Some of us, when we are preparing to host company, look around our houses and see . . . a pile of bills and old newspapers on the dining room table, coats strewn on the couch, unmade beds, dirty dishes piled in the sink, smudges on the wall by the light switch, dust on the bookcases. So we run around filing those bills, recycling the newspapers, changing all the sheets on the guest beds, dusting and sweeping and vacuuming and scrubbing, cooking fancy recipes, setting out the nice towels. And when the guests arrive, they have no idea of the transformation that has taken place to make the house look its best.
This is how we can prepare for God’s arrival, except the cleanup is internal. Malachi, who wrote centuries before Jesus was born, talks about the coming of God’s messenger as being like going through a refiner’s fire to burn off all our impurities. That sounds painful. Or being scoured with fuller’s soap until we are completely clean. Fuller’s soap is like getting doused in bleach. It’s gonna hurt. And you will be super clean afterward.
So when we are preparing the way for God to show up in us, we take a look at our soul, at how we treat people, how we interact with our neighbor, how we move through the community. Maybe we work through a Twelve-step program, taking inventory of the harm we have caused, asking for forgiveness, making amends wherever possible. This is the fuller’s soap of the soul.
God’s messenger is coming, says Malachi. Get ready. Prepare the way. Some Christians say Malachi is foretelling John the Baptist, or Jesus. Malachi was writing centuries earlier and may not have had them in mind at all. God has lots of messengers. It could be the angel Gabriel, whom we see talking with John’s father Zechariah in the temple.
So let’s turn to Zechariah now. He and his wife Elizabeth are described as “righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of God. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years” (Luke 1:6-7). Zechariah is a priest, taking his turn serving in the Temple in Jerusalem. He follows all the rules. In theory he is a man of great faith, but when he encounters the angel Gabriel—God’s messenger—in the inner sanctum, he doesn’t believe the good news that he and his wife will have a son after all this time.
Perhaps he is so steeped in the way things have always been that he can no longer even imagine anything else. Perhaps he has given up hope, resigned himself to a quiet life of service and following the rules.
We are all accustomed to a certain amount of following the rules. Rules of the road. Drive on the right side, at least in this country. Stop at red lights, go at green lights. Get on the bus through the front door, pay your fare, go sit down, keep your mask on. Following the rules makes traffic and driving even possible.
If you’re a rule follower, anything that deviates from the rules can really rock your universe. The angel Gabriel does that to Zechariah. Forget about the old life you had, says Gabriel. God is doing a new thing in you—yes, you, old man, and your old-woman wife Elizabeth. People may be ready to discard you, let you toddle off into old age. But God has other plans. And because you didn’t believe it, you get to prepare for this new thing by being silent until it happens.
Zechariah then has at least nine months to contemplate all of this in silence. (And possibly in deafness as well—people keep signing to him as if he can’t hear them, although the text just says he can’t speak.) Imagine having months on your own to consider how your life is changing. Oh, that’s right: that’s what we’ve been doing since March 2020. We’ve had to withdraw from the old ways of doing things, isolate in our homes, be extra careful about how we interact with others, who those others are, whether they’re vaccinated or not, whether they wear their masks or not, etc. We’ve had to really reexamine who we are, how we are, and what we do. People who used to work low-paying restaurant jobs are not coming back to them when they have to deal with abuse from customers who refuse to wear masks and the like. Suddenly life is too short and too precious to put up with such behavior. People are reinventing themselves, reinventing their lives, rethinking everything in this liminal time. We are open to God doing a new thing in us, because the old things don’t work anymore.
So Zechariah is in a liminal time, just as we are. And in that time he sees that God is doing a new thing in his and Elizabeth’s lives. God is making them not just a couple but a family. At last. God is trusting them to raise God’s messenger who will prepare the world for the coming of the Messiah, the anointed one, the savior.
After all those months of silence and isolation, Zechariah bursts forth with this hymn of praise and thanksgiving that we read today. What joy is in his words! What hope! What love—love for God, and love for this brand-new miracle baby who is to be called John, which means “God’s gift” or “God is gracious.” That sounds like Christmas right there: God’s gift, a miracle baby who will change the world.
Perhaps you noticed how many times Zechariah references salvation, savior, redemption, and rescue in this speech. I count five times that he uses these words. He praises God for rescuing the people from their enemies, from all who hate them. And then he turns and blesses this child, “who will go before God to prepare God’s ways,” to teach people about salvation through the forgiveness of sins. What is the end goal of all this salvation? It is “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, / to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Peace. We lit the candle of peace today. Peace seems more elusive than ever. In Zechariah’s day, peace meant freedom from oppression by the Romans, freedom to worship without fear.
What does peace mean in our day? Last week we talked about what a safe Seattle would look like: housing for everyone so no one has to live on the streets; food, health care, work worth doing, justice, an end to racism and homophobia. These are what bring peace to our society as well.
But I’m going back to that image of fuller’s soap of the soul, cleansing our own internal landscape to prepare the way for God to be born in us. We can cultivate peace in our own souls. In the poem “First Snow,” Mary Oliver writes of the peace she experiences at the first snow of the season, when everything looks new and clean.
glitter like castles
of ribbons, the broad fields
smolder with light, a passing
heaped with shining hills”
[Mary Oliver, Devotions (New York: Penguin Press, 2017), 371].
What great images. Such snow makes us step out of the ordinary and ask questions such as “why, how, / whence such beauty and what / the meaning.” Perhaps, like Zechariah, Mary Oliver is shaken out of the usual path and challenged to experience the world in a new way. She questions everything, and there is only the snow itself for an answer. And somehow that is indeed an answer of sorts.
So we practice peace. When we are stressed, we take breaks, go for a walk, pick up a fir cone and just contemplate it for five minutes, let it take our thoughts wherever it will. I read something recently that said meditation is one of the components that help us live longer and stay healthier. We detach from all the hustle-bustle and just be for a bit.
It’s hard for some of us to detach from all the busyness of the holidays. In Unplug the Christmas Machine, there is this Christmas Pledge:
Believing in the beauty and simplicity of Christmas, I commit myself to the following;
How would your Christmas be different if you committed to such a pledge? Some of us make ourselves frantic trying to live up to some image of the perfect Christmas. We knock ourselves out and then feel not peaceful but exhausted.
Prepare the way for the Christ Child to be born in your heart this year. Don’t let that baby get lost in all the gift wrap. Practice taking breaks, meditating, just being. Breathe. Consider what peacemaking you can do in your relationships and your community. Being frantic and exhausted is not how we cultivate peace—in our own souls or in our families. A good scrub with fuller’s soap for the soul might be more helpful. And hold onto that image of Zechariah emerging from his liminal time of silence and waiting. What joy he describes: what good news for a world hungry for God’s transforming peace. Amen.