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Sunday December 9, 2018
11:00 am - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: Fr Moretz

Malachi 3:1-4
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

The Soap and Fire of Advent

Indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 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. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.

Our family had an Advent Calendar when I was a child. It had a winter wonderland painted upon it. And several little doors, each with a number for a day in December, each with a brass knob. Every morning, my sister and I would be eager to be the first to open one of those doors and scoop out with our fingers the chocolates that were within, one for each of us. It was because of that calendar that every day of Advent became a reminder, a spur to look forward in time in anticipation of opening the door labelled “25.” Behind that door, we knew we would find wooden baby Jesus, newly born, ready to be placed in our manger scene. For us children, Advent was a steady progression of sweetness leading us to the sweetest day of all. Each treat was an amouse bouche for the great feast of Christmas, the birth of a beautiful baby, somehow born again every year, and the great promise of presents under the tree.

But for us hearty Christians this morning, we who are celebrating Advent, it seems that, based on our readings from Scripture, if we were to open up today’s door, and look within the niche, we would not find chocolate. In fact, we’d find a lot of relatively unpleasant items, presents from the prophets John the Baptist and Malachi. We would find sandpaper, to make our rough places smooth. We would find a splint to make our crooked things straight. We would find refiner’s fire of about 2000 degrees Fahrenheit to melt us down like gold and silver, borax and soda ash to draw out our impurities. We would find fuller’s soap. Now the fuller would be the one who made rough garments comfortable to be worn. His products would have been desirable, but his soap would have been made of some of the most putrid ingredients, I won’t name from this pulpit. All that matters is that it was a stinky, caustic soap that would remove all oil and grime and color, getting us ready for the process of being beaten against stones and trampled under foot for hours.

An Advent calendar like this only makes sense if we understand it to be leading up to the coming of something so consequential that we need to prepare ourselves. The refiner’s fire is not for the sake of the cruel heat. The fire is there to remove impurities so as to prepare us to be used for a higher purpose, perhaps as a silver chalice or as a golden diadem. The fuller’s soap is not for the sake of turning up our noses. The pungent soap is made to prepare us to become a fine garment for an even finer occasion.

And what is that occasion? Paul talks about it as the “day of Christ.” John speaks of a time when “all flesh will be able to see the salvation of God.” It is the time when God comes to be “all in all.” The spiritual fire and metaphysical soap are made to get us to that day so that when that day comes, in all its awesome and dreadful wonder, that we will be able to recognize it. That we will be well practiced. And that it is not a time of panic, but a time that we have prepared our whole lives to witness.

But how do we prepare for this? What drops away in the midst of this refining fire. What is scoured out of us when this fuller’s soap is applied? Well, the prophet Malachi is very concerned about his people. He describes a priesthood in the newly restored Temple that is forgetful of its duties. The economic model of the Second Temple itself is not working, it is massively underfunded because the people have lost interest in it. And Jewish society is being compromised by all those men who are divorcing their wives to marry outside of their faith, leaving a trail of destitution in their wake. According to Malachi, God’s fire and soap is intended to reform their institutions. The priesthood, families, and the structure of religion itself. In John the Baptist’s time, the corruption is so severe in this time of Caesar’s occupation. A great deal of his own people are collaborating with this unclean empire at the highest level, and this has influenced even the life of the Temple. When John talks about the rough and the crooked, he too is pointing his finger at the religious institutions and leaders of his time. John’s impulse, as a rebellious priest’s kid, is to take the ritual bathing of the Temple that he knew so well, but to leave that Temple that had broken his heart and lead baptisms out in the River Jordan, making the entire world God’s Temple. He had no interest in the Temple’s destruction, which seemed very likely in his day. He wanted to salvage the devotion and worship of that place, and get it back on track, even if it meant a radical twist on an old practice.

Do you see the grace in all this? God comes in fire and soap not to destroy us, but to prepare us for something greater. Our world may be broken in multiple places, in our lives and in our institutions. But, in Christ God, seeks to reset the bones of the world as we know it, our societies, our companies, our churches, our families, our lives. This reform is painful at first, but ultimately healing. The good news of the Advent fire and the Advent soap and all the Advent tumults is that they all prepare us to experience the truth in its fullness. Yes, it is a true saying that the truth shall set you free. But we are often set free from things that feel good, or that feel comfortable. And so, the truth can be a very unpleasant experience, especially for those institutions and people who have lost their way. And I believe the prophets of the Scriptures are trying to prepare are hearts for this. So that we may not be surprised, but ready. Ready to falter at the day of his coming, but also ready to take up that hand to rise again no matter how far we’ve fallen.

The Advent grace is found in God’s desire for the lost. God’s desire is never garbage disposal for broken things. It is a salvage operation for the tattered and torn, in full confidence that restoration is possible, that hope is real, a divine hope for all flesh to see the salvation of God. May we share that same hope for everyone, and as Paul prayed for the Church in Philippi, may our “love abound yet more and more, in knowledge, and in all judgment, that we may approve things that are excellent, that we may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ.”