ON BEING DIVINE REFLECTIONS
Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
On Sunday, September 26, 1999
at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church
TEXT: Malachi 3: 1-3 and 4:1-3
Some months ago I accompanied my wife Marial on the purchase of a dress and went into the ladies' store where she was making this purchase. I'm often in fear and trepidation, for she always asks me for my opinion on such matters and because she has taste, ignores my opinion. Nevertheless, there I was in this ladies' clothing store and she was shopping and I took a seat. There in front of me was a mother and daughter. Clearly the daughter was trying to do something very important and make a major purchase. I think it was for her prom and graduation. The mother had come with the daughter who was trying on many dresses and I was just sitting minding my own business. The daughter came out in one dress and the mother said, “No, no. That is not acceptable.” She came out with another one on and the mother said, “Oh no, good gracious me. You can't wear that in public.” Then she came out with another one and the mother said, “Oh I don't like the colour; it clashes with your eyes.” Finally the young girl came out in a magnificent red gown and the mother's face lit up and she said, “Oh that is beautiful.”
The girl noticed that there was a pleat on the dress that wasn't just perfect and she said, much to the exasperation of the mother, “No, I'm not going to take it. It's not perfect.” Then the mother spoke immortal words which other mothers should never echo. She said, “Dear, it really doesn't matter because you're going to be in the dark and no one will notice!” To which the young girl replied with equal vigour, “No mother, but I will!”
Shakespeare's Polonius was right: “This above all else, to thine own self be true.”
I couldn't help but think, when I looked at the young girl and her mother, just how important it is in this day and age for us to somehow want to impress others by having the proper image. Andre Agassi, the tennis player, was right when he was trying to sell a camera. The way to describe the age in which we live is, “image is everything.” When you think about it, we spend millions, billions of dollars on our image. We do so on our apparel to make sure everything fits well. We convey the right message as to where our loyalties might be. Young people want to make sure they have the right designer labels in order that they send a message of who and what they hold dear. We spend billions on our appearance, making sure we look right and are always presentable. We spend billions on our apparel and all the things we have around us ? the appendages of our lives, to make sure that we're conveying the right image. We're always trying to impress others. It almost reaches the point of absurdity when we so try to impress others that we cover up our own age. We try and pretend that we are much younger than we really are. Maybe we're not as bad as the woman FranÃ§ois Mauriac described when writing of Greta Garbo In 1941 she was quoted as saying, “I changed the face that God gave me as a child in order that I might produce an ageless miracle for people to worship on a screen.”
So many of us are like that. We're trying to live almost the life of a movie in the assumption that somehow our appearance and faÃ§ade is what is important. That our image is everything and that what people think of us really matters. But it goes deeper than that. This past week I went to one of the new bookstores that has a coffee shop where you can buy croissants and read a paper. (I think I'm now in love! I have found the place where I want to spend most of my time. Bury me outside one of these stores. This is where you will find me when I am not at home.) As I wandered down the book aisles and saw this cornucopia of books and publications, I couldn't help but see how many books are now in the Self-Help section. When I started to read some of them, for I must say that I had not done so until recently, my curiosity was piqued and I was stunned by one thing that I found. There was no mention in these of ethics, or morals, or real obligation to society or to others, and no mention of God. Many of them are superficial. (I haven't read them all of course.) There are statements of how we can be at peace with ourselves, how we can project the right image to others, how we can be powerful people in society and business. All the way, trying to recreate ourselves and recreate our image so we and the world around us are at peace with who we are.
Do not misunderstand me; I'm not saying there is no room for self-improvement, for there always is. I'm not saying that one's appearance does not matter; it's a sign of respect for the people that you're around. But it can become an obsession that image becomes everything and recreating our image becomes our raison d'Ãªtre.
