Wash And Wear
Mal. 3: 1-4; Lk. 3: 1-14
You would not know it by the way I dress, but I come from a family of clothes horses. The entire Parker clan, including all of my nephews and nieces, love to dress in frilly, formal, showy, clothing.
I am the odd man out of the family. I do not care what I wear, as long as it keeps me warm.
As a child, I was forced to conform to the family standards. I grew up in formal clothing. I never once wore jeans to school; they offended my parents and the school district dress code. From kindergarten through high school I attended class in slacks and button-down shirts.
As I was growing up, my family spent a great deal of time attending events in New York City. We always dressed up to go into the city. I owned my first suit when I was six. When I graduated from high school I had at least two suits and an assortment of sports jackets and slacks hanging in my closet.
Many of my formal clothes were truly beautiful: silk ties, crisp cotton shirts, saddle leather shoes; wool suiting of subtle coloring and weave.
I hated all of it. It seemed to me that no matter what I did, I managed to ruin half my clothes. My light chino slacks proudly displayed a history of every dinner table spill; wool ripped easily when it was snagged, especially in wrestling matches with friends.
Even today I believe that suits are the worst of all possible clothing: expensive, restrictive of movement, cumbersome, and in need of constant care.
I entered college in the late 1960s. Then, as today, the official collegiate uniform was a tee-shirt and jeans. I loved it. The dungaree material of jeans wears like iron. When it gets dirty, all you have to do is throw it in the washing machine and it comes out clean. In contrast to delicate, dry-clean only fabrics, jeans only get better as they are washed: they become softer and better looking.
Given a choice between dry clean only clothing, and washable clothing, I will take the washable outfit every time.
The contrast between formal and informal clothing came to mind as I was reviewing our scripture lessons for this morning. In our gospel lesson, John the Baptist appears in the wilderness with a word of judgment. He preaches to the crowds that come out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
Many people read John’s harsh word of judgment and are only too happy to put names to each of John’s vipers. A perceptive minority understand that John was speaking to all people. As Paul so aptly put it, we have all fallen short of the goal.
It is important to hear John’s word of judgment. It is important to understand that we are all a part of that vast crowd that John addresses in such harsh terms. It is important to understand that each of us is in need of redemption.
It is equally important that we see beyond John’s word of judgment to the Good News that the Baptist has to bring us.
If we hear only the judgment, we get a very skewed view of what John has to tell us. If we hear only the judgment, we will come to see people, and ourselves, only as articles of formal clothing: decorative, delicate, unalterable, incapable of being cleaned once they have been soiled.
If we hear only the word of judgment, we will view ourselves and others as slightly soiled by sin, irretrievably lost. The word of judgment suggests that anyone who is slightly soiled by sin is incapable of having the stain washed away.
We need to hear the word of judgment. We need to apply John’s harsh terms to our own lives.
But there is another message here of equal importance. Luke says that John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. We need to hear that message of forgiveness, too.
Our OT lesson from Malachi has long been regarded as anticipating the coming of God’s Messiah. The prophet describes the work of the Messiah in this way:
“For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap.”
If you look up fuller’s soap, or fuller’s earth, in a dictionary, you will discover that it is a clay-like substance that absorbs things. Most notably, it absorbs grease and dirt.
Fuller’s earth was used in antiquity to remove stains from clothing. You rubbed the fuller’s soap across the cloth, and it removed spots and stains.
The Messiah comes to redeem as well as correct. The Messiah comes as fuller earth, to remove all of our spots and stains.
The Good News is that God does not regard us as delicate, dry-clean only people who are ruined once the stain sets. God sees us as wearable and washable. We can become clean. We can have the stains and spots removed from us by a spiritual fuller’s earth.
I suspect very strongly that God views us the way we view an old pair of jeans, we only get better with each new washing.
The point of the season of Advent is to prepare for the coming of the Christ. It is, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, a time to prepare the way of the Lord.
Part of our preparation for Advent consists of answering the call of the Baptist. Remember, he proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He calls to crowds to consider where they have gone wrong in their lives, and to change their ways.
He says, “You with two coats, share one of them. You with food, give some to those who are without. You who are tax collectors, take only what is owed. You who are soldiers, do not take advantage of the power of your profession.”
Beyond the Baptist’s word of judgment is a great word of hope. It is a word of forgiveness and salvation. The Messiah comes to correct and transform.
Prepare the way of the Lord. The Christ comes to us, to wash us, and to make us clean. The Christ comes into our lives, and our world, to blot up sin, and to make all things new.
Rejoice because in God’s eyes, we are wearable, and eminently washable. Amen.
Truman E. Parker