The readings for this Second Sunday of Advent are
Old Testament Malachi 3:1–4
Psalm Luke 1:68–79
New Testament Philippians 1:3–11
Gospel Luke 3:1–6
This past week a wave of panic has swept the globe. We know it now by the label Omicron. (Silver lining: we are slowly learning the Greek alphabet.)
We like to think of our nation’s President as the Leader of the Free World, and by far the most powerful person on earth. Yet his call to be concerned about this newest variant of Covid-19, but not to panic, has persuaded few. The welcome mats of the airports have been rolled back. The securities markets have grown dizzy on their roller coaster. And people the world over have held their heads in their hands despairing that life will ever get back to normal.
But is normal where we want to get?
Normal is fighting for power. Normal is flight and fight. Normal is accumulating more stuff than we can ever wisely use. Normal is every nation for itself.
The world needs the church more than ever. But the church has work to do. Despite our attempt to take the penitence out of Advent—coloring it blue instead of purple, we have not outlived our need for God’s refining fire. Malachi reminds us of it. He says that God is sending a messenger to prepare a path for God by enabling repentance:
The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3 he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. 4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
God is being ironic. The target audience for this message certainly does not “delight” in God or in God’s messengers. Even the priests are proving unfaithful. Priests and people have decided that God is a non factor in life, and that therefore the line between good and evil behavior has been erased. They have wearied God insisting that all the evidence of history is that God is either powerless to enforce justice, or God indeed prefers evil (Malachi 2:17). They have, in other words, decided that there is no real covenant relationship between God and people. God cannot act out of compassion, or there is no such thing as true compassion left in the fabric of the cosmos.
So, Malachi announces the coming of a heaven-sent Messenger who will refine away such despair. And we, the church, see John the Baptist as just such a Messenger. He calls all people to the baptism of repentance as the only legitimate way of preparing for Jesus, the Messiah.
We, the church, are tempted to slight the penitential message of John. We change purple to blue. We want Advent to be uplifting. We want to hang the tinsel, shop for gifts, and chase all the darkness away with candles and strings of colored lights.
Just so, we the nations of the world, talk constantly now about our options for crushing the virus. But our desire to “get back to normal” sabotages it all. We prefer easy answers that require nothing from us. That’s why closing the borders is the first thing that comes to mind. Failing that, perhaps we can just take some Ivermectin. Some of us just hope for a tweaked vaccine booster.
But the single thing that will beat the virus is if we all work together: if we stop beating up on our public health workers and the decision makers in schools and governments, local and national; if we stop hoarding vaccines; if we stop jockeying to win the next election; if we stop being so “patriotic” and nationalistic. Only global cooperation will lead to herd immunity, because the whole human race is the only herd the virus recognizes.
So, is the Omicron variant a tool of the Messenger? Is it yet one more flame in the Refiner’s Fire?
For millennia Hindus have respected Shiva as creator who also destroys. Is not this the ancient and profound wisdom that the ongoing work of building up the new requires tearing down the old?
The Bible too proclaims this truth. It is full of talk of fire. Our God is said to be a jealous God whose nose gets hot and burns with a fire. But this is the destruction that creates. It is the kind of fire that we see at work in the forge of the blacksmith and the factory. It refines precious metals. It melts things to remove impurities and to combine weaker elements to make something new, like bronze or iron or steel. And so God’s fire destroys the old in us to make something stronger and better and new.
The virus is killing us because of the old. The selfishness of individuals, political parties, tribes, and nations, is the old mortal sin that keeps us from thinking anew and working together—that is the old. A world that can cooperate when called for—a world where people agree to quarantine, or socially distance, or wear masks, or share vaccines, or do whatever it takes—a world where compassion trumps selfish pride—that is the new that God is calling us to.
Of course, at an even more fundamental level it is our cynicism and faithlessness that is the oldest and most rotten impurity of all. We must remember the covenant of Noah—the way God has bound God’s self to the human race God created. We must renew our faith in God’s eternal Promise of Love. Repentance is the way we prepare. But the most precious gift of the Christmas that awaits us is the Christ-child’s guarantee of the Promise.
Advent is our season for understanding the Refiner’s Fire, and for renewing willingness to die and rise again with Christ and embrace the new way of living that the cross leads us to.
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