Purify our Hearts
I want to begin this morning by acknowledging to you that I often don’t like the person I am. I find myself getting impatient with people, losing my temper with people, and hurting people in my family and in my circle of acquaintance. I’m very conscious of my laziness and of the many times when I refuse to deny myself and love others in practical ways because it’s so much easier and more enjoyable just to lie on the couch and read a book. These are just two examples of the kind of failures I struggle with every day of my life, and I’m very conscious of them.
I’ve often heard the Gospel summed up in this nicely balanced phrase: ‘God loves us so much that he accepts us just the way we are, but he loves us too much to leave us there!” And in the times when I’ve allowed myself to become lazy and complacent about my Christian life, I really need to hear the ‘God loves you too much to leave you there!” part of the phrase. It reminds me that God wants positive change to happen in my life, and that God’s power is available to help that happen.
Our Old Testament reading for this morning, from the prophet Malachi, emphasises this second aspect of the Gospel – the need and possibility of change. The image that Malachi uses is the image of ‘refining’. He says of the Lord, ‘For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver’ (Malachi 3:2b-3a). I want to explore these words with you this morning.
Malachi probably wrote these words after the Jewish exiles had returned from the Babylonian captivity around 500 B.C. The temple in Jerusalem had been repaired and daily worship was going on, but if you read all four chapters of the little book of Malachi – the last book of the Old Testament – you’ll see that he isn’t happy with the way things are going in the temple. The priests are not living holy lives and they’re not putting their heart and soul into the worship of God, and the people aren’t giving their best to God in sacrifices either – they’re just giving the lambs that are so sick they would have died anyway. So Malachi speaks of the Lord coming to ‘purify the descendents of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness’ (3:3).
We might wonder what this has to do with us today; after all, the Levites were full-time temple ministers, and most of us are not! But we need to remember that in the New Testament we no longer have a physical temple made of stone; rather, the people of Jesus are a living temple. You and me and all Christian people around the world – together we are a temple, a community where God lives and where God is worshipped. So for God to come and purify his temple means that God is at work among us to set right the things that are wrong. And that applies to us as individuals too, because Paul tells us in one of his letters that we are each of us ‘temples of the Holy Spirit’, because the Spirit lives in us. So, yes, the Holy Spirit is going to be constantly at work ‘refining’ his people, both as a community and as individuals. Let’s think about this for a few minutes.
First, let’s ask the question “What does ‘refining’ mean”? The Old Testament prophets often use words of judgement against God’s people. When we hear them, it sometimes sounds as if God’s aim is not to help his people but to smash and destroy them! That’s why this image of refining that Malachi uses here is so helpful. A refiner is attempting to purify molten metal from all its dross in order to create an object of beauty and strength – perhaps a silver cup. In Malachi’s time this would be accomplished by putting the unrefined metal into a pot or furnace and heating it up until all the dirt and impurities were burnt out of it. And there’s another lovely little detail here. A number of Bible scholars say that the refiner would know that the process was complete when the molten metal was so clear that he could see his own face reflected in it.
This illustration of refining provides a very helpful picture for us of the ongoing process of purification in our lives as Christians. The General Confession in the old Book of Common Prayer says, “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done”. In other words, God’s work of change in us will have both negative and positive aspects. Negatively, the refiner will be trying to remove our impurities – the ‘things we ought not to have done’. Positively, God will be trying to form the image of Jesus in us – Jesus who shows us by his way of life ‘the things we ought to have done’.
So here’s the challenge for me: Do the members of my family feel like they’re living with Jesus? What about my friends and the people I work with – when they rub shoulders with me from day to day, do they feel somehow as if they’re meeting Jesus in me? And wouldn’t it be great if they did?
This applies on a corporate level as well. Wouldn’t it be great if our culture was continually noticing how Christ-like the Christian Church is? That doesn’t necessarily mean ‘nice’ or ‘inoffensive’, but it does mean becoming a community of self-sacrificial love, consciously modelling its life after the teaching of Jesus. Think about the things that Jesus taught us in the gospels, and then think about the way we live our life as a parish here at St. Margaret’s, and ask yourself the question, ‘Does this look like Jesus? Would new people who come among us notice the way we live together and be reminded of Jesus? Or if they don’t know about him, would they learn about him without ever opening a Bible, just by noticing the way we live as a community?’ Of course, the honest answer is, sometimes yes, and sometimes no! So of course, some refining is in order.
So refining is about the removal of our impurities and the transformation of our lives so that people see the face of Jesus in us. Now, let’s go on to ask ourselves ‘How does this refining take place?’ If I was a lump of silver, complacent in my state of impurity, and if I found myself suddenly picked up by a refiner, thrown into a pot of molten metal and heated up to boiling point until parts of me were burned away, I don’t imagine I would find that to be an entirely comfortable process! And in the same way the process of refining that God is inviting us into as followers of Jesus is often uncomfortable for us – in fact, it challenges us to move out of our comfort zones into new territory with God. Let me share with you just three of the methods God uses to refine us into the image of Jesus.
The first method involves a number of activities I’ll gather together under the heading of encounters with God. In 2 Corinthians 3:18 Paul says ‘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; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit’. I’m reminded of the story in Isaiah chapter six of how the prophet found himself in the presence of the heavenly court, with the Lord on his throne in the centre. Isaiah cries out ‘Oy’ve! I’m a foul-mouthed sinner and I’ve seen the Lord!’ Then one of the angels takes a live coal from the altar, touches Isaiah’s lips with it, and says ‘See, this has touched your lips – you are cleansed and purified from your sin’.
