Sermon for Advent 2 – Refining Fire

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Sermon for Advent 2 – Year C – 2012

Advent 2 [Link to Audio]

Malachi 3:1-4

Phil 1: 3-11

Luke 3:1-6

 

“For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”

Last week we began our journey through the season of Advent – largely a hidden season in the churches year as Christmas expands to fill what should be space for our meditation upon the Coming of Christ. And I launched what in all probability is a futile campaign, for the church to stop referring to ‘Christmas’ and start once more to refer to The Feast of the Nativity. That we might then in Advent, stop ‘Getting ready for Christmas’ and instead be preparing ourselves for Christ and his coming.

And I spoke of the need to prepare our hearts and of how we need to ask ourselves ‘Are our hearts prepared to receive Christ’ – to which I said there could only be two responses – “No they are not! And so we run and hide as our parents Adam and Eve hid from the Presence of the LORD” – or on the other hand “No they are not, . . . but perhaps we are given an opportunity in this season of Advent to make ourselves ready?”

That of course begs a further question, just How can we prepare our hearts to be fit places for the coming of Christ? And here I suggest that again our distorted apprehension of Christmas does us few favours – If I say to you – how might we prepare our hearts ‘to welcome the baby Jesus’ (a phrase which might come to mind if we hear the words – The Feast of the Nativity) – we might perhaps see it as an opportunity to slow down – stop – seek some Peace deep within. We might think of being in church at midnight, an image which conjours up deep associations and largely to us beautiful ones – and imagine singing the words of the Carol – ‘O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray – cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today’ – Be born in us today . . . it gives us a sense of something beautiful and quiet perhaps . . . be born in us today we might pray meditatively . . . we might indeed seek that deep peace within, BUT what do we find when we go within, but a heart Not ready for the Coming of Christ – All of a sudden that previous line in the carol takes on a sharper meaning ‘cast out our sin and enter in’ . . . be born in us today? A reminder that our hearts are not Ready, as we remind ourselves Sunday by Sunday  – ‘we are not fit even to gather up the crumbs from under your table’ – a reminder that this coming of Christ entails a work to be done on our hearts

And we are given a sharp reminder that we are not ready in those who herald His Coming, the Patriarchs, the prophets, Mary, Mother of our Lord and, perhaps most especially, in the strange figure of John the Baptist – the voice crying in the wilderness – Prepare the way of the LORD – make straight in the desert a highway for our God! Proclaiming a Baptism of Repentance – of turning our Lives to the One who is coming, the one for whom we are not ready – John calls us to dismantle the barriers to Christ’s coming to our hearts – get rid of the valley and hills, the sharp turns in the road around and behind which you try to hide from the LIving God. – Repentance – Throw Open your heart to Him, the one. Throw Open your heart to Him who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

He baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with Fire. – Who may abide the day of his coming? And who can stand when he appears! As we consider the One who is to come, there is no avoiding this fire. As St Paul says in the words I quoted at the outset, speaking of future Judgement – the work of each person will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. Are our hearts ready for His work – the blazing, purifying fire of the One who comes in the name of the Living God?

Such a theme, Advent as a preparation for the Fire of God – the one who comes and says he has come to bring Fire upon the earth, is buried in an instant in our ‘getting ready for Christmas’ With our at times complacent sentimentality in this ‘season of goodwill’ – there is no place for such Fire in our plans. We turn our backs on it, we hide from it, like anxious Marthas – upset and worried by many things, preoccupied, getting ready for Christmas, trying to avoid His Presence.

We come back to the question, how do we prepare our hearts and we get the answer we cannot – the only choice we have is to open our hearts to him, or flee. As the words of our gospel had it last week, to faint in fear and foreboding at what is coming on the earth, or to ‘Stand up and raise your heads, for your redemption is drawing nigh’

Our readings indeed the whole counsel of the Word of God, which is brought to us through the liturgy of the church each week, tells us in no uncertain terms that we cannot prepare our hearts – we cannot make our hearts a fit place for the Lord’s coming, because He is coming precisely to deal with our hearts. 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; 3he 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.

