Prepare to be Refined for Relationship
By Rev. Tom Corbin, Assisting Priest
Luke 3:1-6, Mal 3:1-5, 1 Cor 4:18-21, Ps 126
Opening Prayer- Come, O come Emmanuel, and Ransom your captive people, who wait in expectation of your arrival, your presence, your Grace, and your great love. Prepare our hearts, Lord, for the coming of your Son and open our hearts for your Word today. You are not silent O Lord, and we long to know your will. Guide us, Lord, through the darkness of this world through the light of your Son, the Word made flesh. We pray this in the Sovereign name of Jesus Christ, Our Redeemer and Lord. Amen.
Introduction- Those who know us know that Fawn and I really love Advent and Christmas. Our clock chimes the hour with carols year-round. I love to listen to Christmas music anytime after Fawn’s birthday in early October, I like to decorate right after Thanksgiving, and we have been doing the Caroling Party for 30 years. Getting ready for Christmas for us is getting ready for Joy. You have heard it said that Love came down at Christmas, and we like to celebrate that love as a full season and surround ourselves with the Spirit of Christmas as long as we can. Yet our scriptures today speak of a different kind of preparation on this second Sunday of Advent. Our Gospel speaks of John the Baptist, speaking in the Wilderness in a way foretold by both the prophets Isaiah and from our Old Testament reading in Malachi. Our Psalm remembers the faithfulness of the Lord in the midst of current oppression and trial. In our New Testament, we see the Apostle Paul struggling with a Church that seemed to be losing its way. The type of preparation we see in these scriptures is a preparation for a relationship being initiated by God. God has spent thousands of years helping mankind see their need for a Saviour, and now He is sending us that Saviour to be our Lord. So we don’t miss the coming of the King Jesus, God sends a herald to let everyone know, John the Baptist. Malachi gives us important information about the coming of Jesus.
Our message today is titled, “Prepare to be Refined for Relationship” and I have 2 sections. My first section is simply a description of the setting we see in our Gospel reading. John the Baptist was sent to a people and place, and we should understand how that relates to us. My second section deals with the refining fire mentioned in our Old Testament reading in Malachi 3. Why do we need to be refined and what does this mean to us, and to Advent? Our Lord speaks to us with purpose, and I pray that as we search the scriptures together, that He will reveal that purpose and help us to be prepared His way for the coming of our Lord Immanuel.
The Setting– In some ways, our best sources for the setting that John the Baptist enters into in the Gospel come from our Psalm and our Old Testament reading from Malachi. Our Psalm is a Psalm of Ascents. Pilgrims would sing these Psalms of Ascents as they climbed the hills toward the temple, and it starts out with the hope of God’s people. “When the LORD overturned the captivity of Zion, then were we like those who dream. 2 Then was our mouth filled with laughter and our tongue with shouts of joy. 3 Then they said among the nations, The LORD has done great things for them.” 4 Indeed, the LORD has done great things for us already, Where-of we rejoice.” The Psalmist knows that God has done big things for Israel in the past and is looking for another earth-shaking revelation of God’s love for Israel. For the Psalmist is in distress, together with all Israel. “Overturn our captivity, O LORD, as when streams refresh the deserts of the south. 6 Those who sow in tears shall reap with songs of joy. 7 He who goes on his way weeping and bears good seed shall doubtless come again with joy, and bring his sheaves with him.” Israel finds itself in captivity again. This time, they are not in exile as they were in Babylon, but are captive in their own land, with their Holy City Jerusalem and a temple of the Lord, and they waited, singing this Psalm every year for over 400 years. Our Old Testament reading in Malachi prophesies a messenger to prepare the way for the Lord, but it has been so long, and so quiet.
When will the Lord come? Alistair Begg points out that Luke, as a faithful witness, unfolds the political and religious circumstances of the time, the social climate of Palestine during the Roman Empire into which John the Baptist spoke was one of Silence and Darkness. Silence- the time of the intertestamental period was roughly 400 years without hearing a prophet of God speak the Word of God to His people. What was needed in the silence was a voice. John has that voice, a voice given by God. Out of the silence, God has raised a voice. 30 years after the birth of Jesus in Luke 2, and even 18 years after the end of Chapter 2 where Jesus is in the temple, John speaks the Word of the Lord to break the silence. Darkness- the environment of the people of God was that of darkness. The reign of Tiberius was a time of moral degradation and political chaos, treachery, and cruelty. Sounds a lot like today doesn’t it? The secular environment was darkness and the Lord raised up a voice to testify as a witness to the light. The Light of the World was coming into the World. As our opening hymn sang, “On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry, Announces that the Lord is nigh; Awake and hearken, for he brings, Glad tidings of the King of kings.” We know from Isaiah and our Gospel that John was “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” But who sent him and why?
