(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on December 6, 2015)
There are so many times we wonder where God is, and why God hasn’t acted.
Tragedies like San Bernardino can prompt those feelings. Cancer can too. Loss of job, accidents, violent acts, not being able to afford school or a home or food…there are many times we wonder where God is, and why God hasn’t acted.
This season of Advent was created for these times. I didn’t grow up in a church that followed the seasons of the church year, as many liturgical churches do. It’s pretty ironic that I learned about the season of Advent here, at a Quaker church, which historically is pretty opposed to ritual and doing things by rote. But ironic or not, this is where I learned about it, and I’ve come to believe it is important for us to have times where we sit with our longing for God to make things right.
Over the years, we’ve discovered that this season of Advent is difficult for some people. There is the very real and legitimate desire to focus on the joy of Christmas, and with our society pushing our celebrations of Christmas earlier and earlier, taking time through December to focus on waiting and longing, to take time to embrace the struggle of life seems pretty counter-cultural.
But then we face heartache as a church, as we have in the last couple of weeks; or we are overwhelmed by watching the news, as we have been the last few days, and then embracing this season of waiting and longing doesn’t seem counter-cultural, but rather just what we need.
These verses from the book of Malachi, however, are challenging.
What I want when I’m struggling to see God at work, when I’m longing for God to act to make things right…what I want is reassurance and comfort in God’s presence. Yet here, we get a reminder that has a warning with it. God is going to show up, Malachi says, but who can stand when that occurs? God will come like a refiner’s fire, purifying us. Listen as I read these words from Malachi 3:1-4 [READ]
Is there hope in this kind of God, a God who shows up and refines us, changes us, wrecks us? I wholeheartedly say yes!
But it isn’t easy. Nor, if we’re honest, is it what we wish for very often. Sometimes what we want is a God who always comforts and never challenges. There’s some grain of truth to the critique that Christians today have made God “too friendly”. But honestly, I think the bigger issue is not that we’ve eliminated God’s call to holiness and repentance. I think the bigger issue is that we most often call for repentance of other people.
When we are longing for God to act in our world, to intervene and come against evil, to bring people to their knees in repentance…it’s usually a longing directed at others. We want God to fix and set right those other people who are wrong.
A friend posted something on Facebook this week, combining verses from the Old Testament, that made this sink in for me:
“Therefore says the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel: ‘Ah, I will pour out my wrath on my enemies, and avenge myself on my foes!'”
<<Haha- yeah! Get ’em, get ’em all>>
“I will turn my hand against you; I will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove all your alloy.”
<<Wait, what? No. That’s not how this is supposed to work.>>
But Malachi reminds us God’s call to repentance isn’t a weapon we use to bring others in line; instead, it is God’s gift to us to help us see our selfishness and even hatred. God comes to purge us of our wrong desires, as we saw in our series exploring the letter of James. God’s presence in our lives, when we truly experience it, brings to light the parts of ourselves that are most unlike the character of God; and these things are the dross God wants to purge from us.
I’d like to confess something from awhile ago that I hope will make this point.
This is back when our daughter Hayley was 2 or 3. I’ve always said that the part of parenting that I appreciate the most is how unique and different each child is. I really do believe that. But back then, as Hayley was a toddler, it was scary. Everything we’d learned about parenting with the first child seemed pretty irrelevant with the second. She was different, and I didn’t always understand that difference.
She was with me at the church office in Boise one day, and I had her set up in the room right next to my office. The table had all kinds of art supplies: paper, markers, crayons, scissors, glue. And she was making good use of all that stuff, quietly creating.
I still have a picture in my mind of coming back into the room. She was sitting opposite of the door at a round table, and I realized with a sinking feeling in my stomach that she had done what oh-so-many kids do at some point in those preschool years: she’d taken the scissors, reached up, and cut a substantial chunk out of her hair.
On my watch! Hayley had cut her hair while I was in charge! I was embarrassed and frustrated, but immediately jumped into “this is a teachable moment!” mode. I moved immediately to trying to teach her about truth in this moment of wrong-doing.
I needed her to understand very clearly that she had done something wrong. At the time, I worried Hayley didn’t have a conscience. She seemed to just do what she wanted to do. So I put on my sternest “dad voice” and “dad face” and knew that this was the time to make her understand that there was right and wrong in the world, and she had just crossed that line. It was like her entire life hinged on this moment: either I teach her well right now, or she surely was headed for a life of immorality and crime.
I came down hard. I scolded. I don’t remember the words I said, but I laid into her. And she absolutely melted. She sobbed. She was undone.
Now, first I want to finish the story like I have when I’ve told this story before, to sort of get the laugh and make light of the situation. Usually the end of this story is when I describe holding her as she was crying and thinking, “She has a conscience! She has a conscience! Whew! We are saved!”
What’s true about that ending is that I WAS surprised by her reaction. Up to that point, it seems, I had built up in my head this image of Hayley that thought she didn’t care about right and wrong, that she didn’t have a conscience. But when I look back on it now, I was horribly wrong.
