Texts: Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79
This past week I got something very exciting in the mail – the invitation to my mother’s ordination. My sister had been put in charge of making them and sending them out and managed to not be too stressed when she realized about 30 seconds after she put them in the mail that there was a mistake. I’ve been told correction postcards are already on their way out.
A little over a month ago I received an invitation for a friend’s wedding. I was apparently one of the lucky ones; many of the invitations got lost in the mail and others came worse for the wear. He and his fiancée ended up using Facebook to get the information out.
Thinking about the way I’ve received information that some big event is coming up, I’m not surprised that God chooses not to use the mail system when delivering the big news of impending divine movement. Angels, stars, dreams and – as we are reminded this morning – chosen messengers.
Personal messengers make good sense. Not only is it harder to lose messengers than invitations but I’m rather certain that the refiner’s fire would qualify as something too hazardous to even be sent through the mail. Because when God is coming we get more than a “save the date” card. We get action, purification, repentance, justice. When God is coming, a messenger is called up not just to spread the word that the Lord is coming but to prepare the way. In the book of Malachi we are given a glimpse of just how this messenger will prepare the way of the Lord.
During the reign of the Persian Empire, the Israelites have gathered back in the Promised Land and rebuilt the Temple of the Lord. And like their ancestors in faith, the people in this prophet’s time have strayed. Corruption and faithlessness run rampant and the people have wearied God. And so God is sending to them a messenger – “my messenger, the messenger of the covenant” – and this messenger will not only announce the coming of the Lord, but like fuller’s soap he will make fresh and clean the priests – those who run the Temple and make sacrifices on behalf of the people – he will refine them like gold and silver.
God has tired of those oppress others and do not fear the Lord and this messenger is being sent to purify the priests – those who serve as go-between God and the people – in order that the people might return to God. And thus comes the refiner’s fire. As someone not particularly familiar with the process of refining gold or silver, I recently heard a story told that helped me to better understand what the prophet means:
Several years ago, a group of women had gathered in study around the passage from Malachi we just read. “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver” (Malachi 3:3). They wondered—perhaps like you and I know like me—what this might mean beyond a simple answer of “to purify.” Such a rich image surely had richer meaning and so one of them decided to find out about the process of refining and purifying silver, promising to report back to the women in the Bible Study at their next meeting.
That week, the woman called a silversmith and made an appointment to watch him at work. She didn’t mention anything about the reason for her interest beyond her curiosity about the process of refining silver.
As she watched the silversmith, he held a piece of silver over the fire and let it heat up. He explained that in refining silver, one needed to hold the silver in the middle of the fire where the flames were hottest as to burn away all the impurities…
She asked the silversmith if it was true that he had to sit there in front of the fire the whole time the silver was being refined. The man answered that yes, he not only had to sit there holding the silver, but he had to keep his eyes on the silver the entire time it was in the fire. If the silver was left a moment too long in the flames, it would be destroyed. The woman was silent for a moment. Then she asked the silversmith, “How do you know when the silver is fully refined?” He smiled at her and answered, “Oh, that’s easy—when I see my image in it.”
God—through the messenger of the covenant—calls us to the divine image we were made in. We are called to burn away all impurities that are not of or for God so that we may indeed return to God as God returns to us.
How right, then, that the one who was sent as the messenger to prepare the way for God Incarnate, God With Us, God’s Perfect Image too calls us to return to God, to repent and believer. When we who are made in the image of God waited for the one both fully human and fully divine, we were called to purity, to repentance, to the Holy by John the Baptist. John, whose father Zechariah prayed “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them,” the one who looked at his infant son and said “And 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 would indeed prepare the way of the Lord – he would go out into the wilderness, drawing great crowds to him, calling people to repentance, and telling them to wait and watch for the one coming who was greater than he.
Before the light of the world shone for all to see, a messenger prepared the way. Before God returned to the people, a messenger prepared the way. In the waiting for the Lord, there have been those who have worked toward the Kingdom they wish to see come.
That was then and this is now. And now, in this time, in this place, as we still wait for the advent of Christ here and now, for the coming of the Lord in his glory and the Kingdom of God to fully come, who is the messenger? Who is the one to give knowledge of salvation, to call all people to the image they have been made in, to speak and live out God’s grace to the world?
As the body of Christ, the community of faith, we are the messengers that have been charged with preparing the way for the Lord. We have been empowered by the Holy Spirit to speak the truth, to act in love, to live out the kingdom. As children of the covenant made through Jesus Christ, we are the ones who will proclaim the Good News that is our mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
Like John the Baptist, we reach out to share forgiveness and relationship with God. We do so by offering hospitality to the stranger, seeking justice for the oppressed, and loving God with all we are and ever will be. We do this all the while pointing to the one from whom we find our strength, the one for whom we wait.
To be a messenger of God, to prepare the way of the Lord, may sound like a big task because it is. It requires us to be honest with God, to confess our own sins and strive to love and serve better each day, each minute, each second. It requires us to love the unlovable and to forgive the unforgivable. It requires us to risk our comfort and our complacency for the radical and wondrous kingdom of God.
Being a messenger of God is a grand and sometimes scary calling – remembering the fate of John the Baptist invokes the phrase Shakespeare made famous – “don’t shoot the messenger.” It is not without risk nor is it without reward. We are not on our own in our preparation – we don’t have to worry about what happens if we make an error or get lost – God’s kingdom will come. We cannot stop it. But we do get to participate in it. How exciting to be among those who have heard the good news – that God so loved the world that God gave the only Son – to have this amazing joy to share. What a great gift to be charged—sisters and brothers bound together in the Spirit—with sharing the love of God with the world. Amen.