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Second Sunday of Advent
Light of Christ Anglican Church
The Rev. Michael Moffitt, December 9, 2018

He Prepares Us for Glory

Text: Malachi 3:1–5

I grew up in a lower middle-class neighborhood in Roanoke that was full of children. If I remember correctly there were around 50 boys within three blocks of our home and it was a real rough and tumble neighborhood. We played and fought hard virtually every day and there were always football or baseball games going on. I loved and played them both.

When I was old enough, I wanted to play for local sandlot teams in football and baseball, so I tried out every year to make the teams. This was during a time when you had to be good enough to make the team or you weren’t chosen. There wasn’t an “everybody gets to play" mentality, and this led those who failed to make the team one year to work hard to be ready for next year. I already worked hard just playing in my neighborhood and fortunately I always made the cut when trying out.

The football team that I played for was coached by a man that had played football at VMI. I thought I was in pretty good shape, but he wasn’t looking for pretty good, he wanted to build a championship team. When we practiced, he pushed us beyond what I felt was reasonable and I got to where I really hated going to football practice. We started our practice in mid-June in preparation for the season beginning at the end of August. Initially we practiced every afternoon and then before the season started, we would sometimes practice in the early morning and late afternoon. It was brutal and there were times when I despised the coach, especially when it was 90–100 degrees outside and he just kept pushing us. There was always water and salt tablets if you felt faint. If you messed up or smarted off (when I was inclined to do), you would learn the joys of running many laps around the field or earn the right to drop down and give the coach 50 push-ups.

This was very different from an afternoon on the elementary school field in my neighborhood with the guys. This required discipline and commitment and learning what it meant to feel the burn as your muscles screamed in protest.

You know what, for the time that I played for Coach Elmore we were undefeated. We not only won every game, but it was never even close. We were fine-tuned and a force to be reckoned with and it was largely due to the refining fire that shaped our minds and bodies and enhanced our skill of the game of football.

I learned the lesson that nothing comes easy but that I could do more than I thought if I allowed myself to be pushed beyond my comfort zone. The coach knew that there was more to each of his players than even they knew, and he wanted to extract that part of our abilities. We ended up loving him and even though I wouldn’t have thought so then, I know he loved us. This example has served me well many times and in many areas of my life. I thought of those early years of my adolescence as I considered what God’s word teaches us about God’s refining fire and fullers’ soap.

Today is the second Sunday of Advent. Last week we saw that Advent means “coming” or “arrival” and is largely a season of expectation, of anticipation, of preparation and of longing for the presence of the Lord to come in fullness. We remember that Jesus came in his first Advent as a child in the manger, but when he returns again he will come as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

We live in a time between the Advents and must have a double focus on the past and the future. We have the hope of the second coming because of the fulfillment of all that was foretold in the Scriptures concerning the first coming. God was faithful to his word then, which encourages us to fully trust that he will continue to accomplish all that he promised in his word. Advent symbolizes the spiritual journey of individuals and congregations, as they affirm that Christ has come, that he is present in the world today and that He will come again in the future in power and glory.

Today we will consider the process of refining that God takes us through in preparation for the return of Jesus our Lord and King. We are all being prepared for the coming of the Kingdom of God in fullness by the refining fire and fullers’ soap of God.

We will primarily be considering Malachi 3:1–5 and its relationship to our gospel passage from Luke 3:1–6. Let’s read again Malachi 3:1–2,

Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears. For he is like a refiners fire and a fullers’ soap.

Our verse from Malachi is actually the response to the accusation brought about by Israel against the Lord in chapter 2:17,

You have wearied the Lord with your words. But you say, “How have we wearied him?’”By saying, “Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and he delights in them.” Or by asking, “Where is the God of justice?”

Let’s consider the setting for the Book of Malachi. The people of God had been freed from captivity in Babylon, where they were slaves. They had come back to Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple where sacrifices to God had been resumed. Once again, the people had grown complacent and cold towards God and the holiness of his word. The Lord had grown weary that Israel continually rejected his moral authority and yet had the petulance to accuse him of not keeping his promises of protection. The people of Judah faced trials and threats from the nations surrounding them and longed for justice against their enemies. Since God had not yet struck the enemies of Israel, they questioned his justice. God’s answer through the prophet Malachi was that he was going to come and set things right but before he came, he would send a messenger before him.

