“Waiting for Light”

“Waiting for Light”
Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:76-79
Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
December 5, 2021 

Have you had a chance to see the Square one of these recent evenings? Just beautiful. I love Christmas lights in general, and I especially love the Square this time of year because they are strung on the buildings and lampposts and trees and to such a degree that even on a moonless night, you can see perfectly well. 

Light in the darkness -we are drawn to this gift. And like people in the days of the prophet Malachi – we long for more of it. In their case, they wanted God to show up far more fully and truly than they were experiencing – things should be going better for them having come back home from exile not so long ago. 

And as we heard Malachi remind the people quite vividly – we may not always appreciate just what we are asking for when we ask the Light to draw near. 

“the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple… (and) he is like a refiners fire and like fullers soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi (who are the priests, the religious leaders) and refine them like gold and silver until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.” 

The Lord will come…and the Lord will come as firing burning through every impurity until the priests and truly all of the people of God and all that they offer of God is completely refined unto its sacred essence. 

In time the church has come to understand that promise as the promise of Jesus himself who draws near to baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire…purifying the “priesthood of all believers” as we in the Reformed Tradition speak of ourselves. 

The question, then, is this: What then does it mean for the Light of the World to draw near this Advent season? What are the layers of dross that sometimes accumulate upon us…and toward which the fire seeks to draw near? 

I want to briefly explore four of those possible layers as each is one that the people in Malachi’s time dealt with – and so prophet Malachi addresses. 

And given the time of year we are in, I want to consider those layers by way of Christmas boxes – often attractive on the outside, but also never the true substance. 

As a child, I would write my Christmas list out fully and thoroughly and I would put stars next to the things I really wanted. One year, I desperately wanted the Rolling Thunder –a GI Joe vehicle like no other. And I put so many stars. Rows of stars. In one sense, cute and humorous, in another, every one of those stars screamed “please be sure and give me what I want.” 

One of the more common, obvious layers of dross that builds up around all of our hearts is a basic focus on ourselves, on me. 

Indeed, God says at one point to the people in Malachi’s day, “where is the respect due me?” God through Malachi also offers some scathing critiques for not paying attention to neighbor, as we’ll see in just a bit. 

And I am not at all saying we shouldn’t take care of ourselves, shouldn’t have boundaries…that’s not what is in view here. 

What I am getting at is, I think, made clearer by this observation from Evelyn Underhill, the English Anglican-Catholic writer from the first half of the 20th century, in this Advent Reflection of hers: 

“Ourselves, our words, our anxieties slip into the centre of the picture and God becomes merely the source of energy for carrying on our activities. There are a great deal too many who merry utilize prayer. We are so obsessed by the importance of our work, our friend, and our interests. If we put the worship of God last and our needs first, all proportion goes. Then, instead of the expansion that comes from selfless adoration, our souls contract.” (Music of Eternity, 12) 

For some of us, the layer that may have accumulated is that almost natural, sometimes unconscious focus ourselves where God tucks in around the edges of our plans and our things… 

Refrain: We sing O Come O Come Emmanuel, and Malachi makes clear what we’re singing – were inviting Jesus whose grace comes as fire to burn away the dross. 

The Prince of Peace draws near as an interruption or disquieting word of Scripture or word from a friend (or enemy) or the deep night sky reminding us of our place before God…fire upon dross…always unto light). 

Has the fire drawn near recently? 

I was standing on a ladder, setting up our Christmas tree last week, trying to get this knot out of the lights…when our 16-month old, Logan, starts crying for food, the dog began barking at someone dropping a package at the front door, the microwave dinged for Logan’s food, and then because the fridge door had been left slightly ajar, the fridge starts dinging. 

And Leo, our five year old, looks up at me and goes, “Daddy – stop doing that face.” 

I thought I was acting calm, cool, and collected amid the 14 things going nuts at all once… but Leo noticed that my face scrunched into a rather unappealing, squinty ball of anxiety when the stress is growing. 

You may or may not have such a face, you may have other parts of your body that let on about anxiety. The people of God in Malachi may or may not carry undue anxiety in their bodies and lives…but one of the central critiques of those people in that book is that they have become like the culture around them and not like the light of the world to which they are called to be. 

And surely one of the ways we are most susceptible to becoming like everything else around us is to find ourselves captive to anxiety. 

In part, this time of year, because there is just so much. End of the semester tests and celebrations, Christmas parties, errands and gift-giving, family coming to town or us going there or no one gathering which creates its own anxieties…let alone all things dinging or crying or hungering or pained in our living room or our neighborhood or our country. 

And for some of us, the layer that may have accumulated is the anxiety that perhaps we cannot even see but we wear it on our faces, on our bodies, in our schedules, in our short fuse. 

Refrain: We sing O Come O Come Emmanuel, and Malachi makes clear what we’re singing – were inviting Jesus whose grace comes as fire to burn away the dross. 

