Text: Malachi 3:1-4 Meditation: Fire
Slip with me, if you will, into the mind of the prophet. The prophet finds herself in a world charged with the grandeur of God, yet overrun with violence and unfaithfulness. She bears this contradiction in her bones. She is, at the same time, both blessed and cursed with pathos, an ever present sense of deep feeling with and for the world, for her people, for God, who won’t leave her alone. Visions and longings keep her up at night, her imagination charged with hope, with sorrow, with a madness that comes from the gods. When the sun rises she carries with her the burden of love. She cannot keep still or silent with the world as it is. She must speak. She must write. Her desires must be converted into words, phrases, into language. The undifferentiated groans in her gut force their way up her throat and start to take shape in her mouth, her tongue forming itself, tentatively at first, then confidently learning to dance with the wind of her breath as feeling finds articulation and cadence, thought finds expression. Her speech forms a structure that builds on a previous foundation already laid by those who have gone before her, kindred spirits who have also carried this yoke. The pillars have always been the same: justice, mercy, loving kindness, covenant, faithfulness, right action. These are the rhythm, the structure, the beat that holds everything together. In between the pulses of this steady beat she finds she is able improvise and stylize her words to fit her particular setting, reflect the unique contours of her particular time and place. This is an old song, a cover, remastered and remixed to reach the ears of a new generation.
At times she feels in complete control of her words. Knows what they mean. Seems sure of what she is trying to say. Other times she is given phrases that she can herself barely understand. Uncertain if they are ready to be delivered in this form, still uncomprehended by the sender. This is a song, poetry, but it’s anything but beautiful to hear. Sometimes broken. Sometimes abrasive. Rarely resolving into a note that gives it a sense of finality. Rather than being soothed, the listener is alarmed, unnerved, bothered. Sometimes leaving the scene so as not to have to absorb this cacophony of sound. Those who hear find themselves receiving the same restlessness that led the prophet to speak in the first place. To start to be filled with the same longing. To feel the charge of grandeur that calls for praise and the weight of human sin that calls for lamentation and confession.
“See I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to this temple.” These words come from the prophet Malachi. Malachi means “My messenger.” Of whom does the prophet speak? When will this take place? In this generation? In a generation to come?
“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?”
The questions are proposed, but not answered. Who is this? Who can endure it? Who can stand?
“For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.”
The words keep coming and themselves bear semblance of fire. Kindled somewhere within the soul of the prophet and flaming out. Dangerous words. Fire not just to warm the cold body or to provide light to the tired eye, but also fire that purifies, that burns, that turns impurities to ashes. That leave the prophet, the listener, us, almost speechless, undergoing the coming of the Lord. Fighting the impulse to run for cover, to flee the scene. Knowing that the only way to salvation is to stand in the fire and let it burn whatever it will.
Text: Luke 1:68-79. HWB 179 “Blessed be the Lord.” Meditation: Song
By his own account, Zechariah is an old man. When the angel Gabriel tells him that his wife Elizabeth will bear him a son, who will go forth in the spirit of the prophet Elijah, Zechariah answers. “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years?” It was a good question, but it was the last thing that came out of his mouth until Elizabeth became pregnant, came to full term, and gave birth to their son John. He is silenced.
One of the things I’ve noticed about old people is that their words carry an extra force, an added weightiness that comes with the accumulated years of living, pondering, trying to say something true. When we’re young, I think, we’re still experimenting with language, trying it on for size. Saying things, and then wondering whether or not we believe what we just said. If so, we keep saying it in however many ways that seem appropriate. If not, we drop it and move on.
By the time people get old there seems to be at least a few things that each one has come to believe they can speak with a good amount of confidence, even if it is that life remains a mystery. And the words carry weight.
