Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Second Sunday of Advent.
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; 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. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill
shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”
This Thanksgiving, my family hosted the big meal for the first time. We pulled out the fancy goods for the holiday—my mother’s good china, the cleanest tablecloths, and the one-use silverware that usually never sees the light of day.
Most of you are aware that I am not a cook, but I make up for it by doing dishes. The kitchen counters were stacked about a foot high once everyone left, and I began to plow into the mess.
“Oh, don’t put those spoons in the dishwasher,” my mom said. “They’re old.”
“Old?” I asked.
“Yeah,” my mom said. “Look at the monograms.”
I hadn’t even realized we owned monogrammed spoons. My mom pointed each one out to me, along with who it had belonged to. The oldest was from 1860.
I washed that one, very, very carefully.
But if my mom hadn’t spoken up, I might have tossed them in the dishwasher with everything else, because they didn’t look nearly as old as they are. Somewhere along the way, somewhere along the generations, someone had taken good care of them.
I have vague memories, a few times in my childhood, of helping my mom polish the silver. Of lying everything out on towels and rubbing with silver polish until the tarnish was gone and they shone again. I remember thinking it was very nearly magical, that something could go from so repulsive—no one wants to put tarnished silver in their mouths—to something so beautiful. At the transformation from what looked like a bunch of old junk to a table full of treasure.
It wasn’t the easiest task—it takes a bit of patience and elbow grease to really make silver shine—but it always felt worth it.
I can’t help but think of those monogrammed spoons when I read Malachi’s prophecy to the people of Israel. Of course, he wasn’t talking about monogrammed spoons, but the process is the same—purifying what has been made ugly so that it is beautiful again, useful again.
Malachi was speaking to a people who were losing faith. Or perhaps that’s too generous—they were throwing away their faith. They had thought that once they came back from exile, returned to their beloved Jerusalem, rebuilt their magnificent temple, that everything would be solved. That everything would be bright and shiny again. But it didn’t turn out that way, and so they grew lax with their faith, giving God their leftovers and rolling their eyes at words like peace and justice and covenant. Their trust in God is growing tarnished from disuse.
The opening line of Malachi is heartbreaking: “I have loved you,” says the Lord. “But you ask, ‘How have you loved us?’
The people don’t see God’s love for them. They only see that the world is not as it should be, not as they want it to be, and so they give up. They give up on God. They give into what they can control—money, power, people beneath them on the totem pole.
God will send a messenger, Malachi says. Someone like refining fire and fuller’s soap. Someone who will clean you up good, polish away the tarnish, melt away the imperfections, scrub out the stains. Someone who will put elbow grease into making you shine again. Into helping you see God’s love again. Into helping you find peace again.
The beautiful thing about this prophecy, I think, is that God does not give up on these people. God does not toss them away because they have gotten all messed up, all stained and soiled and bent out of shape. God commits to putting in the work. Commits to loving them until they are as beautiful as the day God made them.
We like to think of peace as this sweet thing. This magical ideal. We like to think there’d be more world peace if people just smiled at strangers more, or that we’d have more inner peace if we could spend more time listening to the birds sing. And maybe both of those are true.
But you and I both know that generally speaking, true peace doesn’t come easy. It comes after achingly hard work, inside and out.
There is so much in the human heart that blocks the path of peace. Anger, obviously, and pride and jealousy; but also fear and self-righteousness, ignorance and self-justification, bitterness and hurt, trauma and memory, anxiety and exhaustion. There’s no way all of that is just going to disappear. Not easily.
But when God puts in the work, and when we open our hearts to let God put in the work, then it is amazing what can happen. Not easily, not simply, but bit by bit, God can refine all that stuff out of our hearts. Sometimes it will feel like being scrubbed at with a polishing cloth. Sometimes it will feel like being put through the spin cycle in the laundry machine.
Sometimes it will feel like being dragged through fire.
It can be painful, to let go of our anger and hurt. It can feel like we are losing what protects us. The world is not a peaceful place. We know that. We don’t want to show up to it unarmed.
