I’ll Take the Soap
A Meditation on Malachi 3: 1 – 4(ish) and Luke 3: 1 – 6
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop Grace Presbyterian Church December 9, 2018
I don’t know much about the process of refining silver and gold. I know even less about fuller’s soap and how it is used to scrub wool so that it can be woven into cloth. But I think I would choose the soap. It sounds less frightening. I am familiar with soap. Being scrubbed free of my dirt definitely sounds preferable to being melted and having the impurities purged from my soul…that is until you read about fuller’s soap…strong stuff. It would have to be to get that raw wool clean enough to spin into yarn or thread. Are there other options?? From Malachi’s metaphors we move to John the baptizer, who speaks of massive construction work: filling valleys, leveling mountains, straightening roads. (Which is okay, but does all that road work have to be done in Tuscaloosa during…go ahead and say it…football season??)
I have a difficult time processing these metaphors. I get the message of reformation and renewal; of God’s desire to revive the people of God. Ore refining and wool washing: these were absolutely pertinent for Malachi’s audience. John’s audience would have seen an impossibility in John’s metaphor, the enormity of moving a mountain. Today, all we have to do is throw a little dynamite in there, and then bring in the earth moving vehicles. No longer impossible to fill a valley or move a mountain.
I wonder how well these metaphors work for us…I tried to come up with a more readily accessible image. Mine is not nearly as elegant, nor is it very poetic, but here it is: cooking! The transformation of a variety of ingredients into something nourishing and delicious. The whole being greater than the sum of its parts. The washing, the beating, the mixing, the measuring. The heat through baking or boiling or sous vide-ing…or grilling or…dare I say it…microwaving? All the preparation that is necessary for something fresh and new to be created. A baked potato is fine, but a cheesy, twice-baked potato? You know that potato can die fulfilled.
Take whichever of these metaphors works for you: refined by fire, scrubbed with lye, beaten and baked. None of them are easy. None of them are painless. Both Malachi and John the Baptizer challenge us to do the work of preparing a place for God in our lives. You don’t just put out a welcome mat and refresh it from time to time. This is on-going renewal, which we give special attention as we wait for the baby’s birth.
It is on-going renewal because of its complexity. Because of our complexity. What is being renewed?
- Not simply our public selves, but our private selves, too.
- Not only our Sunday selves, but our work week selves, too.
- Not just when we are with people who know us, but also when we are in the midst of complete strangers.
- Not simply our “in person” selves, but also our social media Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/Snapchat selves. The whole package. Our very being.
Malachi, whose name means “messenger,” spoke of another messenger who was yet to come. He then basically delivered the messenger’s message. (Pretty sneaky!! You know that old saying, “Don’t shoot the messenger?” Malachi could adapt that a little: Don’t shoot me – I’m just the messenger’s messenger!”) “Who can endure the day of this messenger’s coming?” says Malachi. “Who can withstand this messenger’s appearance?” If I had been in Malachi’s audience, I’d be thinking, “well, right now I really can’t stand your appearance!” And even today, as we are only two weeks out from Christmas, you may be thinking, “Aren’t we supposed to be getting ready for a baby? A little baby?? The worst he can do to us is spit up a little, make a poopy diaper, keep me up at night. I’ve never met a pregnant woman yet who slept easily or well in those last weeks of gestation. Sometimes the whole pregnancy is one marathon of sleeplessness. You console yourself by saying that it will help you get ready for the baby’s presence, for the nighttime feedings. Maybe. I always found it much harder to be awake and worrying about who this child would be, and what kind of parent I would be before the birth than living in the reality of being up at odd hours holding and feeding a warm bundle of life.
Which makes me think these messengers are more frightening than the message, the Logos, the Emmanuel, God with us, Jesus. Which is also much like preparing for the arrival of the baby. People scare you to death. They tell you frightening stories of all the things that can go wrong in childbirth. They don’t mean to, it just comes pouring out. They make you think that it will be absolutely impossible to childproof your house. They unnerve you about your ability to provide for your child. Then the baby arrives, and you hold it and love it and kiss it and feed it. You respond to the child. You listen to the child’s needs.
You step up your game.
Because everything changes in light of that tiny human. You see everything differently. You want different things. You long for the world to be an altered (altar-ed?) place. You pray people might act like human beings. You watch your language so that your child doesn’t embarrass you at preschool. You practice patience in hope that others will be patient with your child. You practice forgiveness in hopes that others will be forgiving when your child makes a mistake.
Shouldn’t these be our longings when God enters our world as a tiny human? That’s really what the prophets are saying. Shouldn’t we simply pause and respond to this infant who is being born in our midst? Respond with love, respond with warmth, respond with laughter, respond with lullabies and coos and absolute adoration. We can’t coo over the baby Jesus, but to adore the infant Christ today all we have to do is love our neighbor. We stopped reading at a very convenient place in Malachi’s text. We stopped at verse 4. Listen to verses 5 – 6: (God speaking)
I will draw near to you for judgment.
I will be quick to testify against the sorcerers, the adulterers, [liars] those swearing falsely, [those who exploit their employees] against those who cheat the day laborers out of their wages as well as oppress the widow and the orphan, and against those who brush aside the foreigner and do not [honor] revere me, says the Lord of heavenly forces.
6 I am the Lord, and I do not change; and you, children of Jacob, have not perished.
God once again asks the people to live in honest relationship with one another and with God. Each one of these sins is a sin of dishonesty or disrespect. They are rooted in selfishness, which is sin’s breeding ground. But despite God’s sorrow over the brokenness of humanity, God says this: “you, children of Jacob, have not perished.” God has sustained their life. God has not failed them. God has not failed us.
It is startling when you pare it down to its simplest truth. God sends messengers to continually remind us to respond to one another in love. The cleanest, clearest way for God to do this was to send a baby. A squirming, messy, sometimes stinky, up all night, needing to be changed, needing to be rocked, needing to be fed – baby. The infant Jesus is not a test of our patience, he’s a gift. The infant Jesus isn’t a test of our ability to deal with life’s messes, he’s a gift. The infant Jesus isn’t sent to test us but to expand us.
Maybe you’ve never held a newborn or walked a hall with a restless baby in the middle of the night, but each one of us has had to endure people who test our patience, or disrupt our plans, or stink or complicate our very existence. Everyone of us has tested someone’s patience, disrupted someone’s plans, stunk, or complicated someone’s very existence. Just like a baby does.
Be careful that you don’t take these words from Malachi and talk about how God sends you problems or illnesses to test you. God doesn’t test us with pain and sorrow. Jesus never set people up to fail. Jesus never set people up to hate God. He asked questions that could be answered. To a woman at a well who had been married many times (probably not by her own choice): “Who is your husband?” To a scholarly lawyer, “What is the greatest commandment?” To one who was blind, “What do you want me to do for you?” God doesn’t send cancer or unemployment or broken relationships to test our faith. This is not what is meant by God’s refining or God’s washing.
We may experience God’s refining when we are in the midst of sorrow. But we might also experience it on any ordinary day. It is the opening of the eyes or our hearts to see our mistakes, to name our own shortfalls. In those vulnerable moments, when we, by God’s grace, can admit who we are, what we are, we are renewed, purified. We may go through our lives needing that exact same renewal, that exact same purification over and over again. But we will probably needs others, too. So pick your image: refining, washing, mixing and baking…it’s all good work. It all results in beauty. It all reveals the reflection of our creator. So be it. “God doesn’t change, and we have not perished.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.