Mondays are my day off and I was lucky enough to be able to tune in to the Diane Rehm show this pasto week as she interviewed longtime poet, farmer and philosopher, our neighbor to the south, Wendell Berry. He is now 75 years old and has written a new book of poetry. You could hear the age in his voice, and also the wisdom and moral force with which he spoke from a life time of living in such a way that treats the land and fellow human with great dignity. At Diane Rehm’s request, he read his poem called Questionnaire. It goes like this:
1. How much poison are you willing
to eat for the success of the free
market and global trade? Please
name your preferred poisons.
2. For the sake of goodness, how much
evil are you willing to do?
Fill in the following blanks
with the names of your favorite
evils and acts of hatred.
3. What sacrifices are you prepared
to make for culture and civilization?
Please list the monuments, shrines,
and works of art you would
most willingly destroy.
4. In the name of patriotism and
the flag, how much of our beloved
land are you willing to desecrate?
List in the following spaces
the mountains, rivers, towns, farms
you could most readily do without.
5. State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes,
the energy sources, the kinds of security,
for which you would kill a child.
Name, please, the children whom
you would be willing to kill.
It’s a pretty good poem when I read it, but listen to Wendell Berry read it in his aged voice and it will make you repent of every evil you’ve ever participated in, however indirectly. The voice carries weight.
Zechariah is an old faithful man who temporarily loses his voice because he could not fathom the gift of a child at his age. But when the child is born, and when he does open his mouth, his words carry the fullness of his years. In this case, words of confident hope. Words of praise and exultation.
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for God has looked favorably on God’s people and redeemed them…as was spoken through the mouth of the holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.”
In Zechariah’s song the ancient yearnings of the prophets, the visions of hope that were carried from one generation to another – these articulations of expectation, find a focus. The old man, no longer mute, having months of silence to ponder just what it was he was witnessing, now gives expression to that which he knows to be true now more than ever.
Can you hear the age in his voice? Can you feel the weight of his hopefulness?
“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.”
Yes, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Text: Luke 3:1-6 Meditation: Baptism
Luke narrates this passage with an eye toward situating the events in the socio-political reality of the time. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of the Emporer Tiberius, when Pontius was governer of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiphas.” This description spreads out a map and highlights the rulers of different regions and religious leaders around first century Palestine where the following story is about to unfold.
It would be something like opening up a story today by saying “In the first year of the presidency of Barack Obama, when Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State; when Ted Strickland governed Ohio, Mitch Daniels governed Indiana, and Steve Beshear governed Kentucky; when Mark Mallory was the mayor of Cincinnati, when Benedict was the Pope of the Catholics and Ed Diller was the Moderator of the Mennonites… had to slip that in….
To open in this way gives a sense of a concrete, specific geographical, historical, and social context in which the story will take place. The significant happening to be told, Luke goes on to say is that “the word of the Lord came to John, son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” The word came to John in an isolated desert area of an insignificant corner of a vast world-wide empire.
The hearer of the story already knows that strange and wonderful things happen out in the wilderness. That this is the place where old habits are broken and new habits are created, where an entire people were formed and re-formed to learn what it means to trust in the economy of manna, daily bread. The people of Israel had already experienced this journey away from a world that was familiar and predictable, the bondage of Egypt, toward an unknown land of promise.
Now through John the wilderness again becomes the place of re-creation. “He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
Along with the familiar territory of the wilderness, Luke would have us know that the story is couched within the ancient longing of the prophet. This time Isaiah provides the coordinates:
“Make straight the path of the Lord. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low.”
The activity sounds like a massive civil construction project. “the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.”
Prepare the infrastructure of your souls and your lives so that there are no obstacles to the movement of grace and generosity of God’s economy. The years of recession are coming to an end. The economy of salvation, of forgiveness of sins, the forgiveness of debts, has now come. A way has been cleared.
“And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” What began as a groan within the soul of the prophet, was composed into language, preserved in the hopes of the elders, is now becoming visible. All flesh shall see the salvation of God. From the emperor Tiberius to the landless peasant.
Salvation is something that is seen. It’s concrete, grounded in history.
We emerge from the refining fire, from the baptismal waters, surprisingly, still alive. And we find a path, a way that is made for us. Salvation is becoming visible. There it is. Now walk towards it.