This sermon was delivered by Wendell L. Griffen, pastor of NewMillenniumChurch in Little Rock, Ark, on December 6 2009.
Life is full of delays. From the moment a woman becomes pregnant, there is the delay until she discloses her pregnancy to others. There is the delay between her pre-natal checkups. There is the delay between the time expectant parents know of the pregnancy and the birth. Labor and delivery is full of delays—as the expectant mother and her delivery team measure the time between contractions, await the infant’s head to crown, wait and push and pant and sweat and moan and do it again and again until the baby comes forth. Then another waiting period happens. The team waits and works to help the baby breathe. The team waits and works to sever and tie the umbilical cord and restore the new mother’s exhausted body. The team waits and works to assess the baby’s responses to light and touch.
Waiting and working. Working and waiting. This is how life begins for us. It is how we live. We wait for what we expect to come. We work as it approaches. Then we work and wait in the coming. Afterwards, we work and wait as what we expected develops, unfolds, grows, matures, becomes.
With the waiting and working come questions, always. Expectant parents wonder, “Are we really ready to be parents?” “What will parenthood be like?” “Which side of the family will show up in this coming child?” “Is the baby’s room ready?” “Is the house ready?” “Is the neighborhood right for raising a child?” Questions always come with waiting.
The reading from Malachi 3:1-5 expands our familiar anticipation concerning awaited events. Notice how the prophet speaks as for God to a restored community that is waiting for justice. See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. (Verse 1) Malachi is the Hebrew word for “my messenger.” This may have been a pseudonym—an assumed name—chosen by a religious figure to distinguish himself from other religious leaders. Whatever the background behind the selection of that name may be, the prophet delivers a mighty message full of Advent talk.
Someone is coming! God is sending Someone—a messenger is coming—indeed, certainly, for sure, definitely, for real,” ‘sho nuff,” coming. Someone is coming because God says so. Someone is coming because God is sending a messenger and a message. Someone will personally come from God to personally do something for God. Whether the community likes it or not, believes it not, is ready or not, Someone—some God-sent Somebody—is coming. This is Advent talk that raises some good questions.
To whom is God speaking? Who is the intended audience? The prophet is talking—in God’s voice—to the covenant community. At verse 1, the prophet tells the people that “[t]he messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. The people of the covenant should expect someone to come who has a connection to that covenant. God’s people are being notified by God about Someone God is sending. Someone from God will show up.
If we profess to be people of God, then we must expect to hear from God. When we hear from God, we should expect God to have something worth knowing. Because God is sending a Messenger and Message, another question arises.
If God is speaking and sending, are we hearing and preparing? A notice from a respected family elder that she is sending someone to us with a message is not something anyone should ignore. Yet, how often do we, as people of God, truly hear God’s voice? How often are we still, quiet, attentive, or even interested in hearing from God? Do we make our plans, construct our lives, and conduct our affairs as if God has nothing to say, or worse, as if what God has to say to us and about us does not matter? These Advent questions will not go away because God is speaking and sending.
Who is coming? Who is this coming Someone for whom the covenant community should expect? Some might consider this as a promise fulfilled by the ministry of John the Baptist, about whom we read at Luke 3:1-6. It is true that John the Baptist was forerunner to Jesus Christ. It is true that John the Baptist called the people of his time and place to repentance. It is understandable that some people believe this promised Someone was John the Baptist. But there are stronger reasons to see the promised Messiah in these words, especially when we ponder the character of the Messenger who is coming from God.
What will the coming Someone do?” The prophet, still speaking for God, presents a question to the community at Verses 2 and 3: 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; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. There is something exciting about expecting “company.” But the excitement depends on the “company.” Some people are easy to be around. They do not challenge us. They do not unsettle us. They do not rub us the wrong way. They leave us comfortable as we are, behaving as we behave, and conducting our affairs as we desire.
God’s coming Someone is a challenging character. For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap; he will sit as refiner and purifier of silver, … Welcome to the ancient crafts of metallurgy and the work of fullers. Fire is hot. It burns. Some fires consume what they touch. That is also true of some people. Most of us do not desire to be burned to a crisp, actually or figuratively.
But God is not sending Someone to fry us, toast, or roast us, but to refine and purify us. In describing the coming Someone as a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap, God’s prophet compares us to precious metals and the promised Messenger as a refiner and purifier. God is sending Someone to refine and purify us.