Hayley wasn’t a people pleaser. As a toddler, her main focus was not on pleasing us as parents. I, born with a people pleasing mentality, did not understand this concept. As a young dad, I misinterpreted what I was seeing in Hayley, wrongly concluding she didn’t have a conscience. I made it about right and wrong, but the truth was really that she wasn’t always going through life trying to do it my way, and I wrongly made it about conscience.
What I really haven’t told people before is the God-moment that happened to me through this experience.
It was an experience with God that was very much like what Malachi describes, an experience where God’s presence was like a refining fire, where I was challenged and convicted. It was like God said to me, “How could you misunderstand your daughter so greatly?” How did I miss her incredibly sensitive nature, just because it wasn’t wrapped in a “dad-pleasing” package? Why did I feel the need to “break her”?
I’m guessing you can see why I’m choosing to share this today. I was so blinded by my own personality and way of looking at the world that when unique Hayley came along, I looked for opportunities to bring “truth” and “conviction” to her. I believed what she needed from God was to be brought to repentance, and took full advantage of a moment of crisis to “help God out”. I wanted God to change her, fix her, make her more in my image.
But this is not what God does. This is not how God purifies and heals. God’s presence doesn’t conform others to OUR image. God’s presence refines us to be made in GOD’s image.
The real work of God’s presence on that day long ago was not in Hayley, but in me, calling out my wrong view of my daughter and challenging my lack of love and sympathy for her in that moment.
Some 15 years later, I can clearly see where I went wrong.
The challenge is in the moment, isn’t it? How do I move away from wanting repentance for others, and allow God to work on me, refine and remake me? How do I cry out against the evil and injustice in the world that break my heart, but not just make God my “tool” to fix those bad other people?
“If only those other people could see how they are wrong!” Our grief and our rage so often get channeled into despising those who think differently. I’m so weary over the last several months, over so many different issues, so weary of how we are finding it more and more difficult to understand and be in relationship with those who think differently. So weary of how easily we proclaim what is right and just, what God approves of, what God should do and is going to do.
I see my own tendency to do this. I see my selfishness in believing God wants it my way. But the truth God reveals through Malachi, the truth of this Advent season is that we as individuals and we as a global community of humanity need God to come near and refine us, sift us, remake us from the inside out!
To make sure that I am not misheard: I don’t mean that we can’t ever call out injustice when we see it. I don’t mean that we always stay silent and only allow God to work on me. We are invited to be God’s hands and feet in the world. We are asked to join God’s mission and are called at times like the prophets to speak truth to power. I don’t mean that our faith is only individual and personal and has nothing to speak to politics and society.
What I do take from Malachi is this: God is the change agent, not me. God defines right and wrong, not me. And when God does make God’s presence known, it isn’t just to affirm me and condemn those who think differently than I do. When God makes God’s presence known, the sin and the evil and the selfishness and the pride in me is going to be called out and confronted as well.
And. I. Need. That.
Let me be so bold as to say, we ALL need that. We need God to come near and expose the things in our lives that are destructive to us, the things that are weaknesses which will cause us to collapse under pressure. We need God to refine us, even when it hurts, and make us more into who we were created to be.
So many things in life point to how things are better and stronger if they are placed under stress and purified. We prune fruit trees, removing unneeded branches and even removing some of the blossoms, so that what remains is healthier. Athletes trust coaches to put them through stressful workouts and sessions in the weightroom so that when game time comes, they are stronger. Writers edit and cut their own hard-won phrases to make the end result better.
Life with God is no different! One of the reasons I speak so often about God’s unconditional love for us is so that you and I will be able to trust God when God comes near and points out things in our lives that need to change. This does not mean we aren’t acceptable to God until we get our act together. It’s quite different. Because we are so loved and accepted, God comes near to us and points to the things in us that need to be removed so that we can live as we were meant to live.
Sometimes that correction or conviction comes gently, and sometimes it comes with pain and force. But God’s correction is always a sign of God’s acceptance and love for us. God is demonstrating through this correction that we are worthy of being refined for beauty and for use. There is no need to ignore or remove a view of a God who challenges us, corrects us, calls us to repentance. That aspect of God does not go against the God of unconditional love…rather, the fact that God does unconditionally love us is the prerequisite to the transformation God wants to bring in you and me.
There is hope in repentance!
We can welcome God’s presence, not just to change others, but to change ourselves. Too often our lack of willingness to admit our wrong…whether as an individual or a church or a country…too often our lack of willingness to admit our wrong and to be corrected shows our resistance to God’s transformation. Sometimes what it reveals is that we haven’t truly accepted that God loves us not based on what we do or how we believe. Sometimes it reveals our fear that if we admit we were wrong, then we will be rejected by God.
I’ve been choosing over the last few months to make it a discipline, a practice, to ask God to reveal things in me that need to change. I’ve sometimes used Psalm 139: 23-24; “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
God’s transforming work in us is the clearest sign of God’s love for us that there is. May we welcome it. May we let tragedy break our hearts, and open us to the work God wants to do in us. May we allow God to be the center, rather than our own view of truth. May we ask God to sit over us and purify us, even when it hurts.