Advent 2 “Refine and Define”
Dec. 9 “Refine and Define” Malachi 3:1-4 * Philippians 1:3-11 * Luke 3:1-6 *
I met Pastor Don Shipley from Camas UMC this week for coffee, to get to know each other and talk shop. He might stop by to meet everybody after church, if you see someone you don’t recognize. His wife is the pastor of Vancouver Heights UMC. We are both relatively new to the area, so you will have to let us know if there is any history of our churches working together, as well as with Washougal UMC. Their pastor is Vivian Hiestand, who is also new to the area. Our District Superintend would like to see us working together, particularly in our outreach efforts. If you have any ideas, let me know, for such things will take creativity, and a better familiarity with the area than I currently possess. I’m coming from a smaller community on the coast, where the churches were farther apart, but where everybody knew everyone, even those in the non-Methodist churches. Over the decades, the four small Methodist churches there had been yoked together in various configurations, often sharing pastors. Getting those churches together for events was like a family reunion, with both good and bad memories, but here it seems like we will be started something completely new.
Don was kind enough to offer to come over to Troutdale, so I suggested we meet at Edgefield, which at one time was the county poor house amongst other things, restored by McMenamin’s into what has become a popular tourist attraction. Since Don had not been there before, I gave him a tour of the facility, which includes a hotel, pool hall, golf course, spa, a winery, brewery and distillery, as well as an assortment of bars and restaurants. It also has a movie theater, amazing gardens, summer outdoor concerts, and live music every week. One of the last buildings we went too houses a glass-blowing studio, which Don was particularly interested in. We got there just when one of the artisans was starting to make a vase. She was holding a long metal pipe with a small blob of blue glass on the end. She stuck this into a furnace containing molten glass, which was clear but reflecting the bright orange glow of the 2100-degree furnace. She pulled the pipe out, showing us a blob of molten glass. She then turned to a metal table and rolled the blob on it to shape it into a uniform mass. Next, she rolled the blob through small piles of crushed colored glass, and then put that into a second 2100-degree furnace, which was used for heating her project. This served to melt the crushed glass into the blob, giving it color. She then placed it into the other furnace to get another layer of clear glass, then rolled it on the table again to shape it, then rolled it in some more crushed glass, this time bigger pieces to give the vase patches of color.
Unfortunately, we did not have time to watch her blow into the pipe to form the vase, but I have seen that before, so I have some idea of the process. We also didn’t get to see the preparing of the molten, clear glass, which probably requires some refining first. Like many other industries, making glass is highly specialized, requires special equipment and procedures, and requires great care as the process can be quite dangerous or even deadly if the proper safety precautions are not taken. I don’t know anything about the paper mill, but it sounds like workers there can be seriously harmed if they are not careful, but in this case from the chemicals involved. In both cases as well as in many other industries, the final product requires the transformation of materials into another form, getting rid of impurities that would weaken what is being made.
The Bible speaks of refining and purifying metals, but also uses the same language in forming God’s faithful people. For those of us who relate more to gardening metaphors, such as in our Gospel reading, we are also told that we need to be pruned and fertilized to promote new growth that is healthy and fruitful. What is not fruitful needs to be discarded. This, “refining”, is our theme for the second week of Advent. As we continue to prepare the way for our Lord to come again, we remember that we need to be prepared, and part of that means that we too need to be purified, cleansed and transformed by God’s grace. The Church of course provides a means of doing this, though Communion, Confession and Forgiveness, and other disciplines, but God also brings us individualized opportunities for purification through our life experiences. Certainly, we would all like lives that are easy and trouble free, but the tough times in life are used by God to make us better and stronger.
It seems like I was more into this refining process when I was younger. Is that how it is with you? Over time, we either get lazy or distracted or the old practices just don’t seem as meaningful. Often that’s when God does the job for us, through difficult life experiences. But hopefully we have grown more mature spiritually, and that is why we may not feel such a strong need for refining ourselves. Or we start several different things, but just can’t seem to complete them. But that is OK, as long as we are still intentionally making the effort to follow Jesus. Wherever we are in life, we need those Biblical reminders to be purified and prepared. Malachi 3 says:
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight-- indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. 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; (Mal 3:1-2 NRS)
Each of us on this same path towards eternity, each of us has certain things God wants us to filfill while we are here, but we are, as Paul writes
confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. (Phi 1:6 NRS)
God provides not only the path we follow, but what we need to be successful and faithful. We have each other, we have the Bible, we have the Spirit in our hearts. We will go through difficulties and trials, but we know that Jesus will bring us through it all. Part of our task is to recognize what is needed and apply God’s instructions and wisdom to our lives. Paul tells us:
This is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. (Phi 1:9-11 NRS)
We may live in a very difficult and divisive time, but we are greatly blessed to live in a land where we “serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.” (Luk 1:74-75 NRS) We don’t have to worry so much about persecution, unlike millions of our Christian brothers and sisters living in other parts of the world. Here, we are more beset by complacency and laziness. We are so spoiled that we often forget what we are freely given, while others must work so hard for what we enjoy and still not receive it. Although John the Baptist’s ministry was begun so long ago, we continue to proclaim the coming of Christ, preparing the way for his return. We hear again these words, as if spoken directly to us, as both listeners and doers:
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luk 1:76-79 NRS)
Whether we are preparing spiritually or materially for Advent and Christmas, we are required to take action. Whether we are decorating, making cookies, buying presents, or whatever, it takes time and effort to make special memories for those we love. As we prepare our hearts to receive Jesus, and as we prepare our world for Jesus, we also must be disciplined and mindful of where we need to be refined. We then define just what steps we need to take to grow in the direction we need to go. We are all experienced at praying, coming to church, reading the Bible, and trying to find ways to share our faith with our neighbors. Perhaps its time fir something new, perhaps it is time to recommit to regular practices, perhaps it’s time just to re-acquaint ourselves with what we haven’t done for a while. Perhaps you are not quite ready to make any New Year’s resolutions, but this is a good time to make our resolutions for discipleship in the coming year.
John the Baptist came proclaiming a message of repentance. Repentance is not just feeling remorse, we don’t just say “I’m sorry” to God or anyone we might have offended and feel better about ourselves for doing so. We don’t need to call ourselves a “brood of vipers” or “worms” in order to make ourselves feel even guiltier. We know where we have done wrong, if we are not in denial. Repentance means recognizing where we have fallen short and making changes, so we won’t do it again. It means cleansing and healing, purifying, growing into a better person. Not by our own efforts, but solely through the grace of God. Repentance is much harder than just feeling sorry. It means laying down our sins, placing ourselves into God’s hands, and putting our sins behind us and washing our hands of them so that we can reach out with clean hands to receive the greatest gift ever given, Jesus. Judgement and repentance can be harsh, but they bring good news also, news of forgiveness, purification and reconciliation. We become that work of art purified and formed through the process of refining. It is only through repentance that we are made ready to receive Jesus, and in doing so, we prepare the way of the Lord into our world.