunning and rejection from local businesses, an uncertain future.

I hope you’ll take the image with you and for the remainder of Advent and into the twelve days of the Christmas season ponder all these things in your heart. For, like the startling, unsettling texts of Advent, this image is about power. Who has it and who doesn’t. Like Advent, it reminds us that God resides with the powerless and invites us to live there, too.

And the power of Advent is that the one we are waiting for has already given us all we need to do this, to bear witness to his reign, to stand alongside and learn from those considered illegitimate—the harassed, the shunned, the rejected, those with an uncertain future.

For when the Word became flesh he didn’t just slip into skin like ours. And he didn’t come to impart wisdom to help us important people get on with our busy lives. He came, full of grace and truth, to show us that we are made for relationship, that we are most fully human when we live into God’s desired future envisioned by prophets like Malachi, where all abide in kinship and mutual care—where all oppression ceases, all are made welcome, all know their belovedness.

We need to be purified to see this vision of what God desires for all creation—to work for it and live into it. We need to be cleaned up. Fire and soap.

And we need bread. We need to be fed by the one who was born in Bethlehem, the house of bread, who gave his own body to be broken and shared. As we come to the table we offer our own brokenness—our anxieties, our blindness, our mixed-up priorities, and our toxic prejudices. And we trust that God will take all that we are and purify us, cleanse us, and make us beautiful.

This is our hope, in this season and in all the seasons of our lives.

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[1]Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), 21.

[2]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Ed. Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995) pp. 185-186.