The following was preached at Veedersburg and Hillsboro UMC on Sunday, December 6, 2001. The text for this week’s message is Malachi 3:1-4.
Last week we talked about hope and the promises that God has made. Faith is all about trusting in God, even though we may not understand God. When we approach the season of Advent and spend time looking at key Scriptures that were important to the people of Israel, we need to remember God’s faithfulness in the promises that were fulfilled in the coming of Jesus. These weeks leading up to Christmas are a period of preparation. This week, we are looking at a text that is important when it comes to what it means to prepare. As the first Israelites returned to Jerusalem, the promise of restoration still hung over their heads.
As we get into the later prophets of the Old Testament, we see a shift from talking about the impending exile to a focus on purity and preparing oneself for the coming of the Messiah. And here, in Malachi, we see the development of an expectation that there would be one who would come and prepare the way for the Messiah. This one is known as the messenger, but who is this messenger and what is it that he does?
What I find interesting is that the Hebrew for “Malachi” and “my messenger” are the same. This has led many to believe that the book is not named after the prophet, but after the key theme of the messenger that is to come. I think this gives us a clue as to the importance of this passage, as well as another passage later in the book that point to a messenger that is to come before the Lord.
If we were to keep reading Malachi, which is possible to do in one setting because it is only four chapters in length, we would see in Malachi 4:5 the promise of a prophet that will come before the great and awesome day of the Lord, and that prophet is named. It is Elijah. This could mean one of two things.
First, it could mean that Elijah himself would return. You may or may not know that Elijah never died, at least there is no description of his death in the Old Testament. We can read about Elijah’s ministry in the books of 1 & 2 Kings, but in 2 Kings 2:11 we read that as Elijah and his pupil Elisha were walking one day, suddenly they were separated by chariots and horses of fire, and Elijah was taken up into heaven in a whirlwind, and that is the last we hear from Elijah. Because of that event, and the words of the prophet in Malachi 4, some believed that Elijah himself would return one day.
Secondly, it could mean that there would be one whose ministry would be similar to Elijah’s. Elijah’s ministry was primarily focused on turning the people away from their idolatrous ways to which they had grown so accustomed. It was about bringing people back to the Lord. The people had to examine their hearts and repent. Notice here in Malachi 3 when it says that he will be like a refiner’s fire, like one who purifies gold and silver. Elijah’s ministry was one of refining the nation of Israel. There would be another who would refine the people as they awaited the coming of their Lord.
If we read through the gospels carefully, it is clear who that prophet was. In Mark 1, he is described in a manner very similar to Elijah in terms of what he was wearing and eating. In Matthew 11, he is described as one who is greater than all the men born of women. In Matthew 17, he is described as one who has already come, but was not recognized. In John 1, he points his own disciples to Jesus, knowing that Jesus was truly the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world. That man was John the Baptist.
When we read about John the Baptist in the gospels, we read about a fiery character who wasn’t afraid to speak his mind and let the people know what needed to happen in order for them to be in relationship with God. We don’t see a guy who thinks his ministry is the most important thing in the world; we see a guy who knew that his ministry was to get the people to repent and then point them to Jesus.
John the Baptist had a ministry of preparation. He was preparing the way for the Lord by getting the people to closely examine their hearts, minds and souls, which inevitably will cause people to repent if they are truly honest with themselves. He called out the Jewish leaders whose hearts were not in the right place, but in their own self-importance, they did not seem to care. He was fairly harsh as well, at one point calling them a “brood of vipers.”
You see, the thing about a refiner’s fire is that it is hot. It can burn. It can destroy things within the material. In fact, refining gold and silver is an extensive and sometimes difficult process. The whole material needs to be heated up to incredibly high temperatures, and all the junk and filth can be burned out or removed. It is a messy process. It can be a very dangerous process. But it is a process that, in the end, makes that which was already valuable even more so.
In a sense, John’s ministry continues in the work of the Holy Spirit. As we go through life, there are things that we let in which will harm us. They degrade that which is valuable within all of us. The Holy Spirit works in our lives, through the grace of God, to refine us. Do you ever do something that you just know is wrong? Often, that is the Holy Spirit working in your life, convicting you of the sin that is in your life and refining you, as long as you let Him.
Maybe you had a similar experience before you came to know Christ. Or, maybe, if you don’t have a relationship with God through Jesus, you are still having this experience. Some people refer to it as your conscience, or your upbringing, or your sense of ethical duty, but I think what just might be behind all of that is the grace of God.
In our Wesleyan theological tradition, we have a term for it. It is called prevenient grace. Prevenient grace is the grace of God that precedes our salvation. In that period in our lives before we come to be in a real relationship with God, His prevenient grace will often be working in our lives, though we may not even know it or recognize it. Over time, we can ignore God. We can shut him out and stop listening. That doesn’t mean that God has abandoned us, it means that we no longer recognize His voice.