It was the usual practice in the Near East for a messenger to be sent ahead of a visiting king to announce his coming and to remove any impediment or obstacle. Actually, the name Malachi means “my messenger” so there are three messengers here in this passage—Malachi, the forerunner and the Messiah.

The prophet Malachi was responding to Israel that the answer to their complaint would be in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, that all mankind would see the salvation of God. The forerunner of the Messiah would be just like the prophet Malachi in that he would speak the Word of God and it would be a declaration and a celebratory announcement of the one who was coming. It would be God himself coming in answer to the problem of injustice and ungodliness.

Every one of the Gospels has the announcement from Isaiah 40,

The voice of the one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight…and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

Of course, we know that the forerunner or messenger was John the Baptist. As we read in our gospel passage from Luke 3, the forerunner announcing the coming of the King into his kingdom was crying out for those who would receive the King to submit to a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of their sins. They didn’t yet see that the time of repentance would be cleansing like a “fullers’ soap”. I looked that up and it’s a step in woolen clothmaking that involves the cleansing of the cloth (particularly wool) to eliminate oils, dirt and any other impurities, and to make it thicker. The one who was coming would bring the refining fire and purification that would be needed to prepare God’s people to live with him in his kingdom.

It’s easy to read this passage and feel that it sounds like God is angry and is going to clobber them and whip them back into shape, but that isn’t the sense at all. God is pursuing his people out of love because what he has for them is so much more than they know. Their turning away from Him would always lead them into suffering and sorrow instead of blessing and peace. The Messiah’s coming would not be in the way they had assumed or for the reasons that they wanted. The Messiah would come suddenly to the temple bringing judgment against those who profaned it. The members of the post-exilic community that were complaining that God was unjust, weren’t seeking God’s messenger for reasons of their love for God and his word but because they believed that the coming of the messenger would lead to God’s judgment on the nations around them.

They would discover, however, that the messenger would also bring judgment against them. He would not only prepare them but be the one who would purify and judge their nation. He would accomplish a complete transformation of their impure sacrificial practices but would also deal with the ungodliness within the nation of priests. The nation of Israel had become so corrupt that they no longer saw how much they had become like the other nations or how far away they had turned from God and his commands.

Last week we talked about Israel’s blindness to their own apostasy and their desire for the “coming day of the Lord”. They longed for God to restore all things and make all things right but didn’t see that the “Day of the Lord” will also bring God’s judgment upon those who considered themselves the people of God. We read from Amos 5:18–20,

Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord! Why would you have the day of the Lord? It is darkness, and not light, as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him, or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him. Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?

God was addressing those within Israel who were so confident of their standing with God that they believed the “Day of the Lord” would be to their benefit. They had not realized that their flagrant violations of God‘s covenant actually made them enemies of God, the objects of his wrath.

Malachi addresses the seriousness of the coming of the messenger when he says, “Who can endure the day of his coming, says the Lord of hosts?” The nation had become so corrupt that virtually all would be condemned when God rendered judgment. Through Malachi God was promising that he was indeed coming but it will be to refine and purify his people, and he would begin with the Levitical priesthood. The priests had been instrumental in leading the people astray and he would start there but it would extend to all the nation. The priests were a pattern for the nation, but God had told Israel at Sinai that they were to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). The goal of the messenger of the covenant was that the heart and the lives of God’s people would be purified, and their worship would become a proper response to God Almighty, which in turn would provide them with the spiritual, social, economic blessings and the joy of an intimate relationship with their God.

Let’s read Malachi 3:3–4,

He will sit as refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

Charles Spurgeon wrote this observation on Malachi,

If any of you, my hearers, are seeking the Lord at this time, I want you to understand what it means: you are seeking a fire which will test you, and consume much which has been dear to you. We are not to expect Christ to come and save us in our sins, he will come and save us from our sins; therefore, if you are enabled by faith to take Christ as a Savior, remember that you take him as the refiner and the purifier, for it is from sin that he saves us.

It is sin that separates us from God so if we would turn from our sins and follow the Lord Jesus, we must be prepared for the refiners fire and the fuller’ soap.

