Sunday, December 06, 2009

Today's Sermon: Malachi 3:1-4 and Luke 3:1-6 “Nesting Instinct”

A couple of decades ago, at about this time of year, I was tottering on a stepladder pasting a wallpaper border around our second bedroom. It was pretty close to the last thing on a very long to-do list that had started with the Mother of all Housecleanings. Forget about refiner’s fire and fuller’s soap, those cleaning methods mentioned in the reading from Malachi that Amanda read….this house was scrubbed to within an inch of its life using all the cleaning products I could find at Home Depot. Windex, Clorox, Ajax, Borax…I used them all.

Standing on the stepladder was a dicey proposition…I was two weeks away from delivering my first child, and I was BIG. Some short people are cute when they’re pregnant. – they stay skinny with a teensy little basketball out front. Not me. When I wore my black velour maternity outfit – the only thing I could fit into in the last two weeks – I looked like nothing so much as a fuzzy bowling ball.

Was it ridiculous to be doing this? Of course! What madness possessed me to try and get up on the ladder in my delicate condition and hang wallpaper?

You guessed it – the nesting instinct, that primal urge to get things clean and organized before you give birth. That kind of preparation is not just a human instinct – animals do it too.

Hamsters pile up the woodchips in their boxes. Cats and dogs find a quiet spot – usually in your closet, and settle in. Even birds are said to “go broody” when the desire to prepare the nest becomes overwhelming.

We need to prepare when something is coming. And in Advent, the something that is coming is extraordinary indeed, so the preparation must also be extraordinary.

My little story of the wallpaper makes us laugh, but not all preparation is joyful. The work your dentist does to prepare filling a cavity is not much fun, but necessary. The work a demolitions expert does prior to blowing up an old building is rather frightening and requires special care.

A few years ago, I went with a team to Pascagoula, Mississippi to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Even though the hurricane had hit in late August and this was the following February, our work in the homes to which we were assigned was preparatory. We were mucking out debris, and doing demolition work. All this had to be done before any rebuilding could happen. The old moldy woodwork and soggy drywall, the rotten things in pantries and refrigerators, broken appliances, sagging ceilings…it all had to go, and everything that remained needed to be sprayed with a bleach solution to combat the return of the mold and mildew. Not a 2x4, not a sheet of drywall, not piece of flooring could be brought into the house until the old mess was removed. Preparation work is often unpleasant, smelly, dirty, even dangerous work, but it is necessary before something new can come.

The preparation described in our reading from the prophet Malachi certainly falls into that category. The messenger who is coming is a source of amazement, but also fear. “For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendents of Levi…until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.” Like a silversmith purifying the raw ore by melting away the impurities in the fire, like someone who washes with soap made with harsh lye, this messenger is cleaning house in an even more demanding way than I did when I was pregnant. His task is to clean away unrighteousness…in his time, the unrighteousness of priests who were not true to the covenant. Before the Lord of Hosts can come, Malachi says, this preparation, this difficult and thorough preparation, must be complete.

And John the Baptist, too, warns that we must prepare. John was known as the forerunner, the one who would tell people that the Messiah was coming. In today’s Gospel, he wanders around the wilderness, this strange man with the camel’s hair garment and the dreadlocks, telling anyone who came to hear him that they needed to be washed clean of their sins in the Jordan.

The evangelist Luke reminds his audience that John is doing what Isaiah had prophesied: "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Before the Lord can come, work must be done. Preparation is necessary. We must make ourselves ready.

In Jesus’ time, bathing to cleanse yourself of sins was not unusual – the ritual bath, or mikvah, was prescribed for all observant Jews, a ritual act to remove that which was unclean. Why does Luke care that John is doing this?

Well, a big clue is in the set-up that Luke gives us. He starts out with a detailed explanation of the political and religious leadership in place. All those names, some of which are familiar to us…Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Annas and Caiaphas, Herod…all the big guns who run things. They run things, of course, in the cities, in the seats of power. Not only the political leaders, but the religious leaders, are in the cities. John isn’t there…he is out in the wilderness, in a place those leaders don’t go. And people are coming out to see John, to be baptized by him, not only from the countryside but from the cities as well. The people who are not in power can sense their need for a thorough cleansing of the soul…and Luke is hinting to us that the leaders in the cities ignore that feeling, and that’s bad news for them, since they are the most unclean of all.
We get that feeling, that urge to clean or be cleaned. We feel it in our souls, and it’s an irresistible urge. We know that change is coming, that Jesus is coming, and we feel the need to prepare.

It is not just for decorative purposes that we decorate our houses, with ornaments on the tree, a wreath on the door, a crèche on the mantel. No, we know we need to prepare for the coming of the King. We sense the need for a cleaning and a changing in anticipation of what is to come.
But it is not enough to hang the lights on the eaves and put out the Christmas candles in the windows…we’ve got some interior preparation to do. And that might not be as jolly or as quick.

Look deep inside your soul. What needs cleaning?
Are you harboring anger toward someone, not letting go of what you see as righteous rage?
Are you sure that you don’t deserve anything because God couldn’t possibly love you?
Are you feeling jealousy that others seem to have more things than you? Are you struggling with a hopelessness that leaves no room for hope in God?

This Advent season, this time of preparation, provides a chance to follow your nesting instinct and clean house in your soul, to ask for God’s forgiveness for your sins, to ask for God’s help to hope anew, to ask for God’s wisdom to puzzle through the things that make no sense. It requires no stepstool, no cleaning products, just honesty and quiet moments with God in prayer. It may feel like refiners’ fire, or a scrubbing with fuller’s soap, or it may feel surprisingly refreshing, like putting down that bag of garbage you’ve been toting over your tired shoulder for a long time.

Whatever it feels like, it will open your heart to the light that is to come, the baby King who saves us all. And I guarantee it will be better than wallpaper.

Amen.

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