Sermon of the Week
On the Way to Christmas: Prepare the Way
Keywords: Flannery O’Connor, Ruby Turpin, Refining, Advent, Purification, Grace.
We’re on the way to Christmas.
Last week we embarked on the journey of Advent,
this season of watching and waiting.
We lit the first candle,
and we read biblical passages that propelled us into the future
and we talked about apocalypse, the unveiling of God’s coming again.
Today, our reading sends us in the opposite direction.
On the second Sunday of Advent,
we are pulled into the distant past
and we hear the words of the ancient prophet, Malachi.
Malachi was a harbinger.
The bible likes people like that:
people who help us make sense of the present and to get ready for the future.
The Story of John the Baptist is like that, also,
and these two passages go really well together,
because John picks up where Malachi left off,
which is one reason we always turn to John the Baptist
on the Second Sunday of Advent.
But this year, let us consider Malachi a bit more closely.
Malachi tells us about someone who is coming “to prepare the way for the Lord.”
This messenger, Malachi says, will purify people’s hearts.
God is sending an emissary
who comes intending to cleanse your souls.
It all seems a bit presumptuous, doesn’t it?
In the midst of our pre-Christmas hustle and bustle,
the church trots out some primitive prophet
who promises us an Advent scrub-down.
Is that really what we need right now?
You would think that the lectionary
could come up with a few encouraging words at this time—
assuring us that we will make it through another Christmas,
instead of cheekily suggesting that
before God arrives, we need a bath.
One of my closest pastor mentors, Mark Ramsey,
used to read a lot of Flannery O’Connor.
I know that, because he’d always be talking about O’Connor’s works in his sermons
You can always learn a lot about your pastors
by the things she preaches about,
the movies he goes to see
the television shows she favors.
Mark loved the Saint Louis Cardinals,
had a soft spot for a sharply-written television thriller
and liked to read literature that helped us understand who we are
and why we do the things we do.
I had to ignore the fact that he was a Cardinal fan.
But all this got me to read a bit of O’Connor myself.
She was a novelist who crafted beautiful stories about her life in the south,
sardonic prose often devoid of sentimentality.
In one of her short stories, “Revelation”
the main character, Mrs. Ruby Turpin,
is the domineering wife of a pig farmer.[i]
On first glance, she’s an upstanding member of her social circle,
Respected in the community.
Educated. Church going.
Most of the time, though, Turpin is mainly concerned
with the social pecking order of her world,
(black and white, rich and poor)
according to an elaborate scale that she is constantly adjusting.
Lots of time on her hands, apparently.
Worst of all, Ruby Turpin actually views her fondness for making distinctions
based on race or class to be a great virtue.
One day she goes to her doctor’s office
and she sits among many people who aren’t like her:
Another…well, whatever, just people who aren’t very much like her,
And, kind of muttering to herself, out loud,
She thanks Jesus that she was made who she was.
Only, not like that. It was more: thank you for not making me like these other people.
Thank you for making me neither black nor poor nor from the wrong part of town.
Her superior air and condescension is noticed in the waiting room.
And one of the other patients—a girl, a student—in her exasperation
listening to Mrs. Turpin name the freaks, the trash, and worse around her
the girl ends up hurling her textbook right at Mrs. Turpin
hitting her square in the forehead.
It was a “human development” textbook.
The student calls her an “old wart-hog from hell”
as she storms out of the waiting room.
Now, this accusation overturns Mrs. Turpin’s world,
for Ruby understands this attack not to be simply the deranged act
of an over-stressed teenager;
rather, she sees this as a message, sent to her by God.
Mrs. Turpin takes it as a sign.
“Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?”
asks the prophet Malachi,
“For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap.”
Both of these images are a little frightening.
A refiner’s fire is the forced-air,
white-hot blaze that melts metallic ore—gold and silver and copper
and brings their impurities to the surface.
Fullers’ soap is the strong, lye-based soap
used to bleach the impurities from cloth.
Fire and soap, says Malachi.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit
that neither of these things seems especially Christmassy,
and yet, we are told that the messenger who comes to prepare us for the Lord
arrives with flames in one hand and a caustic detergent in the other.
She comes to boil off the impurities in our souls
and to apply a coarse scrub brush to our spirits.
Dove body wash or Woolite delicate laundry Detergent, Malachi is not.
Neither, to be fair, is John the Baptist,
with his wild clothes and straggly beard,
his honey and his fiery message:
wheat and chaff,
coming to baptize with holy spirit and with fire.
Why, then, have liturgists picked these texts for our hearing on this day?
Why this concern for purification as we head toward Christmas?
On a hygienic level,
we all understand the need to be clean.
At dinner times, growing up,
we would be sent to the washroom
with the phrase, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.”
A friend with a newborn recently reported to me
that the phrase he often tells his other children these days is,
“You need to wash your hands before you may hold the baby.”
I had a doctor’s visit this week, myself,
and I counted seven signs reminding me to wash my hands
and cover my coughs…
which might have been overkill,
if I hadn’t observed at least two people coughing
on their neighbor in the waiting room. Egads.
Generally, we know all of this.
Dutifully, we make regular trips to the sink to clean off grime and germs.
We know that physical cleanliness is important for our communal health,
for our society’s well-being.
Yet, today’s text prods us to take this thought a bit further,
suggesting that this wisdom holds true on a spiritual level, as well.
I wonder: Is there a sense in which we need regular purification for our spirits?
Do our souls need a shower before Christmas?
Perhaps, as we make our way to Bethlehem and the manger this December,
the prophet Malachi is simply reminding us that,
“We need to wash up before we may hold the baby.”
