5th Sunday of Easter (May 18, 2014)
“The Refiner’s Fire”
Text: Malachi 3:1-4
Who was the first person to warn you that if you play with fire you’re going to get burned?
I have an unsubstantiated theory that little boys are genetic pyromaniacs. My grandsons love building a fire in our fireplace, even in the heat of summer. They’re fascinated with it. As a responsible grandparent and a one-time Boy Scout, it’s my job to warn them that if they get too close to the fire, they will get burned…and they might burn the house down in the process!
That’s what Malachi is doing in the passage we just read. Five centuries before Christ, he predicted that the Lord would come to take up residence among them. That was very good news. That’s why they had rebuilt the Temple. They wanted the Almighty God to be present and alive among them.
In our heart of hearts, I think that’s what we all most deeply desire. We were created with an innate spiritual hunger to experience the presence of God.
But then, Malachi asked the disturbing question: Who may abide the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears?
The writer of the 24th psalm asked the same question:
Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
The answer came back.
Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,
who do not lift up their souls to what is false. (Psalm 24:3-4)
Clean hands? Pure hearts? That’s a pretty high standard. It’s almost as bad as the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus says that we are to be perfect – complete, whole – in our love even as our Father in Heaven is perfect in his love. Who among us is really fit to stand in the presence of a holy God? No wonder Malachi said, “He is like a refiner’s fire.”
The biblical writers never hesitated to use fire as a visual metaphor for the presence of God. The New Testament letter to the Hebrews quoted the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy saying, “Our God is a consuming fire.” (Deuteronomy 4:24, Hebrews 12:29) Get close to the presence of God and there is a good chance that you will get burned.
There was a time when fear of the fires of Hell led people to faith in Christ. All a preacher like Johnathan Edwards had to do was dangle his congregation over the flames and folks would come running.
But fear of hellfires isn’t what it used to be. Fear is not what drew most of us to become followers of Christ. Most of us were drawn to Christ on the basis of his love, his grace, his goodness, and his vision of the Kingdom of God coming on earth as it is in heaven. My way of saying it is that we have a better chance at loving the hell out of people than scaring the hell out of them.
But that doesn’t mean the fire of the Almighty God has been extingushed. The path of discipleship, the journey toward what John Wesley called “Chrsitian perfection” always leads through the fire.
Not the fires of eternal damnation, but the refining fire of God’s love.
Not flames on the other side of death, but the purifying flames of God’s grace at work in our lives right now.
Not fire in some distant Hades, but the fire of the Spirit that igniftes a firey passion in our hearts to follow Jesus by centering our lives in lovng God and loving others.
Malachi said that when the Lord comes among us, “he will sit as a refiner and purifer of silver, and he will purify [his people] and refine them like silver and gold.” Here’s a look at what it takes to purify gold. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KJ-GURO6VXg] So, if you were like one of those nuggets of gold, which would you be?
It takes a lot of fire to purify silver and gold. And it doesn’t happen all at once. Here’s a graph of the actual process. [Refining process chart] You don’t need to see that details to get the point. Conversion can begin in a moment, it takes a lifetime to burn away the the imprefections and impurities in our lives so that we can be formed into the likeness of Christ. It only takes one step to begin to walk the discipleship pathway, but it takes a liftetime to become all that God has called us to be.
The word for the stuff that gets refined away is “dross.” It’s defined as “unwanted material that is removed from a mineral (such as gold) to make it better.” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dross) The purpose of the refiner’s fire in our lives is to make us better.
“Dross” is word Charles Wesley used when he prayed:
O that in me the sacred fire
might now begin to glow;
burn up the dross of base desire
and make the mountains flow!
Refining fire, go through my heart,
illuminate my soul;
scatter thy life through every part
and sanctify the whole. (Charles Wesley)
Sanctification is the technical word we use to name the refining process by which the Spirit of God purifies our intentions, purges our hearts of anything that gets in the way of God’s highest and best will for us, and prepares us to offer ourselves as the agents of God’s love.
Don’t miss the way Malachi says that the purpose of the refining fire is to offer to God an offering in righteousness. The point is for the refining fire of the Spirit to prepare us to offer our lives as the gift of God’s love to the world.
John Wesley wrote: “Entire sanctification, or Christian perfection, is neither more nor less than pure love; love expelling sin, and governing both the heart and life of a child of God. The Refiner’s fire purges out all that is contrary to love, and that many times by a pleasing smart. Leave all this to Him that does all things well, and that loves you better than you do yourself “ (Letter to Mr. Walter Churchey, February 21, 1771)
Sometimes the refining fire goes through our heart in deeply personal ways when we wrestle with the often subtle imperfections and impurities in our lives. In the 16th Century, St. John of the Cross called it the dark night of the soul.
Sometimes the refining fire purifies us through our accountabily of other disciples; through people who love us enough to tell us the truth we do not want to hear. People who love us enough to help us see the dross that gets in the way of God’s work in our lives.
Sometimes the refining fire does its work as we face the changing circumstances of life; events that test our integrity, that push up against our deepest values, that challenge our most deeply held assumptions.
Sometimes the refiner uses all three all three of them at the same time.
I discovered that Queen Elizabeth and I have something in common. In November, 1992, she looked back on the year when the kids got their divorces and Windsor Castle burned. In a moment of unaccustomed candor, she said, “1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure.”
1992 is not particularly a year upon which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure. That was also the year I was unexpectedly called to leave the church to which we had given birth and come to Hyde Park. Those of us who shared those early years together will remember that it was not a time of undiluted pleasure. If I had known more about Hyde Park and the Staff-Parish Relations Committee had known more about me, we might never have gotten together.
But through those early years together, the refining fire of God’s Spirit was at work in both the life of this church and the life of this preacher. We through the fire with fresh clarity about the mission, the vision and the core values that have led this church in the past and will continue to lead it into the future.
Queen Elizabeth called 1992 the “Annus Horribilis.” You don’t need to know Latin to translate that. But looking back, I would call it “Annus Incendere Deus” – the year of divine fire. As the old spiritual says, “I wouldn’t take nothin’ for my journey now.”
In the spirit of the prophet this morning, I need to warn you that if you get close the fire, you’re going to get burned. If you really want to live a deeper, richer, fuller life, it will mean going through the refiner’s fire not once, but many times, as the Spirit uncovers the dross of bitter attitudes, corrupted values, buried hurts, nagging habits, and plain old selfishess in our lives that prevent us from experiencing the abundant life that Jesus promised. It always means allowing the Spirit of God to burn away the dross so that we can move closer to becoming all that God intends for us to be. Get close to this God and you will be grateful that you got burned.
Let us pray:
Lord, I want to be more holy in my heart.
Here is the citadel of all my desiring,
where my hopes are born
and all the deep resolutions of my spirit take wings.
In this center, my fears are nourished,
and all my hates are nurtured.
Here my loves are cherished,
and all the deep hungers of my spirit are honored
without quivering and without shock.
In my heart, above all else,
let love and integrity envelop me
until my love is perfected and the last vestige
of my desiring is no longer in conflict with thy Spirit.
Lord, I want to be more holy in my heart. Amen.
(Howard Thurman, the United Methodist Hymnal,