A Refined People

Malachi 3:1-4

“I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty.

2 But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, 4 and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years.

Luke 1:76-79

“And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, 77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, 78 because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven 79 to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

Happy Second Sunday of Advent, everybody! I think one of the reasons that I enjoy Advent and Lent so much is because I like fire and all of the candles seem to appeal to the pyromaniac within me. Like many boys, my fascination with fire began with a magnifying glass and some paper out in the hot summer sun. While I never actually got anything to light using a magnifying glass, I soon graduated to matches and lighters. In my younger days it wouldn’t have surprised anyone to see me walking around with small areas of hair singed on the back of my head, arms, and eyebrows. And just a word of advice, writing your name in diesel fuel on the grass and burning it is not a good idea. The grass will die and there will be no doubt as to who is responsible.

Fire can also be a scary thing. Animals are often said to be afraid of fire; campfires have the potential to deter bears, wolves, and rabid chipmunks. I don’t know if two-legged animals are naturally afraid of fire or not, but we are clearly afraid of being burned. Or maybe it would be better to say that we are afraid of pain, being burnt is painful, and fire can burn you.

So we have this interesting phenomenon called fire – I intentionally did not call it “cool.” It is interesting because it is something that we can use for light; it is something that we can use for heat. We use fire to cook our food, to sterilize our water, and to eliminate some forms of waste. And today we are going to look at another use for fire.

Our scripture from Malachi provides an interesting introduction to our lesson for today. First of all, does anyone know the name of the prophet of the book of Malachi? This is a trick question because the answer is “no.” Nobody knows the name of this prophet. Instead, the name of this book comes from chapter 3 verse 1where we read, “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me.” Malachi is actually the Hebrew word we translate as “my messenger.” So Malachi is not the prophet that wrote this book of the Bible. Malachi is the messenger that will be sent! This has absolutely no importance for our reading today, but I found it interesting, especially as a couple in our congregation has a new grandson by this name.

While we don’t know this prophet’s name, we do know that the prophets don’t usually come on the scene to praise the people and their actions. No, the prophets come into the picture when something is not going as God would like it to go. The prophet in the book of Malachi is no different. He receives a message from God and he begins speaking about the abuses taking place at the temple, specifically the sacrifices being offered. There is criticism of the offering of tithes, there is criticism of how loosely the Israelites are at keeping their marriages sacred, and there is criticism of the injustice that this prophet is seeing.

This prophet then drops a bombshell upon the people in our passage for today in verse 1, “‘Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come, says the Lord Almighty.”

Another interesting point here is that when the prophet says “the Lord you are seeking will come,” this is not the name YHWH. It is a generic reference to a lord. It is Adonai. At the end of this verse the words translated as “Lord Almighty” is the name YHWH. So while on the surface this sounds like it might be saying that God is coming to the temple, it is actually saying a messenger on God’s behalf is coming to the temple to clean up some of the issues that are being noted here. That is an important detail, so keep it in mind.

When the Bible was put into its current form, the books were not simply thrown together in any old order. The book of Malachi, the book of “God’s messenger” is the very last book of the Christian Old Testament. However, it isn’t the last book in the version of the Hebrew Bible that the Jews would use today. Obviously, the people that put our Bible in the order that it is in believed the book of Malachi to be pointing us toward something, or more specifically someone. Enter: John, son of Zechariah.

Zechariah is an all-around interesting character. Zechariah was a priest who was getting up there a bit in age. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth had not been able to have children. One day while Zechariah was serving at the temple, he was met by the angel Gabriel. And Gabriel told Zechariah that he was going to have a son, even in his old age. Gabriel told Zechariah that this son would prepare the way for the Lord. And Zechariah did not believe Gabriel because Elizabeth’s best child-bearing years were well behind her. So to mess with him, Gabriel caused Zechariah to go mute until his son was born and named John.

So today’s passage from Luke includes some of Zechariah’s first words after the birth of John. We commonly refer to this passage as “Zechariah’s song.” Like those who put our Bible in its current order, Zechariah seems to connect his son to the prophesy found in Malachi. This is the one who will prepare the way for the Lord. So the next logical question is, “How?” How is John to prepare the way for the Lord?

John 3:2-3 tells us that “during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” John, the evangelist, then goes on to show how this is a fulfillment of not only the prophesy found in Malachi, but also in Isaiah. Prepare the way for the Lord. Make the valleys high, the mountains low; the crooked paths straight, and the rough paths smooth.

As Christians, we believe that when the prophet from the book of Malachi speaks of a “lord” coming, he is speaking about John the Baptist.

I really like metaphors because they can help lead us to a deeper understanding of what the Bible is teaching us. But we also face challenges when we use metaphors because they can break down and different authors and characters in the Bible may use the metaphors differently. For instance, Malachi talks about the “lord” that is coming being like a fire. That is interesting, because John is baptizing people with water. Wet things don’t burn, right? So is John preventing the fire from being effective? But the metaphor breaks down even more when we look at other applications of the metaphor of fire. John (the evangelist) goes on to say that Jesus is coming with a consuming fire. This language often leads people to think about hellfire and brimstone, a consuming fire that sweeps across the land. We have been taught to fear biblical fire because we associate it with punishment and judgment. But I believe that the fire that is being prophesied about here in Malachi chapter 3 is not hellfire and brimstone kind of fire. This is not punishment at all. This is about refinement, the process of removing impurities.

