Sermon for December 16th, 2018
Growing up we had a good friend of the family that was a florist. During my teenage years, on a couple of occasions she employed me to assist her in preparing for the Valentine’s Day rush. My primary task was preparing the roses. On days like today when there are beautiful bouquets of roses on our altar, and the smell of rose is in the air, my mind wanders to the back room of that florist shop. I can remember sitting there hour after hour, preparing buckets of roses for the florist to later use to make beautiful arrangements.
Now you might be wondering: “how much preparation does a rose really need?” “it is a beautiful flower all by itself, what do you need to do to it?”
Well, the roses you get from the florist may be beautiful and benign, but what the florist gets from the wholesaler or the greenhouse is a murderous death stick. Long-stemmed roses have massive, nasty thorns. You may think the roses in your back garden have thorns too, and they do, but long-stemmed roses, the kind favored for their strength and elegance in arrangements, those roses have thorns on steroids. Gloves don’t help much. Those thorns can go right through most gloves. Naturally a florist doesn’t want to sell the public a symbol of love that is going to draw blood, so they must prepare the roses and strip them of their thorns.
That was my job. Stripping the roses of their thorns. It’s tricky cause you don’t want to damage the rose, it still needs its stem for water and nutrients, but you have got to get rid of most of those razor-sharp thorns. Gloves don’t help much. I tore through a few pair. You can try to be careful, watching very closely where you put your fingers, but then there was always that thorn that you just couldn’t see, hiding discretely under a leaf, waiting for its chance to strike. And even when you very cautiously and very carefully grasped one of those large visible thorns between your thumb and your knife, you knew that there was always a chance that the very tip of that little sucker could turn back and bite you. I went through more band-aides in one afternoon than you could imagine. That job grew tiresome very fast.
Why was I doing this? To hell with these nasty flowers, I thought.
But then I would get up from my bucket and my box of band-aides, and walk over to where the florist was working to see what she was doing with all these stripped flowers. If you have ever seen a real artist at work, you know that there seems to be a bit of magic involved. Some of this flower, some of that flower, this one here, that one there, this flurry of activity that at times seemed completely random, until at last you stood back and realized how spectacular it was. I couldn’t have imagined how all of this would come together, but it did and it was gorgeous. Getting a glimpse of the finished product helped to motivate me to go on with the tedious, but important work I was doing, because I realized that there is just no room in this bouquet for the thorns. The florist simply cannot gather all these flowers together, can’t work with them or shape them, until the thorns are stripped away. So I went back to my bucket and back to my thorny roses.
You may wonder why the Church has “Rose Sundays.” Why in the middle of Advent and Lent does our tradition encourage us to change all the vestments for one day to this bright and gorgeous rose colour? Why do we have flowers on our altar today, when we don’t usually this season? And not just flowers…roses…the most expensive of the flowers. Why this sudden joy and extravagance?
Well Advent and Lent are supposed to be seasons of preparation. They are supposed to be a time when the liturgy and our lives are a bit more stripped back. They are supposed to be a time when we examine ourselves, take an honest look in the mirror and admit, that although we have the potential for great beauty, we also have serious flaws: sins that as we mature can keep growing larger and larger. These sins are a part of our nature now. We may not even be choosing them, just like the rose isn’t choosing to be thorny, but if the rose ever hopes to be used by the florist and gathered into the bouquet, then the thorns have to go; and if we ever hope to be used by God and gathered together into his arrangement, into the kingdom which only he can see clearly in his vision, then we too must allow our thorns, our sins, to be stripped away.
That is a painful and tedious process, and sometimes when you are in the midst of it, you need to step back and remind yourself of the beautiful thing that God is creating. You need to see the beautiful arrangement that God is making out of all those prickly flowers, and when you see it then you can say: “ah! That’s what this is all for! I guess the thorns really do have to go. Maybe this is worth the pain after all. Back to work then.” So Rose Sunday passes and we return once again to the work of preparing ourselves to meet God. Back to separating the wheat from the chaff; back to stripping the thorns off the roses. But ultimately this work of preparation and arranging, isn’t our work, it is God’s.
We never have the full picture of what God is doing, but thankfully now and then he gives us a glimpse. If you take another look at those words from the Prophet Zephaniah that we heard a few moments ago, you will see a beautiful vision of what God is doing with his people. It is an image of God gathering his people together: no oppression, no fear, no weakness, no shame, no disaster, just this beautiful gathering of God’s children that we will all rejoice in. It is such a glorious vision of the bouquet that God is creating. Now when you go home, go back and read the rest of Zephaniah, but you’d better be sitting down when you do.
Because what Zephaniah talks about before he gets to his glorious vision, is the stripping away that must happen first. Zephaniah begins with a painful and vivid description of God’s judgment against mankind and his determination to sweep away the sinfulness that has polluted his creation. There are words there that will make you uncomfortable. We don’t like to talk about God’s anger or God’s judgement; we want God to make things pretty, not to destroy things; we also want to imagine that roses can be used just the way they are, but they can’t. What we must realize, if we read all of Zephaniah, is that God does indeed have a beautiful vision and plan for his people, but there are some things that will have no place in that vision. God can and will do something beautiful, but part of that process is stripping away what he can’t use.
That stripping away can be very painful.
I remember that whenever I was trimming the thorns off of those roses, I always had to be careful. I wanted to remove what was hurtful without destroying what was beautiful. That usually meant that this process was going to be more painful to me that it was to the rose. I was wondering this week if stripping us of our sins is actually more painful to God than it is to us. Then I caught an image of Christ on the cross and I realized…of course it is.