Pastor Becca Ehrlich
When I was in my late teens and early 20s, I did some babysitting on the side for some extra cash. Most of the time, I thought it was a ton of fun. I basically got paid to play with kids. Changing diapers and putting kids to bed was a little less fun, but still, all in all it was a good side job.
Until, one time, I was charged with the job of giving two kids a bath.
It did not go well. I had no clue what I was doing. I was nervous and scared before we even started, and I’m pretty sure the kids could smell my fear.
It wasn’t long before there was soap and water everywhere. I made the water too hot to start. When I tried to wash them, they screamed bloody blue murder— they were so loud, I was terrified a neighbor would call the police on me. Shampoo got in their eyes, which made them scream even more. They kept trying to get out of the tub and run away while soaking wet, which made the bathroom look like a flood zone.
The joke was on me, because while I was finishing up with the youngest son in the bath, the oldest son had escaped after I dried him off and had gone rolling around in the garage. He came back covered in dirt and dust and who knows what else.
Which just goes to show—we work so hard to clean kids up, and they just go out and get dirty again! I wanted to give them to their parents spotless, but no matter what I did, they would get dirty again.
In our reading from Malachi, Chapter 3, we hear about God’s messenger. He’s described in verses 2 and 3: “For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver….”
So, God’s messenger is one who refines, cleanses, and purifies.
When I read this passage, I realized that I had no clue what it means to refine and purify silver. Well, I looked it up. To purify silver, you have to put the metal into the center of fire, where the heat is most intense. And that way, the impurities either burn off or are separated from the pure silver. The stuff that’s not worth anything and is impure is called “dross.” Once the dross separates or burns off, you are left with the pure silver.
Clearly, this messenger is much better at cleaning than I was! While the cleaning I gave those kids in the bath was very temporary, the refining and purifying that God’s messenger does is not.
And who is this messenger? Well, we read the passage from Malachi today because many scholars believe the one described is John the Baptist. The guy in our Gospel passage, who prepared the way for Jesus’ coming. The guy who hung out in the desert, baptizing people for forgiveness, preaching to people, telling them that new life is possible.
So, John is the one who was refining, cleansing, and purifying, so that Jesus—God in human form—could come to save the world.
But John didn’t do it alone.
John was called by God to do what he did. In the Song of Zechariah that we read as our Call to Worship/read together as our Psalm for the day, we heard all of the things John was called to do:
“For you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.”
John did this refining and cleansing and purifying with God’s help—because God is the ultimate refiner and cleanser and purifier.
Sometimes when God is in the process of refining or purifying us, it can feel difficult or tough. Just like the silversmith, who has to put the silver in the hottest part of the fire, we too have to have heat applied to us to purify us. Not literal heat, usually, but God can “turn up the heat” to refine and cleanse us.
And what does that do? Well, we found out that when silver is purified, the impurities either burn off or rise to the surface as dross. Then the dross is thrown away, and what’s left is just pure silver.
So, when God refines us, God is applying heat and separating the pure from the not pure, the good from the bad, the garbage from the valuable. God is getting rid of that stuff that is unnecessary or messing up our lives, and God is showing the part of us which is loving and good.
This is different than what people have called the “turn or burn” way of looking at faith in Jesus. Anyone hear that before? Basically, the theory is that you have two choices: 1) You have to turn away from your sins and change how you live and believe in Jesus OR 2) you burn in Hell. “Turn or Burn.”
But God’s refining fire is a different kind of fire. Rather than terrifying people with the thought of burning in hell for all eternity, God uses fire to cleanse and purify us, so that we can be who God wants us to be.
There is a story about a woman who read the same passage we did, in Malachi. So she went to a silversmith and asked him about his job so she could understand the passage better. He told her how he has to hold the metal in the hottest part of the fire, and how he is able to separate the pure metal from the impurities.
“How do you know when the silver is fully refined?” she asked him.
He smiled and answered: “That’s the easy part. I know the silver is fully refined when I see my image reflected in it.”
So if God is the one purifying and refining us, it is God who wishes to see God’s image reflected in us. This is why God turns up the heat on us and works to refine us—God wants to be able to see God’s own face reflected in us.
And our God is in the business of making us and the world more like God. The words in Isaiah are repeated by Luke “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
This is what God intends. This is why God wants to burn off the impurities. God wants inequalities to end, the paths for us straight, the rough paths smooth.
And this promise is for all people. “All flesh shall see the salvation of God.” It doesn’t say, only people who do certain things, or only people who say the right things, or only people who look and act like the people we know. The salvation of God is offered to all people, in all places, in all walks of life.
Because Jesus, God in human flesh, was in the business of purifying and refining and cleansing. He ate with sinners and tax collectors, so that they could talk to him and see that there was a different way to live. He healed people so that they could glorify and serve God. He stopped people from stoning a woman who had committed adultery and told her to “Go and sin no more.”
And he brought forth the ultimate purification when he died on the cross, and took our sins on himself. He died for every sin we have done, are doing, or will do. He took our sins on himself, so that we could be pure in the sight of God.
And this salvation, this purification Jesus did for us, is for everyone. Jesus offers this purification and salvation to all people, from every race and nation, from every walk of life. Jesus wants all people to know his saving power and love.
And Jesus empowers us to be like John the Baptist—to cry out out in the wilderness, to prepare the way of the Lord. By telling someone we know about Jesus’ love and salvation, we are preparing the way for them to see Jesus to acting in their own life.
I invite you to today to not only think about how God is “turning up the heat” to purify you in your spiritual life, but to also think about one person in your life that you could tell your faith journey to, and open a way for them to know Jesus. Who do you know who needs to know Jesus, and his refining love? Amen.