The prophet Malachi could not be using more extreme language. The messenger for the Messiah will come “like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap.”
- A refiner’s fire is a metallurgy process dating back to antiquity. A refiner’s fire is a crucible that heats precious metal, like gold and silver, to a molten state from which the dross – the impurities – are skimmed off. It is a searing process that yields the pure, precious metal.[i]
- The fullers were the launderers. Fuller’s soap is a caustic cleansing agent, made from lye and other repugnant chemicals.[ii] Fuller’s soap was used to purify fabric and make it white. The fullers stamped on garments with their feet or used wooden bats in tubs of this blanching soap. The stench from this soap was so great that the fullers had to work outside the city walls of Jerusalem.
One of my friends sees as I don’t. He walks into a room and immediately senses things in others and in me to which I’m oblivious. Sometimes he says: “Don’t you see?” and I reply: “No, you’ve got to tell me. I can’t see.” That’s hard to say, to realize being in the dark while another can clearly see, to discover and experience limitation in the light of another’s ability.
In today’s gospel story, Jesus walks along and sees a person who is blind and who doesn’t ask for help. Jesus doesn’t ask what he wants. Jesus comes and opens his eyes. In response, a flurry of questions by the neighbors and the leaders: How did this happen? Was he really blind before? Who is Jesus? They struggle with question upon question, arguing, accusing, reprimanding, and rejecting. This community is stumbling, groping in the dark, trying to escape the truth that one born blind now sees because of Jesus.
As the community struggles and stumbles, this person grows to see even more. He is honest about limits: “I don’t know where Jesus is. I don’t know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” He also comes to know Jesus. First, he says “the man called Jesus” touched me. Then “he is a prophet.” A bit later “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” Finally, again face to face “Lord, I believe.” First, he receives literal sight, and second, insight, awakened to Jesus.
There is a line in this evening’s lesson from Isaiah that has always appealed to me. In fact, a number of years ago when I was asked what my favourite line from Scripture was, I quoted this one. I don’t know if I would still say it remains my favourite, but it continues to intrigue me. Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord.
The line, and indeed the passage, intrigues me, because of what it tells us about God, and God’s nature.
In my imagination, what unfolds before us this evening is a great courtroom drama, with all the twists and turns that implies. Think, if you a certain age, Perry Mason. And I think that’s what Isaiah had in mind. Isaiah is not speaking of an argument, between two angry and hostile parties. He is speaking in terms of a legal argument, where all the facts of the case are laid before the court, which has the power to make an ultimate decision or judgement.
If Isaiah is describing a court of law, and not a verbal argument between two antagonists, then we can ask ourselves, who are the actors in this courtroom drama? Who is judge or jury? Who are the opposing attorneys? Who is the defendant? Most particularly we can ask, what is this case about.
The answer to the last two questions is clear. The defendants are those children of God Isaiah references, who have rebelled, who do evil and deal corruptly, who have forsaken and despised the Holy One, and who are utterly estranged from God. The case is one of rebellion, and it is they, the children of God, who have rebelled, and who are now clothed in the scarlet and crimson of their sins.
Last Holy Week, I had fun dyeing eggs for Easter. Rather than using commercial food dye, or buying an Easter Egg dyeing kit, I looked around the kitchen, and created various dyeing solutions using different spices, vegetables, and fruits.
Not only is Isaiah giving us a lesson in Biblical legal procedures in this passage, he is also giving us a lesson in the art of dyeing fabric. What I learnt dyeing eggs resonates with what Isaiah hints at.
It is no accident that Isaiah uses the colours scarlet and crimson to denote sin, and it is not simply because they are the colour of blood. To dye something scarlet or crimson requires that the article be left in the dye solution for quite some time. As I discovered with my Easter eggs, the longer something is left in the solution, the deeper the colour, and the harder it is to wipe off. Those whose sin has coloured them scarlet, who are red like crimson, Isaiah tells us, have utterly forsaken God, and walked far from the paths of righteousness. We are not speaking here of a pale colour that will soon fade. We are speaking of a colour, indeed a sin, that is deeply, indelibly set.
