Sermon: Pure and Simple

12.6.15       Preaching Text: “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…” (Malachi 3:2b-3)

Adding to our understanding of Advent’s themes of waiting and preparing Malachi presents us with the image of a “refiner’s fire” which, we are assured, “purifies.”

As the faithful prepare for God to break into time, we ready ourselves for a different perspective on reality. What commonly passes for truth will be tested by the fires of THE TRUTH, God’s eternal Truth.

For we can know somethings about God’s Truth. Otherwise we have a mind in the first place.

To this point, I had a friend in divinity school who placed a poster on the outside of his dorm room door. It read: “Christ didn’t die to take away our brain.” We’re not asked to ignore our minds when we come to faith, even when who we believe in is otherwise a mysterious, transcendent God.

But the unwelcome truth is that our minds all too often are recruited to think about sheer nonsense, about things unworthy and idolatrous. Errors creep in. Our view of life distorts reality, taking us away from the Truth.

Before continuing, I have a confession to make. You may in fact think less of me after you hear it. Years ago, that is, and on admittedly rare occasions, I’ve watched episodes of the Phil Donahue Show. (See, I told you it was bad!)

One thing that really struck me was how each show would highlight a particular guest who would argue for a given position. The amazing thing is how often the crowd would simply go along with whatever was being said.

But as Donahue delved deeper into the audience soliciting comments and questions, somebody at some point would challenge the guest (and the other audience members’ opinion). What would happen next was nothing short of miraculous. Suddenly more and more people, either now duly enlightened or simply emboldened, would swing wildly in the other direction, holding to a contrary opinion.

The point is that we often hold opinions and viewpoints that we either don’t fully understand or don’t permit ourselves to openly express, for fear of rebuke. Thus our thinking can get collectivized, and skewed. We either haven’t considered an alternate way of seeing, or our opinions and understandings are shaped and molded by those around us.

It is into this maelstrom of confusion that the Truth of Jesus enters. Amid half-truths or false truths, God’s Truth is revealed, threatening to challenge and alter our perception of reality.

I recently read a little book by G.K. Chesterton on the life of St. Francis of Assisi. In it, Chesterton makes an interesting claim, arguing that St. Francis could not have become who he was without the period of history that preceded him.

That, in and of itself, is hardly surprising, since we’re all products in some measure of the age to which we are born. But Chesterton lays out a history that I, at least, had never considered.

He traces things back to the fall of Rome, to the fall of the Holy Roman Empire by invading Germanic tribes, the Goths and Visigoths. The official year for the total defeat of Rome is dated 476 A.D.

What followed was the period we call the “Dark Ages,” an absolute low point for the Christian church. After dominating the Western world for centuries politically, socially, and religiously, the church now found itself exiled, persecuted, and scattered, surrounded by a resurgent paganism.

This paganism, devoid of the sophistication of Greek philosophy, Roman law, and Christian religious sensibilities, spread its pernicious influence throughout the West.

The church in response found it necessary to retreat from the devouring paganism around it. Chesterton argues, for instance, that even the perception of nature returned to a primitive, pantheistic form. Now what one found was a world once again populated by menacing, capricious gods, and drenched with perverse sexual imagery.

A simple walk into one’s garden, Chesterton maintains, was the occasion for idolatrous perversion. Even the sky, within this new/old pagan mindset, was rendered ugly and life-negating. Nature and all of life around it had become polluted because the mind and spirit had become polluted.

And because of this, Chesterton argues, it was necessary for the church to retreat from this polluted world into private, secluded enclaves where the faith could be purified, nurtured, and restored, much as a tiny vulnerable flame has to be protected for it to burn brightly once again.

What emerged out of this dark age was a renewed church, one purified and repristinated, now having repented of its worldly sin. This marks the beginning of the High Middle Ages, a time the Church reemerges from its cloistered, monastic “hibernation.” It is now ready to reengage the world around it, a world freed from the grip of the pagan mindset.

The 13th century thus gave way to the likes of St. Francis of Assisi, whose engagement with nature and the world reflected this renewed purity, one more closely reflective of our Christ’s purity and simplicity. The deep pessimism of the Dark Ages was first “forgotten,” and transmogrified or converted into something both life-affirming and beautiful.

Once again life and nature were infused with the bright light of God’s Truth. Eyes that previously witnessed only distortion were reopened to see a new innocence, a purer, more refined, crystal-clear vision of reality, restoring in effect what God had so created it.

In Malachi, as I say, it is said that when the Messiah comes, he will come as a refiner’s fire, refining and purifying all of life. He will bring the bright, cleansing lucidity of God’s creative and creating love, shining forth as in the brilliance of a thousand now duly liberated suns.

The task of Advent, thus, as we vigilantly await Jesus’ arrival, is to reorient our minds and spirits away from the dulled distortions of the dulled world around us to capture in purity and simplicity the Truth of who God is and the Truth God intends for all Creation. Amen.