When Ruby Turpin arrives home from the doctor’s office
with a bruise on her forehead,
she stomps out to her shed, picks up a hose,
and begins washing down her pigs with a forceful stream of cold water.
She is angry-angry at God.
What right does God have to suggest that she, upstanding citizen,
is “a warthog from hell”?
As soon as her husband is out of earshot,
Ruby looks to the heavens and growls,
“What did you send me a message like that for?”
“How am I a hog and me both?”
“How am I saved and from hell, too?” she asks.
“How am I saved and from hell, too?”
It is, I think, one of the most profound theological questions
ever posed in American literature.
It is also a question that we know quite well at this time of year.
How can I spend hours trying to make a good Christmas for my children
and then lose my patience with them in an instant?
How can I be out shopping for my beloved, one moment,
and be putting her down the next?
How can I hum Christmas carols and,
at the same time, wish that people would stop droning about “the needy”?
“How am I saved and from hell, too?”
This question testifies to a classic theological formula:
God both loves us and judges us.
Or perhaps more accurately,
because God loves us, God judges us.
That is the deep truth that lies at the heart of Malachi’s prophecy.
Our gracious God so loves us that God’s great desire
is to see us freed from the grime that covers our souls.
God is not saying:
“I refuse to let you come in for a visit until you clean up a bit.”
God is used to having our messy selves around.
Instead, God is saying:
“I am going to help you clean up.
I will help you to throw off the tarnish
that prohibits you from truly experiencing the joy that awaits you this season.”
A whole sub-genre of movies has arisen in recent years
which portray a family making its awkward way
through yet another holiday celebration.
Sometimes it is Thanksgiving,
often it is Christmas;
frequently a girlfriend or boyfriend is being brought home for the first time.
In nearly every one of these movies
the pressures of the holiday gathering opens old family wounds.
Now, you would think that we would run from other people’s holiday stress,
but we don’t;
these movies are quite successful.
Perhaps there is something cathartic
in watching somebody else have a dysfunctional holiday.
Or perhaps these films remind us
that we all carry things into the Christmas season that are less than holy.
We approach our family gatherings and company parties
burdened with old grudges,
hurt feelings and misunderstandings that we simply cannot let go.
In fact, instead of coming clean,
we have secretly nurtured these wounds,
allowing them to coat our souls with gunk.
No wonder God breaks out the fire and the soap.
In my high school,
ninth-grade students were all required to take a basic writing composition class.
There were two teachers who taught these classes:
Ms. Richardson and Mr. Clark.
You had no choice in selecting the instructor-
a computer took care of that bit of God’s providence-
but everyone wanted to get Ms. Richardson.
It wasn’t that the stories about Ms. Richardson were so good;
it was that the tales about Mr. Clark were so horrible.
Clark assigned more detention than any other teacher.
Clark required that you type your papers.
Clark made you memorize seemingly irrelevant words.
Mr. Clark used a medium-point, red, felt-tip pen,
to circle every grammatical error,
every flawed metaphor in your meager paragraphs.
Mr. Clark was rigid.
Mr. Clark was uncompromising.
Writing for Mr. Clark was a painful experience.
Being in Mr. Clark class was a version of teenage hell.
Except for the fact that
by the end of the semester,
what we were producing (while far from brilliant)
was recognizable English prose.
Why does God promise to judge us?
Is it out of some deranged desire to see us dangle over the flames?
No, quite the contrary.
God judges us to save us.
God’s judgment never is the way we think it is
and it rarely is what our culture uses to judge one another
to determine some people unworthy, or unacceptable.
No: God seeks to purge our souls of every gunk and dross
so that we might have life, and life abundant.
At the close of Flannery O’Connor’s story,
Mrs. Turpin has a vision (a revelation)
What she sees is a streak of purple cutting across the sky,
through a FIELD OF FIRE, extending as a bridge to heaven.
And all the souls of the earth are walking up that bridge:
the people she once called “trash,” you know:
the freaks, the lunatics, people of other races and traditions than hers—
and her type…
the responsible, educated, so-called respectable ones—
they’re in back, walking up the bridge as well.
But then she notices something else.
All of the people in the back have a look of SHOCK on their faces.
Because as they get closer to heaven,
all of their virtues,
the things they thought were their virtues,
are being burned away.
As Mrs. Turpin walks back to her house,
she hears the crickets,
but they aren’t making cricket noises.
They are the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field,
and they’re shouting HALLELUJAH![ii]
Sometimes the things that we need purged from our spirits
are precisely those aspects of our personality
that we are most proud of;
even those pieces of us that we consider to be our strengths and our virtues
are at risk when the purifier of souls comes to town.
This is the promise of the season.
The gift of Malachi is to picture for us a God
who lays out fire and soap this Advent,
a God who wants to cleanse us from everything that would prevent us
from standing in awe at the manger.
Why does God do this?
Well, one clue might come from O’Connor’s story.
The name of the girl who throws her book at Ruby Turpin in the doctor’s office?
Her name is “Grace.”
Prepare the way of the Lord, says the one crying out in the wilderness.
Make his paths straight:
For every valley will be filled
and every mountain made low
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
John the Baptist calls this good news.
May our eyes be open to see it.
May it be so.
[i] This O’Connor illustration was often cited in Ramsey’s sermons. For example, in “Sure,” a sermon delivered at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Asheville, North Carolina, on May 10, 2015. It is also cited in the work of the Rev. Scott Black Johnson, who connected it to Malachi in an Advent sermon preached at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. This sermon borrows in places and is particularly indebted to Black Johnson’s work.
[ii] See the short story, “Revelation,” by Flannery O’Connor, in The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor, 1997.