Nor should it surprise us that Isaiah is not speaking of a nameless, or anonymous people in this passage. He is speaking of a people known to him. Indeed, he is speaking of a people to whom he is speaking: the people of Judah and Jerusalem. By extension, he is speaking to us. We are that sinful, rebellious, corrupt people, whose sins have clothed us in scarlet and crimson.
Because our sin is so indelibly set, like the colours scarlet and crimson, the outcome of our legal case is certain. The judgement can be nothing less than guilty as charged. But that’s where things get exciting. That’s why I find this passage so fascinating.
While the identity of the defendant is clear, and they are clearly guilty, the judge, jury, and attorneys switch sides in an instant, and go from prosecuting the defendant, to pleading with them. …though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land.
Isaiah’s audience would have known how difficult it is to reverse the dyeing process, and take something scarlet or crimson, and turn it white. They would have known the impossibility of such a transformation. No amount of washing, soaking, scrubbing, or bleaching, would be able to totally remove the scarlet and crimson dye. What had been dyed scarlet or crimson was indelibly coloured. Nothing can change that.
The surprising thing is that Isaiah suggests it can be changed. The surprising thing is that scarlet and crimson can be made white. With that, the legal case is turned on its ear, and the judge, who one minute was ready to find the defendant guilty, is equally prepared to find them innocent. …you shall be like snow…you shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land. And we know now, the judge, jury, and attorneys to be none other than God, the Holy One of Israel.
If scarlet and crimson are the colours of indelible sin, then the purity of snow, and the loveliness of wool point in the opposite direction. We saw that direction several days ago.
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.
In the Transfiguration, we see Jesus as he truly is, radiating God’s glory, and being shown to be God’s son. ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’
Baptized as we are into Christ Jesus, we see ourselves as God intends us to be. Like Jesus, in him we too are clothed in dazzling white, and bathed in glory. What a far cry is this vision of ourselves, from the one Isaiah holds before us. There we see ourselves stained by sin and indelibly coloured scarlet and crimson. Now we see ourselves pure and lovely, radiating God’s glory.
Both Isaiah and Jesus tell us this transformation, indeed, this transfiguration is possible. All it takes for us to go from being indelibly coloured by sin, is to wash ourselves by ceasing to do evil, learning to do good, seeking justice, rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan, and pleading for the widow.
This transformation, indeed, this transfiguration, from scarlet to snow, and crimson to wool, from a people utterly estranged from God, and indelibly marked by sin, to the beloved daughters and sons of God, happens when we remember who and whose we are. Baptized into Christ we are called to be a people of justice, mercy, and peace, who like the ox knows its owner, and like the donkey knows its master’s crib.
Acknowledging whose we are, and where we belong turns the legal case against us and our sin on its ear. Judge, jury, and attorneys go in an instant from prosecuting our guilt and sin, to pleading our innocence, and forgiving our sin. In an instant the mark of rebellion and estrangement from God is wiped out, as we come to know ourselves as God’s beloved daughters and sons.
For many, Lent is a time to recognize our sin. It is a time to acknowledge they are like scarlet and red like crimson. Lent is a time to recognize that we do evil and deal corruptly. But if that is the only message of Lent, no wonder it makes us miserable.
There is another message of Lent. It is the message of Isaiah, the message of Jesus. [Though our] sins be like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.
No matter how set is the colour of our sin, the message of Lent, the message of Isaiah, the message of Jesus is a message of ultimate release and forgiveness when we will know ourselves as God intends us to be, clothed in dazzling white, and bathed in glory, like fresh snow, and washed wool.
I am intrigued by the passage, and by God’s desire to argue it out with us, because in the end it reminds us that God’s nature is always to have mercy and forgive, just as our nature is to be clothed in dazzling white and bathed in glory as the beloved daughters and sons of God.
