Monday, December 10, 2018

Sermon: "Preparing for Our Part of the Story", Malachi 3:1-4/Luke 1:68-79 (December 9, 2018)

(Advent II: my first Sunday preaching for Boone Memorial Presbyterian Church in Caldwell, ID)


I love Advent. Every year I look forward to this special time of transition, excitement, and anticipation: a new liturgical year begins, many of my favorite traditions return, and the Church once again awaits Christ’s coming. An exciting time, indeed. And here at Boone Memorial Presbyterian Church, we have extra reason to anticipate and celebrate joyfully this Advent—you and I are beginning our ministry together, and I know that we’re all feeling hopeful and eager to find out what God has in store for us. There’s so much to look forward to, and Advent is a particularly apt time for us to be anticipating this community’s bright future together. 

Of course, the joy that characterizes our anticipation is especially meaningful because of the difficult road you all had to travel to get to this point. It’s been a long, hard, painful path, complete with loss and exile and “wandering in the wilderness”: it’s not difficult to draw the biblical comparisons. Now, though, like the Israelites on the edge of the promised land, you can finally see God’s deliverance at hand. You’ve found a sense of stability and hope for the future through your return to this beautiful building and newly consistent pastoral leadership. I imagine it feels easier today to believe that God is looking out for you than it might have felt in the past. Hearing Malachi proclaim that the day of the Lord is coming probably feels different to you this Advent, too: it’s easier to hear these words as an imminent reality instead of a distant hope. It’s almost like the anticipation of a favorite family member visiting for the holidays: God’s finally coming; this is NOT a drill! Time to break out the good china and put up the decorations to show how excited we are! We’ve been waiting so long, and we’re READY! And of course, I rejoice in this new reality with you and am grateful to be a part of this new chapter of your story.

I imagine that the post-exilic Israelites, to whom Malachi was speaking, probably felt similarly. Finally, things were starting to happen! Finally, wrongs were being righted! Finally, God’s promises were coming true! Finally, the day of the Lord, the day of redemption and justice, was on the horizon! Being restored to their ancestral homeland after generations of dwelling in foreign lands would have felt like an affirmation of their faithfulness and reassurance that God was on their side. And when God’s on your side, why WOULDN’T you look forward to the day of the Lord’s coming, right?

Well, as it turns out, the day of the Lord’s coming is a bit more intimidating than we might have initially thought. If we believe that God is just and righteous—which I hope we all do—we can trust that the day of God’s coming will also be characterized by God’s justice and righteousness. That’s (presumably) why we anticipate Jesus’ birth each Advent with joy and excitement, right? Justice and righteousness sound like a great deal! But if we examine ourselves honestly, we come to realize that our own justice and righteousness can’t hope to measure up to God’s standards. No matter how faithful we are, all of us fall short. In the Reformed theological tradition, we call this “total depravity”. In fact, we’ll fall so short that, Malachi says, none of us will be able to endure the day of the Lord’s coming, and none of us will even be able to stand when God appears. Yikes…suddenly the prospect of “God-with-us” seems a little less like a beloved relative coming to visit, and a little more like a visit from that one critical aunt who can always find something wrong with your home, even when you’ve spent the whole month getting it ready. Only, you know, with divine levels of omnipotence and righteousness.

Now, I know that this is probably the last thing a community wants to hear after years of uncertainty and challenge. We want to hear that there’s nothing but “comfort and joy” in our future. The Jewish people certainly weren’t thrilled to hear this prophetic message. But this is the reality: the point of God’s coming isn’t that we get an excuse for a party or a reward for a job well done. The point is that there’s a lot more yet to do to bring about God’s Kingdom, and we’re not even remotely qualified to do it on our own. So, God’s getting ready to work, and we’re the project!

When God comes, God wants to make us better than we were before, reforming and refining us into something special. Malachi says, “[God] is like a refiner’s fire…[God] will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver…” Y’all…WE’RE the unrefined silver. Which, if you haven’t seen before, looks an awful lot like a plain old dirty rock. A rock with a lot of potential, to be sure, but a rock all the same. We’re still very much in need of God’s refining fire. And sitting in the middle of a fire isn’t supposed to be comfortable. It turns out, the day of the Lord doesn’t mean basking in our success; it means being broken down and purified by the fiery hand of God.