I love the picture that Malachi paints for us here. Often people feel that God is distant and impersonal, not unlike the teachings of the deist, who believe that God set the world spinning then walked away saying, “good luck”. Instead God promises to “sit as a refiner and purifier of silver…and refine them like gold and silver.”

I once read an article about the refining of silver and gold. The refiner pays close attention to the process, so he can remove the impurities from the metal as they are released by the fire and rise to the surface. He patiently removes the impurity that rises to the top and then waits for what’s left. He knows the temperature that will refine as opposed to the temperature that will burn it up. He lovingly removes the dross and knows that when he can see his image in the metal that it is pure. He takes the time to complete the process because he knows the value of the silver or gold. When he first receives it, he doesn’t evaluate it solely based on the condition that it’s in, but on the condition that it will be in when he finishes.

When Teresa and I first got married I bought my wedding band based on the price. It was 10 karat gold and that seemed fine to me. Before long I noticed that my finger had turned green underneath the band. I later found out that 10 karat gold meant that it was 10 parts gold and 14 parts other metals like copper, zinc, silver or nickel. Apparently, one of the other metals reacted with my skin. Frankly, pure gold is soft and the other metals made the ring harder, less likely to be scarred or bent, but if purity was the goal, my ring didn’t qualify.

The refining process, though time-consuming, brings the silver or gold to the place of beauty that it was intended to have where it can demonstrate its real value.

That is God’s heart for his people, that they might reflect his image as they were originally intended. Then they would be able to bring an offering of praise and worship that is pleasing to the Lord and produces the life-giving joy and satisfaction that was to be man's life in the beginning.

Let’s look at the final section of our passage. Malachi 3:5,

Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against the those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.

Our section began with the religious cynics accusing the Lord of injustice. It ends with a legal charge of covenant unfaithfulness in which the Lord brings charges against his people. The specific sins mentioned in verse 5 were clearly forbidden in the law of God. The root cause was the lack of the fear of God and that was what needed to be remedied.

So, what is to be our take away from this passage? I think there are three things for us to take with us this Advent season.

1. God involves himself in the lives of those whom he loves. J.I. Packer in his book “Knowing God” writes, “Still he seeks the fellowship of his people and sends them both sorrows and joys in order to detach their love from the things of this world and attach them to himself." God seeks intimacy with us and will do what it takes to bring us into a right relationship with him. James 1:2–4, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

We all have those areas where we stumble or are struggling and experiencing suffering. It could be sickness, or financial, or relational but whatever it is the design is for you to grow closer in intimacy with God. When James speaks of God testing our faith, it’s not so that God might know where our faith is but so that we might know where we stand. God strengthens us, he deepens our roots and gives us a firmer grip on his hand. James exhorts us to consider these trials joy because they produce in us a steadfastness of faith designed to build endurance. When struggles happen, we know that we are not abandoned but that God is at work refining us.

2. Romans 5:3,

“Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

This one can really be difficult, I admit. I can remind myself that I am supposed to consider it all joy when I face various trials, but actually rejoicing in those trials is another matter. Paul teaches us that all these things are designed to build endurance, character and hope as we grow in our relationship with God and face the inevitable struggles of this life. Just like my football coach tried to teach us. When it came time for the game, we were very grateful for the endurance, strength and power that enabled us to overcome our opponents.

3. The Advent season is a time of anticipation and longing and often that has everything to do with hoping that Jesus will return soon and set up his kingdom and that is the ultimate hope. However, our passage today points us to a deeper longing for Jesus to refine and purify us so that we become the bride that is fit for the King and become those who live for the glory and delight of our beloved. Not only has he given us his Word and Holy Spirit, but he promises to be working on our relationship with his refining fire and fullers’ soap. Rather than dreading what that may look like, our hearts should yearn to be more and more a reflection of Jesus Christ.

I believe that is as much a part of the anticipation and hope of Advent as looking for the consummation of all things. In our Epistle reading from 1 Corinthians 4, Paul reminds us,

Therefore, do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.

We are to be those who are preparing for the Lord’s by allowing him to refine us into the vessels of beauty that we were created to be, the bride that he deserves.

Let’s pray.

©2018 Rev. Mike Moffitt

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