Come, Holy Spirit, and kindle the fire that is in us.
Take our lips and speak through them.
Take our hearts and see through them.
Take our souls and set them on fire. Amen.
The Mystery of Christmas
This is the season of Advent. Advent is the time of the color blue. Blue is the color of kings and queens. Blue is a serious color, and something serious is about to happen.
A King is coming, but this is not the kind of king that people thought was coming. This King had no army, no great house, and no riches. This King was a baby who was born in a barn. This King is still coming. This is the great mystery we call Christmas.
You know, a mystery is hard to enter sometimes. That is why this time of Advent is so important. Sometimes people can walk right through a mystery and not even know it is there. This time of year we sometimes get so busy and are in such a hurry that we miss the mystery. Maybe we forget to get ready, or maybe we need to know how to get ready.
The Church learned a long time ago that people need a way to get ready to enter or even come close to a mystery like Christmas. So the Church set aside four weeks to get ready. This is such a great Mystery that it takes that long to get ready…
adapted from Godly Play
But what exactly do we do? Let’s take a look at today’s Old Testament reading from the prophet Malachi. Malachi is writing in the fifth century b.c. And in Malachi’s day, the priests were behaving badly. They were not performing their priestly duties properly. Instead of sacrificing the best of the herd or the flock, they would sacrifice animals that were sick or lame. They kept the best for themselves, and offered road kill to the Lord. They didn’t follow God’s law; neither did they teach God’s. And yet they complained and grumbled, wondering why the Lord had abandoned them.
But the Lord had not abandoned his people. In fact, the Lord was about to come. He was suddenly going to appear in his temple and fix everything that was wrong with it. The Lord was going to transform his priests, so that they would once again serve as his faithful servants, so that once again the temple would be a place where humanity and God could meet.
Now while the Lord’s coming would ultimately end in blessing, his visitation would not be entirely pleasant, much like an intervention. Interventions are not designed to condemn and punish; they are designed to set people free from debilitating addictions. Yet, despite their life-giving intent, interventions can be painful. So it is sometimes with the Lord’s visitations. As Malachi writes:
Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire…; 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.
This is not a warm-n-fuzzy passage; in fact, the imagery of “a refiner’s fire” can be downright terrifying. But there are a few things we ought to keep in mind. First of all, a refiner’s fire is reserved for something of extraordinary value like gold or silver. Second, a refiner’s fire doesn’t destroy the substance it refines; instead, it purifies it by removing any impurities. In short, a refiner’s fire makes a substance more of what it already is.
This is God’s vision for human beings. In the beginning, human beings were created to be the image-bearers of God in creation; to rule and to live lives that reflect God’s glory. But our humanity is no longer pure, we have acquired some impurities, some of which are minor and some of which are major—sin, hatred, fear, prejudice, violence, bitterness, apathy, etc. Since the Fall, we no longer reflect God’s glory, at least not fully. In a word, we are broken, and we don’t work quite right.
Now, such a description can sound hopeless for a people who live in a disposable society like ours. In our world, when something gets broken, it isn’t fixed; it is thrown out, and replaced. Thankfully, God doesn’t operate that way. God is not in the removal business. Rather, God is interested in renewing, regenerating, and recreating. God doesn’t throw us away. God sees in humanity something worth repairing, something worth washing and refining. We are of inestimable worth and value to God. Each and every one of us is like a precious jewel deposited in a sandy blue-clay matrix. And God has the vision, the will, and the skill to dig us out and clear away the clay, to cut and to polish us until all of the facets of our personality reveal and reflect the character of our Creator.
Despite all our faults and impurities, God sees us as we truly are. God sees the gold and silver inside us, the love and righteousness that is buried deep within. So God comes to destroy the dross, to eliminate everything from our lives that keeps us from being what he created us to be. God sent Jesus to be a refiner’s fire for humanity, so that we might be set free to become what we already are, so that we might become more fully and purely human.
In the second century, St. Irenaeus writes, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.” But what do such persons look like? What are they able to be and to do? They are able to love God. They are able to love their neighbor as themselves, knowing that their neighbor includes strangers and enemies and those we find it hard to love. Someone who is fully alive, fully human knows the art and skill of forgiveness. They know what makes for peace. They know how to live from a place of compassion and gratitude, rather than a place of fear and scarcity. In their daily lives, they bear fruits of the Spirit, fruits like patience, gentleness, kindness, and self-control. In short, a fully alive human being looks a whole lot like Jesus, which is of course the goal.
Herein lies the great Mystery of Christmas. The Son of God became what we are in our sin and brokenness, that we might become what he is, fully alive and fully human in his relationship to God. That is the gift that awaits us this Christmas, Jesus the infant King who has the power to refine and purify us and to make us more of what we already are, beloved daughters and sons of God who are increasingly able to reflect the glory of God in our daily lives. That is the gift that God has given us in Jesus—our humanity restored.
Making A List
But how do we get ready to receive such an extraordinary gift? My suggestion is that we each make a Christmas list. Not an ordinary Christmas list, but an extraordinary one. If Jesus is coming to refine us, to heal us and to give us back to ourselves, what exactly would we like to have happen in our lives?
Several weeks ago Jesus asked blind Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” Today, he is asking us a similar question. “What do you want me to bring you for Christmas?” So I wonder. What do you want for Christmas? What do you want Jesus to bring you? What would you put on your list? And by the way, it has to be something for yourself, something that you think would contribute to your becoming more fully alive, more fully human.
So perhaps you are a parent, and you are tired of parenting out of fear, and you want to give your children faith, freedom, and a firm foundation for the future. So you write on your list, “Jesus, I want the wisdom and compassion to raise my children well.”
Or perhaps, someone in your life has hurt you, either recently or in the distant past, and you want to move forward, but you have been unable to do so. So you write on your list,
“Jesus, I want the skills and the resources to forgive so-and-so.”
“Jesus, I want the skills and the resources to forgive so-and-so.”
“Jesus, I want an awareness of God’s love and presence in my life.”
“Jesus, I want faith.” “I want the courage to live out my faith.”
“Jesus, I want to be forgiven.” “I want to know that I am forgiven.”
“Jesus, I want to become sober.”
“Jesus, I want to give to those in need without judgement.”
“Jesus, I want to know how to best respond to the violence in our world.”
“Jesus, I want to become the peace that I want to see in the world.”
“Jesus, I want joy in my life.”
“I want laughter.”
“I want rest.”
You get the idea. In a few weeks, I will offer some further suggestions as to what we might do with our Christmas lists. But for now, take a little bit of time every day to sit in silence and to think about what you really want Jesus to bring you for Christmas. Then write it down, and let that be your prayer for the day.
Perhaps this practice will help prepare us to enter the Mystery of Christmas.
In the name of God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.