I started shaving my head about five years ago. It was the culmination of the long retreat of my once glorious mane of hair. And it was glorious; but in my late 20s, I noticed that it was no longer quite so glorious on the back of my head. I started cutting my hair shorter so it wasn’t quite so obvious that some had gone missing. But soon the small clearing in the back of the forest started expanding; and by my mid-30s, it seemed like someone decided to start clearcutting the land. In my late 30s, I bought an electric razor to give myself a buzzcut that got closer and closer to the scalp as the whole top of head began to look like the end of Dr. Seuss’ book, The Lorax, where all you can see is a wasteland of stumps from the once-lush truffula trees.
Finally, about five years ago, I decided that I just couldn’t fight it anymore. So one day, as I finished shaving my face, I squeezed out more shaving cream, put it on my head, and picked up my shaving razor again. And I have to tell you, as I slowly pulled that razor across my scalp for the first time, there was a surge of adrenaline. Because once you start shaving your head, there’s no stopping; I was committed, no matter how it looked. A few minutes later, I surveyed my reflection in the mirror. To my relief, it looked pretty good, all things considered. But it was more than that. I felt a strange sense of peace suddenly come over me. While I never tried covering up the hair loss, I had spent years trying to minimize it, obscure it, but also trying to hold on to everything I had left. Finally shaving it all off, paradoxically, released all that fear and anxiety; I went from hoping that people weren’t noticing how much hair I had really lost to proclaiming that it was, in fact, all gone, and that I didn’t need the little that I had previously been clinging to, anyway.
Perhaps that’s partly why, historically, head-shaving has been a sign of repentance; it’s a deliberate turn away from any pretense, any self-aggrandizement, any deception or misdirection. Now, the word “repentance” comes freighted with a lot of negative associations. But I think that’s because its sharp edge is more often used as a weapon against others than it is as a razor to shear away our own artifice. Our New Testament lesson says that John the Baptist was in the wilderness, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Now John has some harsh things to say, but he does at least walk the talk, living a life characterized by humility and repentance.
Repentance is, in fact, the central theme of John’s ministry, and the Second Sunday of Advent is traditionally the Sunday when John the Baptist makes his appearance in the Scripture readings. But you won’t find John’s preaching on any Hallmark cards. But that’s the point: John is very clearly preaching an Advent sermon, not a Christmas one. Nothing about silent night, nothing about a holy infant, so tender and mild. John is preaching about repentance in the face of God’s coming judgment: having the strength to be honest about who we are and what we’ve become; turning away from selfishness, from exploitation of others, from corrupt structures and systems and practices. Repentance literally means, “turning in a new direction,” but the way John talks about it in quoting the prophet Isaiah, it’s more like turning everything upside down: valleys filled in to the top, mountains and hills squashed down and spread out flat, crooked places straightened out like a wrinkled blanket shaken in the air and laid back down again, rough places smoothed down as if by holy sandpaper. It is a complete transformation of the world in order to fully receive the coming of the Messiah.
The prophet Malachi puts the same idea in simpler terms: when the Lord comes, he says, “he is like a refiner’s fire and fullers’ soap.” Most of us probably have a good idea about what a refiner’s fire means, especially here in a town famous for its history at the heart of the steel industry. Refining any metal is the act of purifying it through heat. And refining silver or gold in Old Testament times wasn’t actually very different in terms of the basic process from the industrial blast furnaces of Bethlehem Steel: a strong current of very hot air was blown onto the metal, melting it and bringing the impurities to the surface to be burned away. Getting rid of the impurities has two purposes.
First, and most obviously, it strengthens the value of the metal, distilling it down into its basic essence. But second, and perhaps more important, it strengthens the usefulness of the metal. Impurities in a metal can impede its usefulness: they make iron weaker and less malleable, they make gold and silver less clear and shiny, less useful for either decoration or shaping into beautiful objects. Fuller’s soap, though, is probably a little more unfamiliar. The process of fulling is an ancient one for fabric-working, especially wool. It scoured the fabric in order to purify it, getting rid of dirt, oils, etc. Fullers did this by soaking it in water in which some kind of bleaching chemical had been dissolved, including alkaline soap. Then the fuller would either stretch it out and beat it with a club or place it in a tub and walk all over it. That’s why “Walker” is one of the English surnames for those who worked as a fuller, because they would literally walk all over the fabric to work the bleaching solution into the fabric. One it was scoured clean, the fuller would move to the second stage of the process, which was thickening the fabric by matting it together in order to make it stronger and more repellent to water; that’s where the term “fuller” actually comes from, because they would thicken the fabric, or make it more full.
Of course, if we’re the metal or the fabric, this doesn’t sound like a very enjoyable process. Whether we’re talking about heat or chemicals, having our impurities burned away sounds painful. So this is where we need to be especially careful about not misinterpreting the text, because a lot of bad preaching and teaching has happened over the centuries using texts like these. First, Malachi is not saying that the adversities of our lives are like refiner’s fire or fuller’s soap, purifying our souls through pain and suffering. Malachi is quite clearly talking about God’s judgment at the end of time; in the first verse of our lesson, he speaks of the sudden coming of the Lord to his temple after his messenger has prepared the way. This is not something that happens in the ordinary span of our lives; this is something unique and final. Malachi is talking about Judgment Day, as we often still call it colloquially.
