Forward in Peace

peace word carved in wood
Year C Advent 2 – 5 December 2021

Eliezer Wiesel was born in Romania and survived Hitler’s Holocaust. He migrated to America and became a professor of the humanities at Boston University. He wrote 57 books! And by far his most famous work was simply titled, “Night”. It was a book based on his experiences as a Jewish prisoner in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps.

Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in1986. The Norwegian Nobel Committee called him a “messenger to mankind”.

As Wiesel recalled his childhood, he talked about when he would come home from school as a little boy. His mother would not ask him the normal questions mothers usually do:

“What did you do today?” or “Whom did you talk to today?” or even “What did you learn today?” Every day little Eliezer would return home from school and his mother would ask, “Did you have a good question today?”

Malachi had some good questions for his day. In fact, you will find at least 22 questions asked by Malachi in his short book of just 55 verses. We are only going to look at one of those 22 questions this morning. Before we do that, however, we will break down the opening verse into two parts.

Belief

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me… 3:1a

We look forward to Christmas in the spirt of belief. Faith is a belief in the word of God. It is a faith that has been purified from worldly elements. It is belief based on facts as Hebrews 11:1 defines it. There, in its Reformation translation, it states emphatically that faith is the SUBSTANCE of things hope for, the EVIDENCE of things not seen.

Just because we do not see Jesus does not mean he did not exist. Jesus is a person of history. In history, he had a cousin named John. We know him as John the Baptist. Jesus claimed that this verse in Malachi was a reference to John.

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,

‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’

Matthew 11:7-10

I fear too much of secularism’s philosophy has entered the Church. Instead of embracing Scripture as the word of God, it is read as words of men. The religion of secular materialism espouses the idea that NOTHING is the source of SOMETHING and we are here today by accident.

I do not believe it is wrong to ask questions. Malachi is proof of that! Questions do not have to represent doubt.  Questions can reflect belief with intent to understand. By all means ask questions about scripture and about God! But by no means assume you are a god capable of being the final authority.

I believe the path to peace often begins with questions. And what I love about our lectionary readings this week are all the questions! They are all Advent questions:

  • Who can endure the day of his coming? (Malachi 3:2)
  • Who will be pure and blameless in the day of Christ? (Phil.1:10)
  • Who will prepare the way by repentance and forgiveness? (Luke 3:1-6)

Prophets use rhetorical questions. They often ask them to goad us into action. In our prayer of confession today, we admitted, “Refining God, you have sent us prophets and we have not listened.”

John’s message of baptism was so strong it has become a part of his name. John the Baptist. John understood the sacrament of baptism. He knew it was an identifying mark that you are choosing to follow Jesus. Have you been baptised?

We baptise our children – not because we think it will earn them heaven – but because we want them to be sealed in God’s grace. Christian parents encourage their children to be baptised in the same spirit as Old Testament children were circumcised. It is a sign of belonging to God’s covenant people. When the Philippian jailor was converted in Acts 16, he was baptised and so too was his entire household.

Has your household been baptised? The prophet preparing the way for Christ’s arrival encourages baptism.

Look forward to Christmas in the spirit of belief – and don’t be afraid to ask questions to understand answers given by the prophets. Which takes me back to the text.

Trust

We look forward to Christmas in the spirit of trust. Faith is a trust in the presence of God. It is a faith that has been purified from human dependencies.

Does it seem ironic that we talk about peace while we wait for the Lord’s messenger to come suddenly, like a thief in the night? The messenger of the covenant is none other than Jesus Christ.

John Calvin points out something rather fascinating about this text. He notes the messenger was expected to come to his own temple. Knowing now that Jesus was the fulfilment of this text, we have a subtle reference to Christ being the God who was always worshipped by the Jews – even if they didn’t realise it! (Institutes 1:13:10)

But there is something else Calvin noted that arrested my attention. You know how every Christmas we are given images of angels interacting with humanity? The word for “messenger” is translated from the Hebrew text that also means “angel”. Jesus is the coming Angel of the Lord! (Institutes 1:14:9)

Advent, whether the one past or one to come, is always filled with angels. We know them as messengers from God. The Sadducees in Jesus’ day did not believe in literal resurrection and are quite similar to modern Kabbalists. They view angels as forces. Many progressive Christians have a faith similar to this belief system.

The majority Christian world, however, embrace the concept that there are other-worldly beings. Science today is also leans in that direction convinced we are not alone in the universe. They would argue we are talking about two different natures but we are not. Scripture teach Angels have flesh, and although they are not given to marriage, they appear capable of reproducing.

Faith is a trust in God’s presence. Whether it be by an angelic force or the breeze that comes off the ocean while you rest on its beach, God’s presence is enjoyed. Advent is about waiting for God’s presence to manifest itself into our world. As we wait, we rest not only in the promises of God’s word, the Holy Bible, we rest in God’s presence.

And yet we are encouraged to be alert!

In the devotional series received by email each morning in Advent, there was a reading that talked about “Alertly rest.” The author wrote:

It seems like an oxymoron, but I can’t think of a more appropriate way to describe Advent. It is a time where we all must alertly rest. And we should not wait to do that until Facebook fails us again.

