Many of you knew Ruth’s father, Bernie Wiseman. He was a great guy who lived with us of for four years until he went to be with the Lord in 2009. Or in the language of his beloved Salvation Army, he was promoted to glory.
One evening, when he was still with us, I walked into the kitchen and there, on the counter, was a clutter of stuff. There was the container of flour, some sugar, a collection of measuring cups and spoons as well as assorted other things. I wondered why these had been left out and, being someone who does not like clutter on the kitchen counters, I put it all away and went back to the den to continue the book I was reading.
About an hour later, I went back into the kitchen and, to my very great surprise, all the stuff that I had just put away was back out again pretty well in the same place it had been before. This seemed most odd and so I put it all away again before going back to my book in the den.
About fifteen minutes later, I heard Bernie’s voice from the kitchen, “Who keeps putting away my stuff?” Realizing that I was the guilty party, I put down my book and went into the kitchen to see what was going on. There was Bernie somewhat bemused and looking a little frustrated. I told him that I put the stuff away because I didn’t know why it was out.
Then he explained. He was going to do some baking in the morning and it had always been his practice to get the stuff out the night before so that he could get right at it first thing. In getting the stuff out he was, in fact, preparing for the next day. To be honest, it’s not what I would have done. Quite frankly, it made little sense to me but that was Bernie’s way and I never again interfered with his preparations.
PREPARING THE WAY
This is Advent, also a time of preparation, preparation for the coming of Christ. And, as I always remind you at this time of year, we aren’t just preparing for the coming of the baby Jesus at Bethlehem. Advent is also about preparing for his second coming at the end of the age when he will return to complete the kingdom that he began 2,000 years ago.
A few minutes ago, Ruth read the familiar passage from Luke 3 which talks about John the Baptist preparing the way for the Jesus. He was, as Ruth read in Luke 3:4b-6 (NIV):
A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
“Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.”
John the Baptism was the voice that called people to repent so that they could be forgiven of their sins, cleansed and made whole. The language that is used about John is taken directly from the Old Testament, Isaiah 40:3-5. It talks about preparing the way and making straight paths. But then it gets symbolic when it talks about filling in valleys and leveling mountains. The whole idea of this is that God wants to make the journey as clear as possible. As we read the imagery, we see hills and valleys disappearing. We see crooked roads straightened and rough places made smooth.
Does all this mean that it will be an easy road? That the road of preparation to Jesus will be simple? No, it doesn’t mean that at all. The road of faith is often filled with hardships as we will see in a few minutes. But what we have in this passage is a road that becomes straight and level and smooth. We all know that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. No twists and turns, no ups and downs. Just point A to point B. Think about this; Jesus is point B. And the really interesting thing about this no matter where we are in relation to Jesus, we are always at point A on our way to Jesus. All God has done is ensure that that Jesus is straight ahead.
You don’t have to twist and turn to see Jesus. All you have to do is look up and open your eyes. Jesus is there always right in front of you, right where he should be. And when you look up and open your eyes, you will see him because he will be right ahead of you. Remember this. There is nothing in the way between you and Jesus. The road is
straight and smooth. All you have to do is walk it.
THE ROAD OF PREPARATION
That’s what we do during Advent. We walk the straight road to Jesus. As we walk from point A to point B, we prepare our hearts to meet him. But how do we prepare? We find out about preparation from Malachi 3:1-4 (NIV). Verse 1 says this: “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,’ says the Lord Almighty.”
God promises that we will not walk the road alone. He promises a messenger to lead the way. In New Testament times, that messenger was John the Baptist. He prepared the way for Jesus by preparing people to hear Jesus’ message. In Luke 3, he gathered the crowds and told them to treat others fairly and justly. He told the people to share what they had. He told the tax collectors to only collect what was required. He told the soldiers not to extort money from the people or accuse them falsely. He taught the people all of these things and when he had done that, they began to wonder if, in fact, John might be the Messiah. But John said this in Luke 3:16 (NIV): “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
John did not point to himself. He didn’t say, “Look at me!” because he knew that he was not the Messiah. He pointed, rather, to one who was coming after him. He said to the people, “Here we are standing at point A. I want you to look up and open your eyes. I want you to look along the straight and level road and, when you do, you will see point B and, when you see point B, you will see Jesus. And that road between point A and Point B, that is the road of preparation. It is to him that you want to go. It is for him that you prepare. I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. I baptize you with water but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
Advent is a time to prepare for Jesus. But that preparation will not always be easy. Listen to the words of Malachi 3:2-3a (NIV): “But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver.”
