Refiner and Purifier

Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
December 9, 2018
Second Sunday of Advent

Malachi 3: 1-4 (CEB)
Look, I am sending my messenger who will clear the path before me;
suddenly the Lord whom you are seeking will come to his temple.
The messenger of the covenant in whom you take delight is coming,
says the Lord of heavenly forces.
2Who can endure the day of his coming?
Who can withstand his appearance?
He is like the refiner’s fire or the cleaner’s soap.
3He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver.
He will purify the Levites
and refine them like gold and silver.
They will belong to the Lord,
presenting a righteous offering.
4The offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord
as in ancient days and in former years.

Have you ever gotten uncomfortable, I mean REALLY uncomfortable when reading the Bible? In other words, are there things in the Bible that make you squirm a little bit? That make you uneasy, or maybe a little scared or nervous. To be honest, I don’t know how any serious Christian who reads the Bible on a regular basis could not encounter some difficult passages, some uncomfortable truths, maybe even some blatant challenges from time to time. If this has never been the case for you, I would urge you to spend more time reading the Bible. Or maybe to delve into the less familiar passages, the less well-known books; to explore the places that you haven’t explored before. As difficult as it may be, this is an important part of our faith experience.

Last week, we explored the prophet Jeremiah’s words, delivered to a people in exile in Babylon. As we continue our journey toward Christmas, and our look at the words of the prophets who foretold the coming Messiah, we move into the words of Malachi this morning. If you remember, Jeremiah’s message, was delivered to a people removed from their Promised Land, exiled in Babylon, and longing for deliverance from the injustice they were experiencing. Malachi’s prophecies come after the Babylonian exile has ended. God’s chosen people, the Israelites, have returned to the Promised Land; in some ways, God’s promised deliverance from oppressive enemies has been realized. But still, all is not well.

After decades of oppression and upheaval, the Israelites were very hopeful that when God heard their cries and ended their suffering, everything would return to normal, to peace, and prosperity. How often do we have similar hopes and dreams? In the midst of challenging or difficult times, how often do we long for all to return to more peaceful times, to be settled and happy? Yet as God’s people moved back into their Promised Land, this was not their experience. In fact, they were pretty disappointed. Things were not going as smoothly as they had hoped. The Temple was still in ruins, the economy was wrecked; there was high taxation and fiscal corruption, and massive inequalities. So again, the people are suffering and longing for a word from the Lord; they are hungering for a new message and renewed hope. This is Malachi’s context; the reality into which this prophet brings a word from God, the passage you heard a few moments ago.

Malachi declares, “Look, I am sending my messenger who will clear the path before me…The messenger of the covenant in whom you take delight is coming.” Once again, God offers his people a word of assurance. But one of the things that is interesting about this word, is that it references not the Messiah, but a messenger who will clear the path. To the Israelites hearing this message, it might have been understood as a reference to Elijah. But Christians would understand this messenger to be John the Baptist; the one who will prepare the way of the Lord. And yet, remember the ministry of John the Baptist. He announced the coming of one greater than himself, and he called the people to repentance, to changed lives, to baptism for the forgiveness of sins. And John did this to help the people prepare for the coming Messiah. In essence, John the Baptist was urging people to refine their lives, to purify themselves. It is the same message as Malachi delivered some 550 years before; a message about God’s refining and purifying power that will transform God’s people.

And yet, being refined and purified is no easy process. Think about how precious metals are refined. Silver and gold are exposed to extreme heat in order to essentially burn away the impurities and leave them shimmering. In the same way, there are things that get in the way of us being fully who God created us to be. Like the Israelites some 2,500 years ago, we are created by a loving God who has a special purpose in mind for our lives. We are a community connected to bound together by God’s covenant, and yet so often we fail to uphold our end of that covenant. There are these impurities that mar our lives and keep us from being the people God has called us to be. We need to be refined, we need to be purified. And this is not something that happens only after we die. I think that’s one of the greatest misconceptions of Christianity. We are talking about our lives now, in this moment. We have to prepare. We need to heed the word of the messenger who calls us to make ourselves ready!

