Texts: Malachi 3 1-4 (the refiner's fire); Luke 3 1-18 (John the Baptist)
Today's Scripture readings present us with two Jewish prophets: Malachi, who predicted the coming of a new Elijah to prepare the way of the Lord; and John the Baptist, whom Christians believe was this new Elijah.
Last week, we heard about the miraculous conceptions of both John and his cousin Jesus. In this week's reading, John is now grown. He is preaching in the wilderness, baptizing sinners in the Jordan River, and preparing his followers for both doom and salvation with the imminent arrival of Jesus.
In this sermon, I add another more contemporary Jewish prophet of doom and salvation to the mix, Canada's own Leonard Cohen.
Leonard Cohen, the poet and singer-songwriter from Montreal, is still going strong at 77 years of age. His 2012 album "Old Ideas" is one of the best-reviewed and best-selling music albums of the year. And as is often the case with Cohen, the songs on the album are filled with religious themes.
20 years ago, Cohen released another important album, "The Future," that was also filled with references to the Bible and prophecy. The title track of that 1992 effort reminds me of today's Gospel reading. Like Luke's account of John the Baptist, "The Future" includes violent and disturbing images and a repeated refrain: "When they said repent, repent, I wonder what they meant."
About 10 years ago, when I was still trying to figure out why I had returned to the church, I joined a discussion group at Bellefair United, a church near where I lived in Toronto. Bellefair, which was once home to former Moderator Bruce McLeod, Russell Mitchell-Walker of Eastside United in Regina and Annette Taylor of Calling Lakes Centre, no longer exists. A few years ago, it amalgamated with another nearby church to become Beach United. The former Bellefair building is now a luxury condo, which is a common fate of many city churches these days.
One night, the leader of our discussion group played us a recording of Cohen's "The Future." He said that someday he would love to find a church that would play this song -- with its jarring images of violence, prophecy and repentance -- at a Sunday worship service. I can understand, though, why this is unlikely event. Despite its biblical and prophetic themes, many of us would consider much of the song inappropriate.
On the other hand, today's Gospel reading might also be considered inappropriate by some of us. Like Cohen's "The Future", it is filled with violent and frightening images: "brood of vipers . . . the coming wrath . . the axe at the root of the tree; trees that do not produce good fruit will be thrown into the fire . . . [Jesus] will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn. He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."
These apocalyptic images are part of what John calls the Good News. Cohen's song puts it this way: "I've seen the future, baby. It's murder."
Is this what Jesus' Advent means for us? Is this why we are called to repent -- to avoid the axe and the unquenchable fire? As Malachi wrote in our first reading today: "Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire."
Enough of Advent, you might want to say. Let's get to Christmas already!
Like Cohen's song, I often wonder about the meaning of the call to repent. Repentance involves feeling regret or pain for what one has done. It means turning away from sin. But if one turns away from sin, what does one turn toward?
When repentance is seen less as a turning away from something and more as a turning towards God's light and love, then a connection between repentance and Advent joy leaps out for me.
Repentance might involve turning away from alcohol or other addictions; or away from a neglect of one's duty as a parent or spouse; or away from neglect of one's own health; and so on. All these turnings are a move away from the small self of egotism and towards the Big Self, which acknowledges our dependence upon family, the wider community, and God's Spirit.
The recognition that our ego, with its fears, desires, and preoccupations, is an illusion is at the heart of repentance, I think. And in that recognition lies the deepest joy one can ever find. Whether or not our fears come to pass -- and often they will; whether or not our selfish desires ever get fulfilled -- and often they won't; and whether or not our distractions and preoccupations ever bear fruit -- and usually they won't; there is something larger than us. This is the God who is Love. It is the inner Christ, the Holy Spirit, and God the Father.
Advent joy is not about getting the Christmas presents we most want. It is not about a picture-perfect family moment around the dinner table. It is not the joy of pleasure. Advent joy is one that shines through and leads us beyond the pain of individual and communal existence.
The dire images from the Bible that accompany the call to repent -- wheat and chaff, sheep and goats, pure metal and unrefined ore -- might suggest that only the few who can manage to repent will be saved. However, I think these metaphors apply to everyone. All of us are mixtures of wheat and chaff, metal and raw ore, and so on. Repentance is a process that prepares our hearts for the coming of Christ by burning away some of our selfishness and immaturity.
Repentance does not rely upon our own efforts. Instead, difficult events in our lives turn us towards the light regardless of our intentions. Our defeats as parents, as children, as spouses, as church members, as citizens or as a nation often wrench us away from immature fears or preoccupations and toward the light that shines even in the darkest night -- toward the Love that beats at the heart of all of life.
Repentance is Grace, not work. Repentance might hurt. It might involve axes, wrath, and refining fire. It might burn. But it leaves us freed from our old selves. It leaves us living in the light of the Big Self of God.
The fruit of repentance does sometimes involve work. John the Baptist gives us some examples in our reading from Luke today: sharing our material goods, being honest in our dealings, not bullying innocent people. Once life's many baptisms have turned us around, such ethical behaviour flows freely. Good works are not an attempt to avoid God's punishment; they are a response to the gratitude and joy we feel in being freed by God's judgement and God's love, I believe.
During Advent, we wait and prepare for the coming of Christ, both at Christmas and at the Day of Judgement. For me, the Day of Judgement is not a singular event. It happens over and over again in all of life's baptisms by fire. These are moments of painful judgement in which God's gracious Love shines through and which turn us toward the light of Christ within and beyond us.
Advent is a time to remember this sober but joyous news. Out of the pain of life flows the deepest joy we can ever know -- our union with God. It involves preparing our hearts for Christ by burning away selfish illusions.
To close this sermon, I end with the lyrics of one of the songs from Cohen's 2012 album "Old Ideas." In a prayerful fashion, it echoes the Passion of Jesus the Christ.
Cohen, of course, is Jewish. He has also practiced Buddhism for years. As such, we might be surprised to hear Christian references in his work. But then Malachi, John the Baptist, and Jesus were all Jewish too. Cohen cheekily refers to these facts in his song "The Future" when he sings 'I'm the little Jew who wrote the Bible.'
Well, hardly. But all of the 100 or so mostly anonymous writers who did write the various books of the Old and New Testament over the course of about 1,000 years, were Jewish.
Cohen is a Canadian Jewish poet steeped in the religious culture of his youth and of our times, and one who often incorporates themes from both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Greek New Testament into his work. Here, then, are two stanzas from his 2012 song "Show Me the Place."
Show me the place, where you want your slave to go
Show me the place, I’ve forgotten I don’t know
Show me the place where my head is bending low
Show me the place, where you want your slave to go
Show me the place, help me roll away the stone
Show me the place, I can’t move this thing alone
Show me the place where the Word became a man
Show me the place where the suffering began.
John the Baptist shows us that place. It is Jesus, God's Word become a man. Despite the fact that the path to Jesus involves repentance and hence suffering, it is also the place where we find life's deepest joy.
And so this Advent, we say again . . .
Come, Lord Jesus Come.