And second, we have to be careful about the issue of impurities. Too much preaching, either from pulpits or from Christians out in the world, has been about identifying and vilifying the impurities of others; that takes us back to the issue of why repentance has gotten a bad name, because Christians have often acted as if repentance is something others need to do, not us, and have helpfully defined the impurities that God rejects, which just happen to be in others but not in us. But Malachi is quite clear that the arrival of the Lord in judgment is a danger for everyone: “who can endure the day of his coming?” he asks, “and who can stand when he appears?” It’s a rhetorical question that he doesn’t bother to answer, because the answer should be obvious: no one, no human being, has the strength to stand up to the power of God on their own. The only way that human beings can endure the coming of God in judgment is if the point of God’s judgment is not to destroy, but to save. That’s why Malachi moves from his question, “who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears,” to the affirmation that the Lord “is like a refiner’s fire and fullers’ soap.” Because while both of those processes are intense and caustic, they are designed to purify their subjects, not annihilate them; to make them stronger, more valuable, and more useful; to restore them to their original essence and beauty. That is an act of salvation, of re-creation, not violence and destruction.
One of the most striking depictions of this kind of restoration is in the recent Disney film, Moana. The film centers on a young Polynesian girl, Moana, the daughter of the local chief who yearns for adventure even while living in an island paradise, only to find herself swept up in a cosmic drama when the plant and animal life on her island begins to die off from a mysterious blight, threatening her people with starvation and death. Her grandmother tells her the ancient Polynesian legend of Maui, a demigod who could change his shape into various animals to aid him in acquiring gifts for humanity like the sun and moon, fire, wind, coconuts, and so on. In one story, Maui even journeyed to the mother island, Te Fiti, named for the goddess of creation who dwelled there, and stole its “heart,” a precious stone that held the power of creating life itself. But in doing so, he disrupted the integrity of creation. “Darkness fell,” she explained, “and Te Ka awoke,” a giant lava monster that defeated Maui as he fled, never to be seen again, and assumed control of the mother island. From there, the darkness which Maui awoke began to spread, wreaking destruction and death across the great ocean, and that blight has now finally reached Moana’s island. “but one day,” the grandmother says, “someone will find Maui, deliver him across the ocean, and restore the heart of Te Fiti.” And then she explains that a stone that Moana received from the ocean as a baby is actually the heart of Te Fiti itself, and she is the destined someone.
And so Moana literally sets sail, following the signs to meet up with Maui who’s been marooned on a deserted island for 1000 years, then bearing him across the ocean through a series of adventures to arrive finally at the mother island. And at first, it seems like the film is going to go the standard route, with the mythic hero prevailing over the evil monster and saving the world. But Maui, very quickly, is defeated and driven off by Te Ka; the world’s greatest warrior is simply not great enough. In fact, he flees, leaving Moana to try and do it herself. But just when Te Ka is about to destroy Moana’s boat, Maui swoops back in and attacks Te Ka, creating a distraction for Moana to get to the island and restore the heart to its resting place, marked by a spiral design. When she finally arrives, though, the spiral resting place is missing. Confused, she whirls around, looking. She sees Te Ka’s massive flaming form lunging for Maui in battle, and then sees that the spiral is on Te Ka’s chest; Te Ka is actually Te Fiti, corrupted by the loss of her heart; that’s where all that anger and violence and hatred and blight comes from.
Stunned, Moana raises the stone in the air, which shines brightly like a beacon, attracting Te Ka’s mid-battle with Maui. Te Ka turns suddenly and begins crawling to Moana, who in turn begins to walk toward her. As she walks, Moana sings a song softly: “I have crossed the horizon to find you / I know your name / they have stolen the heart from inside you / but this does not define you / this is not who you are / you know who you are / (who you truly are).” Then she places the stone in Te Ka’s chest, and suddenly the lava body cools and cracks open and green life shoots forth, sweeping all the blight away as a restored Te Fiti emerges from the shell of Te Ka. The world is saved not through a mighty warrior defeating evil in combat, but by a young girl restoring Te Ka to her original purpose and beauty and identity, by inviting her to turn in a new direction and be made whole once again.
That is what the promise of Advent holds; that is what it means for us to look for the coming of Christ in final judgment. It is not about destruction, not about come-uppance, not even about purification through pain and suffering. It is about Christ restoring humanity and all of creation to its original purpose and beauty and identity; the Christ who crossed heaven and earth to find us, who knows our name, and who insists that the impurities of ourselves and our world do not define us. Instead, Jesus invites us to repent, to turn and come to him and have our hearts restored by a Lord who comes not as a warrior to defeat us but as a helper to make us, all of us, whole once again, to remind us who we are, who we really are, because of whose we are. And when we do so, when we recognize that truth and allow it to claim us, we finally experience Christ’s peace and begin to live into it, sharing it with other’s not as a possession that was earned, but as a gift received that only grows more abundant and powerful when we share it with others.