See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me… 2But 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 fullers’ soap; 3he 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. (Malachi 3: 1a, 2-3)
What is all this talk about fire? Fire is painful; fire is destructive; fire leaves ashes in its path. This is supposed to be the season of joy, full of carols and Christmas trees and visions of sugar plums. Why are we reading about this in Advent? The truth is that we would rather jump ahead and let the visions of sugar plums dance in our heads. We would rather this be easier. And so we back away from the fire.
Now, read it. It doesn’t predict fire. It says that the coming of this messenger is LIKE a refiner’s fire. In other words, the messenger’s job is to prepare us, to get us ready, to change us. Maybe it is a promise that those things in our lives that do not serve us and do not serve God will be metaphorically burned away or cleaned and bleached and beaten the way a fuller would do to cloth to make it clean and full. Yes, I think we’re talking in metaphors (or, as my translation uses the word “like”, I guess that’s technically a simile.) But the point is that we will all be changed. And so we back away from the fire.
The truth is that most of us would rather not have to change. We would rather sanitize our lives and ward off those things that create chaos and shake the foundations of our existence. We would rather just live with visions of sugar plums even though they are not that good for us. But here we are in Advent anyway, trying to navigate the darkness and the unknown, trying to find our way, trying to prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ into our lives. But we have the wrong vision. The vision is not one of sugar plums or sappy sweetness. The vision is not one where God comes into our midst to tell us how great we’re all doing at running our lives and running our world. The vision is not one where the Kingdom of God comes in its fullness and looks exactly like the lives we’ve created for ourselves. You might as well put those visions with the sugar plums.
We are all called to change, called to grow, called to become a New Creation that God envisions we can be. It is not easy. Sometimes it may be downright painful. But like a refiner’s fire, this process will allow our true beauty to emerge. Like fuller’s soap, it will make us clean and full, a fabric worthy of clothing our King. And, as we’ve been shown before, from the dark of chaos, a new order, a New Creation will come to be—a Creation where those we’ve deemed enemies are our brothers and sisters, where homelessness and hunger and suicide bombers and weapons of mass destruction are archaic words that no longer need translated, and where the visions of sugar plums that we thought would fulfill us have been replaced by the vision that God has always held for us. But we have to be open to change and, especially, to being changed. We can no longer back away. And whatever the Vision holds, assume that it will be different than what you’ve planned! Thanks be to God!
We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
Grace and Peace,