Salvation Through Subtraction – 12/9/12 – Malachi 3, Luke 3:1-6

There’s a scene in the movie The Mission, where Rodrigo Mendoza, played by Robert de Niro, is climbing up the side of a large waterfall with a rope around his torso tied to a bundle of steel armor which he drags behind him.  Much of the film is set in the South American jungle among the Guarani Indians, who live above the massive Iguaza Falls.  A Jesuit mission has been set up among the Guarani by a peace loving priest.  Mendoza is a slave trader and mercenary and makes his living kidnapping Guarani and other natives and selling them to Portuguese colonial plantation owners.  But after killing his brother in a duel, Mendoza has a break down, repents of his previous way of life, and seeks penance with the Jesuit missionaries.  The priests bundle his armor and weapons and bring it to the foot of the falls.  His penance is that he will climb the falls to face the people he formerly enslaved, dragging behind him the burden of his old way of life.  Mendoza struggles up the cliff with the priests and when the group finally reaches the top the Guarani are waiting for them.  When they see Mendoza, one of the young men from the tribe grabs a knife and goes over to him.  There are some extended moments of drama as the young man holds the knife up to Mendoza’s throat who makes no effort to defend himself.  Then the tribe leader motions to the young man, who proceeds to use the knife to cut the rope, then pushes the bundle of armor and weapons over the cliff, plunging into the waters below.  The tribe breaks out in smiles as Mendoza breaks down in tears at this gesture of forgiveness.

The film came out in 1986 and I first saw it sometime in the early 90’s and this scene has been one that has stuck with me, although it’s nice that YouTube has movie clips easily accessible to help refresh the memory on some of the details.  It’s a scene of grace, forgiveness, of salvation through subtraction, the cutting away of the baggage which burdens, leading to a transformed life.  (Watch the clip HERE)

We are in the season of Advent, when we look for the salvation of God through the coming of Christ.  In this week’s scriptures there is a strong theme that this salvation looks very much like a process of subtraction.  The prophet Malachi says it will be “like a refiner’s fire and like a fuller’s soap; (the Lord) will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offering to the Lord in righteousness.”  Salvation is like having the temperature turned up to the point of burning away everything that is not of value.  Or like being scrubbed and scrubbed soapy clean.  Luke says that the word of the Lord came to John in the desert, who went around “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  Bring all your baggage to the river of baptism.  God is a Guarani Indian with a knife, smiling.

Both Malachi and John the Baptizer preach that not everything that has conglomerated around us is our true self.  Over the course of our lives we take on all sorts of false notions of who we are, believe all sorts of false voices that shout and whisper in our ears.  We enact all sorts of wrongs against our family and friends and ourselves, and these things stick to us, like grime.  After a while the grime is all that can be seen and we start to identify ourselves with that grime.  That’s who we are.  We are the sum total of all our thoughts, words, and actions, many of which have been hurtful.  We are the accumulation of all those things others have said about us, good or bad.  And they keep building up.

This is not who you are, says the prophet Malachi.  “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple…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 will refine them like gold.”  Who you are, is what is left after that refiner’s fire has its way.

I was interested in this reference to the refining of gold and whether there’s much mining and refining of gold going on these days or whether that’s pretty much a thing of the past.  It turns out there are still goldminers out there, although it has gone very high tech.  In the US, about 80% of gold mined each year comes from Nevada.  I watched a brief clip from Nova from their feature about the different elements of the periodic table.  The clip about gold involved the host taking a field trip to the Cortez mine in Nevada. The days of finding veins or nuggets of gold are pretty well past, so at these mines the gold cannot be seen with the naked eye.  But huge amounts of earth are loaded onto trucks and taken to a state of the art refinery.  For every ton of rock that they haul and process, they are able to extract about ½ – 1 ounce of gold.  This sounds like a really bad business venture, except that each truck can hold 400 tons of rock, which means that each truck carries over half a million dollars of gold.  At the end of the process, when the standard gold bar emerges from the fires, it has come from over 1 million pounds of rock dug, moved, and processed.  As an interesting side note, unlike oil and coal extraction, the gold companies pay no royalties to the federal government for their mining activities on public land, operating under General Mining Act of 1872. (References HERE)   I wonder if this is on the table for the fiscal cliff negotiations as a new source of revenue.