How do we encounter God in a transformational way? It can happen when we come together to worship, to sing his praises, to listen to his word and share the sacrament. It can happen when we pray alone, or when we open up the scriptures. The word of God rebukes us, corrects us, encourages us, and trains us in the new way of life of God’s kingdom. So a willingness to allow the Refiner to do his work in us involves making a commitment to public worship with other Christians and to regular times of prayer and meditation on scripture for ourselves.
A second way in which God refines us into the image of Jesus is through circumstances that call for the development of the virtue we’re trying to cultivate. I’m reminded of the old story of the young boy who went to his grandfather with a problem. “Grandpa, I’m such a skinny little thing! I’d like to have real big muscles! Is there any way you can give them to me?” The grandfather replied, “That’s a difficult one – it might take me a while to think of something. Tell you what, I’ll work hard at trying to think of something if you’ll do something for me?” “What’s that?” the boy asked. “Get busy on my woodpile and chop wood for me”. Well, you’ve guessed what happened! The grandfather kept putting the boy off, and the boy kept chopping, and eventually the muscles he was hoping for started to grow!
I think God puts us through this sort of exercise quite frequently. My Dad has said on a number of occasions that he is a very impatient man, and so every time in his life he has really wanted something, God has made him wait for it! “Well of course”, God might say to us; “how else did you think I was going to help you grow patience?” The King James Version translates the word ‘patience’ as ‘longsuffering’; another friend of mine joked about this, saying “Every time I pray for patience the Lord sends me longsuffering!”
God refines us through encounters with him, and through circumstances that help us to develop the virtues we want to cultivate. A third way, I’m afraid, is through suffering. Suffering often invites us to concentrate on the really important issues in life and shows us that so many of the things we used to value so highly aren’t really that important. For example, someone once said ‘the prospect of an immanent death wonderfully concentrates the mind’. Terminally ill people have frequently told me how clearly they now see their lives, and how much better able they are to let go of less important things and to focus on things that really matter. It’s an uncomfortable truth, but it is nevertheless a truth that if we pray for holiness, God will often answer our prayer by allowing us to experience suffering on the way to that goal.
We’ve thought about encounters with God, circumstances that test us, and suffering. These are all tools that God can use in the refining process in my life and yours. Through it all, the Holy Spirit will be working gently in our hearts to transform us into the image of Jesus. Paul says ‘The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’ (Galatians 5:22-23). Sounds like the character of Jesus to me! That’s what the Holy Spirit will be working toward as we go through this refining process. So let’s ask ourselves now – what does this mean for me today?
In the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indy and his father are looking for the Holy Grail, the cup Christ used at the Last Supper. In the movie, if you find that cup and drink from it you will have eternal life. But in the movie, what eternal life means is simply ‘living forever without experiencing death’. Now I have to ask myself – do I really want that kind of eternal life? To be as I am now, with all my weaknesses, shortcomings and bad habits – and to have to live with that forever? That sounds like a pretty good definition of hell to me!
So the good news this passage is communicating to me is that I don’t have to be stuck in ‘no progress’ forever. Change is possible, and I’m being invited into a change process. Listen to those words of Paul again: ‘The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’ (Galatians 5:22-23). Wouldn’t it be so much better for my family, my friends, and my work colleagues if those words described me? Wouldn’t it be so much better for me?
Well, how’s it going to happen? Let me give you an example. Those who know me well know that I’m rather anal-retentive about punctuality. I was raised in a punctual home and it was bred into me that being on time for appointments was a way of showing respect for the other people involved. I still think this is true, but of course one of the Devil’s favourite ways of knocking us off course is to take a virtue and push it to extremes, so that we’re good in a bad way! And I think that when I’m dealing with other people, people who haven’t had the same sort of punctual upbringing as I’ve had, it’s possible they may have noticed that the fruit of the Spirit marked ‘patience’ still needs a lot of work in my life!
But do you know what is really happening in those times when I’m forced to wait for other people? Really happening, in God’s school of character development? I’ll tell you – God is putting me into a situation where I have an opportunity to develop some patience muscles. I have a choice; I can pass up the opportunity and rant and rave a bit. Or I can choose to keep my cool and practice the discipline of enjoying God’s gift of a bit of extra free time in my day. The choice is up to me!
So let me close by asking you to consider two things. First, think of your experience of worship with other Christians, as well as your private times of reading the Bible and praying. Have you noticed that God is using those times to invite you into the change process? Have you noticed that God will use the scripture readings to point out to you areas of transformation that are especially necessary for you in your life right now? And have you noticed that you sometimes find an inner strength to be more Christ-like, a strength you didn’t notice before? If so – welcome to the refining process! Stick with it, and see where the adventure leads you!
Secondly, what difficult circumstances in your life right now – whether suffering you’re going through, or just general circumstances that stretch you – what difficult circumstances in your life are actually God’s invitation to you to grow in Christ-likeness? Is it a difficult person God has put in your life? Is it something you’d like right now that you’re having to wait for? Is it a prayer that hasn’t been answered as fast as you thought it would be?
Remember: God loves us so much that he accepts us just as we are, weaknesses and all – but he loves us far too much to leave us there. This morning God is gently inviting us into this process of being refined from all impurities until he can see the image of Jesus clearly in us – and until the people around us can see it too. So this morning let’s commit ourselves afresh to co-operating with God in this process of being refined into the image of Jesus.