A Refiner's Preparation

[]We have not always included all four of the appointed Scripture readings in the service, but this week we have, beginning with our Call to Worship adapted from Luke 1:68-79. I will touch on two of the readings in this message: the lesson from Malachi, and the Luke 3:1-6 passage that quotes from the Prophet Isaiah.

Malachi tells us that one is coming who will refine the people of the Lord. If you have ever attended Heritage Days in any of the small towns around the area, you probably saw a blacksmith shop. That gives us an idea of what refining is about. Holding the iron over the fire got it red hot, and the blacksmith could then beat it into shape, quickly cool it, reheat it, and so on. This imagery of heating and cooling is what Malachi is speaking about when he talks about the people being refined. The people of Israel had been through much peril. They knew what it was to be without a king, wandering aimlessly in exile, sometimes as captives from battles lost. So they knew what Malachi was saying. And perhaps what Malachi is saying to us is that we are in a period of being refined and that, through that, God is making us righteous. As Malachi says, "Then your gifts and offerings will be acceptable to God." Prophets warned the Israelites about their waywardness, their moving away from God. They were reminded that their offerings were simply lip-service when they gave from one hand but then, out in the world, took from another, not living out their faith. So when Malachi speaks about one who is coming to refine the people, they understand their own need for refinement. They understand the need to be purged of the things that are holding them back from being faithful and righteous.

From the prophecy of Malachi about the coming refiner, we move to proclamations from Luke of a great prophet who will announce the coming one. Here enters John the Baptist who is telling the people to prepare the way, and he is hearkening them back to the words of Isaiah: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight, every valley shall be filled, every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth." In road construction, there is the blasting of mountains so we can build our roads on more level paths, and valleys being filled in right next to them. But this imagery is really alluding to us: the mountains we have built up in our own lives that we need to bring down, but often instead go around. These are the mountains and hills that are being spoken of in that passage. It was not about leveling off mountains make better roads, but about the path in our own lives, the path in our own spiritual journeys.

All of us have mountains in our lives that we are called to work on in preparing for the coming of Christ. Think for a moment: what are the mountains and hills that block you from the peace you seek? Now think: what is one thing you can do to help that mountain come down or lower that hill? Prayer can help. In the children's sermon, we talked about how arguments among family and friends can build up walls that cause us to not speak to one another, putting a wedge between us and those we love. That is an example of a mountain. And as I told the children, find ways to bring down that mountain. Apologize and find ways to make peace. Bringing down that type of mountain, or any mountain in our lives, will certainly help us find the peace we seek.

All of us have experienced dark valleys in our lives. Some may be in them right now. It is difficult to come out of a valley, even with prayer, even with the hands of those around you trying to lift you up. Yet we know that God is there with us in the midst of every valley that we face, though sometimes it may not feel like it. Still, we know. How do we fill in those valleys? Focus for a moment on some of the valleys in your life. One way we experience a valley in our life is through loss. Loss places us in such a deep valley that it may seem almost impossible to come out on the other side. But there are things that help. Time is only one element. People say, "Time heals all wounds." I know that is not always the case, not just for me personally but for many I've ministered to. Time often eases those wounds, but sometimes it does not. But faith in God and hope that God will deliver us out of that valley is key to our spiritual development and walk of faith. Another key is those around you who love and care for you who lend hands to lift you up. Do your best to accept those hands trying to lift you up, and pray constantly. God is with us in the midst of those valleys and God is with us in the midst of all the ways out of those valleys. The season of Advent promises us that hope and peace are on the way and will help us through those valleys. Some of us have gotten through valleys before. And if you have wisdom from how you were able to traverse those valleys and some key that might help someone else who is struggling, please share that with them. And in that way we are not just makers of peace in our own lives; we are lifting each other up with hope and love.

Then last, we are told that all the crooked paths shall be made straight. Taking that personally in our own lives, we know we can't always go straight. By human nature, we are 'crooked' in some ways. And we recognize that when we stand before God, or if we have to stand before that refiner's fire, we know that we are not blameless. There are things in our lives that are crooked, things that we don't like about ourselves and know we need to change. In this passage, we hear the call to all who are to follow God: work on those things in your life that you know are not correct paths for you. Work on those things that you know are not what God hopes for you in your life. Work on that which might be crooked. Ask the question: How have I wandered away from God? By what ways and means have I strayed?

The words from Isaiah are echoed by John the Baptist, but we hear it from a very personal point of view. Faith starts to become more deep and more real. Perhaps there are more things that God is calling us to do in preparation for this One who is coming. And I say that now is the time. This is the season for us to look at all of those things in our lives, to work on them ourselves, and to help others at the same time. It may be to help and encourage those who are working on lowering mountains. It may be to help those who are in the valley find a way out and know that there is hope and there is peace, even in the midst of that valley. Or it may be to help ourselves and each other realize that through God's grace and through the grace of Christ, we are forgiven of our sins. But we are also called to straighten out those things in our lives that continuously pull us away from God, that pull us away from our call in Christ.

Advent is a time of repentance and forgiveness, but that moves us on to the joy of the season. So let us work on that and struggle through those things. Next week we have a shift from repentance, fasting and other disciplines, to the emerging life that we know is coming. We'll hear words about the joy that is on the way. But know this: if we don't try to remove those mountains, if we don't try to come out of those valleys, if we don't try to put an end to those things in our lives that pull us away from our faithfulness, then the joy of Christmas will be diminished. It is only by going through the hard stuff that God's joy in our lives becomes more real. For anyone who has gone through this practice before, you know what I mean. There will be much more joy in the coming Messiah, and there will be much more peace in our lives. Amen.

December 6, 2009

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