December 6, 2015
“It’s not like in the movies.” I heard that phrase repeatedly during childbirth classes. My teacher said over and over again that labor in real life is nothing like labor in the movies. In the movies, labor is depicted as something that happens fast. A pregnant woman feels the first twinge of a contraction, and in a matter of minutes she goes from early labor to full-blown the-baby-is-about-to-be-here-get-me-to-the-hospital-now labor. I know that there are women who have babies fast just like that. But more often than not labor is a process of waiting; especially when it is the first baby. At least that’s the way it was for me.
Seventeen years ago I was in the last week of my first pregnancy, and I was doing a lot of waiting. At home and at church, I was as ready as I could be. At church I had organized all of Advent and Christmas Eve. When I went into labor or started my maternity leave, whichever came first, the people in charge of leading worship only had to show up. Every service was ready to go. I moderated one last session meeting with the entire group of elders watching me intently for signs that it was time to go to the hospital. I was having contractions throughout the meeting. But they were Braxton Hicks, those warm-up contractions before the real event, so no baby yet.
At home, I had been in full-blown nesting mode for at least a month. My mother suggested I used the wrapping paper from the gifts at my baby showers to line the drawers of the clothes chest in the baby’s room. So I alternated between sitting on the floor and lining a drawer, to standing up, to sitting back down again. All that up and down sent my back into spasms during the night and we thought labor was imminent, but no. My due date was the 11th, and at this time 17 years ago, I had read the chapter describing the early signs and stages of labor in “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” so many times I’d memorized it. With each potential sign that I might be going into labor, I psyched myself up for the real event; but not yet.
I heard that walking could help induce labor, so I walked the full route of our house. I walked on the treadmill at the workout center in town. I walked the length of both levels in the major mall in Albany, New York. Still no baby, but I was ready. I was prepared. Everything I could do was done. Come on, baby, come.
However, if I’ve learned one thing in in my years of living, it is that no matter how prepared, how ready and organized I think I may be, there are some things, some events for which you can never be fully prepared. No example of this that I can conceive of is truer than the coming of the day of the Lord.
I know that we are supposed to be prepared. That is the point of Advent, isn’t it? Prepare. Make ready. Live in expectation and anticipation. But how prepared are we? What are we preparing for?
The prophet Malachi told the people that a messenger would come who would prepare the way for the Lord’s arrival. The people were seeking the Lord? The Lord would suddenly come into this temple. The people wanted the messenger to show up? Well, that messenger was on his way. But! There is always a but. This messenger that is to come to them, well as Malachi said, “Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?”
It wasn’t so much that the people were to prepare, as it was that they would be prepared. The messenger was coming to prepare the way for the Lord and that meant preparing God’s people. Perhaps the people thought they were prepared. Perhaps they really were eager for that day to arrive. But Malachi gave them a word of caution. Who can endure the day of his coming?
I don’t know about you, but when I hear the word endure, I’m thinking that whatever is about to arrive probably will not be a whole lot of fun. You don’t generally endure joy or endure celebration. Endurance suggests testing and judgment. According to Malachi, testing and judgment are exactly what the people should expect. The people would undergo testing and they would be judged. But was this judgment about punishment or was it about something else?
I can envision refining, but fuller’s soap is not something we hear about. And fuller is not a person’s name. This was not a brand of soap. Fulling was the act of cleaning and preparing wool for use. A fuller was the person who did the fulling. There was a place outside of Jerusalem called Fuller’s field. This was the place where the wool went to be fulled. The fuller’s soap was the soap used by the fuller to clean the wool. It had to have been some pretty powerful soap. The wool sheared from a sheep would have been greasy and dirty. It would have taken hard scrubbing, as well as soap, to remove the grease and grime that collected on the wool. Fuller’s soap would make the wool snow white. Fuller’s soap softened and relaxed the wool, so that it would be ready for whatever purpose it was put to. Whether it would be made into clothing, bedding or rugs, the soap the fuller used prepared the wool. It made it ready.
So the messenger that Malachi refers to is someone who will act on the people like fuller’s soap acts on wool. Because of this messenger the people will be made ready. They will be prepared. They will be washed clean.
Christian tradition ties this messenger that Malachi speaks of to John the Baptist. John is the main character in our gospel lesson from Luke. I always feel that during Advent the lectionary takes us backwards from the end to the beginning. Stories of the end times begin Advent. Next week the gospel lesson speaks of John’s birth. But today it is the adult John the Baptist who appeared out of the wilderness, preached by the river Jordan, and proclaimed, “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
John was the messenger who prepared the way. While he offered baptism by water, he told the people that One would come who would baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit. Baptism by water is cleansing. Baptism by fire and the Holy Spirit is refining.
Malachi spoke of both. The messenger preparing the way will cleanse us and refine us. That’s judgment, true, but it is judgment with a greater purpose. What happens to silver when it is refined? It shines. It reveals the reflection of the One who is doing the refining. We already know what happens when wool is fulled. The grease and dirt and grime is washed away leaving the wool clean and bright.
We may think that we are preparing, but according to Malachi we are actually being prepared. That preparation requires judgment, but it is a judgment designed to refine and clean, to bring out our true selves; to reveal our true hearts.
I know I should be careful what I wish for, but I find myself praying for this messenger to get here quickly. I know that I will be included in that judgment and I hope I can endure it. But the truth is, enduring the world as it is right now is becoming much more than I can endure. This is the Sunday of Advent that is centered on peace. Peace. Peace has never seemed further away than it does at this moment. How much more violence, how much killing, how much devastation and destruction and heartache can we bear? How much more grief can our hearts endure?
After the mass shooting in San Bernadino this week, the outcry and rage at this ongoing violence has intensified. After every shooting, it seems that politicians and leaders of every stripe offer their “thoughts and prayers for the victims and families.” That sounds nice, but everywhere I turn I hear people saying, “I don’t care about your thoughts and prayers. Do something.”
It seems that the expression “thoughts and prayers” has become a platitude. It is just something to be said. My fear is that the word peace has become a platitude as well. We wish each other peace. I sign off on all my pastoral letters and writings with “Peace and blessings.” And the idea of peace is used by advertisers this time of year to sell, sell, sell.
But peace requires action. Peace is not just the absence of violence. Peace is something we do. Peace is something we live. We are called to be peacemakers. We are called to pray for peace, work for peace, bring peace, offer peace, embody peace. So if the day of his coming brings refinement and cleansing, then let’s pray for that day to come. Let’s pray that the day of his coming will remove that which keeps us from being people of peace and make us more the people we were created to be. May the day of his coming bring peace, finally, peace. Amen.