The Prince of Peace draws near as a child or an interruption or inconvenient word or happening or an inconvenient call to rest, to trust……fire upon dross…always unto light). 

Has the fire drawn near recently? 

Do you remember Ricky Bobby’s prayer in the 2006 movie, Talladega Nights? “Dear 8 pound, 6 ounce, newborn infant Jesus, don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant – so cuddly – but still omnipotent.” 

Some of us are not sure whether to laugh, be offended or both. But the reason many have found it memorably humorous is because – as with all humor – there is an element of truth to it. And the truth is, we often prefer baby Jesus. 

Baby Jesus is sweet, adorable, and couldnt ever possibly ask anything of us; and in fact we can choose how we want to worship him. 

Indeed, many of the priests of Malachi’s day had stopped bringing not the costly sacrificial animals required of them to use in worship but instead began bringing the lame ones that were not worth as much. Could they worship in a way not so costly? A way more…convenient? 

And their worship offerings mirrored their compromises in how they lived…for God calls them out on their forgetting the widows and orphans, their cheating wager earners, their denial of justice to foreigners. 

For some of us, the layer that may have accumulated is a focus on the Jesus of our making, not the Jesus revealed in Scripture. 

Refrain: We sing O Come O Come Emmanuel, and Malachi makes clear what we’re singing – were inviting Jesus whose grace comes as fire to burn away the dross. 

And The Prince of Peace draws near as a word of conviction, a call unto forgiveness, a ping of conscious unto integrity, a face at the border, a face on the corner, a face stuck in the system, a face of an enemy…fire upon dross…always unto light. 

Has the fire drawn near recently? 

BOX 4 

There is at least one more layer that must be considered. It is unlike the others, even smaller and often far more hidden. Perhaps the most obstinate layer of all. 

I remember Christmas 2004 – in on our family we get in a huge circle of aunts, uncles, cousins, children…usually about 30 people for the signing of the 12 Days of Christmas 

and a prayer. But 2004 was the first time we gathered without grandpa who had died just a month earlier. 

With 29 in the circle that year, it felt so noticeably empty. 

There is something about this time of year whereas much joy as there can be… the absences are all the more notable. 

The one who will not be home this year… and hasnt for years. 

The one who cant get home. 

The one who is no longer with us. 

The first Christmas gathering without them. 

Or its the Christmas with everyone, but it sure seems like this is the last time it is going to come together. 

The one denied justice. 

The ones who is forgotten. 

And so sometimes, then, our voices join with the people of God of Malachi’s day crying out and wondering “Where is the God of justice? Where is the healing?” 

And in the silence before those questions, sometimes a layer of darkness grows around us. We become irritable or distant or cynical or hardened – and we can hardly help it. 

And, look, if Jesus comes like fire to burn away the layers of selfishness, anxiety, and comfort – this is all well and good at some level – but what of this layer of pain, cemented by some of the deepest losses we have known, deepest wrongs we have seen…and done? 

I was a part of a clergy group a few years back, and I remember a pastor colleague sharing how her child miraculously survived being born when they really did not think the child had a chance. 

And as she told this story, her expression moved from gratitude to something else… and then she just starts sobbing. But what about all the other ones. I saw some who didn’t make it.” 

And then after a few moments of silence, she answered her own question, an answer born quite obviously from time spent sitting near this flame. Life is not stronger than death. Love is stronger than death.” 

Her words reminded me of God’s word spoken in the Song of Solomon: 

for love is as strong as death, 

its jealousy unyielding as the grave. 

It burns like blazing fire, 

like a mighty flame.” 

For some of us, the layer that may have accumulated is that brittle, calcified pain (or guilt, or shame) that cannot on its own open unto forgiveness or healing or newness. It requires an unyielding fire. 

Refrain: We sing O Come O Come Emmanuel, and Malachi makes clear what we’re singing – were inviting Jesus whose grace comes as fire to burn away the dross. 

The Prince of Peace draws near as fire…And what if that last time we knew a tear or did everything in our power to hold back a tear, what if that were not the fire singe-ing open a portion of this box? 

“The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming…” 

Is it the selfishness…the anxiety…the comfort…the pain? Upon what layer does the flame draw near to you? To us? 

If we are unsure, perhaps we let ourselves notice some of the pain points in our life… 

interruptions, 

words from Jesus in Scripture or words from others in the body of Jesus 

injuries or mishaps or things not going like they should, 

anger and frustration… 

Does any portion of the pain have the quality of fire? A fire unto love? 

I can imagine someone asking one day, “Have you seen the Square one of these recent evenings? Especially that space one block off the Square? Even when the moon does not shine and the sky is deep…just beautiful. And dangerous. And holy. And alive. Those lights…that fire. 

“O Come, O Come Emmanuel…” Amen. 

About Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert