Sunday, December 6, 2009

Sermon for DEcember 6th: Malachi 2:167 - 3:5

Purify Our Hearts

It’s over ten years now since I was interviewed for the position of rector of St. Margaret’s church. If I remember correctly it was August 31st 1999 when I showed up at the law office of Murray Tait on the 13th floor of the Oxford Tower in downtown Edmonton to be interviewed by the parish search committee. I’ve forgotten most of what we talked about at that interview, but there is one thing I remember very clearly. At one point in the interview Murray Tait, who was the people’s warden at the time, asked me, ‘Do you consider it part of your responsibility as a preacher, not just to comfort us, but to challenge us as well?’ I replied that I did, and that answer seemed to be acceptable, since the committee asked the bishop to appoint me as rector!

To me, the question was a no-brainer, because it’s clear that in the scriptures we get both comfort and challenge, sometimes in close proximity to each other. The same is true of the Advent season; we hear words of hope about the coming of God’s future kingdom, and also words of judgement, calling us to repent of our sins and return to the Lord. In our readings for today it’s the notes of challenge and judgement that sound out most clearly. In the gospel we have the beginning of the story of John the Baptist who was sent by God to call the people to repentance and to get ready for the coming of the Messiah. And in the Old Testament we have Malachi’s image of God being like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap, purifying the people from their sins so that they may worship him acceptably.

Malachi probably lived in the fifth century B.C., perhaps a century after the people returned from their exile in Babylon. The return had been full of promise but the reality was not as bright; times were hard in Israel, and the faith of many people grew cold. If you read through the entire book of Malachi – which isn’t hard to do, it’s only four or five pages long – you get a picture of a people who are tired and discouraged and are losing their spiritual fire and enthusiasm. They’ve forgotten the good news of what God has done for them, and they are accusing the Lord of treating evil people just the same as the good – after all, the evil seem to prosper, don’t they? The priests and people are no longer offering the best of their flocks and herds in sacrifice to God – they give him the leftovers – and they aren’t bringing in their tithes either. The people are marrying foreign wives – which had always led to the worship of foreign gods – and they were also abandoning their marriage covenants in easy divorce.

Doesn’t sound too different from our day, does it? We also can be tempted to give up our hope when times aren’t as good as we thought they would be. We also can let our spiritual fire and enthusiasm burn low and not offer God the best worship and service we can give. And it’s so easy for us to forget the promises of faithfulness and fidelity we’ve made to other people – marriage vows, baptism and confirmation vows, ordination vows and so on – when the keeping of them turns out to be harder than we had anticipated.

So Malachi’s words are for us today. What does he have to say? I want to read again the verses we heard for our first reading, but add a couple of extra ones to give the context, one at the beginning and one at the end. So turn with me to Malachi 2:17 – 3:5:

You have wearied the LORD with your words. Yet you say, “How have we wearied him?” By saying, “All who do evil are good in the sight of the LORD, and he delights in them”. Or by asking, “Where is the God of 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. 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. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and in former years.

Then I will draw near to you for judgement; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.

What’s happening here? The people are complaining, as people so often complain, that God is not a God of justice. Why do bad things so often happen to good people? Why do evil people so often seem to prosper while good people are oppressed and taken advantage of? God may say that he wants us to be righteous, but his actions show that it’s really the wicked he favours and not the righteous at all – if not, then why does he so obviously reward the wicked? Why doesn’t he send his messenger and bring judgement on them?

Not so fast, says Malachi! Do you really want God to send his messenger to pronounce judgement on sinners? Are you so confident that it’s ‘them’ who are the wicked and faithless ones, and ‘us’ who are in the right?

Of course, that does tend to be the way of the world, doesn’t it? As Bruce Cockburn once wrote, ‘Everyone wants to see justice done – to somebody else!’ When we are confronted with our behaviour, our first reaction so often is to attempt to justify ourselves and to put the blame on someone else. Despite appearances to the contrary, we really are the ones in the right – it’s those people over there who are the bad guys, not us! So judge them, please, and keep us in the clear!

But God won’t have it. Yes, he says, the messenger is coming – but not to the foreigners and the godless! He’s coming to you, to the people of Israel, and especially to the priests and the temple hierarchy, the ones who lead the worship of Israel and are responsible for teaching the Law. They are the ones who need to be purified.

In New Testament times this passage was applied to the coming of John the Baptist. Before the time of John the Baptist, Gentiles who wanted to become Jews went through a sort of baptism ceremony before the men were circumcised, but never before had anyone required that Jewish people themselves come forward for baptism. Why would that be necessary? They were already God’s chosen people, already clean and pure in God’s sight? It was the Gentiles who needed purification, not the Jews!

