Being Refined in Advent

Dec 05, 2021

Sermon 12-5-21
Second Sunday of Advent
Text: Malachi 3:1-4
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
     Some of you, perhaps many of you, upon hearing today's reading from the Old Testament book of Malachi, thought, "Why does that sound so familiar?" Or, perhaps you immediately knew why. Here's the phrase to which I'm referring: "But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fuller's soap…." So, why are those words known to so many people? (No doubt, the choir knows why.)
     They are sung in Handel's "Messiah," usually by a bass soloist who has a powerful voice, like Todd Ranney, who has sung it here. I asked Bob how he would describe the mood of this piece, and he said it's something like this: "Hey, you self-righteous sinners, this is God speaking! You better run because I'm sending you someone you do not want to mess with!" Then, after the solo, the chorus sings, "And He Shall Purify." Now…that does not sound particularly cheery or grace-filled for the Second Sunday of Advent when the theme is peace.
     Yet, it fits with the words of a Prophet named John who spoke 400 years later saying, "Repent!" and "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!" And the context in which Malachi's words were first spoken has a connection with the life of faith in Century 21, or at least I think so.
     Here is what was happening: the people of Israel, held captive in Babylon for 70 years, have returned home to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. But, instead of being devoted to God and to living out their faith, they were apathetic. Evidently, their religious leaders – dare I say it, the clergy – were allowing that to happen. The priests were spiritually lax, so it is not surprising that the people were too.
     Here is an example: when it came to animal sacrifices in the restored Temple, the attitude was, "Whatever…." God's law asked the people to bring their firstborn livestock and first fruits, that is, the best of what God had given them. Instead, the people were bringing the worst they had to keep the best for themselves. According to Malachi, "worshippers" came to the Temple with 3-legged lambs and blind calves. When the priests asked, "Is this the best that you have to offer up to God?" the people would lie, say "yes," and the priest would let them get away with it.
     Malachi angrily pointed out that they would not treat anyone else in their lives the way they were treating God Almighty. This issue was one of many that indicated that God was not a priority for the Israelites, not at the center of their lives. Also, they constantly complained about God's shortcomings, including the lack of Divine justice. Malachi regarded their complaints as insincere, a way to rationalize their own behavior. (Sort of like, if God isn't doing the right thing, then why should I?) God is weary, and the people are exasperated.
     The solution is found in today's reading: God will send a messenger to prepare the way, "See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple." This is not an event to be anticipated with joy, though, because either that messenger or God will purify the priests first, who will take the people in hand.
     The images offered of this purification process are extreme, "…for he is like a refiner's fire and like fuller's soap". The fuller washes cloth with lye before dying or bleaching it to ensure it is as clean as possible. The refiner melts metal to a liquid form to remove the impurities. Once the priests have gone through this cleansing and are transformed, the people will follow, and God's graciousness will again be possible. Other than the last sentence about God's graciousness, that's not particularly good news for me, or, by extension, you!
    Before we get to the heart of the matter, though, let me make a historical note. Whether or not this passage wended its way through time and was intended to point to a man named John the Baptist who arrived 400 years later is a matter of debate. But both the preparer in Malachi and John the Baptist in Luke have a similar purpose, which is to bring God back into focus and to remind people of the weightiness of sin and the power of repentance.
     It suggests to us that if we are serious about preparing to welcome Jesus (again), then we should consider how we are doing when it comes to our relationship with him. Are we spiritually lax? Is our attitude "Whatever"? Do we treat God – with our words, our giving, our attention - as well as we treat the people in, and other aspects of, our lives? Is our Lord at the center of our personal universe?
     One year ago, we were worshipping by live-stream only – again – after doing so for three months earlier in the year. At first, there seemed to be a good deal of diligence about participating virtually. Still, as time has passed, that participation has declined. Well, you might say, of course, it has; gathering in-person for worship is now an option. Thankfully, that is the case. Thankfully, we have been able to come together more and more for other activities as vaccinations became available. Yet, the pre-pandemic connectedness of the faithful with one another, and, I fear, spiritually, has not revived. Perhaps it is a matter of being out of the habit of participating, be that in-person or online. Or maybe it is discovering that it seems there are better ways to use one's time in this hectic world. Perhaps there are continued concerns about the virus, or, on the other hand, annoyance about the pandemic protocols still in place.
      Even if none of this applies to you, which it may not, evaluating the strength of our spiritual connectedness is important as we prepare to welcome Jesus. Here's why: it might be tempting to point out the truth that being spiritually lax, inattentive, or apathetic will not impact our status as God's loved and forgiven children, thanks to the gift of grace. But that attitude cheapens God's grace and cheats us out of the blessings that come with self-reflection and transformation – hopefully not with the refiner's fire and the fuller's soap. However, sometimes stringent "purification" is needed and helpful.
     Let's think of it this way, Jesus brings peace on earth and hope. Suppose we are not prepared to receive him and thus are unchanged or unmotivated by his arrival. In that case, Christmas is nothing more than sentimental moments of candle lighting, gift-opening, and baking our favorite cookies. While that's all good, hope and peace are life-changing and impact us most fully when we are ready and willing to receive them.
     In "Messiah," Handel moves from "And He Shall Purify" to the annunciation when, we read, that the angel Gabriel was sent by God to Nazareth, to a young woman named Mary and proclaimed, "Greetings, favored one, the Lord is with you!" The scripture is clear that she was perplexed at the news that she would bear a child who she would name Jesus, but she was ready and willing to welcome him. May it be so for us as well. AMEN
"Sermon Commentary for Sunday, Dec. 5: Malachi 3:1-4" by Scott Hoezee,
"Commentary on Malachi 3:1-4, Second Sunday in Advent" by Margaret Odell, and "Commentary on Malachi 3:1-4, Second Sunday in Advent" by Anne Stewart,