Sermon, November 29, 2015

Hope: The Refiner’s Fire     Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
November 29, 2015   First Sunday of Advent, Sunday of Hope
Baruch 5:1-9; Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 3:7-18

The Book of Malachi has some mysteries about it. The word Malachi means “messenger” but we do not know if that was the name of the author or if the book’s title comes from the verse that says, “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me.”

Nor can we be sure whom the prophet had in mind as the messenger. The Gospels link the passage to John the Baptist. It is easy to see why.

Malachi said, “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire.” Several hundred years later John the Baptist came along with his fiery tongue, saying, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

Malachi said, “He will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.” John the Baptist commanded the people, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor;’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

John fit the profile of Malachi’s refiner’s fire. The people who heard him responded with a great revival of piety and purity. They felt their hope rising. They felt a sense of eager expectation that John might be the Messiah.

John replied to those hopes by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John said that the one who was coming would be the real refiner: “the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

The gospels introduce us to Jesus as the one who would wield that flame. John spoke of a brood of vipers and the ax lying at the root, so we could expect Jesus to be even more inflammatory, but instead Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek…. Blessed are the merciful…. Blessed are the pure in heart…. Blessed are the peacemakers….”

Jesus commanded us to love God, love our neighbor as ourselves, love even our enemies. Love and gentleness and mercy and peace—those were the flames Jesus wielded. They are nothing like what we would expect of a refiner’s fire. So how is it that Jesus is the fulfillment of John’s prophecy?

One of my Advent traditions every year is to go back to a beautiful children’s book by Isaac Bashevis Singer entitled The Power of Light: Eight Stories for Hanukkah. I shared the title story with you last year, but it is worth hearing every Advent.

A few weeks ago I talked about how the Nazis bombed and burned the Warsaw ghetto. This story takes place in the months following its destruction. Two of the small number of survivors in the ruins were David, who was fourteen years old, and Rebecca, thirteen.

“It was winter and bitter cold outside. For weeks Rebecca had not left the dark, partially collapsed cellar that was their hiding place, but every few days David would go out to search for food…. Making his way through the ruins was dangerous…. But if he and Rebecca did not want to die from hunger, he had to take the risk.”

On one of the coldest days Rebecca sat shivering in the cellar, knowing that if David did not come back, she would surely die. Both of their families had been killed in the Nazi attack. The Nazis watched the ghetto closely and shot anyone they caught. Every time David went out, he and Rebecca knew that they might never see each other again. Finally, she heard David return. She cried out in relief and they hugged and kissed. David reported he had found a treasure—frozen potatoes, mushrooms, cheese, a bag of candy and a surprise.

They were ravenous, but ate just a little to make the food last. Then Rebecca asked about the surprise. David said, “Rebecca, today is the first day of Hanukkah, and I found a candle and some matches!”

David said the blessing and lit the candle, and for the first time in weeks they saw each other’s faces. They were filthy and ragged and much thinner, but their eyes shone. They had talked about trying to escape before, but fear and the impossibility of it had held them back. Now the light of the candle filled them both with hope. Rebecca said, “Let’s leave.”

David had formed a plan. The Nazis guarded every exit from the ghetto day and night, but he had found an entrance to a sewer not far from their cellar. It might lead them out of the ghetto. It was dangerous. They could drown or freeze to death in the dirty water, and the sewers were full of starving rats, but it was their only chance. To remain in the ghetto meant certain death.

The Hanukkah light began to gutter. They gathered their few belongings and the remaining food. It was a terrible and slow journey just getting to the sewer without being caught, but once there, they found the water frozen and the rats gone. They crawled a long way, resting from time to time. At last they heard the noise of a streetcar overhead and knew they had made it out of the ghetto.

Their plan was to find the Jewish partisans who were hiding in the forests beyond Warsaw. The danger was not over. They were in a village a week later looking for food under the cover of darkness when they finally stumbled into one of the partisans. He took them to their camp. It was the last night of Hanukkah, and they played dreidel on a stump in the glow of a fully lit menorah.

Singer knew this story because David and Rebecca told it to him in their home in Israel one Hanukkah evening eight years later. Their little boy was playing with the very dreidel that the partisans had played with that night in the forest.

Rebecca said, “If it had not been for that little candle David brought to our hiding place, we wouldn’t be sitting here today. That glimmer of light awakened in us a hope and strength we didn’t know we possessed.”

The light that Jesus shines is like one guttering candle compared to the bonfire of John the Baptist, but however meek it may seem, that one candle awakens a hope that has the power to transform our lives. Jesus fulfills John’s prophecy because hope in Christ’s light is a refiner’s fire. The light of hope purified Rebecca and David of all fear and confusion. It can purify our hearts as well.

What we hope for defines us and refines us. It separates the wheat from the chaff. It shapes the way we live. It determines whether we will succumb to the way of being that Henri Nouwen describes in today’s bulletin meditation, or we will find another way.

Nouwen says, “Our lives are fragmented. There are so many things to do, so many events to worry about, so many people to think of…so many demands to respond to, and so many needs to pay attention to…. Different powers pull us into different directions and our sense of unity and togetherness is constantly threatened…. Underneath the running and rushing of modern life often lurks the nagging feeling of being disconnected, alienated and bored.” (from the Foreword to The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence, translated by John J. Delaney, Image/Doubleday edition)

Why do we allow ourselves to suffer that way of life? Because we hope that it will make us happy in the end. During Advent many people spend more time, energy and money than they can afford in the hope of creating a perfect or at least passable Christmas. The hoped-for reward is feeling happy or making others happy, or feeling worthy of love or making others feel worthy. There is nothing inherently wrong with those goals except that they are impossible to guarantee no matter how much time, energy and money we spend. We are looking for happiness in the wrong places, and often the result is the nagging feeling of disconnection that Nouwen describes.

He goes on to say, “It is to this condition of fragmentation and alienation that Brother Lawrence speaks when he presents us with the practice of the presence of God.” We have a choice. We have this other direction in which to look for happiness.

The Psalms say, “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is in God.” (Psalm 62:5) The humble 17th Century monk, Brother Lawrence, placed all his hope in God, and like Rebecca and David he found a strength he did not know he possessed and an inner peace that surpassed understanding. His hope refined him, but not all at once. New challenges, burdens and distractions arose constantly. The refiner’s fire was a moment by moment practice of letting those things go that were too hard to bear or that led to frustration, and turning his heart back again to hope in God.

This is the quintessential Advent practice: choosing to prepare for Christ’s light to be born in our hearts simply by returning over and over to the hope that it will be, and waiting and watching for it to come to pass.

If that sounds weak or vague, remember what it did for Rebecca and David. Hope was the only light they had, but it was enough to give them the courage and strength and guidance they needed. Hope refined and filled them with the power of light even when there was no light to be seen.

As an Advent hymn says,

Though deep darkness may surround you
And sleep or earthly dreams confound you,
This hope can lead you through the night.
See its single candle burning
Within the window of your yearning
And choose your heart’s path by that sight.
Leave other hopes behind
As this light fills your mind:
Christ born in you.
Sing out your choice with yearning voice:
O come, O come! Rejoice! Rejoice!

Let us pray in silence, making that our one hope…