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Terrible Hope, Ancient Newness

December 10, 2012

“Terrible Hope, Ancient Newness” Malachi 2:17-3:7a © 12.9.12 Advent 2C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

I have a favorite pair of silver cufflinks by California jeweler Wilfy MacManus  (http://macmanusandson.com/catalog_cuff.shtml#p628), who makes wonderful Celtic-themed pieces These are triangular in shape, and in the center is a triskele, an ancient symbol for victory, achievement, and protection. On each corner is a triquetra, which once stood for earth, air and water, but now reminds Christians of the Trinity. So I guess you could say I wear my religion sometimes on my sleeve, but that just helps me talk about the Trinity off the cuff.

It was a long journey from ore to ornament. The silver had to be refined in some way from the ore. In other words, it had to be made pure from its impure state. I’m not sure how the metal in my cufflinks was separated from the rest of the ore, but one possibility is an ancient process called “cupellation,” also used for gold. In that method, a metallic mixture is oxidized at about 1450° F, and base metals like lead are separated out and absorbed into the walls of a porous vessel called a “cupel.”

Cupellation is what Malachi has in mind with his image of judgment. The people of old smelted an ore called “lead sulfide” that contained a great deal of silver. The lead was separated from the silver by blowing hot air over the surface of the melted metal. The lead was changed to powder and blown away by the air blast. The ancients called the resulting lead oxide, “silver dross” (http://www.bible-history.com /isbe/R/ REFINER%3B+REFINING/).

The prophet also uses the image of “fuller’s soap.” Until this past week, I had no idea what “fulling” was. Now I know enough to be glad I didn’t have to do it. I won’t go into the disgusting details, but it was a stinky process that usually was done outside the city. In the Old Testament, Jerusalem had a place called “the Fuller’s Field.” Fulling involved scouring wool cloth with harsh chemicals to remove oils, impurities, and dirt. Fullers beat the material with clubs or walked on it. That shrunk the cloth and also made it heavier and thicker and helped it stand up against water (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fuller%27s_soap; http://www.ehow.com/ about_4572172_what-fullers-soap.html).

Why would the prophet promise that God’s messenger would come to the people like an unendurable refiner’s fire of almost 1500° or treat them as harshly as a fuller does wool? In a word: love.

That’s how the little book of Malachi begins. Yahweh, the Lord, reminds the people how he has loved them. But immediately the objections come, and this argument goes on throughout.

The dialogue reminds me of nothing so much as the final conflict of a couple whose marriage or relationship is about to end. Or perhaps more broadly, the dynamic is that of a family or an organization in turmoil. There’s charge and counter-charge, and it’s clear both the people and God are tired of each other, bored and weary. The halcyon days of happiness are gone; expectations of the relationship proved unrealistic and unfounded. So the people and God are each faulting the other. God, through the prophet, particularly centers his criticism on the lazy and corrupt religious leadership, which ought to know better and set the tone. But things have gotten so bad that the new Temple ought to be closed and all religious services ended. That’s how disappointed and disgusted God is. He’ll look elsewhere for worship; other nations do it better.

For their part, the main charge from the people and their leaders is that God has walked out on them without so much as a note. God is responsible for governing the world fairly and making sure justice is done, but none of that is happening. The evil people are rewarded, because God likes them better than the good!

The tragic irony in such statements is that the people and their priests apparently have no sense of their own wrongdoing. How would they possibly recognize justice? They are the ones who are unjust! The men nonchalantly divorce their wives for younger women. People practice sorcery, which means the use of technology for evil ends. I say that, because as Arthur C. Clarke once observed, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” These aren’t the only sins. Justice is denied when workers are not paid a livable wage. Society’s most vulnerable are disregarded and left to fend for themselves. Foreigners are treated badly. Added to the societal sins are specifically worship-related ones. Any old thing will do to offer to God, rather than the best one has. God accuses the people of robbing him by withholding tithes. Maybe that was a kind of ecclesiastical extortion. All such behavior is evidence that the people and their leaders don’t reverence God or take his judgment seriously.