But John would have none of it. Just because they were descendants of Abraham, that didn’t mean that they were off the hook! No – they too needed to repent of their sins and return to God, and John asked them to come forward for baptism as a sign of their repentance, in preparation for the coming of the Lord.

In this Advent season, we too are preparing for the coming of the Lord – the remembrance of his birth in Bethlehem long ago, and also a reminder that the day will come when he will return in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will never end. So we too need to hear the words of Malachi; God wants to refine us, to purify us from sin, so that we can stand at his appearing and welcome him with joy.

I find this image of refining very helpful. A refiner is attempting to purify metal from all its dross in order to create an object of beauty and strength – a silver cup, perhaps. In Malachi’s time this would be accomplished by putting the unrefined metal into a pot or furnace and heating it up until all the dirt and impurities were burnt out of it. And there’s another lovely little detail here. A number of Bible scholars say that the refiner would know that the process was complete when the molten metal was so clear that he could see his own face reflected in it.

This illustration of refining provides a very helpful picture for us of the ongoing process of purification in our lives as Christians. The General Confession in the old Book of Common Prayer says, “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done”. In other words, God’s work of change in us will have both negative and positive aspects. Negatively, the refiner will be trying to remove our impurities – the ‘things we ought not to have done’. Positively, God will be trying to form the image of Jesus in us – Jesus who shows us by his way of life ‘the things we ought to have done’.

Let’s think of the negative things first – the things God is wanting to remove from our lives. Malachi actually gives us a list of them in verse 5:

Then I will draw near to you for judgement; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.

The thing that strikes me about this list is that it includes what we might call both personal and social sins. Yes, God is upset about people who are committing adultery and telling lies and going in for sorcery and all that. So the refining process will involve us learning to be faithful to the one true God, learning to speak the truth at all times, and being faithful to our marriage vows. But there are also what we might refer to as ‘social’ sins as well: ‘those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan…those who thrust aside the alien’ (v.5). God is concerned that the people who make our tee-shirts and jeans in the Philippines and Bangladesh get paid a fair wage for it; he’s concerned that the people who grow our coffee beans earn an adequate living; he’s concerned that the weak and vulnerable people in our society get proper protection, and that the immigrants get treated properly and not find themselves the victims of discrimination.

So when we think about the refining process, it’s not just about stuff like honesty and sexual purity and so on; it is about those things, and I don’t want to downplay them, but it’s about other things as well. It’s about where we choose to buy our clothes and our shoes and our coffee, and how we use our vote to make sure that everyone in the world gets a fair deal. We need to think about these things as well.

So much for the ‘things that we ought not to have done’; now, what about the ‘things we ought to have done’? What about the positive side of the refining process? What will it look like?

Let me return to the illustration I used earlier on: the refiner would know that the process was complete when the molten metal was so clear that he could see his own face reflected in it. And so God will be trying to form the image of Jesus in us – Jesus who shows us by his way of life ‘the things we ought to have done’. And so here’s the challenge for me: do the people around me feel like they’re living with Jesus? The members of my family, my friends, the people I work with day by day – when they rub shoulders with me, do they feel somehow as if they’re meeting Jesus in me? Because if Malachi is right, that’s the goal God is working toward in my life.

And of course this is not just an individual thing; it applies to the church as a community as well. Wouldn’t it be great if our culture was continually noticing how Christ-like the Christian Church is? That doesn’t necessarily mean ‘nice’ or ‘inoffensive’, but it does mean becoming a community of self-sacrificial love. I think of the countries in South America where families are responsible for feeding those of their relatives who are in prison. So prison inmates with no families are in a tough spot! In some of those countries a Christian ministry called ‘Prison Fellowship’ has taken on the responsibility of feeding those inmates who have no one else to turn to for help. Isn’t that a great Christ-like face for the Church to present to the world?

It’s been said that God loves us so much that he accepts us just as we are, weaknesses and all, but he loves us far too much to leave us there. This morning God is gently inviting us into this process of being refined from all impurities until he can see the image of Jesus clearly in us – and until the people around us can see it too.

A few minutes ago Wayne led us in a song about this. I suggest we use that song as our prayer this morning:

Purify my heart, let me be as gold and precious silver

Purify my heart, let me be as gold, pure gold

Refiner’s fire, my heart’s one desire,

is to be holy, set apart for you Lord

I choose to be holy, set apart for you my master

Ready to do your will

Purify my heart, cleanse me from within, and make me holy

Purify my heart, cleanse me from my sin, deep within

Refiner’s fire, my heart’s one desire,

is to be holy, set apart for you Lord

I choose to be holy, set apart for you my master

Ready to do your will

By Brian Doerksen. © 1990 Mercy/Vineyard Publishing. Reprinted by permission CCLI License #1284692

No comments: