A Sermon for Advent 2; Malachi 3:1-4, Canticle 4 or 16, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6
This past week we watched a couple of versions of Dickens “A Christmas Carol” This got me to thinking; 3 Ghosts of Christmas, Past, Present, and Future; sounds like an interesting way to practice Advent. However, no matter how I tried, I could not make 3 equal 4; no math tricks I learned in school worked, no new math things, I’ve seen, worked, not even the crazy math of quantum mechanics worked. The divine muse was silent. And then I read David Brook’s column Fighting the Spiritual Void.
Brooks explores the impact of trauma, and how poorly we help people recover. It doesn’t matter if its PTSD, or sexual assault, a grave injury, witnessing a horrific event, or surviving a disaster when many close to you did not, we’ve moved to a place where we treat trauma simply with medication. Our culture’s “not religious, but spiritual” posture leaves a spiritual void … [of] privatize morality [that] denudes the public square of spiritual content, … [robs] people of the community resources they need to process moral pain together (Brooks). Brooks wishes we had the spaces, wisdom of community elders, and rituals that symbolize the transformation.
When I finished his column, I realized we know how to do this. Churches, especially like the Episcopal Church, which are liturgy centered, know about rites, we know their power. Or at least we did. We seem to have lost the connection between ritual and the needs of the secular community. A similar loss is at the heart of today’s reading from Malachi.
The first thing you will have noticed is, inspired by multiple commentaries, I expanded the reading by a few verses, to include verses where God replies to Judah’s complaint that since they have returned from Exile they have rebuilt the Temple under Zerubbabel, experienced a religious revival under Ezra and rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem under Nehemiah yet they had not returned to their former glory. The result is that worship has become a mere form, tithes are ignored, Sabbath is broken, marriage and adoption of pagan customs are common, and priests are corrupt (Mast). Malachi answers for God
You have wearied the Lord I will send you my messenger, suddenly. He will come to the Temple. He will cleanse priests like a refiner’s fire and fullers’ soap until they are righteous then your offerings will be pleasing to God (Malachi 2:17-3:5).
Notice I have tinkered with the wording and emphasized Malachi’s focus on worship. Judah has once again violated the covenant. The collapse of divine justice prevails. Gods will refine and purify the places, the leaders, the hearts of worshippers, erasing corruption and restoring grace (Han). Advent is a season of such reorientation. It is about hearing Malachi giving voice to God’s warning and reorienting our worship so we may reorient our lives. The shift to blue vestments and liturgical accouterments indicates such thinking has fallen from favor in the church. I still hold to the idea that Advent is a time of penitence, different than Lent, but still, a time to change the direction of our lives, and according to Malachi, the direction of our worship.
This morning I am hearing two prophetic voices. One, Brooks, is in the role of the nuisance prophet who points out our shorting comings, where we have lost the truth and reveals our secrets (Johnson). He also has some creative ideas of what restoration might include. The other, Malachi, is meddlesome (Johnson). He tells us God is actively purifying thing, refining things, which means changing things. Those changes might just look like additional rites for a traumatized people and communities. Books suggest such rites include the language of Myth … that moves people from Separation through Initiation and then back to Return. It sounds a lot like Brueggemann’s categorization of the Psalms into Psalms of Orientation, Disorientation, and Reorientation. These rites could revive ancient rites for soldiers returning from war who are given a chance to cleanse, purify (think refiners fire) themselves and then rejoin the community, which takes possession of the guilt they have for actions made on our behalf. Then they are welcomed as warriors, and positive leaders in the community (Brooks). There are foundational traditions within our existing sacramental traditions for such rites.
Brooks sees a place for a community-wide rite of passage for people coming out of prison, for the forgiveness of a personal wrong, Such a rite can draw on elements of baptism including renouncing Satan and all forces of wickedness… (BCP 302) a promise to seek and serve Christ in all people respecting the dignity of every human being (BCP 304) and elements of confession, counseling, and absolution found in the Reconciliation of Penitent (BCP 447).
He suggests a rite for people as they emerge from the darkness trauma and abuse. They might draw from the laying of hands and anointing found in the Ministry to Sick (BCP 453), and prayers which pronounce releasing them from suffering and restoring them to shalom, wholeness and strength, deliverance, and perseverance.
Brooks also suggests a rite to mark the moment when a young person finds their life’s vocation. It might be based on The Commitment to Christian Service (BCP 420) and include a prayer for guidance, a commending to their work, a Litany for Vocation mirroring a Litany for Ordination (BCP 548), all generally following the Celebration of New Ministry (BCP 556).
The crafting of such rites will not be easy. They will need be openly available to all people recovering from traumatic events, Episcopal or not, Christian or not. There will need to be prophets to help us see the need, to see that no one sinned; this man was just born blind; and call us to work the work God is calling us to work (John 9:3-5). Who knows, such rites may even be a new way to proclaim the Gospel to a nation whose actions are less and less grounded in the foundational values we pretend to proclaim. I know it will be a challenge to follow Brooks’ and Malachi’s prophetic voices. I know It will be harder to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God (Romans 12:1) as a prophetic voice that prepares the way for those recovering from life’s trauma (CEP M). I know such grace is present right here, right now.
Bratt, Doug. Advent 2 C Malachi 3:1-4. 9 12 2018. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.
Brooks, David. Fighting the Spiritual Void. 19 11 2018. <https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/19/opinion/mental-health-ptsd-community.html>.
Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 9 12 2018. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly>.
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.
Han, Jin H. Commentary on Malachi 3:1-4. 9 12 2018. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/>.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Johnson, Deon. “Advent 2 C (18).” 9 12 2018. Sermons that Work.
Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.
Mast, Stan. Malachi 3:1-4. 9 12 2018. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermonstarters/>.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.
Schuller, Eileen M. New Interpreters Bible The Book of Malachi. Ed. Leander E. Keck. Vol. V. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. X vols. Olive Tree.
The Episcopal Church. The Book of Common Prayer. New York: Church Publishing, 1979.