Monroe Congregational Church, UCC
December 9, 2001 Rev Maria Hoaglund

Prepare us, O God, to hear your Word, which is forever, as we welcome the Christ child. Ready us to receive salvation/healing, and to rejoice in the freedom to give ourselves in service. Equip us for the New Heaven and New Earth in which we may dwell in holiness and godliness. And may the words of my ...

There was a group of women in a Bible Study on the book of Malachi. As they were studying Chapter 3, they came across verse three, which says: "He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver."

They wondered what this verse meant about the nature and character of God. One of the women offered to find out about the process of refining silver and get back to the group at their next Bible Study. That week this woman called a silversmith and made an appointment to watch him work. He didn't mention anything about the reason for her interest in silver beyond her curiosity about the process of refining silver.

As she watched the silver smith, he held a piece of silver over the fire and let it heat. He explained that in refining silver one needed to hold the silver in the middle of the fire where the flames were hottest to burn away all the impurities. The woman thought about God holding us in such a hot spot -- then she thought again about the verse, that God sits as a refiner and purifier of silver. She asked the silversmith if it was true that he had to sit there in front of the fire the whole time the silver was being refined. The man answered yes, he not only had to sit holding the silver, but he had to keep his eyes on the silver the entire time it was in the fire. If the silver was left even a moment too long in the flames, it would be destroyed.

The woman was silent for a moment, then asked "How do you know when the silver is fully refined?" He smiled and answered, "That's easy - when I can see my image in it."

This is a most revealing story for our times! It helps to explain why we are ALL having to go through SO much refining these days! As horrific as the events of 9/11 were, I believe that there was no accident in its happening. We have all changed to some degree, we have all been effected and awakened (!), and especially purified by the events of our times!

Today's readings from Scripture remind us of the HOPE of Christ's coming by sharing with us images of what is coming, and those, like John the Baptist, who have come to prepare the way for this advent. In today's Gospel reading we read of John the Baptist calling us to prepare for the coming of God's anointed one. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" It's interesting to note that what "the Baptizer" John was up to during his life was an unusual thing for his time. Baptism was typically NOT something that Jewish people felt that they needed. It was only Incomers from OTHER faiths, who needed baptism! An Israelite was never baptized because a Jew was considered to already belong to God and therefore did not NEED to be cleansed. Gentiles, or non-Jews, were those who needed to be washed through the act of baptism. So John was urging Jews to do what only Gentiles, it was believed, needed to do. He was suggesting that the "chosen people" needed to be cleansed, too. This must have felt like an insult to many Jews. After all, what John was saying went against the entire fabric of conventional Jewish belief: That the Messiah was not going to embrace the WHOLE of the Jewish nation in one vast undifferentiated glob! Rather, the Messiah would be selective; the Christ was going to look at people as individuals and would hold people personally accountable for their lives and actions. So it was not that being Jewish would "save" you! It was not about Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female... Rather, it's about "How have you, and how ARE you living your life?!?"

When John called people to "Repent!" he didn't mean for them to feel bad or sorry about the past so much as: CHANGE your hearts and minds and actions to what is IMPORTANT in life. The past is the past. You can't do much about it. But you can get your priorities straight TODAY, and then CHANGE and live your life accordingly! "Metanoia," or repentance, means a complete TURN AROUND, a radical change of direction, involving our hearts and our wills, the SHOLE BEING of the repentant one. The people John spoke to by the river Jordan were called to TURN AWAY from their comfortable, settled lives in the Judean countryside or in the city of Jerusalem itself and TURN TOWARDS the wilderness - a rather desolate and simple, at times harsh and desert-like place - to hear and live out a preparatory message by a wilderness man, one John the Baptist!

This maverick messenger's stark words remind us, again today, at the beginning of the 21st century, that repentance and changing our ways, is the beginning of our preparing for the Christ to enter our hearts and lives. If we are filled up with ourselves, our pride, our egos, our desires, and greed, then we can have no room. We are like those innkeepers in Bethlehem who told Joseph and Mary that they had no more room for them! We are like the Jewish leaders, the Phrisees and the Sadducees, who wanted to claim worthiness and salvation through their birth-rights and family trees. Friends, let us remember in this Advent season that God requires our WHOLE being, not just our blood ties, not just our Sunday mornings, not simply a limited part of ourselves that we might "spare" for the sake of God's goodness and promise. No, God wants and claims our ALL!

God's purification happens is all kinds of ways: (story of truck driver who was abusing his wife...) I won't go into details, but I, too, have had a very personal experience of purification since 9/11 ... How is God working with you, nudging you in new directions, purifying your hearts and minds in these days? And are we moving WITH the Holy Spirit and the guidance and purification that comes with it? Are we acknowledging God's presence with us and moving, with courage, toward new possibilities and hope in our lives?
(about Patmos in the Woods)

Sometimes a window opens suddenly and one just has to jump through it. After years of dreaming about how to arrange our lives so that work, family, prayer, recreation and acts of resistance to empire are more integrated, my wife Maggie, son Peter and I have been given a gift toward that goal beyond our imagination. In late Aug., we will be giving up our Seattle home of the past 13 years for a sacred spot which we have named `Patmos in the Woods.' On the six wooded acres and within the ample home, we hope to invite folks weighed down with the tasks imposed by life within the global economy into a place of prayer, study and hospitality where people can be replenished and be open to the Divine Spirit.

