On All My Holy Mountain

December 28, 2009

1. A Story About Being Judged.

In today’s passage from the prophet Isaiah, three stories intersect and coalesce into a fascinating pattern. And it’s a pattern with which we are very familiar.

C. S. Lewis once described the Christian hope in terms of embroidery. On the one side of the woven work of art there are the beautiful colors, coming together in the form of an image that makes our hearts want to soar and sing. But, you see, on the other side of the embroidery, there exists all kinds of ugly knots and frayed threads. And one of these threads involves a story of being judged.

Do you remember the first time that you felt judged, and on the basis of what criteria you experienced that judgment?

In Isaiah 11:3 the Messianic King is described as a leader who will NOT…

“judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear;

And yet, before we encounter the thrilling beauty of that hope, you and I know very well how easy it is to judge and to be judged according to mere appearances. We know how tiring and how tedious it is to live within the wheel house of the rumor mill.

For example, when eating shrimp with Sheryl, never encourage her to drink a blush wine. Wine, shrimp and Sheryl do not mix. And the combination will lead to your judgment. Here’s what happened. When the kids were very young we took them to the beach in Delaware. At night, against my better judgment, Sheryl ate some shrimp and sloshed back a few glasses of pink rose. After leaving the restaurant, we strolled back to our motel and put Ian and Philip to bed on the pull-out couch. Next to the couch there was a winding spiral staircase, leading to a loft area where we would sleep. Sheryl, in the middle of the night, couldn’t sleep. She went to the bathroom often, and on one occasion I heard this high-pitched cartoon voice, which I imagined to be a dream. I realized it wasn’t a dream when I heard a thud hit the tile floor. Getting up and going to the bathroom, I found my wife there, in a pool of blood. She had fallen and hit the floor with her face, injuring her nose. So, after trying to stop the bleeding, I called 911 and saw the EMT guys ascend our spiral staircase with a metal cart on which they placed my wife. The children remained asleep throughout the entire ordeal, and so not wanting to wake them or to leave them I saw the ambulance take my wife away. And I waited until morning. I waited, gathered the boys, stuffed them with pop-tarts and drove to the hospital. Well, upon entering the emergency room, I experienced a series of angry stares, coming from the nursing staff. Without knowing me, or knowing what happened, they simply looked at Sheryl’s face and had assumed that I had punched her. I had been judged and it didn’t feel good at all.
In fact, it helped me to imagine how an abusive husband or father may be driven to despair, and how the victim of that abuse would be marked forever with the stigma of being a victim. So, what are we to do? When judgment are based on what they eyes see and what the ears hear, where are we to go?

Well, Isaiah seems to suggest that we should go to Jesus, who once staggered up that spiral staircase all the way to the cross on the mountain of calvary. Jesus knows what it’s like to be judged and to be judged wrongly. But he also knows what it means to absorb that evil and reverse it for the good of those who truly seek him.

“but with righteousness he shall judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist and faithfulness the belt around his loins.”

2. A Story About Being Hurt.

Now, closely intertwined with being judged, is a story about being hurt—being physically, emotionally and psychologically and spiritually hurt. Isaiah alludes to that story in verses six through eight, when he recites the marvelous shift that will occur on God’s holy mountain. On God’s holy mountain, a predator will snuggle up with its traditional prey, a domesticated animal will forage for food with a wild beast and a child will be able to handle poisonous snakes as if they were harmless. Yet, in order to encounter that reversal, you and I have to enter into the real pain of the real lives of people near and far.

William Willimon recalls a businessman who everyone regarded as a hurtful human being.
He was brusque to the point of bluntness and no one had ever thought of him for any job in the church because he was a hardboiled business guy who was too rough and direct for nice church people.
Well, this man retired and found retirement difficult. So one day, when he was telling me that he was struggling with depression because of his retirement from his powerful and prestigious business position, I suggested to him that he come work in our church clothes closet and food pantry. I don’t know why on earth I thought that it might be a good idea. Maybe the Holy Spirit put the idea in my head!
So he goes to work there three mornings a week. And there he meets people who are down on their luck, people having a tough time, like the mother who had her electricity turned off because she was late paying her electric bill. Well, he heard about it and next thing you know he was on the telephone talking with the president of the electric company (a golf buddy of his) telling him that he ought to be ashamed of his company turning off the power to this woman’s house. She got her electricity back that very day.
You see, what if all stories of hurt are meant to be twisted back and back into something beautiful. And, what if through battles with depression and fear, the very way that we are made becomes the key to undoing another person’s hurt.

