We began Advent last week with the words of comfort from God to a people longing to go home. Now we open the very last book of the Old Testament, the last of what are called the 12 minor prophets, likely placed here in Christian Bibles as a segway to the New Testament and the arrival of Jesus in the neighborhood. In contrast, the Hebrew Scriptures place the all of the prophets before the books of what is grouped as “the other writings”– not the law or the history or the prophets– writings like the psalms, proverbs, Daniel, etc. This tiny little prophetic book
is written for a returned people about 500 years before the time of Jesus. The temple has been rebuilt. But things are not going as they should be…. the people are acting like evil is ok and they are questioning where the God of justice is… the words at the end of chapter two are biting: “you have made the Lord tired with your words.” Ouch.
It is not that the people of Israel are so terrible. It is that they are human beings who live in a constant state of tug o war with God. They want to live as God’s people, but then they can’t. They go to worship and then don’t live as one who obeys God. They cheat the day laborers out of their wages (look at us–we fight over whether or not to raise the minimum wage to a level that would provide a decent income). They oppress the widows (some nursing homes today can feel oppressive) and the orphans (in Zambia, children with one parent to raise them are called “single orphans”. Many children here struggle without enough parental support.) They brush aside the foreigners (we are afraid to welcome refugees and we fight over immigration reform) and have no respect for God (our very lifestyle trashes God’s creation and permits violence to God’s children). Ouch again.
These people need a word from the Lord. As do we. Malachi in Hebrew means ‘my messenger’. It may or may not be the proper name of this prophet. It could be simply the function of an unnamed prophet– the work of a prophet is to be the messenger for God. New Testament writers jump to the interpretation that this messenger is the messenger sent ahead of Jesus, the Christ– we call him John the Baptist. The prophet knew nothing of John, or of Jesus, for that matter. What the prophet knew was the situation of his people, including their crying need to get cleaned up in order to live out their covenant promises to God.
My messenger, or Malachi, lays it on them. God is coming, and currently they are not ready. They would not be able to stand when God shows up. Their lifestyles are not in keeping with the covenant with God. They need to be refined like silver or gold, they need to be cleansed with harsh soap. God is like the refiner’s fire– this is not a fire meant to destroy everything in its path, like wildfires in Tennessee– this is a controlled fire, the cleansing agent which separates the good, pure silver from the dross, or the impurities, the dirt. Only when the silver is heated to melting can the purifying happen. The silver loses its shape then, becoming a pool of liquid, and is completely at the mercy of the refiner, who will shape it anew. Then the prophet describes God as the refiner himself– overseeing the refining process with care and precision–separating out what needs to be thrown away and what is to be kept.
God’s people need refining. And not just their manners. Not just their vocabulary. Their actions. Their true value is hidden beneath the sins which are keeping them from shining as God would hope them to shine. The refining process will bring to light their precious character, their true colors, if you will. Refining is not a comfortable process. The ones being refined by a refining fire, are being melted and re-molded, are being separated from that which marks the countenance and re-shaped into the piece God is looking for. But refining is necessary in order to see the true colors of the precious metal.
The messenger knows God is coming. The messenger wants God’s people to be ready, to be able to withstand the otherwise overwhelming presence of God. We stand here at the edge of December, knowing what is coming. It is the Christ, the Savior, who comes to us in human form, who comes to us with the message from God: I love you. Period. But are we ready? Are we prepared?
German Lutheran pastor Deitrich Bonhoeffer spoke loudly against the Nazi ideology and ended up dying in a concentration camp at the end of World War II. His thoughtful writings are valued by many. He insisted that we can not rely on a cheap grace which does not include a commitment on our part. Listen to a short quote from one of his Advent sermons in 1928: “The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience. Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness. God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love.”
God is coming. We too live in a world where it seems like evil gets glossed over and ignored, where we look the other way when leaders misuse public funds or put down a particular group of people or refuse to challenge the ongoing violence of poverty in our nation, both rural and urban. We too need a refining process– as individuals and as a nation. As we prepare for the Christ, let us be aware of what it is that needs refining. What is the impure part of our attitude? Or the dirty part of our vocabulary? Or the unclean motive for a particular action or response?
You don’t hear much fire and brimstone from this pulpit. I would be the first to tell you that for me, God’s grace in Jesus Christ is the primary piece of good news we can share with this world. But we do need to hear these words from God’s messenger, the prophet Malachi. His point is searing: you are not ready to receive God until you have been cleansed from your sinful behaviors. The image of God as a refining fire is a second Advent image to add to our understanding of God. Last week God was offering comfort to a lost people, offering to care for them as a shepherd cares for the pregnant ewe or the little lamb. Today we hear another side of this same God, the refiner, intent on cleansing his created object so it will be the best it can be. We are God’s product, God’s silver, God’s creation. We do need refining. The key here is that the silver does not refine itself. Silver has to be refined by someone else. We don’t remove all the badness in us by making a list and crossing items off. It is the refiner who refines the silver. It is God who removes the sin. It has to be a conversation between you and God over what that looks like…. what is it that needs to be melted down and remolded in your life? In what ways do you need cleansing in your relationship with God or with other people? What is stale or dirty, full of cobwebs and dust? God’s goal is shining silver, a beautiful product glinting in the light. God’s goal is removing the dirt and letting his creative work shine. And that can be an uncomfortable process. No one likes to change the way we do things. We have gotten comfortable. But when we look in God’s mirror, we have to admit there are impurities, there are sins, there are lots that need God’s attention.
God’s messenger brings good news that sounds scary at first: you need a meltdown, my friend. You need a reshaping. But when we do go through that refiners fire, we find we are prepared for the coming of the God of grace and love. Will you be ready for the coming of the Christ? Will you be able to withstand his appearance?