My family bought a new Christmas tree this year. Oh, I imagine most of you good New Englanders buy a new, live tree each year but I – a transplant from New York City – must confess to committing a sin almost on par to being a Yankees fan; I have an artificial Christmas tree. We’ve had one for many years and I’m the one who convinced my wife that it’s the way to go – please don’t punish Rachel for my wrongdoings.
Anyway, we’ve have one for about fifteen years or so and decided that this was the year to replace it with a new one. So, we went shopping and searching through the forests of Home Depot. I was looking for a pre-wired tree since I was tired of fighting with tangled lights; I also wanted something with lots of options, different colors and patterns of lights so I could change them according to my mood.
I found just what I was looking for: the 7.5 ft. 1-Plug Aspen fir Artificial Christmas Tree with RGB Lights ahs 500 lights with 6 different light functions and seemingly endless combinations of colors. We can have everything from steady white lights or twinkling multi-colored lights. I can even set all of the lights to purple and pretend that it’s an Advent tree so I don’t break my own prohibitions about celebrating Christmas before December 25. The tree is able to achieve all of this because the lights are all LEDs.
Shortly after we firsts set up the tree, one of our children said “I can hear the lights changing.” My wife and I didn’t understand what she was saying – we couldn’t hear anything. Everyone got silent and we listened harder (if that’s even a thing); still we heard nothing.
A few days later, I was home alone and began to hear a quiet chirping. Some time later, Rachel admitted she could hear it as well. All of the sudden, we experienced whatever right combination of light pattern and silence and it the sound of the lights became obvious to us. Whatever distractions had previously existed had gone away.
Not much is known about the prophet Malachi. Unlike other prophets, there isn’t much of a backstory in the writings; no mention of where the prophet was born or lived or how they were called by God. In fact, the name “Malachi” means “my messenger” and may only have been ascribed to the prophet because of these writings.
However, it’s believed that Malachi wrote in the fifth century BCE, sometime after the completion of the new Temple in 515. Malachi’s book is the last of the prophetic writings – in Christian Bibles, it is the last book of the Old Testament. While many of the other prophets are addressing an audience in the midst of conflict, turmoil, and worry , the people Malachi addresses are in a relatively good position. Other prophets have written for a nation in the midst of war, or people who are being conquered or scattered from their homeland, or followers watching their faith come under attack and their Temple destroyed. Malachi’s audience is in a relative stable place and time. Yet, they are not satisfied because other prophets seemed to promised more extravagance, an ideal age of riches and the envy of others.
The people continue to turn away from God, blaming the Creator for not upholding the covenant with the people. But Malachi turns that around and says it’s the people who have broken promises; the people who are not holding up their end of the relationship.
For centuries, Christians have used this reading – and others from the Hebrew prophets – to point towards Jesus. It’s easy to think that, especially when we decide to read these selections during Advent. I’m always a bit reluctant to do so, for a couple of reasons. First, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that we Christians are the only ones who have gotten it right; that we saw the signs of the coming Messiah in the texts and if the Jewish people missed it then that’s on them. Techniques and beliefs like that have been used to fuel anti-Semitism for decades.
But also, the picture that’s painted isn’t one that shows me Jesus. Yes, there are certainly characteristics and behaviors that can be applied to the Christian Savior. I do believe that following Christ will refine and purify us of that which makes us impure. However, some of the imagery that surrounds the metaphors of smelter and refiner doesn’t fit the Messiah I have come to know.
Jesus did not come as One who violently changes us into who we should be. As Melina Quivik writes “Jesus does not refine us as in a fire. Jesus used such imagery, but he did not himself enact it. He died and rose for us; he did not melt us down.” The people then -and even many Christians now – wait for a warrior Messiah who will destroy all that is against their message and then reward their loyalty with riches and power. But when Jesus shows up, it’s not as a fighter astride a horse or a king upon a lavish throne. It’s as a baby, born to poor migrant parents. As the child grows, he lives a life of extravagant love, reaching out to those on the margins and preaching a peace based on sacrifice and equality, not conquest and oppression; a world for where all are fed and cared for and all are made whole and pure through love, where our imperfections are removed by doing what Jesus did and even greater works than that.
We cannot pretend that our imperfections don’t exist. We are tempted by selfishness, we’re hampered by despair, we feel the pull towards falling into camps of “us vs. them.” But through it all, God continues to call out to us, inviting us back home to the loving bosom of our Creator as we are called to co-create the world that God intended for all of us.
Just like the chirping of the lights on my tree, God’s voice is there but we just can’t hear it. Our imperfections and our distractions drown out God’s voice. But if we can take the time, make the effort to be with God in prayer and meditation, to shut out the rest of the world for just a little while and open our minds and our hearts to God – our imperfections and doubts will melt away.
Once I heard the sound of the lights changing, I haven’t been able to unhear it. There are now times when the lights are all that I hear. As we spend more time focusing on God and ignoring the distractions of our lives and our world, God’s voice will become louder and more obvious.
So, as I’m being bombarded by commercials telling me to buy more toys for my children and to treat myself with extravagance, I’ll set the lights on the tree to purple to remember Advent. When we gather over these next couple of weeks to tell the Nativity story, I’ll remember that – even though we’ve been there, we’re not quite there yet. Throughout this season we’ll seek to remove the distractions and the imperfections to see the peace, love and joy that God has already granted us, even as we pray with hope for a better world to come. Amen.