We see Advent as a time to prepare for Christmas. And often what we mean by that is that we prepare for Christmas day. We decorate our houses and bake shortbreads and put up trees, real or otherwise, in our houses. We buy Christmas presents and send Christmas cards. That’s what we do during Advent. We think of it as a joyous occasion. Lots of fun and revelry.
But then we are faced with the words of Malachi: “But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears?” Who can endure? Who can stand? That doesn’t sound like a lot of fun. Are we missing something? Yes we are. We often miss the key point. I’m not Grinch. I like parties and shortbreads and presents under the tree. Bring it on. But there is so much more than that. Advent is also about preparing our heart for Christ, preparing to invite him in, one more time so that he can mould us into his image and make us into his disciples. And that’s hard work.
Malachi provides some stark images. He uses the phrases “refiner’s fire” and “lauder’s soup”. The people of Jesus’ day would have understood those things in ways that we do not so let me explain.
What is the refiner’s fire? It is the fire in which ore is melted to separate the different elements and minerals in it. Today that is done in distant mines and refineries. 2,000 years ago, it was done in the village blacksmith shop and everyone had seen it done. The rock is heated until it melts and in the liquid rock – the lava so to speak – the gold sinks to the bottom because it is one of the heaviest and the tin rises to the top because it is one of the lightest. And in between are the iron and the brass and whatever else in the rock.
In this way the elements are separated one from the other. And maybe the gold is heated again and refined again and more of the impurities are taken out until it becomes just gold, pure gold. But it is all done through heating and the heat is extreme and uncomfortable but it is necessary if purity is to come forth.
And what about the launderer’s soap? Back in those days it wasn’t the nice stuff we have today. It was Dove with its cold cream or Ivory that is gentle enough for babies. No, it was made with lye and sheep fat. It was strong and alkaline and somewhat caustic. But it sure got things clean even if it was rough on your hands. It would remove dirt and take out stains like nobody’s business. After a bath with lye soap, your skin might be red but you’d be squeaky clean.
It reminds me of the passage in Revelation 6:11 after the fifth seal had been broken and the martyrs appeared under the altar and they were each given a white robe and told to wait a little longer for the second coming of the Lord. But they were pure, washed in something even better than lye, washed in the blood of the lamb that was slain.
Preparing for Jesus means being purified in the refiner’s fire and being cleansed with launderer’s soap. It can be hot and it can burn your skin. But by the end of the journey from point A to point B when you arrive where Jesus is, you are purified and cleansed and ready to meet him. That is what we do at Advent.
MESSY AND INCONVENIENT
Preparing for the coming of Jesus also can be messy and inconvenient. One of my jobs around the house is to put up the Christmas lights. I tried to get them done last Sunday afternoon. We’ve had the same lights for quite a few years now. I like them. They fit the house nicely. I know how they go up. It’s neat and it’s convenient because I put them up pretty well the same way every year. Everything has its place and everything in its place. Our lights are not like you see on home decorator shows but, then again, neither is our house. Our lights, like our house, looks lived in. It looks like someone belongs there. It looks like home.
But this year, something happened. Like every year, I tried the lights in the house to make sure they worked. They did. Or at least most of them did. One strand wasn’t working but it was a straight strand, easy to replace. So I went to Canadian Tire and got a replacement. Then I put all of the lights up just like I always do. Lights that change colour on the cedar tree by the stairs. Coloured lights up the pillars. Icicle lights hung from the eave troughs. And then, in a moment of expectation, I turned them on. And I sighed. One of the strands of icicle lights on the eave trough didn’t work. Or, rather, it only half worked which is almost worse. There’s no fixing them so I went back to Canadian Tire to get a new one. But, of course, lights have changed in the last ten years and I couldn’t get one to match. That means that I had to get three just to have them match across the front of the house.
So I used my Canadian Tire points and went home. I took the old icicle lights down and put the new icicle lights up. And I turned them on. And again I sighed. One of the new strands was only half working as well. I checked it and found a broken wire. So I took it back. Canadian Tire exchanged the defective strand for another one. I went home and put it up and this time, when I turned on the lights, I didn’t have to sigh. I smiled. But by now it was supper time.
