December 9, 2012 – Advent 2, Out, Damned Spot!

To listen to the recording, click here: Out Damned Spot!

“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…and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver…Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.” This may sound a little sacrilegious, but somehow this makes me think of a mother and child at bathtime. You know the terrible faces a child will make when faced with a washcloth – there will possibly be some yelling, too. I had one child that could be heard quite a long distance away when I gave him a bath.  A friend came over one Saturday afternoon and when she opened the front door she was alarmed to hear bloodcurdling screams from upstairs of “You’re killing me!” Maybe it feels like that sometimes when she’s trying to scrub behind your ears, but a mother’s purpose is to love and care for her child, to make him as neat and clean and sweet-smelling as he can be so he will be healthy and comfortable and happy.

We tend to associate cleanness with goodness in a lot of ways. In movies good guys tend to be clean, and bad guys tend to be grimy. And we extend that into our real life. We are put off by people that seem unclean to us –  if they smell bad or their clothes are dirty. We’re ashamed if someone comes over and our home isn’t clean. Church, of course, is a place we expect perfect cleanliness. At church, the pure white linens on the altar are symbols of holiness to us. We take care to keep the church in order and to come to church neat and tidy ourselves. A lot, if not most of us, were raised with the teaching, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” But we have to be careful how we hear that, because I think that we have it all wrong. First of all, cleanliness isn’t anything like Christlike-ness. Jesus never seemed to worry about keeping his white robes spotless and he hung out with people that were decidedly not clean and tidy – lepers and prostitutes and all kinds of people that were considered low-lifes. But it’s all wrong in another way. We can keep ourselves as pure and spotless as is humanly possible without bringing ourselves the least bit closer to God. The truth is that cleanliness – or moral purity, “being a good person” –  doesn’t lead to godliness – it is only the presence of God that cleanses us. Whether we realize it or not, redeeming sinful people – that’s us – is a God-sized job, not for the faint of heart.

When we moved into our new house, it hadn’t been lived in for over a year, and we had to do a lot of deep cleaning, not just the usual sweep and mop sort of cleaning, but tearing up rugs and really getting into and under and behind everything. There were things I wasn’t so crazy about touching. And we are the same. We don’t just need a quick dip of confession; we need deep cleaning. We need to let God into corners where yucky things are growing. It’s all about sin, but when we think about sin, we don’t always understand fully what that means. We tend to get caught up thinking our sins are just the bad things we do. When I kneel down to confess my sins, I remember that I said something unkind. Or I lost my temper. Or I spent too much money. But that’s the dirt on the surface. Underneath is where the real sin is killing us – resentments and bitterness and fears, things that happened to us many years ago that have sat in dark corners of our hearts and festered, that make us dislike ourselves or distrust other people. Some sin goes back even further, to the hurts and anger and prejudice of our parents. Jesus didn’t come to live and die for us so that we could escape being punished for being bad. He came to give his creation such a deep-cleaning that every cause of sin, everything that deceives us into hating ourselves and other people, everything that turns us away from God, will all be washed away forever.

Jesus told a parable about a farmer whose enemy went out one night and sowed weed seeds among his wheat. And when the servants saw the weeds coming up they went running to the farmer to ask him what to do. “Should we tear them out?” they asked. But the farmer said no, let the weeds grow up in the wheat because if you tear out the weeds you might harm the tender roots of the wheat. But let them grow together, the farmer said, and at the end all the wheat will be gathered and all the weeds will be destroyed.

When the disciples asked Jesus what that parable meant, he told them that the wheat was the children of God and the weeds were the evil Satan had sowed in this world. So often we look around and we would love to “clean up” God’s field by getting rid of all those things that look like weeds to us. We want to rip out immorality – especially we like to point the finger at sexual immorality, promiscuity or homosexuality. Jesus’s parable tells us that those sins we can see are just the outer workings of the deeper hurt that that person has suffered from the enemy. If we take the job of purification and cleansing into our own hands we will surely fail, and worse, we will harm one another. Our job is to nurture one another, to do what we can do to help one another grow.  The job of cleansing – what we call judgment – that has to be left to God, because he is the only one who can judge in love; he’s the only one who can cleanse without destroying.

“Let them grow,” the farmer told his servants. Because at the end, Jesus said, the weeds – every hurtful work of the enemy – selfishness and hatred and abuse and illness and bigotry  and shame – will be destroyed, and God’s beloved children, healed and cleansed, will be gathered in. As Jesus said, “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father”. This is the second promise of this Advent. We will be clean.

In the Shakespeare play “Macbeth” Lady Macbeth and her husband have plotted to murder the king, and Lady Macbeth is driven insane by her guilt. In her madness, she sees a spot of blood on her hands that she can’t wash off no matter how much she washes. The blood is the sign to her of her guilt, and she is completely unable to get rid of it even though it is just in her imagination. And in the end she can’t live with her guilt and she kills herself. It’s just your typical Shakespearean tragedy. But the truth is that anything we do to try to make ourselves pure or good or acceptable by our own power is as futile and as hopeless as Lady Macbeth’s mad handwashing. No amount of trying to cleanse ourselves – whether by bathing ourselves in shame and guilt or by thinking we can keep ourselves pure and separate from the uncleanness of the world around us  – nothing we can do on our own can lead us to godliness. But the good news is this: if we belong to God, there is nothing that will be able to make us unclean in the end.

Jesus lived in a culture that was just as fixated on cleanliness as ours is. There were scores of Jewish laws about keeping clean, about clean and unclean foods and ritual washings and about keeping away from anything unclean. If you even touched someone who was unclean, a person with some illness like leprosy, then you became unclean and you weren’t allowed to come into the assembly for worship until you had been purified. But when Jesus came, he really annoyed people by seeming not to care about all those sanitary regulations. And then – things began to work backwards – or I think it was really that they began to work forwards for the first time. When Jesus touched a leper, he didn’t become unclean; instead, the leper became clean. And when Jesus touched the dead, he didn’t become unclean; instead, the dead person was restored to life. Those weeds – those works of the enemy – were powerless in his presence. And the presence of Jesus is the same power that is at work in us, to cleanse us, to bring healing, to bring life out of death.

During the four weeks of Advent, I want us to be reminded of how enormous, and how enormously good, the promises are that we have from our God. We are satisfied with very little sometimes. We are satisfied with human law and order; people think that justice means that people get punished for doing bad things. But we have God’s promise of perfect justice and righteousness. He didn’t promise that bad guys would get what was coming to them, he promised that we would be saved, that we would live in perfect safety. That was the first promise of Advent. And the second is this – you will be clean.

Lady Macbeth was right – it is impossible for us to wash away the blood of our guilt. But the blood of Christ, poured out for us in love, cleanses us from every sin. And just like a good mother is inexorable in scrubbing her child until every inch of him is shining clean, so our good Father will purify us completely, not only from bad deeds, but from every hurt and sorrow and fear that keeps us from living freely in his love. As Paul said, “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” And the good work is this, “that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.”

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