“When He Appears”
Malachi 3:1-4 – December 6, 2015
Today is a challenging time in which to live. Wars, and rumors of wars. An increase in natural disasters. And, people around the world falling away from religion. Not going to their traditional place of worship, and not honoring God’s name. It doesn’t matter which nationality or which country we are talking about, in almost every country, area or region around the world we will see the faithlessness of people. Turning away from God.
This is exactly what our Old Testament prophet Malachi talks about, in our reading today! People in his time—400 years before the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem—did not follow the God of Israel. Their priests were disrespectful and made improper sacrifices. Many of the Jews turned toward foreign gods because they married foreigners who did not worship the God Jehovah. The people fell away from the Lord! They were faithless and disobedient to God.
As one online commentary  had to say, the situation in Malachi’s day echoes that in our own day, too. “The charges against the people [of Israel] pertain everywhere and in every century. We can say of ourselves, as well, that false prophets and priests among us do not uphold the righteousness of the temple, and that we fail to adhere to God’s commands, [fail] to fulfill our duty, and [fail] to build up our neighbors.”
Malachi does not pull any punches. He tells the people of Israel exactly what they are doing that is wrong, and bad, and displeasing to the Lord. “But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver.”
Does anyone here remember doing laundry with particularly harsh soap? I’m talking about when people have stains that are really difficult to wash out. When I was a little girl, I can remember my mother using a special soap that came in a can, like a gel. She would scoop a little soap out, and put it on the clothing. I would see her rubbing the soap into the stain. Like on the grass stains in my older brother’s pants, I remember particularly. My mom would tell me to be very careful around that powerful soap.
There is some soap that is more powerful than that! It takes the color right out of cloth. Some people even need to wear rubber gloves when they use it, since the soap would blister or hurt their bare skin. For certain kinds of really deep stains or special kinds of material, that is the kind of soap that is needed to get things clean.
Malachi talks about when God comes. And when God does come, God is going to be very, very angry. God will not pull punches, either.
It’s like everyone has a horribly stained outfit. It’s laundry day, and God has a special, really harsh kind of soap that is guaranteed to get out the stains. Except, the soap is so strong that sometimes it takes the color out of our favorite shirt, or fades our new dark pants.
Laundry soap is the first comparison Malachi uses. Laundry soap! Not very glamorous, is it? Sinfulness is the awful condition everyone is in, and has been in for a very long time. And, God needs to put everyone through the laundry. Using a wringer washer, too. It gets the job done, even though it doesn’t have a ‘delicate cycle’ like an automatic washer.
I just heard that the retired pastor (who married me and my husband) is extremely ill. He has cancer in both his lungs and a brain tumor. He had the first of his radiation treatment and chemotherapy this past week. When people are seriously ill, they require serious medicine. Moreover, medicine like that often doesn’t taste very appealing or feel that good.
What about people who have broken several bones or gotten a severe muscle strain, and need physical rehabilitation? Has anyone here ever gone through rehab, or had a loved one that completed rehab? Not always an easy thing. Rehab hurts, sometimes, because of the really difficult, even awful situations people find themselves in.
This message, this reading is not very hopeful, is it? Yet, Malachi is telling the truth about the vast majority of the people in his country. He speaks the word of the Lord to a bunch of people who are not pleased with his message. Not pleased at all!
This reminds me a lot of our Gospel reading this morning. About the birth of John the Baptist, and the miraculous happenings that occurred just before and after his birth. Zachariah, John’s father, sang a song that was also a prophecy about his infant son John. Zachariah gives hints about what John’s purpose and message is ultimately going to be.
What is similar between Malachi’s message and John the Baptist’s message? “The Lord is not pleased with your lives! Or your intentions, either!” Sounds awfully familiar. God is trying to get across the message of repentance once more. And again. And again, after that.
God makes another comparison. The first was laundry soap. God is going to put us dirty, sinful people through the wash. And, a wringer washer, at that! The second is a refiner’s fire. Ouch! That hurts!
“What is important for us to know from Malachi is that the coming one is a refiner who is will purify and refine the people ‘like gold and silver.’”  This reminded me of an anecdote about this very verse from Malachi. “This verse puzzled the women having the bible study, and they wondered what this statement meant about the character and nature of God.
“One of the women offered to find out about the process of refining silver and get back to the group at their next Bible study. That week the woman called up a silversmith and made an appointment to watch him at work. She didn’t mention anything about the reason for her interest in silver 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 so as to burn away all the impurities.
“The woman thought about God holding us in such a hot spot – then she thought again about the verse, that God sits as a refiner and purifier of silver. 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.
“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 the easy part — when I see my image reflected in it.”
As God refines each of us, when God purifies our hearts and minds, we reflect God’s image more and more. Just as the silver becomes more pure the longer it is held in the fire, so we reflect God’s image better and better. Sure, it hurts sometimes. Sure, it is unpleasant and awkward and sometimes downright painful. We can celebrate because we know our God loves us enough to refine and purify us.
Malachi’s message is that sometimes we must make hard changes and work hard with God’s help to be the people God made us to be. Challenge? Yes! Opportunity? Yes!
“Only in the Coming One is there the power to refine us, to make clean what is unclean, and to ready us to offer what will be ‘pleasing to the Lord.’” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.