Let All Creation Repent
Preparations are being made. The halls of the church have been decked. The Christmas decorations in the gathering space cannot be missed. The altar is donned with poinsettias. Worship services have been planned. Communion servers and candle lighters found. The special events are finalized. Advent is here and Christmas is coming.
In our worship planning meetings we begin talk about Christmas 2018 in January. Our planning team has discussed everything from themes and sermons to the logistics of fitting 450+ in a room designed for 300 as well as parking to accommodate all of you and guests we anticipate on December 24th. These conversations continued through the summer and were finalized last month. Preparing for an occasion like Christmas, the in-breaking of G-d in human flesh into our world, takes time. The preparations required for Christmas concerts and special worship services require more than just a wish and a prayer.
We have to prepare.
The entire season of Advent is about preparing for the coming of the Messiah. Remembering the Christ child in the manger, we prepare our hearts, our minds, and our homes to once again remember this awesome event while at the same time remembering Christ promised to come again.
In Advent we prepare for G-d to take on human flesh, enter our world, and accomplish that which only G-d can do. Redeem all of creation with no one and nothing being excluded.
Are the preparations being made match the coming event with cosmological implications?
Are the preparations being made for our hearts, our minds, and our homes truly preparing us in the way the prophets tell us we should be preparing?
Malachi and Luke (by way of John the Baptist) are talking about preparations for more than holiday cheer and houseguests. We have entered into a season of preparing fo the One who will come and judge, and in doing so, will set all of creation back on a corrected course. All of this done in glory and with justice.
Malachi proclaims that when the Lord comes, the impurities of Creation will be burned away.
“For G-d is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3 G-d will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and G-d will purify.”
I know, not exactly a message that fits nicely on a greeting card - “Merry Christmas, may the Light of G-d entering the world burn you like a refiner’s fire! And have a happy New Year!”
John the Baptist takes this a step further in Luke’s Gospel.
John called for the people of Israel, for anyone that would listen to him to be baptized and repent.
“He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins… Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
John declares repentance to be a necessary step as preparations are made to receive the Messiah.
So often, repentance is assumed to mean saying “sorry” for a wrongdoing, sin, and then perhaps, making aments. But the repentance John is calling Israel to is so much more.
Repentance, metanoia in Greek, means to change one’s mind. Repentance is bigger than saying sorry for something you did.
The preparation John is calling for is a change in orientation, not pointing to guilt or shame, but instead facing in a new direction. A direction that allows the refiner’s fire to burn away the damage sin has done to creation and then live in the hopefully light of the coming Christ.
To repent does not sound like the preparations I have been making this Advent season. We have a tree up, decorations on the mantle, gifts ordered, a cookie party planned, and lights on the house. The preparations I have made look more like Target runs and Amazon orders than a reorientation or purification.
The prophet Malachi was speaking in a time when Israel was returning from exile and reestablishing the norms of life. The cosmological view of salvation had been abandoned when (the religious leaders of) Israel forgot the covenant they were living in with G-d. Worse yet, the corruption Malachi spoke against originated in the Temple with the priestly-class, meaning the refining fires preparing for the coming of the Lord, would begin in the temple with the one’s wear robes and leading worship.
John’s words are an echo of the words of Malachi and the prophet Isaiah, calling Israel to repentance. John is quoting Malachi, who was quoting Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ ” All shall see the Salvation of G-d.
Year after year we prepare for Christmas and year after year we remark how quickly Advent passes. In a season full of intentional preparations it seems that we are never quite ready. We plan and we plan, some of us for a year and yet we are never fully ready to receive the babe in the manger.
Preparing the way of the Lord means that we examine what Fleming Rutledge describes as the “darkside of ourselves.” These are the places in our lives we do not want exposed for fear of receiving judgement from others. We hide the “darkside of ourselves” from those closest to us for fear that what we will expose might be too much for them to bear. The “darkside of ourselves” are the things we think G-d cannot purify. The sins that make it impossible, we think, for us to truly repent. The sins we convince ourselves are too much to change from. The impurities the refiner cannot refine.
The entire prophetic tradition culminates in John the Baptist’s words, and we convince ourselves that what we’ve done is just too much. John knew the time had come. He knew the Messiah was here and that it was time to change. Things were already changing. The coming of Christ is good news. It is awesome news, yet due to the “darkside of ourselves” we see the darkside of creation and think there is no changing this. Things are too far gone for G-d to work through a baby or a grown man. We see war after war and think things are too far gone for repentance. We see an environmental disaster on the horizon and think it is just too much, nothing can be done. We see poverty, racism, classism, extremism, homophobia, nationalism, and violence and think that creation is too far gone. It seems creation as a whole cannot even praise G-d let alone prepare the way of the Messiah. We see these things, we think it is too much, we become crippled by fear, and then the preparations that were underway cease.
The task of repentance seems too overwhelming. We’ve convinced ourselves of this. We’re sure of it.
There is too much needing to be done, things we believe G-d cannot overcome. We forget that the purifying refiner’s blaze is already lit. The refiner’s work began in the manger and culminated in the empty tomb. In an unlikely place, at an unlikely time, the blaze of the refiner’s fire was lit.
Those who heard the worlds of John the Baptist were caught off-guard and still, Jesus came. The incarnation was not put on pause because Israel was under Roman occupation. The tomb did not remain full because sin was still present in the shadow of the empty cross. As we prepare the way of the Lord we can set the apprehension and fear aside as we see the compassion of G-d through the grace and mercy of Christ who came once before and promises to come again and redeem all of creation.