Malachi’s words were a warning to the Hebrew people. When we read the book, we discover that Israel’s worship of God was not at all pleasing to the Lord. In fact, the prophet says that the Lord was deeply angry with the absence of reverence shown by the priests and people in worship at that time. Foreign gods were being worshipped in the land. The whole point of the coming of God’s messenger, of which we have just read, is that God will refine the priests and the people, and put things to rights in worship and in the whole land. “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…”
I read about the process of refining silver in the notes to our Advent Bible Studies, in the little book “Preparing the Way”. It’s a fascinating process. Throughout the work, the refiner has to sit near the hottest part of the fire. This is where the impurities are most effectively burnt off. The refiner must keep his eye on the work the entire time, because the silver may be destroyed if it is heated for too long. How does the refiner know when the silver is fully refined? When his image is reflected in the molten metal. The work is complete when all the impurities have been removed.
Now that is surely much food for thought. God purifies us, bit by bit, until we reflect the image of the One who made us. Paul referred to it as being “..changed from glory into glory.” I put it to you that God wants us to be hungry for that transformation. It isn’t painless, as Christians discover as the years go on. We are purified through the events we go through: more often by the difficult times than by the easy, smooth and peaceful times. When times are hard it is natural for us to say “I don’t deserve this! Why is this happening to me?” My view is that God does not “choose” that certain things befall us, to force us into learning to face things differently. Such a god would be a Dictator, a Tyrant, playing with people as if they were puppets, like the gods in a Greek tragedy.
Being refined is an uncomfortable, sometimes very hurtful, process. Again, I say that difficulties are not sent by God “to try us”. However, it is a question of how we respond to the situations which confront us. We can try to respond to the challenges which life throws up by being more understanding, compassionate and flexible in our thinking. We can learn from our experiences, learn things which help us to relate more deeply and empathetically to others. Or we can close ourselves off, and think about how unfair life is, and what an awful hand life has dealt us.
However, there is even more to be considered. The process of refinement is not going to result in our being perfectly at peace with the world. We will look around us and see the things which need changing so that more of God’s peace, justice, and harmony are seen in the world. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. coined a wonderful phrase to describe this: “Creative Maladjustment”. I think that describes it perfectly. “Creative Maladjustment”. The process of discerning that something is wrong with society, and working to put it to rights.
We live at a time when there are instantaneous global communications, and we know about events on the other side of the world as soon as they happen. We also live in an age where there are many non-government organizations working for the benefit of refugees from war, people displaced by famine and civil unrest, people fleeing from tyranny, people living in poverty and hardship. And so we know about, and we can make a contribution to, organizations which help those people. We can make a contribution to their welfare, according to our means. The Christmas Bowl, now known as Act For Peace, is one way to help; as is “Uniting World”, which is our Uniting Church in partnership with churches in countries where the need is great. Especially in developing countries. Yes, there are many demands on our charity at this time of year in particular, but God asks that we always remember the poor.
For Christians, at the heart of the meaning of life is growing to be like Christ. We are created to grow in the image of the One who made us, and who refines us to reflect the divine image. In the gospel of Luke, we have the story of John the Baptist, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”. When people follow that path, and take the way which leads to Christ, that is when the paths are made straight, hills and valleys leveled, and rough ways made smooth. This is the way for the world to see God’s salvation.
We need not think that our words and our work don’t matter. What we do and say has an impact on those around us, either for good- or not. In each encounter, we leave a legacy behind us. It is God’s will that this be a legacy of peace, of harmony. Yes, certainly that means that we do what we can to maintain peace in our own relationships, and make a contribution to work for peace in the wider world. These things always mean that problems must be addressed. You will have heard the saying “No peace without justice”. Very true. Where there is a problem, it must be put to rights.
The image in Luke’s gospel of preparing the way of the Lord is related to making a highway for a conquering monarch to approach and claim their newly won territory in a victory procession. The difference for us is that God is already with us, God shows us the way to make the rough places smooth, to lift up the downtrodden, to protect those who have no protector, to share our abundance with those who have far less than we do. God has given us eyes to see, and ears to hear what is happening in our world. God has made it clear to us that in comparison with many others, we live in great comfort.
The crowds who came to hear John the Baptist preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins asked “What then should we do?”. John replied: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none, and whoever has food must do likewise.” This makes clear for us our Christian responsibilities at a time of family gatherings and feasting. We have the joy of living in a land of peace and abundance, by the grace of God. There are many, many others less fortunate. The way of Christ is to share the abundance we have been given with others, according to our means. Thanks be to God. Amen.