Malachi 3: 1-4; Luke 2: 22-40
On a New Year’s Eve like this, many of us take into account the year that is about to conclude. Some may say “Good riddance!” to 2017 as they place their hopes in 2018. New Years’ Resolutions came about when people wanted to shake old habits and start new ones. To do that, there needs to be a break; a clean break. Our souls, like clothes, get dirty. “Jesus’ arrival on Earth is described as being ‘like a refiner’s fire, and like fuller’s soap. Jesus, like the soap used by the launderer’s of antiquity to clean and whiten clothes, was coming to purify people and cleanse them of sin.’” We once had church members who owned a cleaning shop. I remember how my heart sank as a needlepoint cloth Mary Ann had made got ink spilled on it. I called Linda Abbott, the cleaner. “Don’t try to take it out yourself. Bring it to me,” she said. Four days later I went to pick it up. Gone! The ink stain was gone! How amazing are fullers and dry cleaners! That’s the way we want our soul to enter a New Year: clean! These days we use various enzyme detergents, bleach, and other chemicals to make things clean, or to make dull white garments white again. They start fresh! As I showed the boys and girls, we often use antibacterial soap to wash germs from our hands. If you have been on a cruise lately, you’ll notice that every time you enter a dining room, an attendant or a machine squirts disinfectant on your hands. Cruise personnel and passengers hate the Norovirus! The jug of water I showed the children said it was “purified.” Purifying takes something not clean and makes it clean. The prophets of old used a more frightening image, ones that revivalist preacher sometimes drew out and used: fire! Exceedingly hot fire would be used to separate the pure gold from the debris to be discarded. The old term for that material was “dross.” Listen to one verse of the hymn “How Firm a Foundation.” “When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie, my grace all sufficient shall be thy supply. The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.” We want our dross to drop away and our gold to be purified! This is the day for our spiritual fire; the day when we want God’s powerful word to convict us, and then to convince us to leave behind the destructive habits and begin to take up new ones. The spiritual flames might drive you to apologize for wrongs you have done to others, to show true remorse, then to make amends. The flames might let you leave regrets behind and work to mend some fences. The flames might encourage you to build a bridge to others where an earlier bridge had been burned down. What might God want you to do, so that you are not carrying sin, and filth, and decay, and infection into the next year?
In our world there are sadly many 2017 stories that point to corruption. Politics is such an area. But then there were also stories of powerful men taking advantage of women. There were stories of children, youth, and adults bullying others, which are coercive tactics. Even church institutions have not been spared corruption stories. Carrying such tactics into a new year does not give us the chance to come clean with others or with God. Coming clean—sometimes called confession—is good for relationships and good for your soul! If you can believe it, the prophets of old were crying out to those who could hear them about corruption in the priesthood! Of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, named after the twelve sons of Jacob, one son—Levi—was given charge of the priesthood. Through the line, priests would teach priests and carry on the tradition. But Malachi saw problems and addressed them head on. R. Lansing Hicks, who was a Professor at the Yale Divinity School, once wrote this about Malachi:
“One central theme dominates Malachi’s thought: fidelity to the Lord’s covenant and its teachings. From this standpoint he both condemns the priests for corrupting worship and misleading the people.” Malachi said this of the priests in chapter 3, verse 3: “For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, till they present right offerings to the Lord.” Fidelity to God and to one another is vital according to Scripture. That could be a cornerstone of our new beginning in 2018!
For Jews, like Mary, and Joseph, and Jesus, purity was practiced all the time. Foods, now called Kosher, had to prepared a certain way, and others foods were to be avoided. As faithful Jews made their way to Jerusalem for special days, they were instructed to first take part in purification rituals. There were special pools of water, almost like a baptistery, but they were called mikvahs. Remember what Luke said in chapter 2, verse 22: “And when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.” Such purification would occur before holy days, such as Yom Kippur, known as the “Day of Atonement” when once a year people would come to the Temple to pay for the sins they had committed during the past year. Can you imagine? Saving up your sins for a year? Purification and the atonement ritual allowed for a fresh start in the new year. This is such a time for us as we move from 2017 to 2018! What ritual can we go through today? If you have been baptized already, the Holy Spirit dwells in you, and if you have invited Jesus into your heart, he is with you too! But here is something each of us individually can do today! We have a way to make a fresh start, to purify our souls.
If you repent of sins that still are lingering in your life—ones that had a direct impact on your 2017, then this is the time to acknowledge those and to have a new beginning. The ritual, practiced by Jews and Christian, includes these steps:
- Realization of your wrongs
- Remorse for those wrong
- Repentance from those wrongs
- Restitution for those wrongs as appropriate
- Reconciliation with those you have wronged.
Today I invite you to practice those steps:
realization, remorse, repentance, restitution,
and reconciliation. It can restore your relationship
with God and with others.
Jeffrey A. Sumner January 31, 2017