3. A Story About The Future.

This is the way that the prophet Isaiah predicts it will be for all time. He writes,

“They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

Now, like you, I’ve been wondering about this story of the future for more than four weeks. A period of four weeks is not nearly long enough for God to produce the changes that he’s promised through the prophets. Seven centuries, from the time of Isaiah to the time of Jesus birth, wasn’t long enough. Two thousand years, from then and until this moment, hasn’t been long enough either. But think this morning, on the cusp of 2010, about the gap that remains between us and a world without hurt or destruction.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, alone in his prison cell, wrote about missing his fiancé during Christmas in 1943. You can imagine him, staring at the walls and scribbling these words:

Nothing can make up for the absence of someone we love, and it would be wrong to try to find a substitute; we must simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation, for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bonds between us…

You see, this is a story not just about the people we miss during the holidays, but about a yearning that must be passed on from generation to generation. Keep the gap open. Do not try to stuff a substitute in the vacuum of history and assume that’s the best we can do. God has promised a story that has no ending, and it will be told and re-told on “all my holy mountain.”

Amen.

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Read Isaiah 9:2–7

Only in walking have we seen it.
Around the edge of thick darkness
Around the familiar brick corner
Like a jaded lover, puckering for a kiss,
A great light lurks.

And when, in frantic hours,
we enter hospitals, hotels, motels, restaurants, theatres, courtrooms and prisons,
it’s this same light that steals the hard ground and begins the revisions
Of countless decisions, and awkward, weighty collisions.

This statement runs counter to most we’ve been taught
and to the multitude of angels that we’ve bought
and yet, is true. Is true. Is true. Is true.
A great light lurks
And there’s nothing Assyrian policy can do.

The automatic doors of the ER remain open tonight
For a young mother in flight; she closes her eyes as the doctor shakes his head,
As she hears the monitor-monotone over the bed. How long were they wed?

Never mind. Just never you mind.
On her at least a great light has shined.

Not directly, of course, but slant it slides down
Upon faces with traces of that sad, little clown.

Radiance, we are taught, roars from on high
From a torch or a steeple or a neon sky-scraper
But as it turns out, the city’s illumined with vapor.

A great light lurks
When nothing else works
Not even the car. Not even the fetal position at the bar.
And that guy, let-go, no longer necessary, what’s his name?
Can the severance really remedy his shame?

Never mind. Just never you mind.
On him as well a great light has shined.

And meanwhile, with style, the shoppers resist.
They check Love like a label on the rack,
Incandescent bulbs, revealing everything
the heart wants back. Choose the color according to taste.
Enter the fitting room and pull out the pins. Avoid looking too long
at the tangle of sins, not ageless, in the mirror.

And yet, is true.
Is true. Is true. Is true.

The light of the cosmos
loiters in dust, where all signs say No loitering.
At the mall, where a million shareholders invest
in rust, no one can foresee the landfill of powers,
which already deplete,
and so we repeat.

Jesus, extending his fingers and toes, soaks up the fog of darkness as he goes.
His flesh, so able to bleed,
will finally succeed. And, as the prophets promise in haste,
we awkwardly waste. We awkwardly, gratefully, waste
the dimming digits, the Times Square fidgets.

Waste is the prayer
that weaves a wound or two into the bright fabric.
Waste is that same tunic worn by Mary on the night
she had to believe in despair, when the straw of the manger
infested her hair. And with her jaw set, like a pillar,
against a collapsing roof of pain, we—finally—yes—all of us—
learn a new lesson of ancient birth—where
a great light latches on for Dear Life, and
Dear Death is ripped
to royal
resplendent
rebellious and rowdy
shreds—

each of which
only appears to swaddle the frail infant who
most must emit.

A great light lurks beneath the counter of all these goods—
none of them can be returned during regular business hours.
So, please witness the strain imposed
on each luminous stitch, the shekinah glory of ill-fitting clothes.

Someone brand new will burst through
eventually.
Someone brand new, and yet, is you.
Is you. Is you. You.

Scott Kinder-Pyle
Merry Christmas Latah Valley
2009

One of The Little Clans

December 21, 2009

1. Starting off small gives the advantage of surprise.

When someone offers you advice—even if you don’t understand the advice—the prudent thing to do is to take it. Don’t necessarily act on the advice, but take it. Make a mental note of it, and worry about understanding it later.

