I’m just home from Jubilee Christmas at Southport UMC. It is a glorious morning, involving a lot of work on the part of a lot of people. Over twenty families from our wider community will have a Christmas to remember because of the generosity and care and hard work of the congregation at Southport. But it wasn’t just a hand out gifts kind of exercise, it was a make relationships, get to know the folks, go shopping with them, and today the parents or grandparents or guardians were brought in to wrap all the gifts that they’ll be able to give to their children on Christmas morning. And they carried it all out, along with baskets of food and household items to help enhance the season. But more than all that, they go out with a new friend, a support, a community if they choose to lean into it, choose to hold on to it. It’s a great day and I’m proud to be pastor of such caring and hardworking folk. But truth be told. It makes a mess.
Wrapping paper, cookie napkins, boxes and bags and stuff everywhere. It’s a mess. Let’s be honest. A good mess, a seasonal mess. But still a mess. The mess we’ve made of our house pulling out the decorations as we get ready for another season of celebration. Not the usual mess, not the hey we actually live here mess, but a new mess, a mess that sometimes makes you wonder if you should bother. We’ll never get it clean enough, organized enough, oriented enough to satisfy the one who matters.
“Mom clean” was our phrase, our standard by which effectiveness of the cleaning moment will be judged. When the kids would clean their room, they’d clean it to their own satisfaction. Which is a long way from Mom’s satisfaction. Truth be told, it is probably a long way from the Board of Health’s satisfaction, but we’ve never really called them in.
“Mom clean” means that Mom will go in after the cleaning has been done and pass judgement. Is it good enough? Is it clean enough? They could spend hours, a whole day cleaning their rooms, but then when Mom says, I’m coming to check, they’ll scurry around, or barricade the door or come up with a hundred reasons why Mom shouldn’t come in. Or with a hundred protestations as to why clean from their perspective is clean enough. “No one needs it that clean!” they would claim. “You’re unreasonable! Look you can see the floor!” Where, exactly? “Right there, there’s some carpet! ... I cleaned the middle. ... Nobody cares if it is clean under the bed anymore. ... You can see the top of the desk. ... I found my bed!!” (Actual statements from when there were teenagers in residence.) And somewhere, Malachi is chuckling.
Malachi 3:1-4 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. 2 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; 3 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. 4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.
Who can endure the day of his coming? “You want it how clean?” Malachi was writing in the post-exilic period, meaning that people had just returned home after being exiled in Babylonia. The word “Malachi” means “my messenger” - so it might have been that the author was telling his own story. He was the messenger who was coming before the Lord to call people into right living. There are still expectations, he says, there are still standards. God calls God’s people into clean living, whole and healing relationships, service that builds up rather than tears down. God’s law is still a measure by which ethics, or behavior in community, is judged.
It sounds like a threat. Malachi has a supporting part in Handel’s Messiah. Most of the text of that great choral work is Isaiah and the Psalms. But there are a few other scriptures tossed in there. Malachi appears early in the work, setting the stage for the coming of the Messiah. “The Lord whom ye seek shall suddenly come to His temple,” sings the bass in a recitative, “ev’n the messenger of the Covenant, whom you delight in, behold, He shall come, saith the Lord of Hosts.” A recitative is sort of a mixture of speaking and singing; a straightforward, but rhythmic presentation of the text with simpler musical accompaniment. Sort of a “here it is” approach. A “get ready” move from one idea to another. But then, the bass continues in an aria singing “But who may abide the day of His coming, and who shall stand when He appeareth? For He is like a refiner’s fire.” An aria is a longer exposition, with repetition and elaborate musical accompaniment. And a bass voice. A deep bass voice, Darth Vader deep. Making it sound ... ominous. Scary. A warning or a threat. “Who may abide?” Not you, surely. Not me.
Which is one reason why we choose to skip over Advent and get right to Christmas. This getting ready thing can be difficult. Painful. We don’t like the idea of being washed up with fuller’s soap, whatever that is. Reminds of me of Lava Soap. Remember that? You knew you were dirty if it took Lava to get you clean.
While we might be able to wriggle out of the fuller’s soap reference due to cultural ignorance, we all know what fire is. Refiner’s fire - means even hotter. Burning away impurities. OK, we might come out better, stronger, cleaner, but still ... Who would choose such a process? Who can endure the day of his coming?
We can. That’s the message here. That’s Advent in a nutshell. Who can endure? We can. No, really. We can. Because we are not alone. Because the one who calls, the one who brings the soap and stokes the fire, is the one who walks with us. Emmanuel means God-with-us.
Someone once asked why Malachi talks more about silver than about gold. Gold is more valuable, isn’t it? Gold is the best, the top of the line, the ... uh, gold standard. Yet, silver appears twice. Well, they argued, silver is more labor intensive in the refining process. In refining silver, the smith has to stay close. You can’t put silver in the fire and leave it alone, it has to be attended, you have to stay close enough to watch. The silversmith has to lean in, risking the heat, wary of the impurities spitting hot molten silver onto exposed flesh. Jewelers say you can always spot a silversmith by the scars.
God-with-us. That is the promise hidden within the threat. Or what sounds like a threat anyway. Who can endure? We can, because God is with us. In the struggle and in the joy, in the pain and in the celebration, God is with us. The birth we celebrate at Christmas time is not an ancient remembrance of a long ago event, but a daily promise and a constant presence. Be born in us we pray. And fit us for heaven. Fit us for heaven.
“Mom clean” is the clean that will pass the inspection, pass the judgement of Mom. That’s the definition. In practice around here, however, what it really means is the clean that happens when Mom joins in. Who can endure the day of his coming? We can, because He rolls up his sleeves and reaches into the corners of our lives where we’ve let the clutter of our brokenness accumulate, convincing ourselves that we were clean enough. But it doesn’t measure up to His standards. So, together we set about the business of cleaning, of healing, of repairing. So that we can present to the Lord in righteousness. So, that our very lives can be Mom clean, Emmanuel clean.
It isn’t easy, this cleaning process. It takes time and effort, and blood and sweat and even tears sometimes. And then you wonder if you’ll ever be clean, if the task of shoveling out the detritus of living in this world will ever be done. How will we know? What will be the sign that we are Mom clean?
The silversmith will tell you that the metal is ready to be worked into shape, to be used for the jewelers purpose when he can see his face reflected. When all the world gives back the song, that now that angels sing. That’s when we’ll know. When our lives shine with the presence of Emmanuel.
Sixteen more days to get Mom Clean. Excuse me, I’ve got work to do.