When I think of refinement, I think of the old television show, “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Jed and his kin were anything but refined, but that isn’t what I am going for here. I’m thinking of the opening scene where Jed is out shooting at some food, when up from the ground come a bubbling crude. Oil, that is.

I recall watching the opening scene from this television show as a child and thinking, That oil is dirty. That will never work. I knew the reason that you changed the oil in your car was because it gets dirty and you don’t want that dirt and grime in your engine. I also knew that you wouldn’t want to put that dirty stuff in your gas tank. It even looked a lot different than gasoline!

Oil needs to go through a process where the impurities, the dirt, the grime, the other chemicals are removed. This is called “refinement.” There are a number of natural resources that require refinement before we can use them. We refine sugar, salt, and precious metals like gold and silver, to remove any impurities found in their current status.

Our text from Malachi talks about the Lord coming as a refiner’s fire or a launder’s soap. Remember, the prophet in Malachi is talking about the impurities in the temple and the way that the people are failing to follow God’s teachings. So there are two options: wipe the people out with a consuming fire or clean things up. The fact that the fire is paired with the launder’s soap should inform us that this is not a consuming punishment. This is a fire meant to clean things up.

When refining gold or silver, the refiner places the precious metal in a crucible, which has a very high melting point. They then begin to introduce a very hot fire. This fire serves two purposes: it burns out the flammable impurities and it liquefies the metal so that the pure gold or silver can be separated from the impurities.

The people on the receiving end of the prophesy in Malachi were religious people, trying to be faithful to God. Therefore it is likely that they did not need to turn their lives around 180 degrees. However, they were not perfect. They needed some refinement. Likewise, we are trying to be more and more like Christ, though we surely fail. We probably don’t need to turn out lives completely around, but to continue to make refinement-kinds of change.

I have been a “committed” Christian for a while now; much of my adult life I have spent under the grace of our Lord. That means I am forgiven for my sins, my shortcomings, my imperfections. But between you and me…I still fail. Following Jesus means that we are not to get angry. Man, I get angry all of the time. I have young children, so you know I’m going to get angry. Jesus teaches us to not slander people; don’t talk about them behind their backs. I do that. I also lied to my son the other day to get him to stop crying and get in the car. Jesus doesn’t say don’t lie unless it is to get your children to do what you want. I might be forgiven, but I am still a sinner. I don’t live like I am called to live. I do not love God with all of my heart, soul, mind, body, and strength; and I sure don’t always love my neighbor as I should. I even talk bad about my neighbor when he takes his garbage out to the church too soon. I don’t know why it bothers me, but it does. And I know that I am gossiping and not loving him when I do that.

This week there was a rather disturbing story coming out of England where two radio hosts appear to have played a prank on a hospital nurse. This nurse was a part of the team that cared for Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge. As I am sure everyone knows, Will and Kate are expecting, and she needed to spend a little time at the hospital for a rather routine issue. These DJs called the hospital impersonating Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles to trick the staff into giving them some information about the Duchess and to play a prank on the staff, complaining about the care that Kate received.

This isn’t surprising to me. This is a common thing on the radio right now. DJs call people all of the time to prank them on the radio, often pretending to be people in positions of authority. Often times these prank calls can be pretty funny. I enjoy listening to them over the internet and sometimes reposting them online for my friends to see. However, these DJs took thinks a little too far. The nurse that received the prank phone call committed suicide. Many people are calling for these DJs to not only be removed from their jobs — they are currently on leave – but to receive criminal charges.

We do not have a lot of the details, but my initial feeling is that these DJs did something wrong, something for which they should repent for. But do you know who else is guilty of contributing to this woman’s death? I am. I am guilty of contributing to her death, and so is everyone else who regularly listens to these DJs, reposts their practical jokes, and encourages them in some way.

I don’t think anyone here endorses child labor. Nobody thinks an 8 year old should be made to work in a factory or out picking coffee beans for twelve hours a day. But every time we buy a certain pair of shoes or buy a certain kind of coffee, we are contributing to these terrible acts.

The refiner’s fire isn’t a form of punishment for our shortcomings. The refiner’s fire is a way to form us in the image of Christ so that we will make those mistakes less and less.

When we realize that our actions not only contribute to our own exile, but the exile of others, we must make changes. We need a refining fire. We need to burn away all of those impurities that keep us from looking like Jesus and living like Jesus.

But guess what: fire still hurts. Yes, this is a refiner’s fire and not a fire of punishment, but anytime we try to make changes in our lives, it has the potential to be painful. We know that smoking is bad for your health and most smokers know this, too. They would love to stop, and many have tried. But it is hard. Many people have tried to stop gossiping, lying, and buying goods made with child labor. It isn’t always easy.

The good news is that we don’t have to do it alone. Through God’s transforming spirit, this refiner’s fire can help burn out our impurities and make us look more and more like Christ.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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