Sunday, December 6, 2009

Melting away impurities

Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 3:1-6

The Psalm for today is actually a song called the Benedictus – like the word benediction, it means blessing. It is Zechariah’s song after his son John (the Baptist) was born. In this song, Zechariah thanks God for all that God has done for God’s people over the centuries and centuries of Israelite history. He then commends John to God’s leading, knowing that he will be a prophet called to prepare the way for the One who is to come.
John will be much like Malachi, the prophet who was sent to the people to prepare the way for the Lord’s coming. Malachi was a prophet in the time after the return from the Babylonian exile, around 500 BCE. The Israelite people – now called Jews since they were sent back to Judah – had rebuilt the temple, but even the priests were giving lip service to worship. Their offerings of blind and lame animals were unacceptable to God. The people were intermarrying with the locals who worshiped other gods, leading God’s people away from the God who had freed them from slavery in Egypt.
Into this time, place, and situation, God called Malachi to tell the people they were about to be purified and refined. Fullers soap is a cleansing process used on wool before it is made into cloth. It is made of old urine and mud, an alkali mixture. Metal refining involves heating ore until it is so hot, all the impurities are melted away, leaving behind only the purest precious metal.
As God’s children, we also are intermingled, infused with stuff that makes us impure: old hurts that we can’t quite forget or let go of; sins we have committed, for which we can’t forgive ourselves; hurtful things we have done to someone without even knowing it; ways in which we have not done what God wanted us to do. Indeed, only God knows some of the ways in which we are impure.
While the process of melting away the impurities may be painful, the results are for our benefit. When the impurities of sin and hurtfulness are melted away, only the purest person is left. Since it is sin that keeps us apart from God, this purification is a good thing. It brings us closer to God.
… John, the baby Zechariah sang to, grew up to be the prophet his father had anticipated. He eventually found himself facing both religious and political leaders, all with a lot more earthly power than he had. He proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Since only the priests had the right to forgive in God’s name, and only after a person had paid the appropriate fees, John ran afoul of the religious leaders. And, since John challenged Herod and his wife regarding the legality of their marriage, he also ran afoul of the political leadership. But, those are stories for another day.
For today, we have John in the wilderness calling on all who would listen to prepare their hearts for the coming of the Lord. Some listened, and repented, and turned their hearts back to God. Many more refused to listen, refused to repent, believed they were doing all they needed to do to maintain their relationship with God.
To prepare our hearts for the coming of the Lord really means allowing God to purify us. God purifies us by making us aware of those sins that need to be confessed, so they can be forgiven. Recognizing and confessing sins to one another, or even just to God, can be painful for us. But forgiveness is a gift – a free gift ­– from God designed to heal our broken spirits, and bring us closer to one another, and to God. This forgiveness, this healing of broken hearts and spirits, this assurance of life with God after death, this is the salvation from God which was promised by God, through John, and made a reality by the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
This year, as we prepare our homes for the celebration of Christmas, as we purchase just the right gifts, as we bake just the right foods, let’s remember also to prepare our hearts. Let’s allow God to purify our hearts, melting away those sins that keep us from having a loving, trusting relationship with God and with each other.
I’m reminded of the stories told in the TV show “Touched by an Angel.” Each week, the angels helped several people resolve the conflicts that kept them apart as a family and that prevented them from truly knowing God’s love. Each situation was painful; for example, a father and daughter who never spoke to each other. Both father and daughter needed to confront the painful memories, the ways in which they hurt each other, and the ways in which they had been hurt by each other.
Those conversations were painful, gut-wrenching but essential experiences. But the process brought healing to both hearts. As the impurities of their personal relationships were melted away, they were brought closer together. They also experienced God’s love and forgiveness as the angels, especially Monica, showed them how much God loved them and forgave them.
As we prepare for the birth of Jesus as a baby, let’s tend to our relationships with each other and with God. Let’s allow God to melt away the impurities from our hearts, and draw us closer to God and to each other. In that way, the meaning of Christ’s birth can have a true impact on our lives. And that is your challenge for the next couple of weeks.

Please pray with me: Gracious God, we truly need your mercy. We are filled with impurities, and need your help in melting them away. As you cleanse us, help us to see that the pain of this cleansing is temporary, and the reward is our ability to be ever closer to you. Amen