Now, believe it or not, this is GOOD news. We’re NOT talking about punishment here, even though Malachi’s fiery metaphors might bring that to mind and our own shortcomings might suggest it. We’re talking about the growing pains of God’s transformative work. Now, transformation isn’t an easy process, but fortunately, our part of the job is simple: we just need to show up with an open and willing heart. God will show us how to do the rest. It’ll certainly be messy—refining precious metals is a hot, dirty, and difficult process—and we’ll absolutely make mistakes, but as we open our ears to God’s Word and our hearts to God’s will, God will purify us until our offerings are even more pleasing to the Lord than they have ever been before. God’s fire here isn’t meant for destruction, but for re-creation.

Notice I said “re-creation” and not “re-turn to the past”. As God forges us into something brand new, there’s danger in looking too longingly behind us. It’s tempting to see the past, our “glory days”, as something that we seek to return to. But the day of the Lord means there’s no going back—God is moving us forward towards something better and more magnificent than ever before, but something very, very different. That’s why being transformed is such a difficult process: it’s always hard to accept and adapt to newness. The Jewish people thought that their promised messiah, the mighty savior of whom Zechariah sang, would be a powerful king like the ones they’d had in the past, who would restore Israel to military and political glory. They could only imagine what had already been done before. But God had a different plan in mind—a new plan, a better plan—a plan that required some difficult mental shifts and some painful changes.

The people were given their long-awaited messiah, but he wasn’t at all what they expected. Instead of a mighty leader arriving at the peak of his strength like the kings of old, they were given a helpless baby, born to an unwed mother. Instead of a triumphant military victory over the Roman Empire, their savior was violently executed on a cross. They had a lot to unlearn and a lot to reimagine, and the fulfillment of God’s promise at Christmas was only the beginning. Their purification process was long and more difficult than they anticipated. But if there’s one thing that Scripture teaches, it’s that submitting to God’s transformation over our own desires and expectations is well worth it.

At the same time, it’s important for us to remember that we don’t submit to God’s transformative power for our own sake. That’s not the point, either. If the story began and ended with us, we wouldn’t need a God who enters into and acts within human history. We wouldn’t need a God of the past or the future; we’d just need a God of the “now”. And through our cherished stories passed down from generation to generation and our own lifelong learning, we know that that’s not who God is. Just as the coming of the Lord isn’t where our story ends, neither is our purification where God’s story ends.

Zechariah is a great example in this respect. We don’t hear about him much past the first chapter of Luke, and we don’t think of him much beyond his identity as “John the Baptist’s father”. He has no direct involvement in Jesus’ birth. And yet, Luke considers Zechariah’s story an important part of his “orderly account” of Jesus’ life—important enough to open the gospel with. Luke tells us about Zechariah’s journey of purification, beginning with his skepticism at the prospect of fathering a son, continuing through his consequent inability to speak, to the moment when God’s promise was fulfilled and Zechariah’s tongue was freed to proclaim the good news that he had had nine months to reflect silently upon. God purified Zechariah not for his own sake, but for the sake of the message that God had laid on his heart and for those who would hear it—including us. Zechariah bore witness to his part of the story in order to prepare the way for the next prophet: his son John. And of course, we know that John’s role was not to be the Messiah himself, but to be “a prophet of the Most High”.

See, as we prepare and purify ourselves this Advent, it’s not just for what comes next. It’s for what comes after that, and after that, and after THAT. We, like Zechariah, are part of a larger, more glorious story than we could ever imagine, and we, like Zechariah, should be singing about it at the top of our lungs. As God works to purify us and make us worthy of God’s plans for us, God’s promises aren’t just being fulfilled FOR us, but IN us and THROUGH us, touching all people in all times and all places. We have our own prophetic words to share with the world, and this Advent…this year…this season of the church’s life…is the time for us to be transformed so that we can learn what God intends for those words to be.

So should we be rejoicing in the good things happening here at Boone Memorial Presbyterian Church right now? Yes, of course we should! It’s always right to give God our thanks and praise for the blessings that we’ve been given. But we shouldn’t dwell there for too long—there’s far too much else going on to get stuck in one place! Being comfortable where we are isn’t the point. Striving for what once was isn’t the point. Improving for our own sake isn’t the point. The point is that we’re preparing—well, GOD is preparing us—for our part of the story. The part where we preach the gospel to the world, like Malachi and Zechariah, preparing the way for Christ’s coming as a child and his return in glory. The part that will graciously welcome whoever and whatever comes after us. The part that God has had planned for us from the beginning of time. Let’s get ready to take this journey of purification, preparation, and proclamation together. Amen.

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