In the fifth chapter of the prophetic book of Micah, I cannot help but feel that a scraggly guy with a really long beard, living in a cave, in the little village of Moresheth, is trying to give me some advice. It’s advice, of course, that has traveled a long way, through rivers, over mountains, across oceans, in and out of secret hiding places in ancient vessels that just barely made it through the storm. And it’s advice that’s also been transmitted through the centuries, just the stone walls of Jerusalem were about to breached. And, you see, the advice that I’m desperately trying to decode from Micah resembles something that I’ve heard from time to time.

For example, when I first moved back to the Philadelphia area with my family in 1996, a bald man without a beard once told me that the street signs in the city of brotherly love were not really intended to help commuters get to where they wanted to go. The street signs in Philadelphia, he said, were placed there by the local citizens in order to remind them of where they already are. So, if I truly wanted to get from Broad Street to the Liberty Bell, I had to stop my car and talk to somebody. You see, that’s some good advice. And it’s very much like the time when I met with a few retired businessmen here in Spokane. We had been discussing the purchase of this property, when I heard the owner of Latah Creek plaza offer this pithy observation: “Spokane is not a little Seattle. Spokane is a big Ritzville.” And, you know, I think that’s pretty accurate. What it actually means—I don’t yet understand. But I’m determined—with your help and with God’s help—to find out.
“But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel…”
Now, here’s what I think Micah, the prophet from 715 BCE, is trying to tell us. He trying to say we can’t act as if we can remain anonymous. In fact, God will hand pick a ruler from a place where it’s impossible to remain anonymous. And so, it behooves us to realize that the person who bags our groceries also knows the teacher who teaches our children and those children have classmates who occasionally shovel snow and do odd chores for the police officer who hands out speeding tickets as if they were Christmas cards and who also used to date the nurse who wonders if we’re allergic to penicillin.

In other words, whether “one of the little clans” hails from Judah or from the South Hill, we are known. And Micah, through all the years and over all the miles, just wants us to be advised. We are known! And one more thing, “from you”—that is, from the very ones who are known to one another and to God—from you shall come forth for me—Yahweh—“one who is to rule…”

Now, if that’s not a kick in the pants I don’t know what it is. Usually, if rulers are coming from anywhere, they’re coming from the top down. Isn’t that right? Isn’t that the standard operating procedure? Hasn’t this been the systemic plague and policy of every world power—from Joseph Stalin to George Steinbrenner? Rulers, by definition, don’t come from the old neighborhood. We don’t know them and they’re not really knowable; that’s part of their authoritative and aloof charm. But, according to Micah, a new regime is about to be installed from the ground up. In fact, starting off small will give this newly emerging enterprise the advantage of surprise. Now, before any of the big-time movers and shakers realize what’s going on, God will anoint
“one who is to rule in Israel
Whose origin is from of old,
From ancient days.
Therefore God shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel.”

2. The rule or the kingship “from ancient days” will give birth to something radically new.

You see, what’s so fascinating about Micah 5:2—3 is that being known, being small enough to be known, appears like it’s the wave of the future. The rule or the kingship “from ancient days” will give birth to something radically new. And, according to the prophet, that newness involves the return of God’s “kindred” to the people of Israel. Is that a trend? Is it possible that God intends to establish his rule, not through power or force, but through intimacy of some kind of family connection?

During the early 1980’s, the rock band, U2, grappled with the idea of how radical they wanted to be. Under the influence of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who, anti-establishment songs, which had been all the rage in the 60s and 70’s, soon gave way to the anarchy of the Sex Pistols and the mosh pit. In the midst of this ambivalent trend, the Rolling Stone magazine quotes the lead singer of U2 as offering this take:
“I think that, ultimately, the group is totally rebellious because of our stance against what people accept as rebellion. The whole thing about rock stars driving cars into swimming pools—that’s not rebellion… Rebellion starts at home, in your heart, in your refusal to compromise your beliefs and your values. I’m not interested in politics like people fighting back with sticks and stones, but in the politics of love” (Walk On, p. 17—18).

So consider the politics of love. If that phrase is going to be anything more than a cheap slogan, we’re going to have to start off small. We going to have to take baby steps in the midst of a neighborhood where we are known and where we aren’t afraid of knowing the nitty-gritty details of the kindred of God.