 Isaiah 1: 18a
 Isaiah 1: 2 – 4, 18
 Isaiah 1: 18 – 19
 Luke 9: 28 – 29
 Luke 9: 35
 See Isaiah 1: 16 – 17
 See Isaiah 1: 2
I love this story of the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter from the Gospel of Mark! I love it in part, because I get to say the word Syrophoenician! Just throw that into the conversation and see how impressed people are with your erudition! I love it because of the breathlessness with which Mark tells the story. You can hear the urgency, as in just six verses Mark tells us an awful lot, that is profoundly significant. I love it, because it harkens back to my childhood growing up at St. Mary’s, Regina. It is from this passage, among other sources, that Cranmer created, what some of you will remember, as the Prayer of Humble Access, or the Zoom Prayer, as a friend calls it:
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, Trusting in our own righteousness, But in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy So much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the Flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his Blood, That our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body, and our souls washed through his most precious Blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, And he in us. Amen.
Mostly I love this story because it shouldn’t have happened! There is a hint of the forbidden. We see Jesus acting out of the box. He shouldn’t be where we find him, doing what he shouldn’t be doing. And that’s just the point.
Jesus visits his dear friends Martha and Mary in their home. Martha is upset that Mary sits listening rather than helping her with the work as host. Some hear this as about work versus prayer or balancing action and contemplation. Paul Borgman points to parallel structure. This story is right after the lawyer who tries to test Jesus by asking “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and “wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus ‘Then who is my neighbor?’”[i] The lawyer and Martha are both anxious and trying to justify themselves.[ii] I am doing what is right, am I not? I know and follow the law. I am upholding our virtue of hospitality. “Do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?”
Jesus replies to the lawyer with a story of a man robbed and left for dead. A priest and a Levite both pass him by, but a despised Samaritan stops to cares for him. Which one was a neighbor? The one who shows mercy. Jesus says: “Go, and do likewise.”[iii]Jesus replies to Martha. “You are worried and distracted by many things. … Mary has chosen the better part.” What does it mean to inherit eternal life? Listen to God’s Word like Mary, and do it like the Samaritan.[iv]
How are you relating to Jesus? Like the lawyer and Martha, where are you anxious? How are trying to justify yourself? What good is getting in the way?
Poet and author Elizabeth Barrett Browning is probably best known for the words she wrote in a letter to her future husband: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” Her father, Edward, was a controlling man who forbid any of his twelve children to marry, and when Elizabeth defied her father’s wishes to marry Robert Browning, her father never spoke to her again.
Elizabeth wrote weekly letters to her father in the hope that they might be reconciled, but for ten years there was no response. Then one day, after a decade of silence, a box arrived in the mail from her father. Her excitement quickly turned to anguish, however, when she opened it and found that it contained all of her letters – unopened. Edward Barrett’s heart was so hardened towards his daughter that he didn’t open a single one of the hundreds of letters she wrote to him.
Unforgiveness does that. It hardens the heart. It magnifies the perceived offense to the point where we can no longer appreciate a person’s value because all we see is how they have grieved us. If forgiveness is one of the most powerful forces for redemption in the Christian faith, unforgiveness is one of the most powerful forces for destruction. In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus gives us a parable that speaks to us about forgiveness and unforgiveness.[i]
If you love domesticated animals like cats, dogs, and horses, or even some unconventional critters like monkeys, beavers, and squirrels, you have probably run across a website called ‘thedodo.com.’ The Dodo serves up emotional, visually compelling, and highly sharable animal-related stories and videos with the aim of making the care of animals a viral cause. The videos that bring a tear to the eye of a sensitive guy like me are the dog rescue videos. There are countless versions of this scenario: someone comes across a mangy, emaciated pup, that is tired, scared, weak, and not far from death. Animal rescuers are called to gather the animal, carefully and patiently doing what is necessary to subdue it while protecting themselves from the pups self-preserving, fear-filled growls, yaps, and snaps. Ultimately, the animal resigns and is taken to a veterinarian for rehabilitation with the hopes of finding it a forever home. The dogs are bathed, shaved, treated for mange, parasites, and other injuries, fed and nourished. Each video is a brief time-lapse record of its recovery, ending with the dog fully recovered, happy, and unrecognizable from the condition it was found in; it’s disposition one of unreserved love and affection.
