2nd Sunday in Advent

Advent 2 C 2018
Texts: Malachi 3:1-4 | Canticle 16 | Philippians 1:3-11 | Luke 3:1-6

“For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendents of Levi and refine them like gold and silver.” Malachi 3:2-3a

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. Amen.

“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 he will purify the descendents of Levi.”

I cannot hear or read these words without the music of Handel’s Messiah playing in my head. I don’t think there are any other verses of scripture for me that is are so associated with a piece of music as this one.  

It comes from the last book of the Old Testament, the book of Malachi. I’m not sure we read any other part of Malachi at any other time of year, which is a shame because it is a neat book.

Malachi was written after the second exile and the word Malachi is not a proper name, but means “my messenger.”

The messenger, thought by some scholars to be Elijah, is speaking to a people that are wondering about God’s faithfulness. The Temple has been rebuilt, but things just aren’t quite right.

“Where is God?” and “Where is God’s justice?” are two questions asked in Malachi by Israel. The messenger, however, turns these questions around and asks Israel where its justice is and where its faithfulness lay.

Malachi, like so many other messengers before, states that God has remained faithful; it is Israel that has not stayed faithful, that has gotten lazy in it’s offerings to God and in its caring for the widow and orphan.

Malachi, in the mere 55 verses that make up the book, lets Israel know that God’s justice resides in God’s judgment and that God’s judgment will purify his people.

We Christians have taken this text and in it we see a foreshadowing of John the Baptist and then Jesus Christ. John, like all the prophets before him, called God’s people to repentance and to preparation for the time of God’s coming. John points the way to Jesus.  

John also speaks of judgment and purification. Where John speaks of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, Malachi speaks of a refining, of a burning away of all impurities that takes us away from God.

I don’t know if any of you have watched a silversmith at work. It is fascinating to watch them. They must be very precise or the end product will be ruined. The silversmith will take a piece of silver and hold it in the hottest part of the flame, the very middle, the white-hot part, in order to burn away the impurities.  

The silversmith cannot leave the piece of silver alone; he must watch it every minute. If he holds it in the flame one moment too long the piece will be destroyed. But by taking it out at exactly the right time, the silver is purer and stronger than it was before it was refined.  

There is only one way to know that the silver is ready to be brought out of the fire. There is only one way to know that it is fully refined. When the silversmith can see his image in the surface of the white-hot silver, he knows it is ready, that the fire has done its job and burned away the impurities.

I think we Christians have given fire a bad rap. We so equate it with Hell that we fail to see the restorative and healing side of it. We equate fire with punishment rather than with purification. We see fire as destruction rather than as God’s desire to heal us.  

We are so afraid of God’s judgment. We have bought into the equation that fire plus judgment equals hell.  But that isn’t what Malachi tells us. We have the equation all wrong. It isn’t fire plus judgment equals hell, but rather that fire plus judgment equals health. It equals salvation. Fire plus judgment equals God’s justice to and for us.  

Fire plus judgment means that our impurities, our sin, everything that keeps us from God is taken away so that we may reflect God’s image to the world once more.

Fire plus judgment leaves us stronger and more like our original selves, the self that God originally made us to be at the beginning of creation.  

We cannot out-run God’s judgment, not should we want to, because if God does not judge us, God cannot heal us.  

Judgment isn’t about punishment; it is about purification, about becoming more God-like, more Christ-like.  That is how we prepare for the coming of the Lord.  

Advent holds us in the tension of the already and the not-yet, of the way we are and the way God made us to be.  

Advent holds us in the tension of sin and redemption, of humanity and divinity.  

Advent holds us between the first coming of Christ and second coming of Christ.  

Advent isn’t about preparing for Christmas; it is about preparing for Christ.  

Advent isn’t about getting the house ready; it is about getting our hearts ready. 

Advent is about being willing to stand before God and to let God refine us, to make us more like God.  

God’s judgment of us was always meant for our salvation. It may indeed be painful. We may have to say goodbye to parts of ourselves that aren’t healthy or God-like, but that we like anyway.  

God’s judgment may be painful, but it was never meant to hurt us, it was always meant to save us.  

Perhaps over the next several weeks we can ask ourselves and one another, “what part of ourselves and our life together do we need to let God refine, to let God burn away?”

I started this sermon by saying that I couldn’t read this scripture or most of the Advent readings without hearing Handel’s Messiah sung in my head. When it was first presented in London in 1741, Handel wrote to a friend “I should be sorry if I only entertained them. I wished to make them better.”

I think God has said much the same thing. “I should be sorry if I only entertained them. I wanted so much more for them. I wished to make them better.”

That my friends is the true Advent message.

Amen.

1  Feasting on the Word.  Yr. C vol. 1 p. 30

Robin Whittington