Some thoughts on the readings for Advent 2 (Malachi 3.1-4 and Luke 3.1-6)
Judgement and salvation – two sides of the same coin.
Throughout the Old Testament prophetic tradition is the notion of ‘The Day of the Lord’ – in today’s first reading, it’s ‘The Day of his Coming’ (and I imagine we’re all hearing those words to Handel’s music, just as we do the words from Isaiah quoted in today’s gospel). The Day of the Lord was both a message of hope – that there would come a time when God would intervene and save his chosen people from the various nations and races that had persecuted them – and a warning – that when the Day came, everyone would be judged, and that included God’s people themselves. Their birth-right, their national identity, their history, would not protect them if their own behaviour was just as worthy of judgement, condemnation and punishment as the behaviour of their oppressors.
Equally, within the tradition of the Day of the Lord is contained the possibility that God’s love and care can be extended far beyond the confines of the chosen people. Isaiah, in particular, contains many oracles that hint at the eventual ingathering of the nations, drawn by the love and power of God, and converging on the ‘Holy Mountain’.
But our two readings today are about more than judgement and salvation. They are about transformation. We may look on the image of the refiners’ fire and equate it to the fires of hell; we may think of it as a means of punishment, of destruction. But the fire here is not one of punishment, but of purification, it is the purging of everything that is unworthy of God, and unworthy of who we really are, created in his image. It is the liberation of all that is good in us, it is our transformation from unwieldy lumps of rock to pure and precious gold. And God, the master-refiner, is the only one who can truly see within us, through all the stuff that gets in the way, and help us to become who we were always meant to be.
This is God’s judgement. It’s devastating, but it’s life-giving. At present we are people of dross and gold, but God longs to burn away all our impurities and enable us to shine. We are fields of wheat and weeds, and God longs for the time when he can pull up and destroy everything about us that will never be fruitful. This is his judgement. And this is his salvation. Perhaps they are not two sides of the same coin, but in fact one in the same thing. Judgement and salvation together are the transformation that only God can achieve.
Who can stand the day of his coming? Well, plainly nobody can. The idea of standing tall and proud while we are transformed so wonderfully is absurd. We may kneel, or fall, we may be tossed about and overwhelmed, but if we try to stand on our own two feet, resilient and strong, self-reliant and in control, then we cannot possibly embrace the judgement, salvation and transformation that God longs to achieve in us. We cannot stand in the face of this process. And it’s OK that we can’t.
In the Isaiah passage quoted in Luke’s gospel we also see transformation at work, but it is no longer the personal transformation of our souls, it is the transformation of the whole of creation, it’s almost a re-creation of the whole earth, a re-alignment of tectonic plates, with mountains sinking into the earth’s crust and valleys rising up in response, so that the winding roads which previously picked their way through the rise and fall of the landscape can now run straight.
It’s a metaphor, of course it is. There is nothing wrong with hills, or valleys, or indeed of roads with corners. But the transformation of the landscape is a global picture of the transformative power of God, the power to re-create, to re-form a world in which nothing can get in the way of God’s self-communication to his world. There are no barriers, nothing blocking our view of God, nothing that can stand in the way of God coming to us. His path is straight, and his purpose is absolute.
We live in a complex world. Our life’s journeys are full of twists and turns, of uphill struggles, and descents, often into the valley of the shadow of death. Even as we look out over the flat fenland fields (and that passage always makes me think of the road between Earith and Sutton, on the way of Ely), we may wish, sometimes, that our journey of life were a little more like that. Few distractions, few gear changes, few challenges, nothing unexpected, because we can see for miles. A journey in which we can clearly see our destination and head towards it, just as we can see the Cathedral at Ely on the horizon when we are still miles away from it.
But there is a great deal of transforming to be done before that time. There is much in us, as well as in the metaphorical landscape, that blocks our view of God, or that blocks other people’s view of God. There is much twisting and turning in our own journey of faith, and there is much dross mingled with our gold. We are in dire need of transformation, all of us, and this is a time of year when we’re encouraged to admit that.
But rather than write off this transformation as merely a future moment, promised long ago but yet to be fulfilled, and pinning our hopes on this future ‘Day of the Lord’, however painful it may be fore us, might we instead look for the signs that just like the days of creation, the day of the Lord is a long, long, process, and the judgement and transformation are not just for the future, but are happening right now, if we are willing to submit to them? Every time we meet together as God’s people we bring before him our sins, and we ask him to purify our hearts and lives. We bring before him the complexity of our lives and ask him to show us a path through it all.
God is at work transforming us, and transforming this world right now. All around us there are hints and glimpses of this process. Even as we look towards its ultimate completion, we can give thanks for the fact that God’s work of judgement and salvation is well under way, and that we are very much part of it – just as much as Malachi, as Isaiah, as Luke, and as John the Baptist were in their own day and in their own way.