I am nearing the completion of teaching a ten-week course on Christian Ethics. Each Monday evening for two hours, I have had the pleasure of leading a conversation on approaches different philosophers and theologians have taken to define a system of ethics by which to live by. Some of you are part of that class and may not find it as pleasurable as I do because it is a lot of work. I have told the class that this course is the hardest course they will take in the series of lay study course being offered by the American Baptist Churches of New York State. It is a hard course because it requires the attendees to think deeply about their beliefs and convictions. This makes the course a refining process.
We all undergo refining processes in life. Sometimes that refining occurs in a school setting where we are challenged to develop greater knowledge or improve upon our skills and talents. Sometimes refining occurs at home where expectations of communal living requires each member of the household to change their individual habits to conform to habits that serve the greatest good for the group. In the grief counseling ministry, I have not yet met a person who did not feel they had gone through a refining process as their grieved the loss of a loved one. In and through grief, people learned to separate the things of life that did not matter from the things that do matter. So, when we forced to go through grief or when we voluntarily go through school, we are changed. Whether those changes are positive or negative depends upon whether the process was a refining process that improved our character or a process that infected our life with behaviors and thinking that does not well serve us or anyone else.
Our Old Testament reading today from the prophet Malachi promised a refining process for the people of Israel. God promised this process because the people of Israel, particularly with the leading of the religious teachers and leaders, were infecting with harmful thinking and behaviors. If we had read the earlier chapters of Malachi, we would discover the people of Israel doubted God’s love for them. The people showed contempt for God, instead of respect. The people gave the scraps of life to God, instead of their best.
God through Malachi had a particular warning for the priests, the pastors of Malachi’s day. God said, “5 My covenant was with him (Levi-the priest), a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them (people) to him (Levi); this called for reverence and he (Levi) revered me and stood in awe of my name. 6 True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin. 7 For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, because he is the messenger of the Lord Almighty and people seek instruction from his mouth. 8 But you have turned from the way and by your teaching have caused many to stumble; you have violated the covenant with Levi,” says the Lord Almighty” (Malachi 2:5-8). Pastors were not speaking the truth about God. The pastors had become more interested in being admired by the people than being true to God’s Word and thus honoring God. God said, “17 You have wearied the Lord with your words. ‘How have we wearied him?’ you ask. By saying, ‘All who do evil are good in the eyes of the Lord, and he is pleased with them’” (Malachi 2:17). It seems that pastors were celebrating behaviors of the people that the pastors knew were wrong in God’s eyes by saying those behaviors pleased God. God said through the prophet Isaiah, “20 Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20). God was not happy with the pastors.
Through Malachi, God said that a refining process was needed. God is an orderly and just God who does not act without warning. So, God outlined his plan for the refining process; a process to bring people back to holiness. First, God said, “1I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me” (Malachi 3:1). God said a similar thing, again through the prophet Isaiah. God said he would send a messenger as, “A voice of one calling: "In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
Step 1 – God would send a messenger to prepare people before he arrived. God waited 400 years between setting out this plan to Malachi to send a messenger and sending that messenger. To us, 400 years represents 20 generations of people. To put that in perspective, 20 generations is the time between the Pilgrims landing in 1620 and our worship service today in 2020. For us, 400 years is a long time. To God, 400 years is a mere blink of the eye. When God is ready, he will act.
All four Gospels record the story of the messenger’s arrival and his message. The Gospel of Matthew said, “In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: ‘A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him’” (Matthew 3:1-3). The messenger promised through Malachi and Isaiah had arrived. John the Baptist was announcing God’s refining process had begun.
John began baptizing in the Jordan River those who sought to change their ways and be refined. When John saw the priests from Jerusalem coming to be baptized, he scolded them. John told these priests they must produce fruit of repentance. The refining process being proclaimed by John must change them and be evident in the priests’ behavior toward God and toward people. If that was not enough, John told the priests that an even greater refining process coming. John said, “11 I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:11-12).
John used language of a difficult process of separated what was of value from what was of no value. It would be done by fire and would look and feel to some people like the process of separating wheat from the chaff. John was speaking about Step 2 of God’s plan found in Malachi.
Step 2 - If we jumped back to Malachi, we would find these words about that part of the refining process. God said, “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. (That is John.) Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty” (Malachi 3:1-2). John was saying the promised Messiah, the Lord himself, was about to appear. This we know was the coming of Jesus.
Jesus, the messenger of the covenant, was going to challenge the thinking of the priests and people about their understanding of God. Jesus was going to challenge the lack of honor toward God, contempt for God rather than respect, and their lack of love for God despite God’s unwavering love for the people. How would Jesus bring this message? Jesus would bring the message just as Levi had done. We recall God said the message was brought because, “6 True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin.” Jesus would do all of that as he would suddenly “come to his temple.”
Shortly after this scene with John the Baptist along the Jordan River we read this account of Jesus, the messenger, in the Gospel of John. “13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, ‘Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!’ 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ 18 The Jews then responded to him, ‘What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?’ 19 Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.’ 20 They replied, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?’ 21 But the temple he [Jesus] had spoken of was his [own] body” (John 2:13-21). There was no mistaking that Jesus had arrived in the Temple and that he was beginning the refining process that looked very much like separating wheat from the chaff.
The refining process Jesus came to initiate was not simply to teardown what was corrupt. It was to build up what was good and pleasing to God. We see this as Step 3 in the refining process.
Step 3 - We return to our reading in Malachi and see that God said through the prophet, “2 But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites [priests] and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, 4 and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years” (Malachi 3:2-4). The prophesy of Jesus was that priests and people would seek to challenge him, to contest what he had to say, but ultimately they would not prevail against him. In all cases, Jesus would work to refine those he encountered that they would come to see God. The impurities of their lives, sin, would be removed and they would be made righteous through him. Their offering, their lives, would become acceptable to God. The Apostle Paul would later express this conclusion this way, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed [refined] by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:1-2).
The purpose of the refining process of Jesus was and remains to remove the impurities of our life and build us up in the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God. I think this is an important point. Jesus did not come simply to make heaven available to us and leave our life on earth unchanged. If we think of Jesus only in these terms then we reduce Jesus’ message to something like, “You have a choice between living eternally in hell or eternally in heaven.” When we do that then following Jesus is nothing more than concluding heaven with God seemed like a better alternative to hell. That is not the Jesus message.
If we went back to Malachi, we would find that part of God sending his messenger of the covenant was that we would live a productive and pleasing life on earth. Malachi wrote that God “5Will come to put you [those who do not fear him] on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice” (Malachi 3:5). The message of Jesus was that our life, here on earth, will evidence the presence of God. The impurities of life will be removed and the presence of God will be evident.
Think about that for a moment. Jesus had the fullness of God within him. He was the visible image of the invisible God. Jesus, in coming to us, presents us with an opportunity to imitate him and have the visible image of the invisible God displayed through us. That is called holiness. That is a wonderful life-giving, God-honoring, way to live that happens in our lifetime. We can experience the life of Jesus, but we must first submit ourselves to the refining process. We must come to Jesus and be forgiven our sin and receive the Holy Spirit to guide our steps toward making our lives a living sacrifice. It is a beautiful and pleasing way to live and, by the way, we discover that life will never end. It will continue with God in heaven. Let’s walk that life together. Amen and Amen.