Malachi 3:1-4          Canticle 16              Philippians 1:3-11                   Luke 3:1-6

It’s the 2nd Sunday of Advent.  The Messiah is coming!  Today we hear the prophets who remind us that they knew it all along.  A savior is coming who will change everything – change our society, change our justice, change our very natures – into the likeness of God.  They bellow and holler and rant, letting us know that the Lord is coming and He’s going to straighten this mess out.

It’s a little scary, isn’t it?  By doing the very best we can, fighting the hardest fight we can muster every day, we have built our life.  It may, or may not, be perfect but again, it was about the best we could do, and there are parts that are beautiful.  And Malachi and John are here to tell you that the wrath of God will flamethrower it all away because it’s just not good enough. Last week we heard the apocalypse was coming.  This week, we are warned to get right or face the worst of consequences. 

Perhaps when you hear that, your heart sinks.  Mine does; I am broken, and this holy mess of my life WAS the best I could do, at least most of the time.   Maybe the mess of your life is the best you could do, but you’re broken too.   And we all know that – we’ve heard enough times in church that we’re broken, that the church is a hospital for sinners and not a museum for saints. And that is entirely true and theologically sound.  We ARE sinners in need of a Savior.

So today I come to you, to say that perhaps the church has failed you in that teaching.  Not because it isn’t true, but because we only taught you half the tale. 

Here’s the rest of the story.

Have you ever heard of the Japanese art of kintsugi?   The word itself means ‘golden joinery’.  In Japan it became a practice to take a broken piece of pottery, a plate or bowl that was cracked, for example, and use a lacquer mixed with powdered gold or silver to glue the pieces back together.  The point of the repair was to make it highly visible – to have a seam or patch of gold showing on the plate, that would be there until the whole piece crumbles into dust entirely.  The break becomes part of the history of the object; not a flaw to hide, but a success to celebrate.    Allegedly, the golden seam becomes the strongest part of the pottery – that plate or bowl will break again eventually as they all do, but it is likely to break in a different place, because the metal-laced lacquer has made it tougher where it broke before.

There are several types of kintsugi – if the pottery is in pieces, the artist can join seam lines with a thick gold band, to highlight the cracks.  If a shard is missing, the artist may make a replacement piece out of the golden lacquer, so that there is a section of the pottery that is now fully gold instead of clay.  If the missing chunk is too big for that, the artist can take a bit of pottery from different pot altogether and carefully shape it to fit the gap, again gluing it in with golden seams, to make a patchwork repair. It creates art that is often more beautiful than the original, undamaged piece – it became a craze for a while, so that people deliberately broke pottery to add gold seams and patches.

The beauty of kintsugi lies in the repairs themselves.  It is NOT the beauty of brokenness; the broken pieces themselves frequently aren’t all that interesting.   The contrast between the broken pottery and the lines of gilding is what makes the piece. It’s the skill with which the artist puts them together again, to make a whole that is seamed and scabbed with gold. 

In the church, we have taught you that we are all sinners in need of a savior.  We are all messes, broken, maybe desperately broken.  

What we sometimes forget is to then teach you that God makes His repairs by kintsugi.

The day of the Lord is coming, says Malachi.  God will come like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap – images that may not mean much to us in this day and age.  A refiner’s fire would be a white-hot, bellows driven fire in a forge, where superheated metal is hammered to force out and burn away the impurities.  Fuller’s soap in a harsh lye soap, that was – judiciously - used for cleaning because it was strong enough to both bleach the fabric and burn the washerwoman.   So the Malachi reading is all about how God is coming with fire in one hand and caustic in the other, to burn away our wickedness.  No wonder Malachi says ‘who can stand when He appears?’  

But when St. Paul wrote to the church at Philippi he was much gentler.   Paul wrote from prison in Rome, where he was awaiting his sentence.  Scholars think the epistle was written around 62 AD, which would put it around 10 years after Paul’s visit to Philippi, and about 2 years before the Romans finally beheaded him.  It is a softer prophecy – “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”   Notice that Paul didn’t tell the church that we are fine just the way we are.  Nor did he tell us that Christ would return to blast us all from the face of the earth.   Instead, St. Paul tells us that God will tend and improve us.     

With all due respect to the prophet Malachi, I think that God means to save us from our sins and brokenness, not pound us flat for them.  If that isn’t the case, then the Messiah came for nothing – we are still hopeless messes that cannot save ourselves.  But - if a loving God intends good for us, how is it that we are seamed and scabbed at all, even if the scabs are golden?

I don’t believe that God sends grief and pain to his children.  I don’t believe that the God that loves us intends to drive us into Heaven through fear.  I don’t believe that broken lives, broken homes, or broken relationships are somehow the Lord’s chastisement because of that time I lost my temper, or you said a four-letter word, or he or she told a lie because they were hoping it would work out better than the truth.  I just don’t believe that God WANTS us to suffer punishment, or He would not have sent Jesus.

Instead, I believe that God redeems all those things.   Grief, pain, fear, and loss.   Anger, anxiety, lies, or faithlessness.  All the weakness and meanness that humans inflict on each other, and all the meanness that the world sends even without a human agent – God takes all that broken stuff and redeems it with repairs shot through with gold. 

You will find in the history of the church, the concept of the imago Dei – The image or likeness of God.  Theologians have argued for centuries over what that means generating a massive volume of work to consult on their opinions, and I will bore you with very little of it. 

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