The process of refining precious metals such as gold and silver requires tremendous work. First, the ore must be dug, removed, separated, from the earth. Gold and silver cannot be wished out of the ground. No. Someone must go somewhere and do something to dig and remove dirt. There must be a separating and breaking of ore from earth.
Then the ore must be subjected to intense heat so that the precious metal can be separated from the ore. How much heat? The melting point of gold is 1947.52 degrees Fahrenheit. The melting point of silver is 1762.2 degrees Fahrenheit. It takes that much heat to separate the precious mineral from the ore, to uncover the precious metal concealed in the mineral.
Now recall Malachi 3:2. God is sending Someone who “is like a refiner’s fire.” God’s Someone is hot, not to burn us or toast us, but to melt us so that something precious comes forth. There is something precious in us. God wants us. God wants to use us for righteous purposes. We can be useful to God and for God and with God and in God. But first we must be put into the refiner’s fire. There is no other way to turn ore to gold and silver. God’s Someone is like a refiner’s fire because God wants gold and silver from us, not dirt. God is the refiner. His Someone is the fire. We are placed in the fire to become useful.
[H]e is like … fuller’s soap … The fuller in ancient handicraft was a man or woman whose work involved cleansing and polishing. The melted metal was cooled, and then it was cleaned with alkaline liquids to remove impurities. The fuller worked to clean—to purify. God’s Someone will purify us for God. This is not an easy process. It is hard work.
At verse 4, the prophet (still speaking as for God) declares the result of this refining and purifying process: Then the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years. God is sending Someone who will refine us and purify us so we can be worthwhile to God. In this
Someone, we are made worthwhile for righteousness, worthwhile for justice, worthwhile for love, worthwhile for peace, worthwhile for service, worthwhile to God. It is not comfortable being turned into gold and silver. But God is not interested in making us comfortable. God wants to make us consecrated, presentable for righteousness. In Christ, God is wants to make us good and useful!
The prophet was not talking about John the Baptist. No, John the Baptist was talking about the Someone when he said, “behold the Lamb of God, that takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). No. John the Baptist was talking about Someone, when he said, another comes whose shoes I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal (John 1:27). John the Baptist was talking about Jesus, born in Bethlehem, reared in Nazareth, tested in a wilderness, rejected by traditional religious leaders, betrayed by his follower, deserted by his friends, accused by lying religion, convicted and executed by crooked government, buried by secret followers, raised by God Almighty, and ascended into heaven where he sits at the very right hand of God. He is the refiner’s fire. He is the fuller’s soap. And, He is coming again! Hallelujah! But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
Deborah Block, Pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, reminds us that the text of Malachi 3:1-3 is one of the signature choral works of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah. Pastor Block has written that after the first presentation (not performance) of Messiah in London in 1741, Handel wrote a friend: “I should be sorry if I only entertained them. I wished to make them better.” By 1751, Handel was blind. Yet, until he died in 1759, the master continued to conduct Messiah as an annual benefit for the Foundling Hospital in London, which mostly served widows and orphans of the clergy. But he was not entertaining. He was edifying. He was not providing a distraction or diversion, but was offering direction. Handel was useful for God. He wanted to make people better. He wanted to make them better because of what God had done in him through Christ. Handel had been through the refiner’s fire so he knew that God wanted him to present offerings in righteousness.
What about us? What about our congregation, community, state, nation, and world? What must change for us to be a presentable people? What must become different, be moved, refined, and purified? Are we content doing life, politics, business, government, family the way that is comfortable? Are we willing to change, seeking to change, praying to change, living to change from earth to ore, ore to molten metal, and metal to precious jewelry for God? I think of this as I ponder the refusal of our Governor to appoint people of color to the all-white Arkansas Supreme Court, and when I ponder so many other things about the way we rationalize in life. What must God’s Christ do in us to make us—the people of God—”offerings to the Lord in righteousness … pleasing to the Lord? What does how we live say about what we are offering God?
Ponder these Advent questions, and recall what we sung after the morning prayer. Spirit of the Living God, fall fresh on me. Spirit of the Living God, fall fresh on me. Break me. Melt me. Mold me. Fill me. Spirit of the Living God, fall fresh on me.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.