1See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 2But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap;
For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. 4Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years. (NRSV)
|Rolling Mill with Coil Box by Mouser Williams. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0|
Last week at Vacation Bible School, our young people were accompanied on their journey into God’s Word by five Bible Buddies: Hope Jaguar, Beacon Toucan, Rae Manta Ray, Guac Iguana, and (my personal favorite) Moe Sloth. Each of these fun and friendly characters introduced a Gospel promise complete with a memory verse:
When you’re lonely, Jesus rescues! (Psalm 27:10)
When you worry, Jesus rescues! (Psalm 34:19)
When you struggle, Jesus rescues! (Psalm 46:10)
When you do wrong, Jesus rescues (John 16:33)
When you’re powerless, Jesus rescues (Ephesians 1:19-20).
John the Baptist was a “Bible buddy” or sorts. He was a man with a message; proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. But what we are foretold about John in the Old Testament book of Malachi hardly casts him as a fascinating, friendly character that everyone will love. He cries: “Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap…” God’s people have sinned—and God is coming to clean them up. The process is not going to be pleasant. Anyone who’s ever worked in a steel mill knows that the ore isn’t purified without intense heat. And fullers’ soap isn’t exactly Johnson’s No More Tears. —used to clean garments and make them sparkling white, like our modern-day bleach. Incidentally, . So, the language here conveys that the baptism of repentance is painfully difficult and life-changing.
This is what Malachi means when he asks, “Who can stand when he appears?”
We all prefer to embrace our own righteousness rather than God’s righteousness—because God’s righteousness hits us right where it hurts. It reveals the evil motives that drive our desires and ambitions. It exposes the evil we commit against the neighbor in securing and maintaining what we want. It shatters every notion that we have it all together, and that we’re worthy to sit in judgment of other, lesser people who are morally, spiritually, or humanly inferior.
John the Baptist died a brutal death because he spoke God’s truth to power. King Herod was a murderer and an adulterer. John publicly condemned him for his sins, and Herod silenced him for good. We do the very same to Jesus—and to his Gospel—by resisting repentance. And there are far too many Christians out there who believe they have ono need for repentance.
When the Lutheran Book of Worship was published in the late seventies, there was a man who was outraged that the public order for confession read: “I confess that I am in bondage to sin and cannot free myself.” He shamelessly insisted before his pastor and his fellow Christians: “I am not a sinner!” And when no one was looking, he took a magic marker and blacked those words out of every single hymnal in his church.
When you think of a sinner, you will naturally think of the people who are most different from yourself. They don’t believe what you believe about God. They don’t conform to your standards of morality. They speak and act and dress in ways you find offensive. They seem to take more from society than they contribute. They don’t care about anyone but themselves. They are a menace to society. They are the ones who need to repent.
Who doesn’t want to believe that you’re righteous—and that you can stand righteous before on your own merits? I want to I believe I’m a good person. I believe that all my beliefs are right. I don’t want to believe that I’m sinning when I buy coffee in a Styrofoam cup that I’ll use once and throw away. I don’t want to believe I’m sinning when I refuse to help a child of God in need when I have things to get done. I don’t want to believe that I’m doing anything wrong as I strive for comfort, safety, and esteem.
Trouble is, when you get people together who share a sense of self-righteousness and a common enemy, you get violence committed against people and the earth on a horrific scale. This is why slavery, genocide, and all the ugly “isms” exist. In trying to create heaven on earth for yourself, you make hell on earth for someone else. This was the world John the Baptist and Jesus were born into. This is the world we live in today.
God’s righteousness reveals the most devastating truths about yourself. But, it also reveals the most fundamental truth about God: while you were still sinners, Christ died for you.
Repentance isn’t something you do as much as it is something that the Holy Spirit accomplishes in you. It is the destruction and the crucifixion of the old self that lived for sin and self, so that a new person can be reborn who lives for God and neighbor. Death itself is purged from your being so that love can reign supreme. This is why repentance hurts. This is why it’s difficult.
There’s an invitation to life in the call to repentance—and God will be appearing to you, throughout the week, calling you to serve someone you may otherwise pass by. Before you lash out at someone who who offends you, you’ll be invited to redirect that energy towards someone who can be built up who cannot simply help themselves. A simple change to your stewardship of time, talents, and God’s creation will poem up new possibilities for witnessing God’s abundance. To be humbled before the Lord is to be lifted up in due time.
It’s a great thing to feel the Gospel heat—because God’s love is in it. And you are becoming a new creation.