In his book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, Oliver Sacks describes a former US serviceman who developed attacks of severe amnesia. Jimmie had lost years and years of relationships because he could no longer remember the faces of the family members. He could no longer recall the deep and varied experiences he had had with friends. And then comes this question.
“Do you think he has a soul?” Dr. Sacks asked this question of the nuns who took care of Jimmie at the Roman Catholic nursing facility where he stayed. The nuns, in response, became outraged. “Watch Jimmie in chapel and judge for yourself.” The neurologist then did as he had been told. He watched Jimmie kneel…

“Fully, intensely, quietly, in the quietude of absolute concentration and attention, he entered and partook of the Holy Communion. He was wholly held, absorbed, by a feeling. There was no forgetting… for he was no longer at the mercy of a faulty and fallible mechanism…” (Preaching From Memory to Hope, p. 24).

Jimmie was ruled. God, through the story of Jesus Christ, embodied in the bread and in the cup, ruled Jimmie’s heart, ruled Jimmie’s mind, ruled Jimmie’s body and ruled Jimmie’s soul. In fact, the adoration of his king gave to this afflicted man the integrity of soul. Jimmie had a soul because he had a king, who came from “one of the little clans of Judah…” and who “shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord” (v. 4).

3. It’s important that this transition happen through peaceful means.

But, you see, when we hear words like “the strength of the Lord” we’re no longer listening in terms of force or might makes right or the threat of violence. The strength of the Lord is now and forever will be the strength of the babe who will be born in Bethlehem. The strength of the Lord is now the vulnerability of God who makes himself available in one of the little clans of Judah and perhaps in other places too.

In the movie, The Big Kahuna, two businessmen get into a scuffle. Bob, who had been sent to discuss industrial lubricants with a potential client, had instead chosen to talk about Jesus. He had talked about Jesus with the client even though, Larry, Bob’s colleague, had specifically instructed Bob on how to close the deal and win the client’s business.
So, after all this is clarified there’s a fight, and after the fight, there is this important speech, which I want to repeat right now:
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re selling Jesus or Buddha or civil rights or ‘How to Make Money in Real Estate with No Money Down’… Because as soon as you lay your hands on a conversation to steer it, it’s not a conversation anymore; it’s a pitch. And you’re not a human being; you’re a marketing rep.”

Now I think this is an important speech for us to hear around Christmas in light of the advice that Micah may be trying to convey. That is, in Micah 5:5 the prophet clearly tells us, “and he shall be the one of peace.” And, you see, “the one of peace” ought to be distinguished from the one who is sold to us in a sales pitch, or the one who makes us feel guilty for asking any genuine questions or the one who forces us to believe by threatening us with hell.

“The one of peace.” That’s how we’ll know Jesus is ruler in Israel and ruler in our hearts. He will come to us when we’re tired of fighting and tired of arguing. He will come to us when we’re exhausted with politics as usual, when we feel under siege in Jerusalem and betrayed by the very institutions we thought would keep us safe and secure.

But you—O Latah Valley of the Little Ritzville, you, who are one of the little congregations of the Presbyterian Church (USA), a denomination that, by many accounts, is dwindling and dying, from you shall come forth for me a conversation. And in that authentic conversation God will begin to rule in the hearts and in the minds and in the bodies and souls of his people. And the one who rules shall also be the one of peace.

Amen.

Sing Aloud, O Daughter Zion

December 14, 2009

1. Let the inside out, and the outside in. Repeat ad infinitum.

There’s a moment in every Broadway musical, when one of the main characters simply bursts into song. It happens when Don Quixote stops talking to his faithful sidekick, Sancho, and starts “To Dream The Impossible Dream.” And it happens in the South Pacific when Mitzi Gaynor claims that she’s going “to wash that man right outta her hair.” Suddenly, in these performances, the ordinary conversation can’t contain the emotion of what the people on stage are coping with. And what they’re coping with is something that cannot be explained rationally or scientifically. For example, you might want to describe The Man of LaMancha in terms of a senile old man who goes to battle with windmills, but the song will tell you that it’s really much more. You might want to describe the story of South Pacific in terms of the shampoo that an army nurse might use during the rationing of World War Two, but the song would insist that it’s really about much more. And, you see, this is also the choice we face in Zephaniah 3:14—20. Is the song more real than the events on the ground? Wouldn’t a documentary make more sense? Wouldn’t a lab report yield more accurate information? Why are we hanging our lives—or at least our lives of faith—upon the vocal chords of people who lived and died over 2,500 years ago?