Because of all of the extra trips I had to make to get lights that worked, my usual two hour job had taken all afternoon and I had not even begun to hang lights on our lilac bush. Mary and Joseph, who generally get set up at the side of the house are still in the garage. And I don’t have enough extension cords because most of them are in London where we are renovating a house for our kids. At this rate, I’ll be lucky to get everything done by Christmas Eve because things don’t always go as planned. But I’ll get it done even it is messy and inconvenient.
Advent can be messy and inconvenient because it is about looking inside, deep inside yourself, to see what’s there. And when you do that, you will find a lot of stuff you like. You’ll see the good. You’ll delight at the things that you do right and you will rejoice at your accomplishments. And good for you.
But looking deep inside also involves risks because, in the deepest recesses of the soul, all is not well. There are the hidden corners of your being which you hide from the world, even from those closest to you, which only you know about. Things that, if others knew, they would be disappointed or even shocked or disgusted. Things that you would like to do but you know you shouldn’t. Even worse are things that you’ve done that you knew were wrong, were deeply wrong but you did them anyway. Times when you stole, not just things, but a person’s dignity and their honour and their innocence. Times when you have hurt the vulnerable and changed their lives in tragic ways. The things that no one knows about, the hidden sins that you need to repent. Looking deep inside to those times when you walked away from the path of righteousness, that can be messy and inconvenient. But it’s necessary, not just for those you hurt but especially for you.
That’s the risk that comes with placing your life in the refiner’s fire and submitting to the cleansing of the launderer’s soap. To be purified and cleansed comes with a cost. It’s messy and inconvenient. And it burns and it stings but it is necessary, completely necessary. You cannot walk away from your past. It is part of who you are. All you can do is change your future by repenting and seeking to be the person God created you to be as you journey from point A to point B where Jesus is.
And finally, we come to the end of the passage. Malachi 3:3b-4 (NIV) says this: “Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years.”
Today you are point A. you need to lift up your head and open your eyes to see Jesus standing at point B waiting for you. The road between is straight and level. All you have to do is walk it and, as you walk it, you prepare to meet Jesus. On the way you are purified and cleansed even though it is messy and inconvenient.
There are times, along that journey, when you wonder if it’s worth it. But it is because, in the end you become the person God created you to be when he knit you together in your mother’s womb and breathed life into your body as it formed and grew.
Malachi says that when we are
purified and cleansed our offerings will be given in righteousness and they
will be acceptable to the Lord because we are acceptable to the Lord. This is
Advent. Jesus is coming. You need to prepare.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
Holy God, we have come to you this morning, out of the deepest longings of our souls. We have come seeking your assurance and the confidence that only faith can offer. Thank you that we can experience your presence as a real force in our lives. We can come to you out of any circumstance and you are there for us. Your hands holds us. Your arms comforts us. Your Spirit nurtures us. We offer our thanks for your many blessings.
We offer out grateful thanks especially in this season of new life for the birth of Cecelia Osborne. Thank you for this special birth as we near the birth of Jesus. Bless this family as they begin to experience the miracle of Christmas come alive in a whole new way.
We pray for a world in need of your justice. We remember the violence that continues to flare up in the Middle East and in Paris. Blanket our soldiers with the arms of your angels. Protect the innocents and civilians who are often caught in the cross fires of fighting and violence. Bring the peace that only you can give.
We pray for our own nation as people face lay offs at GM and a faltering economy in Alberta brought about by declining oil prices. We need stability in our world and we need good government. We pray for our elected officials as they seek to do their jobs. Anoint them, O Lord, that they may make the right decisions for our nation.
We know that taking a stand for what is right is not always popular with those who desire power and influence. Even though our stand for your Gospel may cause ridicule or bring persecution, help us, like Paul, to have the courage and boldness to take a firm stand for what is right, always acting out of love in every situation. Thank you for every opportunity to serve you with joy.
We pray for those in the hospital this past week. We would pray for your Healing Spirit to fall in a powerful way upon them as they look to Christmas in just a few short weeks away.
Great God of Joy, we thank you that
as we pray in accordance with your will, you hear us and give us whatever we
need in Jesus’ name. Increase our knowledge and understanding of your Word so
that, in better understanding your Word, we will come to know more of your will
and purpose for our individual lives and for the life of this community of
faith. Our prayers we raise to you in Jesus’ name. Amen.