What is it, I wonder, about ears? Like generations of little boys before me, and no doubt generations to follow, I grew up wondering why mine in particular needed so much attention at bath-time. Hands and faces, I could understand. I was under no illusions as to how dirty I was in that department after a hard afternoon's playing with Robbie Gamble. Even feet. But why ears? One of my most memorable childhood experiences is having my ears cauliflowered with a wet washer as part of the whole routine of getting ready for church on a Sunday morning. Short back and sides, Brylcream and red ears. Very attractive.
Even back then, of course, the link between inner and outer cleanliness was well-known. "Clean hands, pure heart", was one of my Dad's favourite expressions. I could understand that readily enough. The dirtier my hands were the more likely it was I'd been up to something I shouldn't have been. In our house we had a vigorous approach towards purity of heart, mostly involving scouring the hands and fingernails of small boys with a scrubbing brush.
Dad, no doubt, would have approved of the prophet Malachi. The name means 'messenger', the same Hebrew word we translate as 'angel'. Last week, our readings from the Bible swung off the charts into the distant future and the consummation of all things in Christ at the end of history. This week we head backwards, three or four hundred years before the birth of Jesus, and the time-frame gets shorter. The one is coming, God's angel informs us, for whom you need to be squeaky clean.
I sometimes wonder whether we might not have overdone the Christmas message of peace and goodwill. Whether or not we might be doing ourselves and others a disservice by so emphasizing the sweetness of the baby lying in the manger, the general agreeableness of wise men and shepherds and animals standing around in adoration, and the underlying message that despite the mess we've made of the world so far God loves human beings so much he just can't live without us. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once commented how odd he found it that Christians every year celebrate Christmas with a sort of sentimental nostalgia, as though the idea of God coming into the world was just nice – and that we no longer seem to experience the shiver of fear that we should. Bonhoeffer thought we had become so accustomed to appropriating just the most pleasant and comforting aspects of the story that we forget how truly terrifying it is to have God burst into our world and lay claim to us. That God's coming into the world is dangerous because – as Bonhoeffer put it – "God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in the world and also in us. Only by judging us, can God cleanse and sanctify us. That's what it means for God to come to us with grace and love".
It's actually easy enough to acknowledge this, I think, on a global scale – on the scale of international affairs and big political issues. It's easy enough to acknowledge how much of our collective life is unredeemed and in need of challenge and transformation. Just last week's big stories – a devastating typhoon that caused massive destruction and loss of life in the Philippines but was hardly reported on the mainstream news because, well, let's face it, they were poor people in a third world country – the second round of climate change talks between governments in Doha that looks like wrapping up without any sort of agreement at all on one of the most urgent crises of our time because wealthy countries can't stomach the thought that they might have to pay compensation to Pacific islanders whose countries are slipping beneath the ocean? On the level of global issues it's not actually so hard for us to recognise that what leads to peace in our world is not competition and self-serving policies but compassion and generosity.
Advent is a time when, as Christians, we need particularly to speak of peace, and we need to be clear about the reasons for its absence. But we also need to distinguish between true and false notions of peace. In our haste to get to the nativity scene we find familiar and comforting, to take our place around the manger contemplating the sweetness and innocence of God with us – we ignore at our peril the uncomfortable Advent texts that speak to us of 'refining fire', 'fuller's soap' and 'rough places made smooth'.
The peace of the Incarnation is not gentle Jesus meek and mild, but the much more challenging notion of shalom – that wonderful Hebrew word that speaks of fullness of life and wholeness and flourishing for those to whom it is denied. The peace of the Incarnation is the challenge for us to practice shalom towards those who are excluded, towards men and women and children fleeing conflicts in which we ourselves have been engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, to put aside our cruel and punitive treatment of vulnerable asylum seekers and instead have a go at hospitality and mercy. The challenge for us to work with Aboriginal people as equal partners to reduce the credibility gaps of life expectancy, housing, health and education. The challenge for us to recognise that effective action on climate change of course means accepting the cost and the restriction on our own consumption and lifestyles. God's peace is abrasive, necessarily so, like the gritty grey cakes of Tru-Sol soap Mum used to use on my hands and knees - fuller's soap, the soap used by the drycleaners of the ancient world was a harsh chemical peel that burned away the sweat and grime of living in the real world. Refiner's fire removes impurities in precious metals by searing temperatures that simply strip away anything that's less chemically stable than gold or silver. These aren't comfortable images. God's drawing near to us confronts us with the certainty that, before we will be fit to withstand the holiness of God, all that is unholy and vindictive and cynical in us needs to be destroyed.
As I said, it's easy enough to acknowledge this on the global scale of international affairs and politics, and the public life of our own nation that's largely conducted at some rarified level over our heads. It gets more personal and more difficult, however, when we start to ask ourselves what in our own life has become ossified and self-serving, how much in our own life is rusted on or encrusted with comfortable habit. And we can probably all make ourselves feel a little uncomfortable by thinking about the moral short-cuts we take and the ways we insulate ourselves in order not to notice the needs of others, in order to justify giving a little less than we should of ourselves, of our time and our money, or our tendency to notice more what other people should be doing for us, than what we should be doing for others. We're surely all aware that the true practice of religion is not measured by how diligently we say our prayers or read the Bible or attend church, but by how diligently we pay attention to and how much we go out of our way to respond to the needs of others. It's not even so difficult for us to recognise, I think, how much of our own personal life, our priorities and our relationships with those around us is called into question by the harsh words of the prophet who announces God's coming into the world. Get out the Tru-Sol, it's time for some serious self-examination. Advent is a good time to start a diary, to write lists of what we know all too well has got to be softened and dissolved so that our lives can be translucent with God's radiance.
I actually think the very hardest exercise in repentance that the prophet Malachi challenges us with is to think what needs to be burned away or destroyed in our life together as a church. Church, after all, is where we come to worship, to renew our contact with God and with our brothers and sisters in faith. The ways in which we live together as a people of faith, most especially the ways in which we live as a parish, grow out of our deepest understanding of what our lives mean – and it's hardest of all, I think, to ask ourselves what needs to be broken, what needs to be burned away or scrubbed to within an inch of its life in our own parish. Are there ways in which our parish life has grown to be an insiders' club? Are visitors made to feel welcome, as though we are interested in their lives, or do they feel as though they have intruded on a private family gathering? Are we more concerned with tradition, with the right hymns and the right Anglican liturgy and less concerned with how we reach out to the community in which we live? Are we more concerned with what church does for us, with how church affirms our own values, and less concerned with how we do church together in a way that is a blessing to others? Why do we come here? For ourselves, or for others?
Advent challenges us at this most basic and most intrusive level. If, by the second week of Advent, you're not feeling this, it's possible you're not paying attention. Are we awake yet? Are we ready? Only 16 sleeps to go! Quick! What's most important?