Now, if you can’t answer those questions, I invite you this morning to join the club. Join the fan club of that legendary diva, “Daughter Zion,” who has also headlined under the alias of “Daughter Jerusalem.” Zephaniah, in today’s passage, invents a persona—a persona that will include everyone who has ever let what’s inside of them out while simultaneously letting what’s outside of them in. And if you were to take in a matinee of Daughter Zion or Daughter Jerusalem performing live on the stage of human history, my guess is that the men and women and children of Latah Valley would like to sing along. We’d like to sing along and to sing aloud, not because we’re about to be voted on as the next American Idol, but because we don’t know what else to do:
“Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; Rejoice and exult with all your heart….”
A small child died of cancer, and his mother had some bad dreams. You wouldn’t have blamed her for having bad dreams—dreams about her little boy calling for her, screaming for her, reaching for her. But, one night, while drifting off to sleep, the mother listened to the melody of O Come, O Come Emanuel. It had been playing on the stereo, and when she looked up from the couch she observed her child, playing on the kitchen floor. Instinctively she went to pick him up. But just as she got to him, his eyes went blank and his body slipped through her arms. Suddenly God appeared in the kitchen and scooped up the lifeless form of the boy. Don’t ask me how the mother knew it was God; she just knew. And God actually placed the child upon his shoulders as if God wanted him to see a parade. And then, without any warning, the child, who had died of cancer, sang to his mother, “until the Son of God appear…Rejoice… Rejoice… Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.”

Now, I don’t know what to make of dreamy songs like that, except to say that when that distraught and depressed parent experienced that transcendent song, she could live again. Not only could she get up in the morning and go to work—not only could she express love and devotion to her friends and family—this woman could care for the world. That is, instead of retreating into her private bomb shelter and licking her wounds, she saw someone “in (her) midst” who could take care of things far better.
“I will remove disaster from you… I will deal with your oppressors… I will save the lame and gather the outcast and I will change their shame into praise… At that time I will bring you home…”

You see, the verbs in Zephaniah 3:18—20 make some pretty bold promises, and they are (make no mistake) public promises. God announces for everyone to hear his place in the story which is to come. And if we are wise, you and I will find and assume our place as well. So, what do you think? Are we among those who have experienced disaster, been oppressed, rubbed shoulders with the lame and the outcast? Are we missing a place that we might call “home”?
2. Joy depends upon the place we assume in the story.

Listen! Before we sing, it’s good to have the right reason to sing, and for Zephaniah, that reason is that we have found the place in the story where God will be coming to us. That’s the reason that we have to sing. It’s not because we’ve won. It’s not because we’re right and everyone else is wrong. It’s not because we’re safe and secure and no one’s going to bother us ever again. The reason that we sing is that we’ve experienced the joy of God rejoicing over us in Zephaniah 3:17. And that joy depends upon the place we assume in the story that God is telling.

For example, at the start of the Nazi occupation of Italy, Guido Orefice gets a job as a waiter. One of his customers at the restaurant is a German physician, named Dr. Lessing. Dr. Lessing, Guido observes, is obsessed with riddles. So, playing along, he gives him one: What do the dwarves of Snow White eat after the main course? Seven seconds is the answer. But not being able to get it, Dr. Lessing pushes his food aside and worries over the solution. Later in the 1997 film, Life Is Beautiful, Guido and Dr. Lessing meet again. Guido is now a prisoner in a German concentration camp, and the good doctor happens to be the one who examines the Jews and determines if they’re fit for work. Dr. Lessing, of course, recognizes Guido and then begs for his help. Guido is dumbfounded. He should be the one who’s begging for help. And he should be the one who receives help from the man who had been his friend. “I’m in agony,” whispers Dr. Lessing, referring to a riddle that one of his colleagues had sent him. “Please, Guido, I beg of you. Help me.”

You see, what’s relevant here is that many of us are obsessed with our own riddles, with our own hobbies and with our own pet peeves. But pay attention to what the story of the Bible is really about. It’s about the joy of Daughter Zion as she lets the pain of the world in and lets the presence of God out. The story of the Bible isn’t just God helping you, and that’s the end of it. There’s more.
Consider for a moment Miriam, the sister of Moses, in Exodus 15:21. God has just done this most delirious and amazing thing. The Egyptian army who had pursued their former slaves night and day—all of them, horse and rider—had now been thrown into the sea and washed away. They’re gone. So, you see, that’s not just good news for Miriam herself. She sings, God “has triumphed gloriously” because she knows he’ll do it again and again.

