Mal 3:1-4; Benedictus Phil 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6a
Retournez à Montreal! Retournez à Montreal! Go back to Montreal! Go back to Montreal!
Those words broke my heart this week when I heard them on my car radio. They were part of a story about a teenager named Pacifique Niyokwizera, whose violent arrest in Québec City, in conjunction with an altercation he did not take part in, was captured on the cell phone cameras of more than a dozen appalled onlookers. In the video, several police officers force the boy to the ground, kick him, and shove snow in his face. It is a kind of state brutality we have seen all too often; indeed, when the radio show called for listener comments, the most frequent was some version of “I can’t believe that after George Floyd, after Black Lives Matter, they are still doing this.” The police have since stated that M. Niyokwizera was resisting arrest, and that they have been trained to meet resistance with violence. I will not comment on how frightened the innocent teenager must have been, given the history of police violence directed against black Canadians. If Advent is about yearning for a better world, this story sure got me there.
M. Niyokwizera’s representative claimed that while all this violence was being inflicted, the police kept yelling, “Go back to Montreal!” — as if it were impossible for a black person to be from Québec City. The taunt is typical of a tactic called “Othering,” which is the bedrock of every form of exploitation and cruelty. “Othering” is the mental practice of treating a person or a group of people as if they were fundamentally different from and less than oneself or one’s own group of people. We see it when men treat women as property or as wombs; when whites treat black people or members of First Nations as if they were unworthy of full equality; when marriage is restricted to heterosexual relationships (as if queer relationships had less dignity). We see it in antisemitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, and, too often, in our treatment of the poor and of those who live with mental illness. The assumption is that there is a group of people who are somehow “good” or “pure” and that collective well-being requires that group of people to remove, suppress, or control all others. It is the fundamental issue being addressed in today’s Gospel passage.
Now, that last sentence may surprise you, given that we heard nothing this morning which points to “Othering.” That’s because the passage has been cut in two. This morning, we hear a proclamation of hope: John the Baptist fulfilling the words of the prophet Isaiah, promising that God will come and calling us to prepare. Only next week will we hear what that preparation requires: it requires that we treat others as equal to ourselves. John the Baptist admonishes the Jews who came to hear him, saying, “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” (Luke 3:8) In other words, Do not think you are so special. You may be the Chosen People, but God can choose anyone God wishes. And when the crowds begin to ask what to do, John tells them, Share. Be fair. Do not exploit your power.
You see, in their society, as in ours, there were levels of power: the Romans at the top; their chief collaborators among the Jewish leaders, who received some power in exchange for some of their freedom; the lesser collaborators (like tax collectors); and then, at the bottom, the rest of the people, by which I mean farmers and craftsmen and merchants and laborers. Ordinary, good people who just wanted to plant their fields or make their clay pots and raise their children in peace. And below even them, the outcast: the lepers, the demoniacs, the mentally-ill, the immigrant, the widows without children, the women who’d been forced to become prostitutes. To the people in power, those last two groups were there to be used or manipulated or discarded. They were “not-us.” They did not matter. But John says, Do not think you are so special. THAT was John’s good news: that we are all special. That when the Lord comes, he will seek a level playing-field: “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low …and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” (Luke 3:5-6)
But what, then, are we to make to of Malachi’s warning that, when the Lord comes, he will come to purify the people? Was he just wrong? Or is there another kind of purity, one we may not fully understand?
Malachi compares the action of God in our lives to a smith refining silver, which sure sounds like the kind of purification we have been speaking about. Metal is refined, after all, by being placed in fire, melted, and then having the impurities poured off. It is not a reassuring image, when I think of it being done to me. And, in fact, there have been times I can name when I have been held in that fire, and while they eventually brought me deep healing, the experience itself was brutal.
But what really happens when a smith smelts silver? I read recently about a man who visited a smith to observe that process. First, the smith explained, you need to hold the silver in the hottest part of the fire to burn away all impurities. He added that he, the smith, had to watch with great care throughout the entire time of purification, because if the silver were left in the fire one moment too long, it would be destroyed. Think about that for a moment. Some smiths might be able to pay that kind of attention only from a desire for profit, but for a good one — an artist — that attention could come only from hope and from love. From a deep desire to see the beauty yet to be born. And that quality of rapt attention reveals the true nature of our purification: we are each held in the fire of divine love.
Do you think I have gone too far? Even in human terms, love imposes the strongest restraints of all. With people we do not love, we can behave any kind of way, but those we love make us long to be better. Out of our love, we bridle our tongues, clean up our acts, resist our urge to control, restrain our desires so that someone else can thrive.
Thirteen years ago, a family in my congregation learned that their four-year-old daughter was sick with cancer. Twice a week, for nine months, they took her for chemotherapy. Twice a week, for nine months, they watched their vibrant little girl come home sick and wasted and bald. They came home exhausted and sick at heart. But they never allowed their little girl to see anything except hope. They never allowed her to hear any word except encouragement. They might have cried, but not while she was awake. They may have been terrified, but not where she could see. Do you think that experience was not a crucible for them? Do you think they did not become braver, more loving human beings through that time of testing? And when I invited the mother to preach on Good Friday, before she knew that her daughter had been healed, all she could say was that, unlike Christ, they had been loved and supported all the way, and had never felt alone.
Imagine with me, for a moment, if you will. Imagine that every single time you have been tested to your limit, every single time you have reached the point where you simply cannot continue the way you were, underneath your ordeal, you were being held in the fire of divine love. Imagine that God’s eye was on you the entire time — every moment — making sure that you were not tested one minute too long. Making sure that you were refined, and not destroyed. What would it mean to offer one another that kind of freedom and hope and love?
We see it, I think, in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul writes, “God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight — to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, — having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” (Phil 1:8-11) Paul’s prayer for these people he loves is not that they remain lesser than he is, nor that become what he wants them to be. Instead, he prays for their growth, for their learning, for their well-being. He prays that they may bear whatever fruit God asks them to bear; in other words, he longs for them to become whole, mature, flourishing human beings.
The man who visited the silversmith asked one more question: “How do you know when the silver is ready?” The smith answered, “When I see my image reflected in it.” This, of course, is the opposite of Othering. Not casting others into darkness, but drawing them into our light. God knows we are ready when God sees God’s own image in us, clearly. So we are to seek that divine image in others, and even in ourselves. That is the preparation for the coming of the Lord: To seek him constantly, in all things. To love God constantly, in all people. To receive him willingly, in every blessing and every trial. And to make straight paths, so that even the smallest and weakest among us may journey on in hope, knowing that we cared enough for their well-being to do the work which might enable them to thrive. You see, in the Kingdom of God, there are no Others — only a thousand faces of love.
 I would love to credit the author of this story, but have not been able to find an attribution.