A sermon preached by Intern Pastor Bob Schaefer
Fir-Conway Lutheran Church
The Second Sunday of Advent – December 10, 2000
Text: Malachi 3.1-4
Our reading fom Malachi strikes me as being particularly about one thing, and that is purity. Now purity is a word that often conjures up “Hallmark images” in our minds, so let’s just get a few of those out of the way, so that we can move on from that.
How about this one for example: A cabin out in a little field, about an inch of snow glistening in the sunlight on Christmas morn. That’s purity.
Or looking into the eyes of your littlest child, the glints you find there. That’s purity on a Hallmark card.
Or a rosy-cheeked bride on her wedding day, clad all in white ... there’s purity for you.
In fact, purity is such a powerful concept to us that Madison Avenue–the folks who want to sell us all kinds of stuff–have latched onto it in a big way. Think, for example, about the soap that you might have sitting on your sink. If it’s Ivory, you can be sure that it’s 99 and 44/100% pure. It’s so pure, it’s white! It’s so pure it floats! Ivory soap.
Or, you maybe have sitting in your refrigerator some pure water, filtered by Pur water filters. In fact, in case you didn’t realize what a water filter did, they wanted to name it “Pur” just so you’d get the message.
Purity is a powerful concept to us, and in Malachi we find out that it’s a powerful concept to God as well ... he wants to make us pure.
In Malachi, we find two different ways that God is purifying us. First is that God is refining us like gold. God is refining us like gold.
Did you know that gold is obviously one of the most profitable, one of the most valuable metals on the planet, but that a profit can be made by a refiner of gold if there s just one part to 300,000 of gold to the ore. If there’s one part in 300,000 gold to crud, you can make a profit.
Gold has a high luster; it’s very shiny. And it’s extremely malleable. It’s the kind of metal that you can pound into just about any shape. You can make it into something useful, or you can make it into something beautiful. In fact, gold is so malleable that one ounce of gold can be pounded into a thin wire that’ll stretch 62 miles!
Gold is the kind of thing, though, that despite the tremendous wealth that our industrialization and technology have brought us, it is still a premium kind of item. So, it’s good for us to remember, before we start to talk about refining, that the kind of metal that God is comparing us to is not lead, not iron, but gold. God wants us to remember that we are precious like gold to him.
Now, about that refining business–and this is where the unpleasantness starts to come in, because I’m afraid refining, for the gold, is not a fun time. As I mentioned before, gold ore might be horribly impure; one part to 300,000 might be pure gold, and all of that impurity has to be removed before it can be useful.
In order to remove that impurity, what a refiner will do is melt the gold. That’s going to take heating it up to a temperature of at least 1,947° F for the gold to melt. When the gold is melted, what happens is that the impurities will float to the top and form a scum on the surface of the molten gold that the good refiner will scrape off and toss away.
The refiner, in so doing, has produced better quality gold. It might take several refinings before the gold is finally of the highest quality, but the gold can stand that ... and the refiner knows it’s worth the wait.
Now people, as it turns out, are refined in much the same way as gold by our Lord. Sometimes it seems that the gold we find in ourselves is indeed tiny. Have you ever had a day where you felt like the gold in you was one part in 300,000? I’ve been there.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to separate that little, tiny bit of gold from all of the crud without the heat; it can’t be done. We dislike intensely when somebody burns is. It’s the kind of things that the IRS does every year. We get burned. And it’s the kind of thing that a scuzzy lawyer might do–he might burn you. Or a friend who’s betrayed you might burn you. It’s also the kind of thing that your Lord will do in order to purify you ... and it’s not pleasant. But it’s necessary.
God uses many different ways to turn up the heat to a spiritually-cleansing 1,947° F. He can refine us through adversity. The earliest Christians knew all about that. Talk about adversity: facing lions, beheading, crucifixion. And it refined them, and made them pure. Even our day-to-day struggles–sickness, death, just trying to make ends meet–can be ways that God uses to refine us.
He can refine us through our doubts ... think about that! Doubts a lot of times people think are things that people think will drive us away from faith, but they can also drive us into faith. A doubt can force us to remember God and consider him, and a doubt can force us to depend on God. It can, in a word, refine us.
Most importantly, God will refine us through his Spirit. The Spirit makes us aware of the impurities that are there in the first place, and it is the Spirit that drives us to our knees in confession. And it is most certainly the flame of the Spirit that consumes our dross, melts us, burns us.
And this refinement again, I say, is good for us.
I think it’s worth remembering that God knows how much heat we can take; God is a very good refiner. It is possible to boil gold. If you heat gold up to a temperature of 5,086° it will boil. What happens when gold boils is just like what happens when water boils: the gold starts to turn into a gas. Well, that’s no good to anybody! You can’t make anything worthwhile out of gaseous gold. And so, a good refiner knows that there’s a limit to how much heat he’s going to apply to that gold. God will heat us until it feels unbearable, but his refining will never destroy us.
