“I Love You, But…”
Malachi 3:1-4 and Luke 3:7-9
1See, 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. 2But 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; 3he 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. 4Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Prayer for Illumination
Lord you did come down that we may have peace…but are we ready for the peace you bring? Are we ready for what we must sacrifice to enter in to that peace? Confront us with your Word that cuts to the quick and makes no apologies. Make us ready for Christmas, we pray. Amen.
The word of the Lord. THANKS BE TO GOD.
A few weeks back, Abby Devries invited us to tour the Piedmont Health Center and meet with the executive director.
We had a great visit and learned about the incredible work they do providing healthcare to the under-insured in our community.
We left the center in Carrboro and – seeing that it was about noon – Meg said to me “How about we go out to lunch?”
Now, Meg has already exposed my frugality from this pulpit so this should come as no surprise…but when she said “why don’t we go out to lunch?” my mind became supremely aware of the leftovers from the Men’s Breakfast here at Church…the very FREE leftovers.
So I ventured a modest proposal…the transcript:
Me: “What about instead of going out – we go back to Church and get lunch THERE!?!”
Meg: “I can see that’s what you want to do, but…”
Me: “But what?”
Meg: “But – I wish you were more excited to take your beloved out to lunch.”
…Long pause…still pausing
Me: “Do you love me?”
Meg (slightly exasperated): “Yes – I love you but sometimes I just wish you were…different”
I could – and probably should – stop right there and call it a day with this sermon: That’s the heart of the message today
“I love you, but sometimes I wish you were different.”
The second Sunday of Advent is often set aside for John the Baptist. And surely you can see why – nothing gets you in the holiday spirit quite like being called a “brood of vipers.” He’s more like John the Buzzkill.
But John is there nonetheless, occupying our holidays like an unexpected house guest. In stark contrast to the Christmas candy hitting the shelves the day after Halloween; in contrast to that one radio station that’s been playing Christmas music since November, John is the speed-bump slowing our roll as we hurdle headlong into Christmas. “It’s Advent,” Uncle John insists – “slow down…because you are not ready for Christmas yet.”
Which means the rest of us who just want to put Santa on our rooftops and Jesus in the manger are left asking “Why? Why are we not ready, John?”
Even as far back as the time of the prophet Malachi – some 400 years before Christ – there was this sense that when God shows up, nobody is ready – that a messenger must come ahead to announce God’s arrival, to prepare us for what it means when God shows up…for what changes this will demand of us.
“See,” Malachi writes, “I am sending my messenger ahead to prepare the way…but who can endure the day of his coming….He is like a refiner’s fire…he will refine [us] like gold and silver until we are changed…until we are pure.”
“I love you, but sometimes I wish you were different”
This past Monday there was another Men’s Breakfast – which by the way meets at 7:00 am every other Monday and is something I would definitely recommend. This past Monday Sam Leaman did a presentation about Handel’s Messiah.
The thing I did not know is that just a few years ago in London the Handel House Museum combined efforts with a fledgling Jimi Hendrix museum so now visitors can experience the great Baroque composer right next to the great Guitar virtuoso.
And because this has come to light I have already confirmed with Tom Brown that – because it is Advent and the color fits – he will conclude today’s worship service with an organ rendition of “Purple Haze.”
That’s categorically not true.
Back to Handel – he included the verses we read from Malachi in the early portion of the Messiah. When he first premiered his magnum opus in 1741, Handel received much praise for his great work of “entertainment” they called it. “I should be sorry if I only entertained them,” he said, “I wished to make them better.”
“I love you, but sometimes I wish you were different.”
That is the prophetic mantle handed on from Malachi to John the Baptist.
Bear fruit that is worthy of repentance, because the one who comes after me – he’s not baptizing with water…he will baptize you with fire…and flames are a bit less comfortable. Every fruitless tree will be thrown on the bonfire.
Now – I know that sounds like one of those tired “turn or burn” clichés that has characterized Christianity all-too often. But I don’t believe that’s what John is going for here. I believe that he’s drawing on that Malachi language – that the fire isn’t supposed to consume you…the fire is to purify you…to remove all that is dry and fruitless in our lives.
Judgment – the kind of judgment that John announces and the kind of judgment that God brings – it’s not about punishment or destruction. Judgment is about making us better.
It’s “I love you – and I wish you were different.”
My theology professor – Doug Ottati – had an interesting way of explaining why Uncle John and all his judgment talk actually does fit in these weeks right before Christmas.