We know with each breath that this dream can in no way reach fulfillment without the support of a very wide circle of folks. But we walk in trust that, having jumped through the open window, our surprising, powerful and life-giving (not to mention funny!) God will give us what we need to make it happen. We hope and pray that this gift will be poured out on you and many others, as an island at which life within God's covenant can be envisioned and experienced. And we pray that if that God opens a window for you in your own life, yuou will be given the grace you need to jump right through it.
("Patmos in the Woods: Daring to Live Into the Vision," by Wes Howard-Brook)

We are given other "hints" in this morning's Scripture which call us to certain ways of being. In Romans we read that we are "to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify (God)." We are also called to "welcome one another, ... as Christ has welcomed (us)." And we are called to be filled with the God of hope and with "all joy and peace in believing" so that by the power of the Holy Spirit we may ABOUND in hope! It seems to me that we are being called to be a kind of "John the Baptist," whoever we are, and wherever we live! We are to embody the anticipation and HOPE of being a believer in Jesus the Christ! When we truly KNOW and believe that someone loves us as deeply as Jesus (God) does, when we KNOW and believe that something better is coming, God's kingdom is AT HAND, then our whole being glows with Light, and Love, and anticipation! It's like Tagore once said: "Faith is the bird that feels the light And sings when the dawn is still dark." (my work with hospice ... being a Light and Hope, in the darkness....)

So, how are you shining your Light of Hope in the world these days? I know that each one of you are shining your lights here and there, and everywhere! How might you make your Light shine stronger? How are you already, and how might you, this Advent and Christmas season, bring new life and new Hope to those right around you?? You, too, can speak words of Hope and comfort to those who may be living in fear, anxiety, fear, and uncertainty... How are you already, and how might you more effectively in the future be a PRESENCE of wisdom, of faithfulness, and trust, to those who are groping in the darkness??
I want to go back to the story about purifying silver which I began with. It seems to me this story also explains why there is such a growing awareness about what divine beings each one of us is! I'm finding that spiritual awareness and the growing search for peace is coming out ALL OVER THE PLACE these days! Look at the Oprah Winfrey Show, for example. (Renewed by the Spirit corner, the amazing children who are on the earth today...) Or Dr. Wayne Dyer who's been featured on KCTS (Channel 9) recently. He's been talking about the 10 Secrets for Success and Inner Peace, or "There's a Spiritual Solution to Every Problem." I've noticed that Wayne often talks about the sacredness, the divinity residing in each one of us. He even has a book called The Sacred Self. And in his tape "Manifest Your Destiny" he begins by quoting from John 10:34: "Jesus answered them, `Is it not written in your law, "I said, you are gods"?'" And also John 14:20: "In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you."
I've also discovered through a friend who teaches yoga, a Japanese peace movement called Byakko Shinko Kai (the White Light Peace Movement) ...
"I am a divine being." "You are a divine being." "Humanity if divine!"
I hope that each one of us are growing into this awareness of WHO WE REALLY are in these days of preparation for "the coming" of God in our midst! I hope that we increasingly RECOGNIZE the image of God in which EACH ONE OF US were born and are growing into ....

In closing let me share a piece from Howard Thurman called "The Gift of Grace" from his book The Mood of Christmas.

This is the season of Christmas. For many people, in many places, it is a time of great pressure and activity, a time when nerves are tense, and when a great deal of anxiety hovers over the common life. And this is just the reversal of what the mood and the meaning of Christmas really are. I would like to suggest, then, that for those of you who care deeply about the meaning of your own lives and the significance of moments of high celebration, that you would do two things during this season. One, that you will seek reconciliation with a ruptured or unhappy relationship. During the year that is rapidly coming to a close, you have perhaps had many experiences with many kinds of people, those with whom you live, those with whom you work, or those with whom you play, and in the course of these going-on there have been times when the relationships heightened and were thrown out of joint, and a desert and a sea developed between you and someone else. And you were so busy with your own responsibilities. And perhaps so full of hostility yourselves, that there was no time to give to the business and the experience and the grace of reconciliation. So will you think about such a person, find a way by which you can restore a lost harmony, so that your Christmas gift to yourselves will be peace between you and someone else.

The second is just as simple. Will you with your imagination, ... will you conjure up into your minds a gift of grace that you might give to someone for whom you have no obligation, someone whose need is not so great that if you don't respond to it during this season you will feel guilty - but someone upon whom you might confer a private blessing. It may be just to pick up the phone and call someone whose life is not tied to yours in any way, but someone about whom you know something and with this knowledge as a background you say a word of reassurance, of comfort, of delight, of satisfaction - so that you will feel that out of the fullness of your own hearts, you have conferred upon some unsuspecting human being a gentle grace that makes the season a good and whole and hale and happy time.

So, on this note, I wish us all "blessed purification, blessed repentance, and blessed transformation" in our lives during this Advent season. May the Spirit lead us each into recognizing how we are already helping to PREPARE the WAY for something WONDERFULLY NEW, and into helping us shine our Lights even more brightly and hopefully - anticipatingly!! And may HOPE and PEACE, LOVE and JOY be not only beautiful words we hear and write and speak about in this season, but also TRUE realities in our lives! THANX BE TO GOD!