If you look at the story in Malachi today, you will see that the people of Israel were in a similar state of mind that our society is in. Image was everything. They wanted to recreate themselves as a new people with a new image and new ideas. In many ways, it should have been a time of great optimism. Malachi wrote that when the people of Israel were returning from the exile, and if you look in 2nd Isaiah (one of the great books of the return), there was an optimism, an enthusiasm, almost a euphoria in the land. These were going to be great days! The problem was that the dream they'd had, had not become a reality. The dream of a great Jerusalem, had turned into a tiny city. A nation that should have been worshipped on a hill, could barely take ninety years to build its own wall. A land flowing with milk and honey had become full of drought and the people had become irrational and they'd become indifferent and turned on God and wondered why God wasn't doing great things in their midst. So much so that they'd had a crisis of faith and they wanted to re-image themselves, rebuild themselves by virtue not of God's grace, but of their own making and doing. Their priests had become corrupt. They were practising injustice within the land. Immorality was supreme. All the time, though, the people, heard what they wanted to hear: “You can recreate yourself and make yourself into something great; never mind God.”
Malachi, this man who had a limited vocabulary, who was just as his name suggests, a messenger, who was often colourless in his language, but who had the passion of a prophet inspired by God ? an honest man, came into the midst of the people of Israel and said, “Oh no, Israel. You will not recreate yourselves. It is God who will be a refining fire in your midst. If you want a new image in the image of God, then you must maintain your faith in the almighty.”
I want to take a theme that comes from metallurgy, of the refining fire of God on metal. I want to look at two specific themes. The first of which is the process of the re-imaging. In the old pagan customs and traditions there was the belief that somehow we would go through a metamorphosis, that we would go through a process of change that would be sort of a natural thing and that the gods would stand by and even they themselves would go through a process of change along with us. Contrastingly, the Jewish view and the Christian view is not that we change ourselves or that God changes, but that God who is constant, changes us. God is the one who is the refiner. Malachi picks up on this great theme and if you look carefully at it, he is very profound. He uses a word in old English that you would have heard in many hymns ? the dross. He suggests that dross is comprised of the impurities that are burned out of the metal in order that the metal might have its proper shine and sheen. He says to Israel, “Israel, if you will turn back to God, then God will be able to remake you. Remove those impurities and give you once again the lustre and shine that you desire.” You do not do this on your own, but just as fire is something that burns and takes away (as John Calvin says, it is a process whereby we go through the judgement of God), so Malachi is standing before his people and saying, “Look, this is a word of judgement on you, not that you might be condemned, but that you might be changed. God will turn you and remake you.” He says, “Some day God will come in person and do this.”
I've often believed that the great wonder of the book of Malachi is not just its content, but where it is within the scriptures. That it is right before the beginning of the New Testament. I think it is there precisely because it paves the way for the coming of the One who would baptise us with the power of God's spirit. The one who would make us new and redeem us, the one who would change us into the likeness of God and give us the image that we always were meant to have, the image of God, and his name is Jesus Christ.
So the great wonder and power of Malachi is his saying, “One day, if you will wait, O Israel, if you will be obedient and ethical in your behaviour, God himself will remake you.” Such is the power and process of God's refining action on our lives.
What secondly are the properties of this new image? I think there are two from Malachi that stand out. The first is that the people will be just. One of the things I think we're losing in our day and age is the passion for justice. Even in the church it seems that we're almost preoccupied with our own self preservation or making sure that we have the right words and liturgies and are saying the right things, but we lose at times, this sense of the justice of God. One of the reasons why, if anything is in the decline, is because we have lost the boldness of a Malachi. But Malachi didn't talk of justice in some abstract way, he didn't talk about it in terms of changing political institutions and playing with the superficial; rather he believed that justice comes from the proclamation of : “Thus saith the Lord.” The justice of God reigning in the land comes from the just one, and if people in the land don't have a passion for God, how can they have a passion for justice?