Likewise, consider Mary, the mother of Jesus and the fiancé of Joseph, who has work as a carpenter in Nazareth. Mary belts out a tune in Luke 1:47—55, not simply because she’s pregnant. That information, in and of itself, wouldn’t be such happy news. What gives this unwed teenager joy, however, is that through this gestating fetus that now kicks her rib cage,
“(God) has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”

And please don’t miss the point. The point is—God’s into the big reversals.

3. God’s into the big reversals. Wait for them.

Out of darkness—light! Out of despair—hope! Out of chaos—creation! Out of crucifixion—resurrection! Those who lose themselves in search for the truth will be found. And to those, who as a result, feel as they’ve wasted their time, and that they’re always coming in last place, God will guarantee a first place finish! You will be among the first to see, to really see, Jesus, to hear him cry in the night…. And you will be among the first to sing about it aloud until the sun rises.

Amen.

1. God sends before God comes and God comes before God sends.

During this season of the year, many things are being sent. Letters, which provide details on every accomplishment for every member of the family, are being sent. Cards, with images of Frosty the Snowman, are being sent. Packages, marked “This End Up,” or “Fragile”, are being sent. Hastily fingered e-mails and text-messages are being sent, as are all kinds of last-minute purchase orders and reservations. All these items and words are being sent purposely and with the expectation that they will arrive at a particular destination, one that a FedEx driver or a United States Postal carrier could plot on a map. But before we go any further I’d like us to notice the passive nature of the verb that I am using. Letters, packages and messages are being sent, or have already been sent. And if we should reverse the direction of that phenomenon you and I would discover that the act of sending not only implies a passive recipient, but an active sender. In fact, that’s part of the beauty of receiving something that’s been sent; we realize that it comes to us from a person who wants us to have it.

And so, imagine the mysterious and mighty sending of God. If God is sending, what does he want us to have? That’s the question. But before we extract a quick answer from the book of Malachi, allow me to point out that, first and foremost, God has sent and is sending a messenger to the community of Israel. That is, unless we are ethnically Jewish and living around the year 537 BCE, this messenger and this message may not have originally been for us.

That’s a sobering thought. And yet, maybe it’s not so bad after all. Maybe knowing that God has sent a message to someone else may give us a kind of vicarious joy and maybe somehow and in some mysterious way we have been sent to intercept this message that had been intended for someone else.

In the movie Castaway, for example, an employee from Federal Express is the sold survivor of a horrific plane crash. With him on the Pacific island, where he lands, are various packages. These packages had been insured. The company had actually contracted to deliver them to their intended recipients in one to two days, and obviously now that’s not going to happen. Tom Hanks, playing the part of the castaway, will have no scruples about opening the boxes and seeing if there’s anything that he can use. But, even while he finds ice skates and cassette tapes and a volley ball, he keeps one package in tact and refuses to open it. That one package, which has been sent to a woman in Texas, will actually keep him alive. And, at the end of the story, we see that he intends to deliver it in person, with a note that says, “This package kept me alive.”

“See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me…”
Now, as I read those words from Malachi 3:1, what strikes me is how active and on-going the action is. I Am Sending. Yahweh, the God of Israel, Is Sending and Will Seemingly Continue to Send. The Sovereign Maker of the Universe—the Event Shaper of All Human History—the Source of All Life and the Goal of All Right Relationships—that One intends to communicate and to keep on communicating. And it’s interesting, isn’t it? Even if God had originally intended to send that specific package to the Jews, who were specifically returning from exile in the fourth century BCE, it matters to us as well. That package, with that message, may be the very thing that keeps us alive.
“What am I supposed to do now?” I heard a report recently about the unemployment rate and how people are coping with the loss of their jobs. Curiously the interviewer found that most folks who’ve been recently laid off do not initially worry about the money. That’s not their first, gut-level reaction to the news that they no longer have a place to go on Monday morning. Most in fact simply blurt out this awkward question: “What am I supposed to do…?” And then they confess, “For the first time in my life, I don’t have any place to be, or any commitment to keep or any assignment to complete.”