Malachi uses a double illustration – a refining fire – and fullers soap – neither comfortable, neither fitting in with any domesticated image of Jesus. But with the Same purpose – Cleansing! Like precious metals are refined by intense heat, that the dross may be separated out, Like Wool is cleansed from all the grease with a harsh soap, Christ is the one coming to do the cleansing. The one who in his Incarnation has come, the one who will come again, and the one who is Present now. The Saviour and Judge – He Judges, finds us wanting and then goes to work Purifying ‘the descendents of Levi – Christ’s primary work in this regard it with his church.’ The Saving work of Christ cannot be separated from his Judging of us – why would we need Saving, were it not that we are judged and found wanting.

And in this regard we I think tend to make a simple error, informed by years of getting this wrong – we tend to think of Judgement as in the future – but it is not simply then. It is implicit even in the Christmas story we tell year in year out – although we tend to airbrush out those elements which remind us of this. Christ, as our collect reminds us, does come to us in great humility – but this is no quiet slipping in without effect. No. If we read the whole story we read of an Emperor whose anxiety is awakened at this coming King and who must discover how many taxpayers her has – we read of a despotic King whose rule is similarly threatened. In our Nativity plays there is little of this – what indeed might be the impact of a Nativity on Christmas eve if we closed with the slaughter of the innocents and Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt, before closing, ‘A Merry Christmas one and all!’

He comes among us in great humility as our collect puts it – as the judge – the Judge who has come to save – He will come in the last days as the judge who will come to Save – and he is present with us Now, as the Risen one, the great disturber of our false peace, our attempts to settle down Sunday by Sunday by Sunday – moment by moment

The problem it seems to me is that we ignore the Judgement of Christ at his first coming into the world – we have a sentimentalised understanding of it – thus we hear the words of our collect about coming in great humility that at the last, when he shall come to judge the living and the dead – it is a terrible shock – so much so that it seems that the writers of the NZPB, removed the words ‘when he shall come to judge the living and the dead’ We have created a vast difference between the coming of God in Jesus of Nazareth and His COming again at the end of time, by reducing the significance of his first coming – domesticating it – making it easy – an incarnate God who is little more than the projection of ourselves – not the coming of one who’s life threw all of life, civic, religious and private into complete turmoil that at the end we had no choice but to nail him to the Cross.

He came as Saviour and Judge Then, He will come as Saviour and judge – and he is present to us now, if we will but Throw open the door of our hearts as Judge and Saviour.

Every Sunday, in our most traditional liturgy we ‘prepare’ our hearts by acknowledging we cannot, that He Must. ‘Almighty God, to whom All hearts are open, All desires known and from whom No secrets are hidden’ We come to the place of worship and acknowledge that try as we might we cannot hide from Him – We say, we have come to worship – to meet with you – we cannot hide and then we ask ‘Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts, by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit’ As we Inspire – breathe in the Holy Spirit – as we receive our Lord in Word and Sacrament – Do your Refining work in us, Refiners fire – Purify us – Fullers soap  – Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts. That we might perfectly love thee and Worthily magnify your holy name. We are praying for the prophecy of Malachi to be brought to fruition, Here, Now –  ‘purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.’

Advent, and this is reflected in our collect, can itself distract us if we are not alert to the Truth of our Faith – we may be distracted looking both forwards and backwards. Backwards to his coming in great humility, forwards to his coming in glorious majesty – distracting us from His Coming to us Now – Now is the day of our Judgement – Now is the Day of our Salvation, our healing, if we will but Throw open the door of our hearts to The Lord whom you seek – who Will Suddenly come to his Temple, His people. We Live in this Transforming Hope – one of the key themes of Advent – Hope of the Purifying Fire of Christ’s presence amongst us

 

I close with the words of St John – Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. May we live in Advent Hope of his coming among us, Now in the time of this mortal life.

 

Amen

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