So, in an extreme case of be careful what you wish for, God will come back to them. But it won’t be pretty or pleasant. Fire. Harsh cleansing. But the purpose of it all is to bring the people and their leaders back to God, to restore the mutuality of covenant. “Return to me, and I will return to you,” Yahweh says. And it will be like it was when we were first married and happy, back in the day, before the laziness and boredom and taking for granted set in.

It’s a little hard to make direct connection with the text, given the vast differences in our situation and theirs. But I think at least we can say that God still works through difficult experiences to help us find our true selves, our best selves, again or for the first time. Who of us has not been through our own refining fire, had our nerves rubbed raw and our bodies beaten down by exhaustion, come to our own unexpected day of reckoning? I’m not prepared to say that everything that happens is something God intends or that God sends it. I think that’s false and bad theology. But I do believe that what is painful and hard can in the end turn out to be beneficial, even an expression of the love and providence of God.

A current pop song by Kelly Clarkson makes that point as she reflects on a broken relationship: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger/Stand a little taller/Doesn’t mean I’m lonely when I’m alone. What doesn’t kill you makes a fighter/Footsteps even lighter/Doesn’t mean I’m over cause you’re gone. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, stronger/Just me, myself and I/What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger/Stand a little taller/Doesn’t mean I’m lonely when I’m alone./Thanks to you I got a new thing started/Thanks to you I’m not the broken-hearted/Thanks to you I’m finally thinking bout me/You know in the end the day you left was just my beginning./In the end…What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger (Kelly Clarkson and Jorgen Elofsson, “What Doesn’t Kill You [Stronger]” http://www.directlyrics.com/ kelly-clarkson-what-doesnt-kill-you-lyrics.html).

From a completely different segment of our culture comes a similar observation. The business writers Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas have discovered that it is adversity that often makes better leaders. They write: “In interviewing more than 40 top leaders in business and the public sector over…three years, we were surprised to find that all of them—young and old—were able to point to intense, often traumatic, always unplanned experiences that had transformed them and had become the sources of their distinctive leadership abilities.

“We came to call the experiences that shape leaders ‘crucibles,’ after the vessels medieval alchemists used in their attempts to turn base metals into gold. For the leaders we interviewed, the crucible experience was a trial and a test, a point of deep self-reflection that forced them to question who they were and what mattered to them. It required them to examine their values, question their assumptions, hone their judgment. And, invariably, they emerged from the crucible stronger and more sure of themselves and their purpose—changed in some fundamental way.

“Leadership crucibles can take many forms. Some are violent, life-threatening events. Others are more prosaic episodes of self-doubt. But whatever the crucible’s nature, the people we spoke with were able…to create a narrative around it, a story of how they were challenged, met the challenge, and became better leaders. As we studied these stories, we found that they not only told us how individual leaders are shaped but also pointed to some characteristics that seem common to all leaders—characteristics that were formed, or at least exposed, in the crucible” (Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas, “Crucibles of Leadership,” http://hbr.org/2002/09/crucibles-of-leadership/ar/1).

One of the primary characteristics Bennis and Thomas point to is “adaptive capacity.” “‘This is, in essence, applied creativity—an almost magical ability to transcend adversity, with all its attendant stresses, and to emerge stronger than before’” (from a review of The Crucible of Leadership posted on http://www.amazon.com/Crucibles-Leadership-Experience-Become-Leader/dp/1591391377 by Gerald Kroese).

