When is this silent night, holy night, when all is calm and bright? The Christmas season can be exhausting and confusing. How can we prepare the way for the true peace of Christ?
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. 2But 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; 3he 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. 4Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.
When is the silent and holy night, when all is calm and all is bright?
We lit candles, the very same ones we use here on Christmas Eve.
We prayed. We sang songs, including “This Little Light of Mine.”
Yet all was not calm, and all was not bright. Last Wednesday, December 2, 2015, just two hours before friends from Calvary and Grace Tabernacle were set to meet for a prayer vigil with the theme of “Communities United Against Violence,” another man had been shot by police in the Bayview. Just hours before the vigil, a couple reportedly supporting Islamic extremists killed 14 and wounded 21 people in San Bernardino.
Bishop Ernie Jackson of Grace Tabernacle had already led a memorial service for a young man that morning, and lamented that the people at the mortuary know him all too well. We stood in Mendell Plaza, near the site of another homicide—the 45th reported of 2015 in San Francisco–the Friday after Thanksgiving.
The wind blew out our little candles.
Here we are, on another Sunday after more death.
Will we stay in the trenches with our own camp—our political allies, those who watch or listen or read the same news sources—or will we actively emerge ready to take action and live as signs of divine peace?
Will darkness prevail, or will God’s light shine through?
Our Scripture readings today feature two prophetic messengers, Malachi and John the Baptist.
Malachi’s words appear as the last book of our Old Testament. We don’t know much about an individual person named Malachi. The name in Hebrew means “my messenger” or “my angel,” and was written around 500 years (plus or minus 50) before the birth of Christ. Malachi is considered a “minor” prophet, not quite the stature of an Isaiah or a Jeremiah, but the words are vital. Malachi is speaking to a community returning from exile in the Persian period, when it seemed like the world would end. He called out people, including the Levite priests, for turning away from God’s justice in favor of power, prestige and privilege.
Fast-forwarding about 500 years, John the Baptist was again calling people to repent, or turn toward God’s ways of justice. Let’s read Luke 3:2-6 together . . .
Luke 3:2b – 8
“. . . The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the regions around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as 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.”’
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
Bear fruits worthy of repentance.
Neither John nor Malachi were likely people we would include on the guest list for our elegant Christmas party. John had his hair shirt, which probably shed everywhere. And you definitely wouldn’t have wanted him to be in charge of bringing appetizers like locusts and wild honey. While we don’t know much about Malachi, the prophet probably didn’t smell great and would have tracked sand on your hardwood floor.
Beyond the superficial, we probably wouldn’t have liked what they had to say.
They wouldn’t have politely avoided religion or politics. They would have demanded that we change our ways, and insisted that God told them to tell us.
Malachi and John describe God actively cleansing and working on us. In John’s case, the waters of baptism symbolized God’s restoration and inclusion. Malachi used graphic imagery of the “refiner’s fire” to describe the Divine transformation of humankind. Dr. Jennifer Ayres of the Candler School of Theology at Emory University explains that on the Day of the Lord described by Malachi, “All will be found guilty and worthy of punishment.” She goes on to explain that God’s judgment is not intended as solely punitive. Instead, “. . . It will issue in a process of purification that makes a place hospitable for the abiding presence of God.”
“A place hospitable for the abiding presence of God.” Reflect on that for a moment.
In Malachi’s refiner’s fire imagery, silver is treated with charcoal. As reformation leader John Calvin pointed out, the power of fire burns what is corrupt and it purifies.
The refiner only knows the process has been successful when she can see her “own image reflected in the mirror-like surface of the metal.”
God is constantly refining us, seeking to see a reflection of the Divine image.
We cannot do this on our own. It is about more than one person or one city or one country. And sometimes we are called to listen to challenging, prophetic words. Those to whom Malachi and John the Baptist were speaking were more concerned with holding on to their jobs, their power, their status, than reflecting God’s light and justice in the world.
In 2015, are we trapped in a system without hope? Will our leaders exhibit more concern about holding on to their positions of power than taking a bold and just stand? Will we focus more on our own comfort and being polite than being open to God’s refining power?
Will we heed prophetic voices, even if they come from a party different than our own?
“Your ‘thoughts’ should be about steps to take to stop this carnage. Your ‘prayers’ should be for forgiveness if you do nothing – again,” said Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy last week after the San Bernardino massacre. His words caused quite a stir, and would have probably been better received by a broader audience had they come from the Pope or Dalai Lamai, but alas they came from the politician representing the Sandy Hook area.
This isn’t a sermon solely about gun control or race relations. My hope is to look to our Holy Refiner asking what we can do.
What can we do to help ensure that next year we don’t have 353 mass shootings (4 or more people wounded or killed) by December 6. That more than 462 people won’t die, with 1312 injured. What will we do to help ensure that we don’t have 45 homicides in San Francisco and 83 in Oakland next year and that websites like “Shootingtracker” won’t have to exist to publicize these incidents?
I thought I paid close attention to the news, but there were numerous shootings among that 353 of which I had not heard. One in my home-state of Idaho and probably one in a town near someone you know.
In worship we handed out the names of the locations across the United State, as well as the known homicides here in San Francisco. We reflected and prayed, asking God, what action shall I take? What action shall we take? We then spoke aloud the name of each location and victim.
Last Wednesday at the vigil in the Bayview, the wind blew out our candles.
We learned from and prayed with Bishop Jackson and new friends including James Caldwell and Joseph Kalauve and Lynn Westry. They work with the San Francisco Street Violence Intervention Program and San Francisco Department of Public Health and are among the first responders when someone is shot. That night they rushed to the scene of the shooting of Mario Woods, then still made time to be with our group. Each has experienced death and violence in their own circles, yet refuses to give up.
The wind kept blowing out our candles as we walked down Third Street, singing “We Shall Overcome” and “This Little Light of Mine.” But someone always had a candle burning and started spreading the light again.
What will we do to reflect the light of Christ today?
 Marvin A. Sweeney, Jerome T. Walsh, and Chris Franke, The Twelve Prophets (Vol. 2): Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi (Berit Olam Series), ed. David W. Cotter (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier, 2000), 713-741.
 Jennifer Ayres in Bartlett, David L., and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting On the Word, Year c (4 Volume Set). 4 vols. Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, pg. 26-30.
 Ayres drawing from Ralph Smith and John Calvin.