But if we stop just long enough to notice something outside of ourselves, God’s prevenient grace draws us closer to Him. We begin to see things in a new way. Life makes a little more sense. And suddenly, we are open to a whole new world that we never could have imagined, a world where we follow after God and seek His face. And that brings us to a point of repentance.
We don’t repent because of the punishment that might come on us if we fail to do so. We repent because God’s grace has led us to that point. We recognize that there is something more to this life than what we see every day with our own eyes. We realize that there are parts of our life that fail to live up to the standards that have been set – not by us, not by our friends or family, not by the society in which we live, but by God’s standards of holiness. We recognize that we do not belong in the presence of God because we are stained and ruined people. That is the refiner’s fire at work. That is God’s presence at work in our lives as we learn to submit to God.
John’s ministry was a ministry that led people to repentance. It might seem like an obvious question, but do you know why John is known as John the Baptist? It’s not a denominational affiliation. People called him John the Baptist because so many people heard his message of repentance and came to be purified through baptism. That’s what baptism is about – recognizing our own impurities and coming before God to be cleansed from our sin. It is the outward sign of the grace of God that is working inside of us.
Some of you may be thinking, “This is all nice, but I’ve been a Christian for years.” And that’s true, some of y’all have been Christians for longer than I’ve been alive. If that’s the case, it doesn’t mean that none of this talk of self-examination and refinement is applicable to your life either. You see, we don’t stop being refined simply by being baptized. There is constantly the need for purification in our lives.
Just a brief poll: how many have sinned this week? Clearly there are still parts of our lives that are in need of refinement. There are still parts of our lives that stain the holiness that is expected of us. I’ll go out on a limb and say that those who are closest to God are most aware of what it is in their lives that separates them from God. Have you ever heard the saying, “The more you know, the more you realize there is to learn”? It is like that in our spiritual lives as well. This is God’s grace at work in our lives as well.
We have a different name for it in our tradition, but it essentially does the same thing – draws us closer to God by getting rid of the junk that is holding us back. We refer to this as God’s sanctifying grace. It, too, is the refiner’s fire at work in our lives. It convicts us of what is wrong in our lives and destroys that which is in the way of our relationship with God. This also begins with self-examination. What is it in your life that is holding you back? What is it in your life that is preventing you from taking the next step with God? These are the kind of questions that lead us into the refiner’s fire. These are the types of questions that draw us closer to God.
As important as this part of John’s ministry was, the ministry of repentance, it wasn’t all that John did. There was one more important aspect of his ministry that is crucial for us to look at as we enter into this season of preparation for the birth of Christ. John’s ministry was really twofold. First, it was to get people to the point of repentance, and second, it was to point them to Jesus.
Nearly every time we come across John the Baptist in the gospels, he is pointing somebody to Jesus. In his message, he refers to one who will come whose sandals he is not worthy to tie. In the beginning of the gospel of John, he points his disciples to Jesus. That is something we should be doing as well.
Perhaps the most important thing about our faith is that it is not ours to keep. Not only should we be examining ourselves, but we should also be sharing our faith with those around us. We should be taking John’s lead and be pointing others to Jesus as well. Perhaps you may not know this, but there is very little about our faith that is intuitive. Our faith is not something that we could just come to on our own by sitting under a tree on a nice, summer day.
The reason why we are where we are this morning is because somewhere along the way, somebody shared his or her faith with us; maybe it was your parents, maybe it was a close friend, and maybe it was a pastor or Sunday school teacher. Regardless of who it was, somebody shared faith with you. You didn’t just happen upon it by accident. So, why wouldn’t we be eager to share that same faith with someone else?
Look at it this way, if you eat at a great restaurant, and it is a wonderful experience from the time you walk in the door to the time you get back to your car, you are going to tell people about it. It will come up in conversations because you are excited about it. In retail, they stress the importance of good customer service by pointing to word-of-mouth advertising. If a person has a bad experience, they are going to tell two friends, who will tell two more friends, who will tell two more friends. The inverse is true as well. Good (and bad) customer service pays back exponentially.
We know these things to be true in our own lives, and, yet, the most important thing that we could ever come across is something that we keep to ourselves. We need to learn from John the Baptist and start pointing others to Christ. Yes, it may be uncomfortable, and you may make a colossal mistake at some point. But didn’t that happen when you were learning to ride a bike?
I know I came home more than once with a few scrapes and bruises, and you probably did too. But do you remember the freedom that came with learning how to ride a bike? I used to go all over the place with my bike. There is freedom in sharing Christ with others, and it is there because we are doing something that we were meant to do.
So, this week, our second week of Advent, let’s not forget to think about the lessons that we can learn from Malachi and from John the Baptist. Take some time out this week to stop and reflect on your life. Are you living a life that is honoring to God? What is it in your life that needs to be taken out by the refiner’s fire, regardless of how much it may burn at first? How can you share the joy of your faith with the people you know?