|| "Who do you say
that I am?" Jesus asked. Simon Peter answered, "You
are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." And Jesus
answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are
Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra)
I will build my church..." Jesus then began to speak of
the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get
behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling
May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
"My deliverer is coming"
Message preached December 7, 2003
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA
based upon Malachi 3:1-4
Order of Worship
"Itís okay to dream." Thatís what I told the children earlier in worship. Do I really believe it? Do you? Is it really okay to dream? If your child, or - better - your spouse told you of a dream in which an angel, an "angel" mind you!, told him or her to do something, what would you think?
"Yes, doctor, he said an Ďangelí spoke to him.... What sort of stress has he been under lately? Well, I donít know. Do you suppose this is some kind of mid-life crisis? Maybe the angel is another woman. Maybe he subconsciously wants out of our marriage, and this dream angel is the first step. Then, again, what if he really believes it was an angel? Is he going crazy, doctor?"
Is it okay to dream? Really? If the truth be told, this season of the year is built upon dreams. Iím not just talking about the "church year;" you know - Advent and all. Iím thinking about the Christmas season, which began when store shelves were stocked with the Christmas line of products, and Christmas musak started coming through every public address system. This season depends upon dreams - "visions of sugar plums," if you will, dancing through our heads.
If we donít dream, and if we donít act upon those dreams, our economy flounders - so we are told. Every advertisement is a message which comes to us like a dream - some of which are even subliminal (that is, we arenít even conscious of the message we are receiving). Like Pavlovís dog, however, we hear the "Jingle bells" ring at this time of year, and we begin to salivate, and act upon the message to "buy, buy, buy."
Now, I donít wish to be like the Grinch who stole Christmas, but thereís something about all this seasonal dreaming that I just donít buy into. Many Ďmoonsí ago, when I was in college and thought I knew everything, I found myself repelled by shopping centers - especially at this time of year. It wasnít so much the crowds - which is probably why many of us may have second thoughts about going there now. Rather, it was the dream bursting from every shop that if we purchase this item or that, we will bring forth happiness. "Peace on earth, good will to all" becomes a commodity.
I know, itís easy to complain. I do care about the people behind the stores, from the salespersons to those in the stockroom, from the folks in the factory to the truckers and others who move it all around. Their ability to put bread upon their tables depends upon the opening of my wallet, if you will. Merchants are dreaming of a Ďgreení Christmas, so that Ďpinkí slips wonít follow. However, amid it all, I still have a sense that the real dream is cheapened.
The season of Advent, not to be confused with all the Christmas sales, is also a time built upon a dream. "Hope" and "Peace," however, are not commodities that can be bought or sold. Deep down we know that we canít buy happiness with just the right gift from the mall. In our heart of hearts, I believe most of us know the truth. There is a yearning within each of us for something only God can provide.
The Old Testament prophet, Malachi, himself had a dream, a vision of the Lord coming like fire and soap. Yes, children, I said "soap." We donít normally associate God with a bar of soap, but thatís what it says. Of course, "soap" in those days was not exactly the "Irish Spring" or "Palmolive" of this day. Then, it was a mixture of decomposing oil and the salty ashes of a burnt plant which was used to wash the body (as in Jeremiah 2:22), or to clean clothes - which is the meaning in Malachi. His dream involved soap (think laundry detergent), along with fire.
How many of us link fire and soap with advent? If anything, the candles we light have to do with providing illumination, but "Hope" and "Peace" are not merely flames which look pretty on our worship table. On Sunday mornings, in fact, we donít even depend upon them to bring light to the darkness. No, they just sit there, passively. Which is all we really want of them. Christmas, after all, is like a decoration we add to spruce up a somewhat barren time of year.
However, in our heart of hearts, you and I know that the coming of Christ is more than decoration; the real dream goes beyond a string of lights, and ornaments, and tinsel. True hope and peace, according to Malachiís dream, involves burning and cleaning. The prophetís flame had a purpose, and that was to refine the metal of Godís people. The dream involved burning away the junk and bringing out the best of the gold or silver, such that when the Lord looked at it He could see his own reflection. That is - Godís people, made in Godís image, would come to reflect their Creator.
In Malachiís dream, the soap would wash away the dirt and the filth which stained Godís people to the core. Now, in this present age of washing machines and dryers, we may have lost track of what this means, for all we do today is separate the colors and fabrics and place them in the machine along with the soap and push a button (which, mind you, some of us still struggle to do - much to the chagrin of others of us. Ahem!). In Bible times, as well as in many places around the world today, washing clothes involved pounding and scrubbing by hand, followed by sun and wind and heat and pressure. The purpose, however, was the same as the refinerís fire - that is, to bring out the best of the material.
