Monday, December 7, 2015 9:00 am ·  0 Comments
St. Paul writes to his good friends and new church in Philippi (Philippians 1:3-11). He is joyful and confident when he prays for them because of their growth in faith and God’s continuing good work in them, and because they pray for him — they hold him in their hearts and share in God’s grace even in his imprisonment. He longs for them.
He prays that they will continue to grow in wisdom and purity, producing acts of justice that come from Jesus and glorify God.
Both Paul and Malachi are talking about getting prepared. Paul sees preparation as a continuous process building from goodness to goodness.
The prophet Malachi Malachi 3:1-4 is a little harsher. The images are of refining silver or fullers’ soap.
What is fullers’ soap? I think of a Norman Rockwell picture of a young boy, standing in a barrel of water with a kettle standing by, while an ample bosomed grandmother holds him by his hair and goes to work scrubbing his ears with a wash cloth. He doesn’t look like he is enjoying the experience.
But when you actually search out the meaning of fuller’s soap, you discover that fullers were the equivalent of the laundromat in ancient times. They washed and whitened clothes. The process of fulling or cleaning clothes consisted in treading or stamping on the garments with their feet or with bats in tubs of water, in which an alkaline substance — made from the ashes of plants — and nitre — chalk and urine and clay is mixed with water.
So stomping, beating with bats, scouring, pounding and clubbing are all words used to describe the process.
Malachi sees this judgment as necessary to prepare the people to present offerings of justice — good deeds — to God.
These two passages provide two options for how we prepare during Advent to receive the Christ child.
In the history of the church preparation has taken both forms: there are always those who seek with every fibre of their beings to please God. And there are those who get sidetracked by the temptations of power over others, by the inclination to sin, or by the enticement to define who is following the right rules and who isn’t.
I’m interested in the last temptation — the one which finds so many nitpicking about doctrine, who’s in and who’s out, what you have to believe — the temptation to judge others who choose to take a different path.
I once heard Mercy Odoyuye speak on a panel about the doctrine of the Trinity which can be summed up as God in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Mercy is a Methodist feminist theologian known for her work in African women’s theology and her work with the World Council of Churches. She raised up new ways of looking at the Bible, which now are recognized as being authentic ways of reading and interpreting scripture. She is currently the director of the Institute of African Women in Religion and Culture at Trinity Theological Seminary in Ghana. There is irony for me in her position at a Seminary with the name Trinity, because when asked to speak about the Trinity, she responded, “Well, it’s not really in the Bible. Show me first that you live the hard sayings of Jesus Christ, and then I’ll talk about the Trinity with you.”
Odoyuye is suggesting that folk get into dangerous water when focussing on doctrine — it can so easily be invested with aspects of life that are devoid of justice. People can hold up a doctrine so that it oppresses others.
One pressing example is the American constitution. A conversation with the Rev. Dr. K. James Campbell suggested this idea to me. The constitution, arguably one of the greatest documents ever written, was written by men whose perspective and life style belied its greatness — owning slaves wasn’t a problem because slaves weren’t people. Mistreating wives and even children was acceptable because they weren’t people.
The doctrinaire way in which people have clung to the right to bear arms and the resulting continuous horror demonstrates the point. A document written by flawed individuals in a particular time becomes interpreted to become a weapon of mass destruction in another time.
There are approaches to the Bible that have a similar effect.
Get hung up on the Trinity and forget to live the hard sayings of Jesus Christ.
Jesus said many things that people could not understand. Even his own disciples had difficulty in understanding him. Many times those who were following him stopped, because the things he said were too hard to understand or to live out.
Maybe you are farther along on the journey of faith than I am and can sit with Paul’s friends, satisfied that you are preparing in a way that would be pleasing to Paul and to God.
But if, like me, you see stains on your soul that need fuller’s soap, then it might help to look at some of the hard sayings of Jesus, choose one and try to live it.
What are these hard sayings? Here are only a few.
‘Remove what causes you to sin.’
“If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire.” (Matthew 18.8)
Jesus wasn’t into lopping off limbs. But he was dramatically challenging folk to look differently at their lives. Here’s an example of cutting something off when it causes one to stumble:
When a man heard that his friend had an addiction to internet pornography, he suggested that he get rid of the internet, or he would put a password protected filter on his friend’s computer.
‘Do not commit murder in your heart’
Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said … ‘You shall not murder’ … But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement.” (Matthew 5.21-22)
Jesus was showing that there was more to these laws than people thought. Jesus took it a step further, saying that murder starts in the heart and is internally motivated. What happens in a person’s heart is just as bad as what happens externally, because the external is motivated by the internal. To hate someone is equal to murdering them in their heart.
‘Let the dead bury their own dead’
A disciple says he wants to follow Jesus but first needs to bury his father.
Jesus responds: ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead.’ (Matthew 8:21)
This is a bit harsh. Did Jesus really want this would-be disciple to leave his father unburied? John Chrysostom, the fourth century archbishop of Constantinople, explains: “This saying does not condemn natural affection to our parents, but shows that nothing ought to be more binding on us than the business of heaven.” Our calling to follow Christ is more urgent than anything else in this world.
‘Renounce all your possessions!’
When a rich person asks Jesus what to do to make it into heaven, Jesus tells him to obey the Ten Commandments. “But I’ve done all that,” is the response. Jesus then replies: “ ‘There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money* to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ (Luke 18.22)
A tough teaching for us.
Venerable Bede, a seventh century English monk and scholar suggests: “there is a difference between renouncing all things and leaving all things.” It is unlikely that one can leave the cares of the world, but we can renounce all things, that is, to place our values, our faith, clearly ahead of our possessions.
‘Who will roll the stone away!’
In her life and writings, Oduyoye’s constant struggle is to re-enact biblical stories. When working for the World Council of Churches, she took the question of the women going to Jesus’ grave “Who will roll the stone away?” as slogan for the Ecumenical Decade of the Churches in Solidarity with Women. Oduyoye’s answer to the question, “Who will roll the stone away? is: ‘We will roll the stone away!’, inviting men and women to take part in the human responsibility of caring for all life.
Preparation is not primarily a state of being in our culture. We do things. This advent, we are called to do the hard sayings of Jesus.
This is my prayer for you …
Pick one hard saying of Jesus and try to do it better. Then you will be preparing for the coming of John the Baptist. Pick the same saying, try to do it harder. Then you will be preparing for the coming of Jesus.
Then you will be refined by fire, cleansed by fuller’s soap. And your offerings of justice will be pleasing to God and Jesus.