Many of us will know the contours of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”
It’s the classic tale of that miser Ebenezer Scrooge whose single-minded pursuit of wealth has isolated him from family and friends and turned him into a bitter bully.
And then – on Christmas Eve – he is visited by a series of ghosts. The first – his former business partner – a chain-clad Marley who warns him of the weight you carry in eternity after a life of greed.
Then the ghost of Christmas Past and Present who show him the moments when Scrooge was not his best self – when he rejected love; when he turned away from belonging.
And finally the ghost of Christmas Future reveals to him his own death – as well as the death of Tiny Tim – the lasting legacy of his own mean-spirited indifference. It’s a terrifying tour that feels more Halloween than Christmas.
“I’ll not be the man that I was” he yells at the Ghost of Christmas Future, clawing at the snow covering his own tombstone…“I’ll not be the man that I was…!” And then Scrooge wakes up clawing at his own bed sheets instead. It’s Christmas morning – and he’s safe and sound back in his own home. Whew – It was just a dream. And yet it is a dream that has substance and power
He’s different now. Feeling as if he were given a new lease on life, Scrooge rushes into the streets full of cheer, he’s eager to be generous.
“So,” Professor Ottati would ask, “what is it that made Ebenezer Scrooge repent so dramatically? What made him change his ways? Is it not because he was blessed with the right nightmare?”
It’s odd to think that a well-constructed nightmare might in fact be a blessing.
But it is this haunting that ultimately helps Scrooge change.
Now – with his locust breath and all that talk about fruitless trees thrown into the fire – John the Baptist is every bit as terrifying as that cloak-shrouded, bony-finger-pointing Ghost of Christmas Future…you know, the one that JK Rowling definitely stole for her Dementors.
And yet both John the Baptist and the Ghost of Christmas Future pale in comparison to the absolute horror of a repent-less life – of a life that has absolutely no fruit to show for it.
Sometimes all we need is a tour of our own life to frighten us into being different.
Ten years ago Kathryn Stockett published her novel The Help. It dominated the New York Times best seller list and received a quick film adaptation. All of this tells me that more than a few of you read and/or watched it.
It tells a story set in Mississippi where a community of black house maids intersect with the white society women who employ them. The story may have some problematic white-hero components to it, but there is this moment in the film adaptation that is so John the Baptist.
The plot of the film is that one of the housemaids, Aibileen Clark, teams up with a young, white aspiring journalist to write a book that tells all of the stories about what it’s like working as a black housemaid in the Jim Crow south – the occasional good, the more often bad and the inevitably ugly stories.
The truly stellar “repent!” moment takes place at the end in an interaction between Aibileen and Hilly Holbrook, who is the clear villain of the story. As far as cruelty is concerned, she puts Ebenezer Scrooge to shame.
Aibileen comes home to find her employer with Hilly who stands menacingly with her hands on her hips.
“The silver I lent Elizabeth last week…” Hilly begins, “when you returned it, three pieces were missing.” She’s framing her as a thief.
“It behooves me to inform you that you are fired, and I will be calling the police.” She’s framing her as a thief.
When it’s just the two of them in the room, Hilly continues “Maybe I can’t send you to jail for what you wrote, but I can send you for being a thief.”
At this – Aibileen drops the polite, keep-your-head-low manner that a lifetime of oppression has taught her, she snaps in to full John the Baptist mode, steps into Hilly’s face and says “All you do is scare and lie to get what you want…You is a godless woman…”
But just as quickly her voice softens and she looks Hilly right in the eye and asks a penetrating question: “Ain’t you tired, Ms. Hilly, ain’t you tired.”
The question hangs there unanswered, but underneath it there’s this invitation to repent…it lingers, unresolved. Will she continue down the path of selfishness and cruelty…or will she turn around.
It’s tiring to walk in the wrong direction.
It’s exhausting chasing after a life that bears no fruit.
“You’re not ready for Christmas,” John reminds us, “not yet.”
For once we are truly there in the presence of a living God, once we begin to comprehend what that means for God to come and join us in the messiness of this life, that’s when we will dimly perceive a love beyond anything we could ever hope or imagine.
And those fruitless parts of our lives – the moments when we chose bitterness or pettiness or jealousy or even cruelty – they will seem like so much chaff for the fire.
And I imagine each of us could not help but say
“Wow! I am so incredibly loved – I just wish that I had been a little bit different.”