From the Refiner's Fire

Luke 1: 67-79   Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III

Malachi 3: 1-4               December 6, 2015 (Advent 2)

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.

Prayer:  Holy God, by your Spirit, please speak your word to us today.  Let us receive your insights.  With faith and courage may we respond with love and obedience.  Amen.

So, you’re preparing for Christmas, are you?  How’s it going?  Pretty well?  How many of you have put up all the decorations you intend to put up this year?  [show of hands]  How many of you have a long way to go…!  [show of hands]  At our house, little by little, we’re getting there.  The outside lights and the Moravian star went up last week.  One tree is up and decorated, and later today the main Christmas tree will be put up and decorated.  Yes, we have two trees, but who’s counting?  Yesterday, I was supposed to get to making my famous Hawaiian fruitcake! Never happened. I know, for many people fruitcake is an acquired taste… which is why I have a lot of it around until about June!  But you haven’t lived until you’ve had my Hawaiian fruitcake!  I’m just sayin.’

But, it’s all about preparing, isn’t it?  We prepare.  We prepare by putting up Nativity scenes.  We prepare by putting up big blow up snowmen around town, and Santa Clauses and elves, and candy canes with red and white stripes.  We also prepare by cooking and baking, going to Christmas events, spending time with family and friends, buying presents.

We’re preparing… for… the holiday, and all its various parts.  Fred and I are preparing for Christmas Eve worship services.  Our musicians are preparing Christmas music for the Lessons and Carols Sunday coming up in two weeks.  Other musicians are preparing for performances which entertain the public.  Some Christian education leaders in some churches are preparing the Christmas pageants, cute shepherds in bathrobes, and adorable angels in white sheets with halos.  It’s warm, cute, and idyllic.

There’s a lot to prepare for… and we do all these things in order to… remind me again… what are we preparing for?

Oh, of course!  Christmas.

I suggest to us that preparing for Christmas means doing all these things, but I think in doing all those things, we are preparing for the trees, but we miss preparing for the forest.  The trees are all the things I mentioned, and more.  But, the forest is the BIG THING!  The Big Thing is not just preparing for Jesus’ birth, it’s not just God’s salvation happening.  It’s both of those, yes, but mostly, it’s God coming to us.  It’s the eternal God being born into the human race and being among us.  It’s the Life-Breath of all the universe, the Holiest Entity that has power to give life and take it away, the Creator of all things visible and invisible, the Power of the wave, the Source of infinite Love and Light, the only God of our entire world, the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel and our God… THAT God is coming!

And we’ve made Christmas to be all cute and warm and fuzzy; whereas, people from past generations, waaay back when, trembled with foreboding at the thought of God coming let alone being in the presence of the eternal God.  Knees buckled, hearts pounded, legs felt like water.  People in biblical days believed that if you looked on the face of God, there’s no way you would live.  And if by the grace of God you lived, you would at least be maimed for life, like Jacob was when he wrestled with the angel (Genesis 32: 24-25).

So, Malachi asks, “Who can endure the day of his coming?”  Because when the messenger of the Lord of Hosts gets here, it’s going to be like a silversmith refining the silver with hot fire.  All the impurities, the dross will be burned away, until all that remains is the pure silver.

Spiritually speaking, THAT refining is what makes us ready to receive the Lord of Hosts with fear and trembling!

One woman, when visiting a silversmith, asked him about the smelting process.  And after explaining it to her, she watched him work.  She asked many questions.  At the end, he pulled the purified silver out of the fire, and she thanked him for his time and started to leave.  But, he called her back.  “There’s one thing you didn’t ask,” he said.  “You didn’t ask how I know the process of purifying is complete.  I know it’s finished,” he said, “when I can see my own reflection in the silver” (Homiletics December 2015, p. 45-6).

You get the idea… when God starts to see a Christ-like reflection in our lives, in our actions, in our faces, in our attitudes, in our decisions, then God knows that we’ve are being refined by the Spirit, and the worst in us starts to go away, and the best in us remains.