The movies remind us of the same principle, namely, that an experience can be at once good and bad, hard and helpful. In the film City Slickers, Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern, and Bruno Kirby play three friends who go to a dude ranch on vacation to try to figure out their lives, none of which are going very well. As they’re riding along the trail with the cows, they pass the time at one point by asking each other about their best and worst day. Crystal’s character, Mitch, asks Ed, played by Kirby, about his best day. Ed doesn’t want to play at first, but the two other men coax him into it. Ed tells his story: “I’m 14 and my mother and father are fighting again… y’know, because she caught him again. Caught him…. This time the girl drove by the house to pick him up. And I finally realized, he wasn’t just cheating on my mother, he was cheating us. So I told him, I said, ‘You’re bad to us. We don’t love you. I’ll take care of my mother and my sister. We don’t need you any more.’ And he made like he was gonna hit me, but I didn’t budge. And he turned around and he left. He never bothered us again. Well, I took care of my mother and my sister from that day on. That’s my best day.”

Phil, the third man, is incredulous. “What was your worst day?” he wonders. Ed replies as he rides off: “Same day” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0101587/quotes).

Ed grew up, taking on a man’s role at 14, but he did so because of an experience of pain. He and his family had been “burned” by the dad. But Ed walked through the fire to become a provider, though he hated every moment of it.

Difficult experiences can make us hard or they can make us holy; they make us bitter or they make us sweet. Two people can face basically the same circumstances of loss, adversity, and pain and respond completely differently. One may become bitter, paranoid, and fearful, while the other emerges sweet, generous, and confident. That may be because these experiences actually reveal our inner character. If we are open to their lessons, they can temper our arrogance and leave us humble and accepting. If we are not inclined to learn, they can leave us more convinced of our own rightness, as we become bitter over our “persecution.”

Spiritual growth is not easy. It’s sometimes painful. Holy work is hard. The answers are not simple nor are the questions.

But Advent, even with all its shock in texts like Malachi, and amid all its questions and hard spiritual labor, reminds us of two things: we are loved and there is hope.

For the one, God’s nature doesn’t change. The scriptures bear witness that his fundamental approach to us is love, a desire for relationship, to be in covenant, the intimacy of partners in life. When we stray, he wants us to return. When we feel the distance, so does God. If the greatest expression of love is vulnerability to rejection, then the birth of Jesus at Christmas should convince us that God is intensely, intentionally, without reserve full of love for us and all humanity. He took what spiritual writer Parker Palmer has called “the risk of incarnation,” embracing all we are and expressing all we can be.

For the other, Advent brings us hope and calls us to act with hope. As the Rev. Jude Geiger has observed: “Our faith teaches us that we can expect to continue to be inspired, to learn from one another, and to seek out that spiritual growth. Wheresoever we freely choose to enter into communities with one another, we are doing sacred work—not easy work, not convenient work, but holy work. In this we are obligated to vigilantly transform systems of oppression with acts of love and compassion. We all have the capacity to make this happen, and everything that we need to do so already exists. There is a reason to hope in this world” (the Rev. Jude Geiger, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-g-jude-geiger/liberal-theology-and-the-uncertainness-of-god_b_2146655.html).

Or as my old doctoral professor Jim Newsome once put it: “At Advent there is something afoot in God’s world. There is a terrible, hopeful newness about life: terrible because it promises to overthrow all our old, comfortable, sinful ways; and hopeful for the very same reason…. It is the working of the same God who, in ancient times, brought Israel out of Egypt…. But this ‘old’ God is breaking in upon human life in awesomely new ways—a Babe in a manger, a crucified, risen Lord, a triumphant return” (Charles Cousar, et al, Texts for Preaching…C :10).

The Church through the centuries has identified Malachi’s messenger of this terrible hope, this ancient newness as John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ. And, of course, the Lord who will come is Jesus himself, who indeed came to his ultimate temple, the human body, the whole human race.

Because he appeared, the newness that comes from returning in repentance is possible. Even hot fire and strong soap bring not destruction, but cleansing and refinement, strength and insight. The unchanging loving God is with us. We have hope in this world and beyond. And we stand in his previously unendurable presence by grace, giving thanks with all who have walked through fire and been cleansed from sin. And as the hymn says, to have such gifts from God, to have God himself, is “more precious than silver.”

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