Malachi dreamed his dream in the face of a society, however, that didnít see the need for such refining and cleaning. Like today, they preferred sugar plum visions to the real deal. Itís easier to hang up lights, after all, than it is to hang up sins. The real dream behind the season of Advent, like the dream of the prophet Malachi, involves fire and soap. Preparing for the coming of Christ, whether we are talking about the celebration of his birth or the anticipation of his return, isnít a matter of putting on our holiday outfit but of cleaning what we put on every day. So you donít misunderstand and think Iím only talking about clothes, let me shift to the fire image. The light of the season is a purifying fire, not a decoration, which burns away the junk.
Advent is a season of repentance. I could have preached today about another prophet linked to this season, a fellow who many considered to be an embarrassment because he was constantly revealing the junk that littered the landscape of his society, the sinfulness of Godís people. John the Baptist preached repentance in order to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord, and people didnít like his message any better than they liked Malachiís. But it was Johnís dream, as well as Malachiís dream which came true.
Peace is not a passive light, but an active fire. In Malachiís day, the things that got in the way of Godís peace, the things that needed refining out with fire, cleansed by divine soap, sound familiar. Back then marital covenants were not taken seriously. Divorce was a real problem, tearing families apart, leaving many women and children in dire straights. Today, more families split than stay together. The sad truth is that even when it is necessary, divorce is a leading factor in poverty rates. Malachiís dream was and is counteracting a nightmare.
Malachiís list of sins in his society sound strangely contemporary (looking at verse 5 of chapter 3). Sorcery - those who mess with evil spirits, play around with the dead, practice witchcraft or black magic - was a biggie. If you think we donít have problems in this area, you havenít watched late night cable tv recently. Adultery. Our culture is so saturated by sex, that weíve lost the ability to even define what the word adultery means. Need I say more? People who swear falsely - that is: lying. Itís at epidemic proportions in all our institutions, from wall street to main street, so some observers say. Have we also lost the definition for the word truth? Conservatives are quick to point out these current sins, among others, in our society, also.
However, Godís judgment is equal opportunity, for Malachiís list points out areas that liberals would also lift up today. For instance, employers who donít pay fare wages - the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer, looting the treasury of the nation - sound familiar? Not caring for the widows and orphans - that is, the underclass of society. Funny thing about our current situation is that while the government is doing less and less, the private sector is not doing more and more. Charitable giving is down. Malachi had pointed things to say to his contemporaries on that one, are we listening? The final sin in verse five is one we are battling over right now - not taking care of aliens. Whether they were legal or illegal back then didnít matter. God said His people bore responsibility for them, irregardless.
There is enough repentance to spread around to all as we approach the coming of Christ. The wonder of Malachiís dream when it comes to judgment, however, is this: Godís fire is not a consuming fire. Thatís one bone I have to pick with hellfire and damnation preachers. Too often Godís judgment is presented as punishment, not as refinement or cleansing. Thatís probably why people in general are so adverse to anything that smacks of judgment. Godís judgment, however, is not about punishing the wicked as much as it is about restoring Godís people. The fire is for refining the metal, tempering it so that it shines and reflects the glory of the Maker. The soap is for cleansing the fabric, not tossing it in the trash. That was Malachiís dream.
And we believe that Jesus is the dream come true. When the angel first spoke to Joseph, convincing him not to break his commitment to Mary (which he had every right to do), he dreamed of his yet unborn child (his in the sense that Joseph became willing to raise him as his own son) and this Jesus was envisioned as the savior, the One who would deliver people from sin. Think fire and soap, folks - refining and cleansing not by someone who did so from a distance, but by One who was Immanuel, "God with us." (Matthew 1:18-25)
There was a second dream, a good dream in the middle of a terrifying moment. To be honest, I hate this scripture (Matthew 2:16-21), not because I doubt itís truth but because such things still happen today. Our society has so focused upon the aftermath of 9/11 and our own need for security, that we forget terror has many faces in this world. In our little cocoon, we just donít hear about them, or about how things that we do might actually cause, directly or indirectly, mothers elsewhere to weep over their lost children, just like they did in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago.
Let me tell you, though - the infant who was spared early death, because of Josephís second dream, is the same Jesus who came to deliver all Godís children, even those who suffer today in places many of us donít even know exist. The dream of advent peace is that itís not a done deal. Jesus the Christ died, yes; but he has risen, and he will come again (with fire and soap, as Malachi said) to deliver every motherís child. Godís dream, Godís will, Godís promise will be done on earth as it is in heaven. The deliverer is coming. Prepare the way of the Lord. Repent, and live the dream!
|online resources for this scripture text||
For commentaries consulted, see Malachi.
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)
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