John 10: 22-30
‘It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.’ ‘It was winter.’ I have been to Jerusalem in the winter, and there was snow on the ground, and it was bitterly cold. We think of Jesus in light, flowing robes and sandals, preaching in warm and sunny climes. But not in our Gospel today. John tells us very specifically that ‘it was winter.’ Usually John marks time by referring to the Jewish religious festivals, but here, very pointedly, he tells us that it was winter. As so often for John, seemingly insignificant words carry a profound, symbolic meaning. ‘It was winter, it was night…’
This story at the end of chapter 10 marks the climax of several chapters describing the increasingly hostile controversies between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. Here on this winter’s day, in the very temple itself, the words become ever more cold and bitter. Jesus finally seals his fate by declaring unequivocally, “The Father and I are one”, and the Jews pick up stones to stone him to death.
It was winter in Narnia, when those children in C. S. Lewis’ much-loved stories, first entered through the wardrobe into that magical land. Lucy went first. ‘She was standing in the middle of a wood, with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air. “Why is it winter here?” “The witch has made it always winter and never Christmas. But Aslan is on the move.”’
All suffering is God’s punishment for sin. This was an underlying belief in Jesus’ own day. Suffering is a divine payback for wrongdoing. Jesus confronts this notion. When he encounters a man blind from birth, Jesus is asked rather rhetorically, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” Jesus answers, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.”[i]
So why is there suffering? How many there are, the sources of suffering. Some suffering we clearly do bring onto ourselves because of how we are practicing our life with too much of this or too little of that, of deceptions and bad decisions, sometimes which turn into a tsunami of suffering. Yet when Jesus is asked the source of this man’s blindness, Jesus is not formulaic. He clearly says that suffering ipso facto is not a sign of God’s judgment or rejection. Jesus teaches that God “sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous; God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good.” Jesus says, all of us are “children of [one] Father in heaven.”[ii] God’s love is indiscriminate.
So what do we make of suffering? We clearly cannot avoid it. Study history; read the newspapers; recall your own life. Clearly, there is no escape from suffering until life is ended. For those of us who are followers of Jesus, suffering has a prominent and paradoxical place in our lives. Our theology hangs on the cross. Jesus tells us that if we want to be his followers we must “take up our cross” and follow him.[iii] We will be presented with the cross. It will happen, and probably more than once in our lifetimes. We either face our cross, or we flee from it, but this is Jesus’ way for us: the way of the cross. The cross is an instrument of suffering before it becomes the way to life.
It’s Easter Day! Today our Lord Jesus Christ has been raised gloriously from the dead. Alleluia! Today is a day for rejoicing. He is Risen: Alleluia!
But on Monday, just six days ago, I was not rejoicing. I was tearful. I was staring in shock and stunned silence – as you may have been too – watching those pictures of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris burning. I first went to Notre Dame when I was 14; I was staying with my pen friend’s family in Paris. I was struck dumb, even at that age, with the beauty, the colour and light, the sheer holinessof the place. I remember we lit candles, and sat gazing in rapt silence at a great rose window, shimmering like a jewel.
Throughout most of my life, as a parish priest in England, I tried to go back most years to Notre Dame, to light candles and pray for friends and parishioners who were sick or in need. Back to the place where for me, in Eliot’s words, “prayer had been valid.”
So it was heartbreaking to see this place of beauty and loveliness where I have for years felt so close to God, mauled and wounded and ravaged by fire.