Last week, Father Matt made a point about our relationship with God. That all the action in our relationship is from God to us. God reaches for us, ministers to us, redeems us, speaks to us. Malachi makes this point in our Old Testament reading. “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.” The Lord of Hosts, God the Father, sends His messenger, John the Baptist, to prepare the way before Jesus, the Lord whom we seek, the messenger of the covenant. This passage is an interesting one because of what it reveals in the Old Testament about relationships within the Trinity, between the Father and the Son. The Lord speaks of sending a messenger before me, then transitions to another messenger “The Lord whom you seek.” Since only God is Lord, this person, the messenger of the covenant, is God, not a simple, second messenger. We see this interplay between the persons and nature of God here in the Old Testament and realize that God is revealing Himself to His people in a way that will only make sense with the coming of Jesus. So, after 400 years, the Lord has decided to speak into the silence and darkness. He has made his chosen servant, John the Baptist, ready. As surely as John speaks to the crowds that came out into the wilderness, he speaks to us today, 2000 years later. Are we ready to hear the message he brings? That message is one of preparation for the coming Jesus, who is also bringing a message according to the prophet Malachi.
Refining Fire- Malachi chapter 3 says, “But 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. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord.” When the Lord comes to save His people, He comes in Holiness and Truth. NT Wright writes “the reason God brings rescue and salvation is precisely because He is a Holy and faithful God, keeping covenant with His people- but if that is so, He is bound to bring judgment as well as mercy, He is not a tame God.” Because God is a covenant-keeping God, He brings us the Grace of the Covenant. Malachi’s prophesy in Chapter 1 begins with “I have loved you” says the Lord. Because He is the changeless, covenant-keeping God who loves us, the people of God experience the Lord as a refiner’s fire, not a consuming fire. God has promised that the devil and all who belong to him will one day experience the Lord as an unquenchable fire, but that is not our fate. No, the people of God are to be refined by the Lord. Unlike those who might preach a prosperity Gospel, scripture prepares us for affliction as surely as our Saviour suffered affliction to save us. However, John Piper says, “the furnace of affliction in the family of God is always for refinement, never for destruction.” This refinement is meant for our good and for our relationship with the God of love. We often become attached to the world and the good things we have- family, friends, and fun, but also work and other things in this world that compete for our attention and devotion.
In our New Testament reading in 1 Corinthians, we see a somewhat sarcastic and frustrated Paul speaking to the Church at Corinth. The Corinthian Church had become prideful, disdaining Paul’s ministry and effectiveness. They believed they had achieved something more, forgetting the humility and suffering of our Lord. This was a Church in need of refining fire, but then, scripture tells us that we all need refining fire to be purified for our life with the Lord. Paul seeks to call the Corinthians back to the Gospel relationship. Often, throughout History, people have sought to prepare themselves to meet the Lord by what they do, but this is vanity. If we can prepare ourselves by cleaning ourselves up, purifying ourselves from sin, and following the law, then we have no need for Jesus. If in this penitential season, we can confess our sin, sing some worship songs, and sin no more, then the law of God is a ladder that we can climb to God. But the simple truth is that the law will never be a ladder, it will always be a mirror. We can’t love the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves for 1 day let alone our whole lives. When we truly observe ourselves with truth and humility before the mirror of the law, we are convicted by the Holy Spirit that we are rebels and lawbreakers by nature; that we are sinners in need of a Saviour. But the reality of preparing ourselves for the Lord isn’t a question of “What shall I do to be saved?” but “To whom do I belong?”
Though Advent is a season of preparation and repentance, this preparation is not about accountability, but a relationship. It’s not what we give up but instead being wholly devoted to our relationship with Jesus. As we prepare our hearts for what God is about to do, our eyes are fixed on Jesus and His Grace, not the gifts we have to bring to the manger. We need to enter into the Spirit of our Communion hymn. “Come down, O Love divine, Seek thou this soul of mine, And visit it with thine own ardor glowing; O Comforter, draw near, Within my heart appear, And kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing. O let it freely burn, Till earthly passions turn. To dust and ashes in its heat consuming; And let thy glorious light, Shine ever on my sight, And clothe me round, the while my path illuming.” Beloved, let us long for the closer relationship God has promised to those whom He loves in Jesus.
Conclusion- Our opening prayer for today was the topic of Fr. Matt’s letter in our Advent newsletter. This prayer was written by Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury and primary author of the original Book of Common Prayer. Father Matt made the point that Cranmer used the language of inwardly digesting the scriptures as a Holy Food that can nourish us into everlasting life in a similar way as when we digest the Eucharist. That both the Eucharist and God’s Word should enter our bloodstream with the real presence of our Lord for grace and our good. In Word and Sacrament, we prepare not just for Christmas, but for the coming of the Lord. More than outward manifestations of lights and decorations, we need to prepare an inward reality in our relationship with the Lord, who we will one day see, face to face. This is the call of our scriptures today. Beloved! Prepare your hearts! We don’t need to fill every valley and make all rough places level, the Lord does all that! Instead of trying to make ourselves presentable we should accept God’s gift of Grace and belong to Jesus in true humility and loving relationship. Accept the refining fire of the Lord as you are transformed into a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but, through the mercies of God, be refined with a renewed mind, discerning the will of God and seeking the love relationship we are offered by the Gospel of Grace. Let us pray.
Closing Prayer- Lord, help us to prepare our hearts to accept the Grace you have prepared for us before the world began. May our yearning for you be strong and may your Holy Spirit guide us to the great marriage feast of the Lamb. We pray your Word will take root in our lives and bear fruit for your kingdom, and we pray all this in the Sacred and Holy Name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen