Sermon for Advent II, Year C
Based on Mal. 3:1-4
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
The time was about 450 B.C., shortly before the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah. The place was Jerusalem and Judah. The situation had deteriorated substantially during the years after the Israelites returned from their Babylonian exile. Some people wondered if God still loved them. Others accused God of being unjust, because the wicked were prospering while righteous folk suffered.
The powerful oppressed the weak. The priests and people were cheating God by holding back the required tithe-offerings and sacrifices in the temple. Moral and religious decay had become widespread throughout the whole society. The overall mood seems to have been that of disillusionment and despondency.
Then God addresses that situation by saying: “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” The prophet, Malachi, which means in Hebrew, literally, “my (i.e., God’s) messenger,” was given the role of being a preparer, a forerunner for God’s coming Messiah. Unfortunately, oftentimes throughout the course of history, preparers, forerunners are not always fully appreciated, understood or taken very seriously.
However, in God’s all-embracing scheme of things, such people were very important. In the ancient world, armies would send forerunner-scouts ahead of the troops to warn them of oncoming dangers. These scouts were people of courage and insight. In biblical times, God’s prophets played this important role of preparer, forerunner.
We Christians have interpreted our Malachi pericope today as referring to John the Baptizer, who prepared the way for Christ’s coming—although, in its original context, Malachi himself may very well have believed that he was preparing the way for the Messiah. One thing is clear—whether we are Jews or Christians—we both see the need of preparers, forerunners, so that we will be ready for the Messiah when he comes.
When we stop to think about it, we discover that most things in life that have any significance take time for preparation. The pages of history are full of preparers and forerunners. For example, people like Wycliffe and Huss were preparers, forerunners of the Protestant Reformation. Wycliffe and Huss influenced many of the reformers, including Martin Luther.
In almost every field of invention, discoveries have often been made because of the contributions of preparers, forerunners—who experimented with basic concepts and materials, which others after them were able to develop further and improve upon. Every stage of life has its time of preparation. Childhood prepares us for adolescence, adolescence prepares us for adulthood. Any successful work of art, literature, music, or convention or banquet almost never just happen on the spur-of-the-moment—they usually require lots of planning and preparation ahead of time.
Advent really is a time of preparation. It’s a time to houseclean in preparation for the festivities of Christmas. This housecleaning is not only physical, however, it’s also spiritual. Spiritual housecleaning can be every bit as strenuous and difficult as the physical variety. It can even be rather unpleasant. Malachi pictures God in two rather strange—maybe to some of us even foreign—metaphors to describe the holy, spiritual housecleaning process. He says God “is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap.”
A refiner’s fire evokes something foreboding and dreadful. Whatever good could come from a refiner’s fire? Well, the process of refining involves removing impurities from metal ore. A “refiner’s fire” thus would chemically separate pure silver and gold from impure alloys. God will work like a refiner’s fire to refine our lives, to remove the impurities of our sins. It is often by going through these unpleasant spiritual housecleaning experiences that we grow and mature in our faith—they provide us with insights that we would never learn without the unpleasantness.
(For example), we may also have a good side effect from our housecleaning. Not only our Lord is going to see our house, but we shall have a lot of other visitors too. People frequently look at our behavior and think, “If that’s a Christian, I don’t want to be one.” Or, “That person has something that I would like to share.”
The wife of a young friend of (Dr. Bruce Malchow) was about to go into surgery. They knew that after the operation she might never be able to have a child. They were very upset and in their anguish the husband knelt beside her hospital bed and prayed desperately for God’s help. At that moment, her doctor stopped to see her before she went up to surgery. When he saw the couple praying, he paused and listened. He had not been a Christian before but was deeply impressed by this experience. It moved him to learn more about this couple’s faith. Today he is a Christian, and incidentally, the couple have two, healthy children.1
So too, God has, God can work good things out of the spiritual housecleaning experiences in our lives.
Malachi takes this process of holy, spiritual housecleaning even further, by giving us a second metaphor to describe God and God’s activity in our lives. He tells us that God is “like fullers’ soap.” What is fullers’ soap anyway? Apparently it was made from the chemical element boron and used as an alkaline cleaning agent.
According to archaeologist, Dr. Suzanne Richard: a fuller’s job was to clean, whiten, bleach, thicken, shrink, or dye cloth. The fuller cared for newly shorn wool or woven garments. The process varied but generally included washing with lye and cleansing by pressure, usually the treading of feet. The cloth was then spread out on the ground to be bleached by the sun. There were areas outside the city, the fuller’s field designated for these professional laundering and cleaning services. (Necessary because of the unpleasant odor involved with the work). Biblical writers found the fuller’s profession to be an apt metaphor for purity (Ps. 51:7; Jer. 2:22; 4:14; Zech. 3:3; Rev. 4:4). Christ’s transfiguration garments were whiter than any fuller could bleach them (Mark 9:3).2
This metaphor of God being like fullers’ soap, then, points us in the direction of the purification process which God works in us. God works in us to cleanse us from the stains of our sin, to bleach out and remove the things which stain and tarnish our lives. For us Christians, this process begins with our baptism—where God washes us, purifies us, and claims us as the children of God and the Body of Christ. The process continues throughout our lives, as we journey ahead in faith, and as we rely on God’s grace working in and through countless ways and means.
Advent is the season in which we wait upon the Lord to do the necessary work of holy housecleaning, to prepare us for the coming of Jesus our Messiah. May we, with the help of God’s Spirit, open all of the rooms of our house—our lives—to invite God in and clean house. Then we shall be properly prepared to say with all of our being, with endless joy: “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!”