And yet that is exactly what God asks us to do. To be the first ones to work towards peace, the first ones to rely on God for protection, not our own walls of bitterness and fear. To be the first ones to let ourselves be remade for God’s purposes, and to be brave enough to believe in God’s love above all things.
This year we are celebrating the 200th anniversary of Silent Night. It was penned in 1818 by an Austrian priest, and has become beloved for its simple, beautiful melody. Whenever I hear the word peace, I am immediately transported to Christmas Eve services of my childhood, lighting the candles along the pews as we sang Silent Night, holy night. All is calm, all is bright. Round yon virgin mother and child, holy infant so tender and mild. Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace.
It seems so easy, when sung to such a sweet tune. It seems so easy, standing in church on Christmas Eve. Peace on earth. Peace in arm’s reach.
But I was reminded recently of what might have been Silent Night’s true moment of glory—not in the still, calm of a candlelit sanctuary, but in the midst of the one of the bloodiest wars this earth has ever known.
Many of you probably know the story of the Christmas Truce of 1914, during World War I. Allied and German troops were lined up all along the battle lines, for the pure purpose of killing each other until someone gave in. There were occasional truces, by the rules of war: times to collect dead bodies for burial. But there had been nothing like this ever seen before.
Charles Brewer was an English lieutenant in the war. That Christmas Eve, he stood on the firestep, watching the German lines and longing for the easy, peaceful scenes of Christmas at home—his father’s Rum Punch recipe, stashed in the family Bible; decorating the halls with greenery; toasting each other warmly. Instead of this, he continued,
here was I, standing in a waterlogged trench, in a muddy Flemish field, and staring out over the flat, empty and desolate countryside, with no signs of life. There had been no shooting by either side since the sniper’s shot that morning, which had killed young Bassingham. But this was not at all unusual.
Then suddenly lights began to appear along the German parapet, which -were evidently make-shift Christmas trees, adorned with lighted candles, which burnt steadily in the still, frosty air! Other sentries had, of course seen the same thing, and quickly awoke those on duty, asleep in the shelters, to ‘come and see this thing, which had come to pass’. Then our opponents began to sing ‘Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht. This was actually the first time I heard this carol, which was not then so popular in this country as it has since become. They finished their carol and we thought that we ought to retaliate in some way, so we sang ‘The First Nowell’, and when we finished that they all began clapping; and then they struck up another favourite of theirs, ‘O Tannenbaum’. And so it went on. First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up ‘0 Come All Ye Faithful’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words ‘Adeste Fideles.’ And I thought, well, this was really a most extraordinary thing -two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”
The Christmas Truce was not true peace. The next day the guns started up again, and all the rage and pride and fear of dozens of countries sacrificed more men for their cause. But it was a taste—a vision—of what peace might be. Of what the world might look like if we let God burn away all that hatred, wipe away all that worry, scrub out all that selfishness. For a day—just for a day—those troops shone bright and beautiful again, shone with joy and peace. Shone with the possibility that even broken people—even tired, scared, angry, grieving people—can show us the beauty of God’s love.
I have been known to say, on my cynical days, that peace will not come to earth until we all have mass amnesia—that old hurts and wounds and grudges will always make violence feel justified. But on my faithful days, I know better: that God can change us, that God can transform our hearts, that God can melt away what is ugly and hard in us, and restore us to the people God meant us to be all along.
Messengers of peace, in a world that longs to hear the music.
This Christmas Eve, we will light the candles, and we will sing Silent Night. And I pray that you will feel the peace of the moment, the warmth, the safety. But I pray also that as you look at that candle you will remember that Christ came as a refining fire, to melt away anything that has dimmed your vision of God’s love. That the child who slept in heavenly peace will stop at nothing until you can too.
True peace is not easy. It is not magical. But it is also not impossible.
For the God who brings us through the fire only because of the beauty we will find on the other side, I give thanks and endless, endless praise. Amen.
 Charles Brewer’s letter to his father was printed in the Bristol Times on January 2, 1915.