I’ve sometimes heard the Gospel summed up in this phrase: ‘God loves us so much that he accepts us just the way we are, but he loves us too much to leaveus there!” And I have to say that in the times I’ve allowed myself to become lazy and complacent about my Christian life, I really need to hear the second part of the phrase! It reminds me that God wants positive change to happen in my life, and 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 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, you’ll see he isn’t happy with the way things are going in the temple. The priests aren’t living holy lives and they’re not putting heart and soul into the worship of God. The people aren’t giving their best to God in sacrifices either – they’re just giving lambs that are so sick they would have died anyway. So Malachi speaks of the Lord coming to ‘purify the descendants 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 remember, in the New Testament we don’t have a physical temple made of stone any more. The people of Jesus are a livingtemple. You and me and all Christian people around the world – together we’re a temple, a community where God lives and where God is worshipped. So for God to come and purify his temple means God getting to work among us to set right things that are wrong. And this applies to us as individuals too, because Paul tells us in one of his letters that each of us is a ‘temple of the Holy Spirit’, because the Spirit lives in us. So the Holy Spirit is going to be 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 isn’t to help his people but to smash and destroy them! That’s why Malachi’s image of refining 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 they would do that by putting the unrefined metal into a pot or furnace and heating it up until all the impurities were burnt out of it. And there’s another lovely little detail here. According to some Bible scholars, the refiner would know the process was complete when the molten metal was so clear 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. 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 I guess the question is, do the people I meet every day somehow have the sense that they’re rubbing shoulders with Jesus as they interact with me? Because surely that’s the goal of this refining process: that we would be transformed into the image and likeness of Jesus in our daily living.
This applies on a corporate level too. 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!” Obviously, some refining is in order.
We’ve seen that refining is about 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 and 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, God’s refining process 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 “Help! 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 includes 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 circumstancesthat call for the development of the virtue we’re trying to cultivate. I remember my dad saying on a number of occasions that he was a very impatient man, and so every time in his life when he really wanted something, God 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!”
This shouldn’t surprise us; this is the way we normally grow as human beings. I became a decent guitar player through practice. I didn’t expect God to magically give me guitar-playing ability with no effort involved on my part. And in the same way, God teaches us love and compassion by putting us in situations where we’re invited to practice it. He teaches us to trust him by putting us in situations where we have to learn to trust him – even stressful situations, perhaps!
God refines us through encounters with him, and through circumstances that help us 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 that if we pray for holiness, God will often answer our prayer by allowing us to experience suffering on the way to that goal.
I don’t personally believe that God sendssuffering into our lives, but I have no doubt that he uses it to help us grow. And I think we all know that instinctively. After all, when we’re looking for someone to help us in difficult circumstances, we don’t tend to look for someone who’s never suffered. We look for someone who’s had their share of the hard knocks of life and somehow managed to come through them on an even keel.
We’ve thought about encounters with God, circumstances that test us, and suffering. These are all tools 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). That’s the image of Jesus. 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?
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 kind of way! I think when I’m dealing with other people – people who haven’t had the same sort of punctual upbringing as I had – it’s possible they might 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? What’s happening is that God’s putting me into a situation where I have an opportunity to grow some patience. I have a choice; I can rant and rave about it, and so pass up the opportunity to grow. 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 God leads you.
Secondly, what difficult circumstances in your life right now – maybe suffering of some sort, or maybe just general circumstances that stretch you – what difficult circumstances 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 where we started from: God loves us so much 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.