You see, this kind of remark goes way beyond the search for economic solutions. It points to the realization which says that originally, long before we got jobs that sent us out into the world, you and I had been sent for other reasons. Moreover, even now that our jobs may be slipping away, this may be the message that keeps us alive.
“I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple…”

You see, here’s the pattern that I see emerging from Malachi’s prophetic words. Three centuries after they appear, John the Baptist stakes his life upon them. Next comes Jesus, who arrives at the temple as a child, and as a fully grown adult. And after his life, death and resurrection, comes the Spirit. And following the Spirit, people like us are sent.
2. Prepare to be refined.

In her book, Teaching A Stone To Talk, Annie Dillard recognizes the moment that she felt sent. It was the moment that she ran away from Santa Claus. Miss White, the Dillard family neighbor, had gone to the trouble of dressing for the part. Everyone had been shouting, “Look who’s coming” and “Look who’s here,” but when Annie recognized the beaming face beneath the disguise she bolted. Miss White had been the first person in Annie Dillard’s life to burn her. Quite innocently the older lady had been showing the little girl how a magnifying glass can focus the light of the sun. Miss White simply made the mistake of placing Annie’s hand beneath the lens. The light narrowed to a beam and ouch! Annie got burned. Miss White apologized and called after the child, but Annie never forgot. She had been burned by the very person who at that moment masqueraded as the giver of gifts at Christmastime.

And so, think about this. You and I may have a similar reaction to God’s messenger, as he is expected by Malachi. Is God the giver of gifts? Or is God the one who burns us? Malachi describes the effect of God’s messenger of “a refiner’s fire.” Like impure gold and like silver that has other metals mixed into it, we encounter something in God’s messenger that sets off a process of hot purification. That is, from the amalgam of worldly influences and selfish phobias we come and God burns us whether we are ready or not. I have feeling its better to be ready. Another image that Malachi provides is one of “fuller’s soap,” which is the kind of ancient cleanser that takes off a layer of skin. What God does to us sometimes hurts, and during that encounter it may seem that God is angry. And maybe he is angry. And yet, according to Jewish philosopher Abraham Heschel, God’s anger does not come from his essential character like his steadfast love. Nor is God’s wrath an arbitrary outburst. Rather, God pinpoints the fury of his impatience with things that our unjust and untrue. Moreover, in Genesis 18 and Exodus 32:13 Abraham and Moses reason with God in the hope that God’s anger might change.
So prepare to be refined. John Updike once complained that in his teenage years almost no one believed in Christianity although there were signs of it everywhere. He compared the experience to that of a “fog solidly opaque in the distance” that “thins to transparency when you walk into it” (Self-Consciousness, p. 230). By contrast, what if a messenger meets us in the midst of that fog? It might be a starling experience.

In October of 2007 Cali Kaltschmidt was a cheerleader for Auburn High School. At homecoming she had just been crowned queen. Just prior to the start of the second half, the band members and the other cheerleaders held tightly to a banner that they had made out of a large ream of butcher paper. The idea, of course, was that as they held the edges of the banner, the 50 members of the football team would plow through it from the other side and make a bold entrance onto the playing field. Well, Cali thought she had time. She noticed something about the banner that wasn’t right, and it was about to be utterly destroyed anyway she rushed over to fix it. Meanwhile, a 245 pound linebacker, named Zach Tate, led the way. The homecoming queen, while tinkering with the word, GO, had no idea what hit her.

Now I relate this You-tubed trampling because I think it runs parallel with what we’re about during Advent. During Advent, we celebrate the coming of Jesus Christ. But that coming is so spiritually solid and so thick with truth, we might want to prepare. Prepare to receive what refining fire that God has intended for us and prepare to be sent as that refining fire for others…
3. We won’t recognize our own offering.

When I came home for Christmas after my junior year at Penn State, I prepared to give my father a gift. It would be a plaque, which contained a complete poem that had been written by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Anyway, I typed out the words of the poem on a piece of parchment paper and then above them I scribbled my own sentence. I wrote something like, “It’s time to accept the gift.” Well, after pasting the paper on the wooden plaque and then varnishing it, I let it dry. It dried in two or three days just in time for Christmas. But, you see, when I gave it to him, I didn’t recognize my own gift. The words of the poem by Emerson had been erased somehow by the varnish. All that he could read were my words, telling him to accept the gift. Well, for the first time in my life I saw my Dad cry. But I didn’t recognize my own gift…

And you see that makes me wonder about the offerings that Malachi says will be made in Judah and in Jerusalem. He says that will be made in righteousness and that they will be pleasing to the Lord. And maybe we won’t even recognize them. Amen.