The two go hand in hand and Malachi looked at the injustice in his land, he looked at the sorcerers, the perjurers, at those who took away the wages of working people, at those who had taken away the rights of aliens, he looked at those who were oppressing widows and orphans and he said, “You've got to change, if you will first look to God who will change you.” The product of a new image is justice and righteousness. That's what's missing in some of the self-help books. That is the passion that makes us living in this world, for God, in the name of God, for a society for God.
Often we have become like a story I heard from a Sunday School teacher some time ago. She was part of a class where all the teachers were being trained on how to speak properly and teach children. They would tell them a biblical story and would always end with a little phrase such as, “and boys and girls, the moral of the story is this….” After a while the children got bored to death with all these morals of the stories that none of the children understood anyway. There was one teacher, a Mrs. Brown, who didn't use this technique at all. Mrs. Brown had a more lenient way of teaching the Sunday School class, so all the children would go to her class and leave the others. Finally they came to the Director of Christian Enrichment and said, “How come all the children are going to Mrs. Brown's class?” He said that he didn't know but would ask the children. He asked the children, “ Why is it that all of you go to Mrs. Brown's class?” They answered, “We like Mrs. Brown. She has no morals!”
The people of Israel just after the exile, loved their priests and prophets because they had no morals and they wanted to recreate themselves and they couldn't. Malachi said there is only one who can create true justice in the land. One of the signs of this was the way in which particular women were treated in society at that time. There was a terrible problem with divorce (not that Malachi didn't believe there was room for divorce in the same way that Jesus felt that there were grounds), but what was happening was that men who had come back from the exile were simply getting tired of their wives, handing them a certificate and leaving them to live on the streets. Many women were lying in the streets and gutters and alleyways; they had no social network to provide for them. Many had no families to support them; they were the outcasts of society. The priests said nothing and many of the prophets of the age said nothing. There were these women left destitute all because the people had lost their sense of justice and righteousness.
Some years ago in my first congregation in Nova Scotia in Parrsboro I was asked to visit a lady who was in a nursing home and had had no visitors. I went to see her and I didn't know why she was there because she was only in her sixties and yet in the corner of the room was a woman in her knitted gown and her slippers at three in the afternoon. She was quietly knitting and she had a patch over one eye. As I introduced myself to her, as is normal banter, we talked about the weather and what it would be like in the fall and how I was enjoying my new ministry. We were having a lovely conversation. Finally we got to the nitty gritty and I asked this lady why she was there. She said that she had had some years ago an operation for a problem that she'd had on her face. So bad was the problem that they had had to remove her eye. That is why the patch. She removed the patch and showed me the eye socket. Then she said, “When I came home my husband said ”˜I can no longer stand looking at you' and he left.”
That is when we worship the superficial. When we worship the outward image and we lose our sense of the justice of God. It is at moments like this that we need to be changed. We need to be changed by the power of the Almighty, like a refining fire.
There is one last image. I believe that this refining fire produces within us a true spirit of worship. A Harvard church historian, once said that all religions go through three streams. First they start with ethics, then move to theology and end with aesthetics. He said that unless religions continually renew themselves on their moral and ethical basis and on their theological foundation then they will be left with a superficiality of the aesthetic. Such was the case with Israel. All their outward forms were there. All the priests, all the ceremonies, all the pageantry, but no justice or righteousness, no holiness. Malachi comes into the midst of all this and looks at their worship and he knows that for their worship to be transformed first and foremost they must focus their attention on God Almighty.
That is why I believe worship is so important. Not only in praise, not only in the glory of Christ's name, not only the marvelous music and descants and prayers and sacraments, but also because worship is a living reminder of whose we are and in whose name we gather and before whom we are accountable. This, my friends, is a great source of joy and not sorrow. The burden to recreate ourselves is not ours, it is by the grace of God, and every time John Wesley would go into a church he would echo the words that you can see he has written, “refining fire blow through my heart, illuminate my soul.”
It is not our outward image that is important; it is the change of our hearts in the image of God by grace. Amen.