So just think about yourself for a moment. What is it in your life that needs to be refined or purified? What are the impurities that are marring your devotion and discipleship? What is it that makes you uncomfortable when you read the Bible? What are the “other loyalties” that are getting in the way of your relationship with God? These are questions we should constantly be asking ourselves; it is part of our human dilemma. We are fallen. We are in need of refining. It is self-righteous of us to assume that God will always just magically fix all of our problems or all of the problems in the world. We have to own our responsibility, our failure to live according to God’s will and to act according to God’s covenant. We have to repent of our sins and shortcomings, as Malachi and John the Baptist called the people to do. Being made righteous does not mean we get some magical ticket to heaven. Being made righteous means right now, this very day, we live as if God’s Kingdom has already come to this earth, as if Jesus Christ is already reigning on earth as in heaven. This is how we prepare for that day that is to come, all those who claim Christ as Lord live as if that day is already here!

We are a people who long for God, for God’s justice, for God’s peace. It is a longing that has existed since the beginning of time. It is the longing that was named by the exiles in Babylon 2,600 years ago, and it is the longing of the people returned from exile 2,500 years ago. But what we acknowledge in Advent is that Christ has been born among us. The Messiah has shown us the way to the Father; God has responded to our longing cries and even as we wait for the fulfillment of God’s promises, we have a role to play. Christ has shown us how we are to live our lives, and in preparation for the Messiah’s coming reign, we must live that way—according to his precepts, just as the Israelites were still a covenant people, called to live according to those precepts in relationship with God.

We have to open ourselves to being refined and purified, uncomfortable as it may be. We have to acknowledge the irony of calling upon God to bring a reign of justice when we are not practicing God’s justice ourselves. We have to abandon every system and every practice that runs contrary to God. That will not be easy. That requires difficult sacrifice on our part. We may even feel at times the burn and sting of the refining fire. But this is the way to purification; this is the call of Malachi, and John the Baptist, and even Christ himself. In the face of every policy, and practice, and project that is in direct opposition to God’s vision for humanity and the whole creation, there is an urgent need for transformation, for preparation, for anticipation but also enactment of something better that is to come.

When God busted open the gates of heaven and came to earth as a tiny, vulnerable, newborn baby, it was a radical and unexpected move. The birth of Christ was extreme divine intervention. Have you ever experienced an intervention? Has anyone ever come to you and confronted you with the difficult reality that there is something in your life that needs radical change? Have you ever intervened in someone else’s life? Maybe you have urged a cousin to get off drugs and enter rehab? Or perhaps you have stressed to your sibling the need to eat right and exercise. How have such interventions gone? Was it easy? Did you, or the person being confronted, willingly accept the need to change? Probably not. But why did that intervention happen in the first place? Because you knew that if the change could happen, life would be better, right? If the family member or friend can get off drugs or adopt a healthier lifestyle, their life will be better. They will live longer. Their family will be better off. Everyone will be happier, and life will be fuller.

The call to preparation, the message of being refined and purified—this is not just a message of condemnation or judgment. Malachi also delivers here a promise of change that leads to new beginnings, to something better for people who will undergo this transformation. This is intervention for the purpose of experiencing abundant life. Malachi offers not just a call to difficult change, but also a promise of renewal for God’s people; a future with hope.

Christmas is a celebration of God’s response to the cries of the people. But Advent and Christmas are also a reminder that we must be prepared; that we are a covenant people with responsibilities ourselves. Christ doesn’t just save us. Christ calls us to live as citizens of his Kingdom, to abandon all our false loyalties, to allow ourselves to be purified in the refiner’s fire. This is both the challenge and the promise of Christmas. “We will be re-formed in God’s image, and it will be good. No matter how we feel about it now. No matter what we may be afraid of now. [God’s promise is sure, and it is good news.] When we are refined and purified as God promises, it will be good.”

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