Like gold, we can’t be shaped into any beautiful or useful thing until we have gone through that process of burning away all of the rocky impurities of our sins. Then, when we’re freed, we can serve a purpose.
Now, the other image that we find in Malachi is that God will clean us like clothes. We have the wonder phrase, “fuller’s soap.” Has anybody every used fuller’s soap before? I didn’t think so. The art of fulling is something of a lost trade, but it was very important to the ancient people. A fuller was someone who processed cloth; he would clean it, he would bleach it. It was necessary to do this to the cloth in order for it to take a dye. And because clothing was so expensive, it was a very important trade.
How did a fuller do his work? Well, he used fuller’s soap, of course–which is the phrase that we find in Malachi. Fuller’s soap was probably lye–a solution of potassium carbonate and sodium carbonate. You get that by burning a soda plant and running some water through its ashes ... then you’ve got lye. Lye is the kind of stuff you make lutefisk in. It’s unpleasant stuff, and it’s not the kind of stuff you would want to take a bath with. Or, possibly a fuller might use a solution–if he was lucky to have imported natron from Egypt–he might be able to mix that with white clay, and make a soap. Either way the end result was a rather powerful soap. It was not, as I said, the kind of thing you’re going to want to cuddle up to in a bubble bath.
God cleanses us like a fuller. First of all, when a fuller goes out to do his work, he takes the cloth to a local patch of water. Could be a stream, could be a pond, could be a river–whatever was available. He would bring his soap, he would bring the cloth, and he would tread on that cloth under the water on a submerged rock, and that’s how it would be cleaned.
As God is cleansing us like a fuller, we are submerged. We are submerged right there, in the waters of our baptism. When we’re refined, it’s a baptism by fire; when we are cleaned by the fuller, it is a baptism in water. We go in dirty and unusable, and we come out clean and usable and ready to take a dye. It feels like drowning ... it feels like death! But it is in this underwater grave that the dirt is left behind.
And then, once God has us underwater, he treads on us. He walks all over us. Now, I don’t need to tell you that we hate being “walked on.” The old Revolutionary War banner that comes to mind–maybe you’ve seen this in textbooks or movies–has a picture of a coiled-up snake on it with the words, “Don’t Tread On Me.” It was a warning. The Statue of Liberty asks, on the inscription at the base of the statue, for all of the trodden, downtrodden people of the world to come and find refuge there. And it’s a very negative thing to call somebody a “doormat” ... you don’t want to be somebody who’s walked on.
But it is through this treading of God’s that we are cleansed. We have a choice, basically: Either God treads us like a fuller, to get us clean; or he will tread us in the winepress of his wrath.
Hear these words from Revelation 19 about treading: “Out of [Christ’s] mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. ‘He will rule them with an iron scepter.’ He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty” (Rev. 19.15). Or these words that God speaks in the 63rd Chapter of Isaiah: God says “I have trodden the winepress alone ... I trampled them in my anger and trod them down in my wrath; their blood spattered my garments, and I stained all my clothing. For the day of vengeance was in my heart, and the year of my redemption has come” (Isaiah 63.3-4).
We can be tread like that, as grapes in the winepress of God’s wrath, or we can be tread to be cleaned by God, the Fuller. Either way, it’s only after God has scoured us and trodden us that the fabric of our lives will be ready to be useful, will be clean and prepared.
Why does God put himself–and us, for that matter–through all of this nasty business of purification? Wouldn’t it be better just to leave well enough alone? John the Baptist has the answer for us this morning.
John preached: “Prepare the way of the Lord.” He quotes Isaiah, saying, “Make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3.4-6).
Now, I don’t need to tell you that the highway John was talking about was not a physical road. It’s obvious. Questions like, “Where did the road start? Where did it end? How could all of Israel, working for generations, ever build such a road?” Those are silly questions. We know that Jesus didn’t have any great and mighty highway made as he came to John.
No, the road that John was calling for was not in the wilderness of Palestine; but instead it cut through the wilderness of the hearts of the people. It cut through their cynicism. It cut through their idolatry. It cut through their loneliness. It cut through their doubts. It cut through their despair. And the only way to build such a highway through a heart is to purify it.
The fact is that we need to be purified. We want to have the Lord’s highway blaze through our hearts, but we’re incapable of building it ourselves. We want to be refined and useful and clean, but we’re incapable of turning up the heat, or treading on ourselves.
The painful process of purification opens doors for us. It opens the door of our hearts to God’s will. It opens the door of our hearts to God’s Spirit, to seeing God’s miracles. It opens us to God’s grace. It also opens the doors of the Kingdom. The doors are opened to those who are baptized by the waters of forgiveness and the fire of the Spirit, on that future day when we will be fully clean, but also open to us now.
As you’re being burned, and stepped all over, and refined, and cleaned, remember this about God: He’s a master of the arts of refining and of fulling. He knows how to get the job done, and done right. Thanks be to God! Amen.