Christmas without John the Baptist’s Advent appearance is like Ebenezer Scrooge without his three ghostly visitors. There’s no Merry Christmas without them! Charles Dickens begins his Christmas Carol feast by serving up a delicious soup of words to describe the old miser before the visitors make their appearances.
He writes, “Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire, secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait, made his eyes red, his thin lips blue, and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice…. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him. No wind blew bitterer than he…”
But this Scrooge dies and is resurrected anew at the hands of his three visitors, those Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. And for the newly reborn Scrooge, Dickens can’t pour out the words fast enough. He has Scrooge laugh, “I don’t know what day of the month it is…I don’t know how long I have been among the Spirits. I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby. Never mind. I don’t care. I’d rather be a baby.”
Scrooge dresses with difficulty, trying to clothe his new found joy. And then, Dickens writes, “He went to church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, and patted children on the head, and questioned beggars…and found that everything could yield him pleasure. He had never dreamed that any walk—that anything—could give him so much happiness.”
The old miser is not simply reformed. He is born anew on Christmas Day because of the coming of those spirits…in the same way John the Baptist now comes to us in these Advent days like the ghost of prophets past, present and future. John is the one to whom God refers when Malachi the prophet says, “Behold, I send My messenger and he will prepare the way before Me.” He is the Elijah, foretold by Malachi at the end of his book: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.”
John the Baptist is God’s messenger preparing the way for God Himself. “And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to His temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, He is coming.” And that’s Jesus. That’s Christmas.
Ugh…then, what’s this? Malachi says of Him, “Who can endure the day of His coming, and who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap.” John the Baptist is a little hard to take, and these words make Jesus sound harder yet! So if John is there on the banks of the Jordan River railing against the people, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Woof! If that’s John, preparing the way, what’s Jesus going to say when He arrives?
But despite our discomfort with this text, it is actually good news! This refining by fire. This purifying by powerful soap. It is good news because it’s about Jesus. It’s about the death of the old and the birth of the new. Good news…but not easy news. There is pain involved in refining and cleansing. There is pain in dying and rising. Scrooge discovered that with his visitors. Not that pain is good…but that in God’s hands it works for our good.
The martyred German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, preached in an Advent sermon in 1928: “It is very remarkable that we face the thought that God is coming, so calmly, whereas previously peoples trembled at the day of God…. We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us…. The coming of God is not only the glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for every one who has a conscience. God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love.”
And in 1928, little did Herr Bonhoeffer and his fellow Germans know what sort of refining fire was soon to come upon them. Still, like Ebenezer Scrooge’s words to his final ghostly visitor, “‘Ghost of the Future!’ he exclaimed, ‘I fear you more than any specter I have seen. But as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart.’”
“A thankful heart,” he says! In other words, this whole business of refining and purifying is not a dour, long-faced approach to the Christmas season. This is not the equivalent of having to eat your vegetables before you get to eat dessert.
As Dickens suggests by his Carol, it is knowing the joy of Christmas within the dark apparition of Malachi’s ominous message. It is the delight of Christmas warming us within the flames of the refiner’s fire. It is Emmanuel, God with us, in cross and resurrection, the death of the old with the birth of the new.
The writer of Psalm 66 confesses that this is God’s doing. He sings today, “Shout for joy to God, all the earth…give Him glorious praise!” There’s no hint of dreariness in recognizing that God refines us like silver…in the fire. There’s no “grit your teeth and get it over with” grim determination as he sings about the God who brings us into captivity, laying heavy burdens on our backs.
The Psalmist sings a veritable Hallelujah Chorus about the God who does such dark things in order to bring us out of that darkness into His glorious abundance. So there is joy, a thankful heart, because it always ends well for us with God. We know the punch line to Malachi’s prophecy. We know Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, how they reveal the God who purifies us to hear and believe and receive the gifts of His Christ.
So there are times when God takes away our own strength and power. But He gives us that greater strength which comes only from Him. Our lives are often troubled. They get difficult, with so many problems. These come so that God draws us back again and again, here, into the Divine Service. He brings us into this place where He gives us the forgiveness of our sins. In the joyous exchange of the Word and Holy Sacraments, Jesus draws all of the pain of our own crosses into His crucified hands, while at the same time pouring out His resurrection life into our crucified souls. Here in the Divine Service God recreates us again and again and again, until the day when the good work He began in our baptism is complete in the resurrection to life everlasting.
When our grip is broken, when there’s nothing in us left to resuscitate, when God has brought us to the edge, and then pulled us over that edge with Him…then does the life-creating, life-giving power of Christ’s cross become all in all for us. In those moments when we, like Scrooge in that churchyard, are forced to look at our own grave, then…the cross speaks most clearly!
So we are not so far from Christmas as we think in hearing these ominous Readings today. Our troubles in life are not the denial of Christmas’s song, “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men.” Our troubles are the arena in which God is pouring out His peace and goodwill into our lives, crowning them with His praise.
The bleak world of mid-19th Century, Dickensian England remained the same before and after Scrooge’s Christmas rebirth. And that world of woes, that world of the beggarly children named Ignorance and Want, still haunts us as much as it did in Dickens’ day. This world is not changed…oh, but, in grace, we are!
“It was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.” For those who heed this curious Christmas Carol from Malachi the prophet, with his ghastly apparitions of refiner’s fire and fullers’ soap…for us who welcome Malachi’s dark visitation and take to heart the things he says, there is for us Christmas light, there is for us the sleep of heavenly peace, there is the joy of heaven and nature singing…even now, even here, for us, in this world’s sad and lonely streets.
For He who is to come has come. We know His fire. We know His joy. In Christ, we even know that joy right in the flames of His refining fire.