Refining Questions: A Sermon

Refining Questions
A Sermon Preached at
The Larchmont Avenue Church
December 9, 2012
Text: Malachai 3:104

(Malachai is considered to be a minor prophet, and was likely writing to the people of Israel during the time after his people had returned to Jerusalem from exhile, after they had rebuilt the Temple, which was not near as grand as the first temple built by King Solomon. His words come into our lectionary at this time of year because they ring also in the mouth of John the Baptist, as he proclaimed Christ coming. We might also hear the words put to song by Handel, in his famous Messiah. The word “Malachai” in hebrew means, “my messenger,” which may be a name or a pun or both. So, let us hear again these words from God’s messenger, and what they might speak to us this day…)

“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.”

+++

What would you do? What would you do if the end was truly near? If this Mayan calendar was actually the apocalyptic end coming toward us inevitably in just a couple of weeks. Would you change anything at all? Would you reconcile with that family member who continues to drive you crazy at every holiday? Would you reach out to those you love to tell them so? Would you sell everything you have and give the money to the poor? Or would you hoard it all and celebrate life in hedonistic revelry? What would you do?

Recently I read book musing about the end of the world – the rapture, really, when scores of people are taken up into heaven in the blink of an eye. Millions disappear, in the middle of dinner, driving cars, taking showers. And then there are others who are “left behind” – wondering what next. Many think that it was indeed the rapture, a precursor to the final battle, that the apocalypse is just around the corner – any day it will all be over.

The variety of responses to the disappearances are as different as there are people to have them, but many are radical in nature. Over half of the characters in the book respond with dramatic choices – joining various cults, behaving recklessly, drastically changing their lives and lifestyles. Some take up smoking and drinking, some give up everything they have, even their families, to live in a way that feels somehow more important. And then there are a few who simply return to normal. They put one foot in front of the other, they pick up the pieces and move on, whether the end is coming or not – they remain unchanged.

Which would you be?

The prophet Malachai speaks to a similar cohort of people – the Israelites have spent a generation in exile from their land. They have rebuilt the temple but it is not the same, they both long for God’s justice and live as though they have forgotten their way. They have become loose in their attention to the details of God’s law. They no longer give the first and best fruits to the temple, instead they give the leftovers. They are going through the motions, and yet they call out for God, wondering where and when their hope will appear. Their assumption is that God’s coming will be gentle and comforting, and yet God never comes in the way we expect.

We forget so easily. As make our own preparations for Christmas, planning family vacation schedules, trimming the tree and putting up lights, baking cookies and shopping, we forget that Christ’s coming suggests something more than quiet and gentle grace.

Advent contains a terrible, hopeful newness about life: terrible because it promises to overthrow all our old, comfortable, sinful ways; and hopeful for the very same reason. It should not surprise us then, that one of the phrases that occurs most frequently in the story of Christ’s coming are the words “fear not.” We forget that God’s coming may bring something to be feared.

John the Baptist seemed to understand the magnitude of this event when he took up the words of the prophet Malachai, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of me…” and preached a baptism of repentance. The prophet describes God’s coming as one of purifying metal with fire, separating the dross from gold, of cleansing with the strongest of lye soaps. One commentator notes that a silversmith knows that the refining process is complete only when she observes her “own image reflected in the mirror-like surface of the metal.”

What if God is refining us so that God’s image might reflect purely out of our lives? If God were to burn away the pieces of your life that did not show God’s image…how badly would it hurt?

Perhaps Malachai knew the intensity of what he was describing when he asked that question, “And who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears?”

It is not the only question he asks. The Prophet Malachai knows about questions: his words to the people of Israel are full of them. Malachai asks twenty-two questions in fifty-five verses; Each pointing his hearers to the inner truth of God’s work and guidance. “Where is the God of Justice? How has God loved us? How shall we return to God? Has not one God created us?”

For his day, the questions of Malachai the prophet serve to lead the Israelites toward repentance and right-living. He demands of his people to question themselves, to wonder aloud how they have forgotten their creator in their ways of worship, in their stewardship of resources, in their treatment of their neighbor…

Malachai’s questions lead to our own in this season where answers seem to be all around us in bright lights and joyful song. In this ever-consuming Christmas season, so often we are given the impression that the answer to our happiness, to our wholeness, is just around the next corner, contained within that package: the house or car, the pristine decorations, the vacation away, the green grass that lays just beyond our own fence line.

We have become economic units listening to the cultural voices that tell us that buying, having and accumulating will make us happy and content. Wendell Berry puts it this way: “It is astonishing…to see economics now elevated to the position of ultimate justifier and explainer of all the affairs of our daily life.” Berry claims that in the face of this we must, “decide to live by the laws of mercy and justice.”

Recently the New Yorker relayed pieces of an interview with the inimitable Warren Buffett. What was striking was the way that Buffett affirms that he has remained unchanged over the years. “I like today what I liked 50 years ago,” he says. He eats the same thing for lunch as he did as a boy, lives in the house he bought in 1958. As an investor, he’s known for his patience, his business model is to build up companies rather than to sell them off in pieces; as a philanthropist, he has chosen to give away 90% of his wealth. Buffett seems like one of those who would not change much if the world were coming to an end; He seems instead like someone who chooses today how to live by the laws of mercy and justice. He seems like someone who is prepared to meet his maker. It begs the question… Are we?

Perhaps the prophetic questions of Malachai can point us toward the ways in which we might do just that: ask the questions that lead us deeper into the heart of the matter, allowing those questions to refine and purify us into God’s holy people.

In many ways questions are at the heart of our Christian tradition, as we saw just this morning. Asking questions are our way of affirming steps toward Christ and making a commitment to this congregation: Do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world? Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Lord and Savior, trusting in his grace and love? Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love? Will you be a faithful member of this congregation, share in it’s worship and ministry through your prayer and gifts, our study and service, and so fulfill our calling to be a disciple of Christ?

These are the grounding of our common life together. They are the root of what we believe, and the core of our ministry here in this church.

But, they are not the only questions…

As people of faith we are called to keep asking questions, even the most difficult ones.

Questions like:
Who is my neighbor and how do I love them?
What does justice for all of God’s people look like?
How can I participate in it?

Questions like:
Do I really need this? What good could this money do for someone in need?
Can I buy less this year and still be joyful?
How can my money, how can my life make a difference?
How can I prepare my heart and home for God’s ferocious and hopeful coming?

Or perhaps questions such as:
How does God reach me when I am in the depths of despair?
How do I know that God is real?
Can we find a way to save our planet?
Can we find a way to save our marriage?
Will my family every be whole again?

Why did he have to die?
How much time do I have left?
Will I ever be cancer free?
Am I truly known? Am I truly loved?

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote in a letter these words: “…have patience with everything that is unsolved in your heart and try to cherish the questions themselves, like closed rooms and like books written in a very strange tongue. Do not search now for the answers which cannot be given you because you could not live them. It is a matter of living everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, one distant day live right into the answer…”

So what might it mean to live into these questions, to be, in our lives and hearts, refined by the questions of faith? What might it be to ask ourselves cleansing questions? How might we change, how might we stay the same?

What one question could we ask, this Advent season, that might lead us into living by the laws of mercy and justice? How will we prepare ourselves to be the answers?

Christ is coming. Are you prepared?

In the name of the Creator, the Christ and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

*I am deeply indebted to the piece by Deborah Block on this text in Feasting on the Word, for inspiring the attention to questions and questioning, by Malachi and those of us who seek and follow in faith and hope…

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