This is a re-purposing of a sermon I wrote six years ago, in my first call as an interim associate pastor.
When we think of “preparing” for Christmas, I wonder how many of us share the kinds of traditions embraced by Luther and Nora Krank, the lead characters in John Grisham’s little novel Skipping Christmas. Faced with an emotionally difficult holiday the Kranks reconsider their Christmas traditions, which have, in the past, included the following: decorating the house with a 7-foot tall plastic Frosty the Snowman; sending out about 100 Christmas cards; hosting an elaborate party; and buying gifts for friends, family and acquaintances alike to the tune of more than $6000. When all that is accomplished, the Kranks are ready for Christmas!
Even those of us who are committed to honoring the spiritual significance of Christmas have to be honest with ourselves. Christmas does, at times, seem to be all about the cards, gifts, parties, decorations, and social obligations. But as the couple in the novel discovers, the holiday season can seem particularly hollow if all we have to sustain us in the face of sadness or transition is the triumph of the perfectly catered cocktail hour or the elegantly turned out tree.
Scripture has very different ideas of “preparing” for Christmas. An orgy of spending and eating, getting and having, is simply not an adequate context for such an event. As one writer has described it: “…you cannot just walk into such a blaze of glory without preparation… you must creep up to it, think about it, count the days, watch the signs, and prepare.”[i]
How do we do it? How do we enter into this Advent season? In the face of real lives, real situations that fly in the face of the jolly, jolly “Ho Ho Ho” of it all, how do we even begin to think about the meaning of Advent? The natural world prompts us toward a kind of preparation that flies in the face of what we have been schooled to participate in. One writer describes the way in which nature and scripture come into alignment at this time of the year:
It is Advent and, along with nature, we are a people waiting. Far out of the south, the winter light comes thin and milky. The days grow shorter and colder and the nights long. Try as we may, we cannot fully dismiss the fundamental feelings that lie deep at our roots, a mixture of feelings dark and sweet. Will the sun, the source of our life, ever return? Has the great light abandoned us? We are anxious from the separation and feel an obscure guilt. We know there are vague disharmonies that keep us at odds. But our longing for union is passionate. This year we want our Christmas to be different.[ii]
I want to suggest something that might sound a little scandalous to us. I want to suggest that the best way to prepare for Christmas may be not to prepare. The best way to ready ourselves for Christmas may be to let God make us ready.
Listen again to the words of the prophet Malachi: “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple… 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 fuller’s soap; he 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 3:1a, 2-4)
This is a time of preparation—but what a preparation! The refiner’s fire! You know, not one person I’ve talked to this week, myself included, is interested in being refined—being put into the fire by God or by life’s circumstances. And yet, we know, we all have times in our lives when that seems to be precisely what God has in store for us. Our feet are to the fire, or we have jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire—the heat is on! If we can’t stand the heat, we are told, get out of the kitchen—but life isn’t really like that, is it? When we are in the fire it never has to do with choices we would make in a perfect world. It always has to do with the messy reality of life as fragile, fallible people living among other fragile, fallible people. People hurt us, and we hurt them. We are faced with irreconcilable choices that we don’t want to make. We take the heat for something we didn’t do, or for something we did do—I don’t know which of those is worse. We experience a loss, a death—whether the death of a loved one or the death of hope itself. We are a people in the fire.
And we have a choice, when we are in the fire. We have a choice as to whether or not we will allow God to use that time as a preparation. We have a choice as to whether we will allow God to use fire-time to do a new thing, to make a new space in our hearts, to show us new vistas as yet unimagined.
A group of women in a bible study were looking at this verse from Malachi, “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver” (Malachi 3:3), and they wondered what on earth it could mean. One of them decided to find out about the process of refining and purifying silver, and promised to report back to the women in the Bible Study at their next meeting.
That week, the woman called a silversmith and made an appointment to watch him at work. She didn’t mention anything about the reason for her interest beyond her curiosity about the process of refining silver.
As she watched the silversmith, he held a piece of silver over the fire and let it heat up. He explained that in refining silver, one needed to hold the silver in the middle of the fire where the flames were hottest as to burn away all the impurities…
She asked the silversmith if it was true that he had to sit there in front of the fire the whole time the silver was being refined. The man answered that yes, he not only had to sit there holding the silver, but he had to keep his eyes on the silver the entire time it was in the fire. If the silver was left a moment too long in the flames, it would be destroyed. The woman was silent for a moment. Then she asked the silversmith, “How do you know when the silver is fully refined?” He smiled at her and answered, “Oh, that’s easy—when I see my image in it.”[iii]
If God is the refiner, and we ourselves are the silver, we can trust in a few things about this fiery process of preparation we are going through. First, we can trust that, like the good silversmith, God doesn’t throw us in the fire and abandon us to our own devices. God holds us while we are in the fire. God watches us while we are in the fire. God hovers nearby, unwilling to let us be destroyed by the inferno. We are precious in God’s sight, far more precious than silver or gold, and it is God’s hope and intention that we emerge from the fire, not just unscathed, but unbound.
Second, when God’s gaze upon us is returned by an image of God’s own self—when God can see the divine image in the creatures over whom God is hovering—God knows that we are becoming the people God wants us to be.
At the same time we are preparing for the popular cultural festival that is “Christmas” we Christians are also preparing for our encounter with the blaze of glory that is Christ’s Advent among us. If the prophet’s image of meeting the refiner is still daunting—if, like me, you are still squirming at the thought of time in the fire—remember this: We can rest assured that the One who loves us when other loves fail, the One who is with us even when we feel lost and alone, the One in whose image we are made, will prepare us for that meeting, face to face. Amen.
[i]Mary Reed Newland, The Year and Our Children.
[ii] Gertrud Mueller Nelson, To Dance With God.
[iii] Posted to Midrash Discussion List, 2003.