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Sermon: The Refining and Purifying Fire

A Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on December 6, 2015.

The 2nd Sunday of Advent: Malachi 3:1-4; Canticle 16 (Luke 1:68-79); Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-16

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth Your Spirit, and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth. Amen.

           There is a story about a group of women who were studying the book of Malachi. As they read Chapter Three, they came across the verse: "He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver." Well, this verse intrigued those women, and it intrigues me. We all wonder what this statement means about the character and the nature of God. One of the women offered to look into the process of refining silver and get back to the group at their next Bible study.

           That week, she contacted a silver smith, made an appointment to meet with him, and to watch him at work. She did not mention anything about the reason for her interest in silver, beyond her curiosity about the process of refining silver.

           As she watched the silver smith, 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 the hottest, so as to burn away all the impurities.

           The woman thought about God holding us in such a way over the fire, and she thought again about that verse, "He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver." She asked the silver smith 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 also had to keep his eyes on the silver for the entire time it was in the fire. If the silver was left in the flames a moment too long, it would be destroyed.

           The woman was silent for a moment.

           She then asked the silver smith, "How do you know when the silver is fully refined?" He smiled at her and answered, "Oh, that's easy ....when I see my own image in it."

           And so today, I want to speak of the refiner’s fire.

          

This is a biblical concept which involves each one of us. We are all going through the process; we all go through the refiner's fire. We are each called to be transformed into the image of Christ. The Scriptures are quite clear:  

"And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another …" (2 Corinth 3:18)

           Paul told believers gathered in Rome, "For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son ...” (Romans 8:29)

           It is a Command. We are to be conformed to the image of His Son. God is calling us to be Christ-like, to be the reflection of Christ to the world.

           The great writer and theologian C.S. Lewis put it this way: "Once we give God permission, by surrendering our lives to Him, He will not stop that process of purifying us no matter how painful or unpleasant it may be."

Through the prophet Malachi, the Lord announces a covenant with Israel. A messenger like Malachi (whose name means, “my messenger”) shall prepare the way for the coming of the Lord by purifying and refining God’s people, like silver and gold.

           Malachi offers us a proof text that points to John the Baptist, who brings the same message of refinement and repentance to us in today’s Gospel. Just as silver and gold must be purified, the Way must be made straight for us on our path to God.

Malachi is the last book of the Old Testament. The need for refining fire says there is something in God's work with us, on us. What you are is not what you may be. There is Good News that comes with Judgment. God cannot come to us and leave the world unchanged.

           The process of purifying precious metal is done with fire with great heat. It removes impurities which would make the precious metal LESS than it was. But – in making it less, the process makes the silver MORE, the way it should be.

How do we take part in this type of cleansing and refinement? You don't 'do' it as much as you endure it. God is the One that oversees this process in your life. God sends you into the fire and takes you out according to God's pleasure and glory.

           Out of the refiner's fire can emerge a glorious deliverance. It can be a noble and lasting rebirth. The price to be in relationship with God has been paid. There can be a sacred peace. There will be a reawakening of inner resources which had gone dormant. A comforting cloak of righteousness will be drawn up around us to warm us spiritually and offer us protection. Any thoughts of pitying the self will vanish as we count our many, many blessings.

           It is easy to think that Evil is winning in this world right now. There is much wickedness that keeps God's children from knowing and coming to the Savior. It’s hard to open the paper, hear the news, or check social media. Every day brings more tales that cause great despair. Division seems to multiply among us. But, I remind you, God is holding all of us through these trials. If we seek God as God seeks us, we gain a relationship which is unlike any other.

           God's messenger prepares for Jesus' first and second coming by clearing the way before the Lord. Levelling the road and straightening out the path are metaphors for the necessary prepatory spiritual work of repentance and faith. It is a spiritual housecleaning that is needed, not just showing partiality and unthoughtful favor toward spoiled, demanding behavior.

           The cleansing work that God would affect in that day is depicted in Fire. What fire did in separating slag from metal, God's cleansing and refining action would do for God's people. Only slag had something to fear; only the wicked should be frightened by the prospect and experience of that day.

           The fire will test every person's work. Human accomplishments - everything -- will be tried in the fire of God. God, the refiner of silver, will know by the testing process exactly when we have been purified. There is that dramatic moment when the refiner knows all the dross has gone from the silver. Peering over it, the silver suddenly becomes a liquid mirror in which the image of the refiner is reflected. Then the refiner knows the task is done. So it is with us. When our Lord can observe His image reflected in us, then our trial-by-fire suffering has accomplished its perfect work.         

So I wonder, in your own lives, as we prepare for the Coming of the Lord:

           Where are valleys being filled and raised up?

           Where are mountains that are being laid low?

           How are crooked places in your heart & mind being set straight?

           Where are your rough edges being made smooth?

           Where is the salvation of God known to you already?

                       In your life?

                                   In this community?

                                               Throughout the world?

           Repentance is about turning from ungodly things to Godly Things. We are urged to make paths straight to close the distance between us to God. We should remember that Judgment is not always about revenge and retribution. It is also about Mercy. We are called to not be complacent in the face of injustice. We are to seek forgiveness. We should strive to live lives that will bear good fruit. This is both a warning and a promise. God will not settle for what is; God already knows what should be. After all, we, the priesthood of all believers, are refined gold and silver – we are the mirrors of both the warning and the promise.

All the baptized are called to participate in the sharing/spreading of the Gospel. We are to ready ourselves for liberation and redemption. In doing so, we prepare for the coming of the Lord and assist all flesh in capturing a vision of the “salvation of God.” And that Salvation is more than wholeness and healing; it is Shalom; it is about living into the fullness of God's blessing.

Let us pray.  

Gracious loving and living God, you are the refiner of our souls. May we be open to your transforming power in our lives. May we yield as you refine us and conform us into the image of your Christ. In the name of Jesus we pray.

Amen.