The Sacrament of Christmas, 2 Dec 21

Alertly rest is expressed in many of our Advent hymns that express judgement as well as joy. We are all very happy to sing familiar Christmas carols, but many hymns are no longer popular with congregations. The notes of today’s lectionary texts are sound in hymns like “O Day of God, Draw Near.”

O Day of God, draw nigh 

In beauty and in power; 

Come with thy timeless judgment now 

To match our present hour.

Bring to our troubled minds, 

Uncertain and afraid, 

The quiet of a steadfast faith, 

Calm of a call obeyed.

Bring justice to our land, 

That all may dwell secure, 

And finely build for days to come 

Foundations that endure.

Bring to our world of strife 

Thy sovereign Word of peace, 

That war may haunt the earth no more, 

And desolation cease.

O day of God, draw nigh, 

As at creation’s birth, 

Let there be light again, and set 

Thy judgements in the earth.

R. B. Y. Scott

Purity

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; 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.Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

Malachi 3:2-4

We look forward to Christmas in the spirit of purity. Faith is a purity in the judgment of God. It is a faith that has been purified from selfish ambitions.

Our children’s talk earlier showed pictures of the refining process. A hot fire is required to remove impurities from the rock imprisoning gold. The gold must lose its form and shape to be released from captivity. Through such a painful process, treasure is discovered.

Purification brings us to a place of peace. It may be uncomfortable, but we find it. We have recently wrestled with the government’s Traffic Light Framework and whether or not we should reassemble. It was not comfortable considering all the pros and cons. There was uneasiness as we processed the decision. And yet, it has brought us to a place of peace. We are at peace that the Lord would have us continue virtual worship into January under the government’s Red Light.

Purification brings us to a position of peace. We can stand in God’s promises, enjoying God’s presence, as we have been purified by God’s judgements.

One day Saint Francis and brother Leo were walking down the road. Noticing Leo was depressed, Francis turned and asked, “Leo, do you know what it means to be pure of heart?”

“Of course. It means to have no sins, faults or weaknesses to reproach myself for.”

“Ah,” said Francis, “now I understand why you’re sad. We will always have something to reproach ourselves for.”

“Right,” said Leo. “That’s why I despair of ever arriving at purity of heart.”

“Leo, listen carefully to me. Don’t be so preoccupied with the purity of your heart. Turn and look at Jesus. Admire Him. Rejoice that He is what He is—your Brother, your Friend, your Lord and Savior. That, little brother, is what it means to be pure of heart. And once you’ve turned to Jesus, don’t turn back and look at yourself. Don’t wonder where you stand with Him.”

“The sadness of not being perfect, the discovery that you really are sinful, is a feeling much too human, even borders on idolatry. Focus your vision outside yourself, on the beauty, graciousness and compassion of Jesus Christ. The pure of heart praise Him from sunrise to sundown.”

“Even when they feel broken, feeble, distracted, insecure and uncertain, they are able to release it into His peace. A heart like that is stripped and filled-stripped of self and filled with the fullness of God. It is enough that Jesus is Lord.”

After a long pause, Leo said, “Still, Francis, the Lord demands our effort and fidelity.”

“No doubt about that,” replied Francis. “But holiness is not a personal achievement. It’s an emptiness you discover in yourself. Instead of resenting it, you accept it and it becomes the free space where the Lord can create anew. To cry out, ‘You alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord,’ that is what it means to be pure of heart. And it doesn’t come by your Herculean efforts and threadbare resolutions.”

“Then how?” asked Leo.

“Simply hoard nothing of yourself; sweep the house clean. Sweep out even the attic, even the nagging, painful consciousness of your past. Accept being shipwrecked. Renounce everything that is heavy, even the weight of your sins. See only the compassion, the infinite patience and the tender love of Christ. Jesus is Lord. That suffices. Your guilt and reproach disappear into the nothingness of non-attention. You are no longer aware of yourself, like the sparrow aloft and free in the azure sky. Even the desire for holiness is transformed into a pure and simple desire for Jesus.”

Leo listened gravely as he walked along beside Francis. Step by step he felt his heart grow lighter as a profound peace flooded his soul.

(Found in Brennan Manning, Shipwreck at the Stable, in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas.)

Purification brings us to a prospect of peace. Look around you. In the midst of a global pandemic, you reside in New Zealand! In the midst of Auckland’s Lockdown, you have access to all the food and supplies you need! In the midst of long days and wearisome Zoom meetings, you have refuge in Christian friends and family who share your longing for Christ’s justice in our community.

PRAYER

God, our souls are waiting for you this season. We want your holy stillness to surround us. But it is so hard to find the silence we need to be renewed. Help us to turn off the chatter in this world. Help us to find the strength to step away from negative news and conversations. Let us be able to hear the beauty of you talking to us in the sounds of your Creation. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen. (The Sacrament of Christmas, 2 Dec 21)


You can watch the sermon as part of worship service on our YouTube Channel here.

Published by St Johns Papatoetoe

Presbyterian Church, Hunters Corner, Papatoetoe, Auckland, New Zealand belonging to Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand (PCANZ).

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