If I’ve got the math right, when this gold goes through the refiner’s fire, the ratio of gold to not gold is 1: 32,000.  You can check in with William B., our in house statistician, after the service for a fact check on that, but I’m pretty sure that’s what one once per ton works out to be.

In light of the metaphor at hand, this is a rather humbling ratio.  One would hope that the ratio of what’s of value to what’s not of value in our lives is higher than that.  I did a little more math, and figured there are 86,400 seconds in a day, so if we have at least three quality seconds each day, just 3 loving, God-filled seconds, then we beat the ratio that the current gold mining companies are working with.  God is like a refiner’s fire, but, Malachi asks, “who can stand when he appears?”

In theology, there have developed two different paths for coming to know and talk about God.  One is the positive approach, which basically says that there are things we can say about God.  There are things that have been revealed about God that we can speak about.  We can say God was in Christ.  God cares for the poor.  God is love.  God is a Guarani Indian with a knife and a smile.  These statements teach us about God.  The technical name for this approach is kataphatic.  Kata – to descend, phatic, having to do with speech.  Or, bringing God down to the level of speech.

The other theological path is the negative way, apophatic, speech that denies.  In this approach, one gains knowledge of God by stating what God is not.  God is not hate.  God is not injustice.  God is not an object or a person.  God is not a concept.  God is not knowable through speech.  Some of the ancient theologians, the Cappadocian Fathers, went so far as to say that Yes, they believe in God, but No, God does not exist, since everything in existence is created, and God is uncreated, surpassing even our categories of existence or nonexistence.

The apophatic path holds that we come closer to God by whittling away that which is not God.  This has been emphasized by Eastern Christianity more than Western Christianity, and it’s unfortunate that we don’t have a more full understanding of this.  Often, when people think they are having a crisis of faith, or questioning and rejecting their religion, it’s not a tragedy at all.  It’s a natural maturing from a strictly kataphatic approach, when there are things we can say about God, to also including the apophatic path.  God is not this.  God is not that.  God is not just what I have been taught. God is not just what my religion has claimed about God.  You clear out everything which is not God, and what you are left with is a more pure relationship with God. This is where agnostics and atheists have much to teach people of faith because they are much clearer on what God is not.

I won’t try and pretend to understand the technicalities of all this, but I bring it up because what is being stated in the scriptures is that the negative way, the apophatic, is not just a way for the human self to find God, but is also a way for God to find the human self.  God is also about the work of clearing out everything of us which is not our True Self.  Who are you?  You are not this.  You are not that.  You are not your job.  You are not your bank account.  You are not where you were born.  You are not your thoughts.  You are not an accumulation of past experiences.  You are not your successes.  You are not your failures.  Who are you?  What’s left when the waters of baptism wash over you?  What’s left after the refiner’s fire?  Who, what, can stand before its coming?

I don’t remember where I heard this, so I don’t have a person or an article or book to attribute this to, but these were words from a cancer doctor.  After talking some about how difficult his work can be, the doctor said that one of the most rewarding parts of his work is his interactions with cancer survivors.  He said that of all the people he knows, it is these cancer survivors who have the greatest clarity about what is important and what isn’t important in life.  They are not distracted with trivial things.  To put it in the language of today’s scriptures, the process of being brought to the brink of death and having your life handed back to you is like a refining fire.  Everything that isn’t essential is burned away, and what you’re left with is that kernel of your True Self, the eternal self which lives now with God.

When talking about John the Baptizer Luke goes on to cite the prophet Isaiah: “The voice of one crying 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.”  In the past I’ve not known quite what to make of this passage.  It makes God’s coming sound like something akin to mountain top removal in West Virginia, with the hilltops getting blasted off and the valleys getting filled in.  Or, it makes God’s coming sound like the whole earth is going to look like Kansas.  Flat as a pancake and straight as an arrow.

But I think it makes a little more sense now.  Every valley shall be filled.  Every hill made low.  The crooked shall be made straight, the rough ways made smooth.  God wills that all obstacles be removed between the human and the divine.  It is a smooth, clear path from one to the other.  And for God, this is already the case.  There is nothing that stands between God and our deepest self.  They are already united.  And in Advent, it’s we who welcome the removal of the obstacles of our own making through this coming.

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