The trouble is that the worst in us is very difficult to undo at times.  It’s embedded in our consciousness, our culture, our environment.  And, sometimes, don’t we get things mixed up?  Maybe what was once thought of as pure and good is now shown to be dross?

For example, when our 2nd Amendment was adopted on December 15, 1791, perhaps it was viewed as a pure example of democracy in action.  The people were given the right to keep and bear arms.  But with yet another mass shooting this past week, and we seem to average about one per week, I have to ask, “Has our obsession with guns and the 2nd Amendment become like dross?  Is what used to be pure democracy in action now becoming an impurity that brings out the worst in us?  How many more mass shootings must occur before the political wheels decide that it’s time for further legislation and tighter controls?”  I’m just askin.’  This new normal of mass shootings is not good from where I sit.

For another example, in the wake of the Paris shootings and the San Bernardino shooting this past week, more fuel was added to the ‘hatred of all Muslims’ fire.  America’s growing religious bigotry, what I call “religism,” is growing out of control, I think.  Millions of Americans are starting to believe that hatred of Muslims is another form of patriotism.  Let’s not mistake what is becoming commonplace with what is good to keep.  There are tens of thousands of American Muslims who are absolutely appalled that people of their own faith are acting so deplorably and with such hatred.  Religism is dross, I believe.  It brings out the worst in us.

And, it appears to me that the growing twin sibling to religism is xenophobia, which is a fear of others from a different country.  As a nation, we are ambivalent about welcoming Syrian refugees into our country, partly because of their religion, partly because they’re from another country.  Xenophobia is growing all around our nation.  It is, I believe, dross; it brings out the worst in us.

Can God start to see a Christ-like reflection in our lives, in our actions, in our faces, in our attitudes, in our decisions if we are living with these types of dross?  If we harbor these kinds of sentiments?  I’m just askin.’

Despite the very worst being embedded in us, with the coming of God into our lives, and our decision to accept God, we can turn around.  With the refiner’s fire that can burn away our dross, and with mercy, grace, forgiveness and love, God can refine us so purely that we become a reflection of Christ in all we do.  Our attitudes change.  So do our values.  Everyone holds everyone accountable, each works hard to neutralize evil and to do justice where injustice rears its head.  We can decide to treat others as people loved and forgiven by God because they are, and because we are.

Malachi’s message about the refiner’s fire, while demanding, painful, and involves serious sacrificial changes, can also be liberating.  Like the person facing serious surgery and a long, painful rehab period, to go through it often means the best chance for health and wholeness.  So, it is with us.

We can receive a different promise from the refiner’s fire.  That promise is that with God, usually is the way down into the refiner’s hot fire is the way up to wholeness and joy.  Burning off the dross is painful, as spiritual surgery often is, but the new life that comes can bring out the best in us.  Scriptures tells us such a new life is an offering of goodness and righteousness, and it’s pleasing to the Lord.

Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell was in the Pentagon on 9/1.  He was burned over 60% of his body after the 757 crashed into the wall of the building.  Several months later, during rehab, a pastor was visiting with him, and the pastor said that “God never wastes our pain.”  At first, the words didn’t mean too much, but later, after he recovered, Birdwell began a ministry to burn victims.  The pastor’s words came backto his mind.  He began sharing them with other burn victims from car crashes, fires, and so forth, helping them go through rehab.  God didn’t waste Birdwell’s pain.  His way down into the pain was his way up into new life for others.  And, his new life and ministry are good and righteous offerings pleasing to God, I believe.

As Christian interpreters of scripture, we understand that Malachi and

Zechariah were both speaking of John the Baptist, as the Advance man for God to come in Jesus Christ.  John’s message will function like a refiner’s fire that purifies us, enabling us to receive God.  It won’t be easy, warm and fuzzy or painless, per say, but the promise is none other than God living in us and giving us new life, and it comes from the refiner’s fire.

So, let us during this Advent season, prepare for the coming of God by changing our lives and giving birth to Christ within and among us.  Amen.