Malachi 3:1-4 Look! I am sending my messenger! He will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord, whom you are seeking, will come to his temple! The Messenger of the Covenant, in whom you delight, will surely come, says the Lord of Armies.
2But who can endure the day when he comes? Who will remain standing when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire, like launderers’ bleach! 3He will be seated like a refiner and a purifier of silver. He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and like silver. They will belong to the Lord and bring him an offering in righteousness.
4Judah and Jerusalem’s offerings will be pleasing to the Lord as they were in the days of old, in years long ago.
One of my favorite TV shows is “Forged in Fire” on the History Channel. It is a competition series where four bladesmiths compete to create various kinds of knives that will hold up to the brutal tests of the show’s experts. The experts will try to chop deer antlers or bamboo stalks with their weapons to check edge retention. Then they will slice through a pig hide or cut through rope to check if their blades are still sharp.
To make the knives, the bladesmiths will take a block of steel and put it into a forge. The forge is heated to between 1300- and 1600-degrees Fahrenheit. The steel is heated to burn off impurities and soften it so that the bladesmith can start hammering and shaping it.
These master bladesmiths are fun to watch to see how they expertly heat, pound, grind and shape the metal. It would be cool to learn how to be forge metal in fire. But in the imagery that Malachi uses to describe Jesus in His Old Testament prophecy, Jesus is the forger, we are the metal.
Now that doesn’t sound so fun.
In the days following 9/11, over half of America went to church. According to census statistics, that means about 24 million more people than usual went to church. A 100% increase! One year later, attendance was back to pre-9/11 levels. After the initial shock of the tragedy passed, we learned that nothing much had changed – spiritually speaking – for 24 million people.
Something similar happened in Malachi’s day. After hundreds of years of idolatry, spiritual adultery, and lip-service to the Lord without any real faith, God punished His people with exile in Assyria and Babylon. God’s chosen people effectively disappeared. After 70 years in Babylon, God opened the way for many of the Israelites to return home. And for a time, faith and devotion to the Lord blossomed. Under the leadership of men like Ezra, Nehemiah, and Zerubbabel, they restored the walls of Jerusalem and rebuilt the Temple. More than that, the people publicly recommitted themselves to the Word of God and said, “We will serve the Lord!”
But by the time Malachi wrote, just a generation or two later, it was the same-old, same-old. Israel was back to worshiping false gods; they were offering the Lord only lip-service; they were sticking God with the worst of their crops and animals, not the firstfruits or their best. So, the Lord announced the coming of His messengers – not just one, but two.
“Look! I am sending my messenger! He will prepare the way before me.” That’s John the Baptizer who would prepare the way for the Lord, as we heard in the Gospel.
“Then suddenly the Lord, whom you are seeking, will come to his temple! The Messenger of the Covenant, in whom you delight, will surely come, says the Lord of Armies.” That’s Jesus.
Though the coming of Jesus had been promised since the Fall in the Garden of Eden, still His coming took people by surprise at the first Christmas. Mary, Joseph, Herod, shepherds, friends and enemies – all were surprised when He came. God had promised His Son’s coming from the dawn of the world, people had carried the hope with them all the long years, but what they had hoped for they really did not expect. It caught them by surprise. And the second coming of this Messenger of the Covenant promise will also surprise us, even though we hope for it and profess to long for it.
The question is: “Who can endure the day when he comes? Who will remain standing when he appears?” No one. Malachi says later: “All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble and that day that is coming will set them on fire” (Malachi 4:1). We must lump ourselves into that category. The Lord calls for holiness and perfection from those who dare to stand before Him. But our hearts bubble over with evil.
We are like the Israelites of old. We are impure metal. We have allowed ourselves to become mingled with the world, and as a result, are not pure. We have become worthless and weak.
Oh, sure, we have days and weeks of spiritual renewal – picking up our Bibles, putting aside sinful habits, giving sufficient time to God, family, work, and offering our best to God in our offerings and vocations. We are faithful in worship and Bible class. But then we go right back to the way we were. Sometimes that very same day. Perhaps even right after we exit the church. We only pay lip-service to God. We keep the best for ourselves and give the leftovers to God.
This is why we need refining. We need to be placed in the forge. “For he will be like a refiner’s fire, like launderers’ bleach! He will be seated like a refiner and a purifier of silver.”
The only hope for us is that Jesus comes into our lives and turns up the heat of His forge. It is a forge of suffering.
Remember how King Nebuchadnezzar heated the furnace seven times hotter than usual to be a consuming fire. It was to burn and consume Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.
Malachi speaks of a different kind of fire. This is controlled fire. A refiner’s fire. A refiner works with precious metals like gold and silver. The metal becomes so hot that the metal becomes liquid. The impurities, the dross, floats to the top so the refiner can remove them. The metal can now be pure.
This is the work of Jesus. We are the objects of His purifying. He is the Refiner. His fire is Law and Gospel. It is suffering, pain and heartache.
Jesus is also pictured scrubbing us clean with launders’ bleach. Perhaps you remember your mother or grandmother using the old-fashioned washboard to scrub clothes clean. Though we have electric washing machines, if there is a stain, you still take a bar of soap and you scrub to get that stain out.
Jesus is pictured as purifying you with His fire. That fire is terrible and terrifying. No impurity, no sin, no wrong can survive in His holy presence. Jesus will burn away your faults and make you pure. But our sins and faults are part of us. They are in our very nature and DNA. We want to be pure, but we aren’t sure we want to be changed. Yet when Christ’s fire burns, all those personal sins that make us harm ourselves and our families and our neighbors are burned away. All those social sins that make us dislike and distrust one another will be consumed forever.
Jesus is also pictured as purifying you with soap. The fire is hot and kept at a distance, but laundry soap is close and personal. This is a labor of love for Jesus. He will not rest until He makes you clean and presentable to the world.
When you said something naughty, your mother washed out your mouth with soap. It tasted awful. But you knew she wanted your mouth to be pure. The soap was a visible demonstration of that! If you had a cut on your leg, your dad washed it out with iodine. That stuff burned! But the cut needed to be cleaned so it didn’t get infected. The cure for our cussing and cuts seemed worse than the disease!
But the point was always love – always an attempt to keep us healthy and pure. God is like that, Malachi says – burning away our sins and washing us clean to make us pure for His purposes. The cleansing fire and soap doesn’t seem pleasant at the time!
Jesus uses the fire of suffering, persecution, difficulty, sorrow, stress, and the anger and hatred of the world to purify us. The devil wants to do one of two things with these sufferings. He will work to remove the sufferings so that we have a life of ease and comfort. Then when everything is nice and easy-going, we don’t need a Savior from sin, we have no use for a Deliverer from suffering, we have no purpose for reaching heaven for we are enjoying heaven here on earth.
Or the devil will use our suffering to pound on us. One thing I learned from “Forged in Fire” is that you cannot pound and shape cold steel. It will chip, crack and break. That’s what the devil wants to have happen to our faith. He just wants to pound on us.
Jesus uses the fire to make us holy so that we can become like the Levites of old who served the Lord in His temple. We will be able to make holy sacrifices. “He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and like silver. They will belong to the Lord and bring him an offering in righteousness. Judah and Jerusalem’s offerings will be pleasing to the Lord as they were in the days of old, in years long ago.” The sin is burned away and we are able to stand before God in faith, to serve our neighbors in love, to praise Him as priests.
The only thing to fear is the fire of the wrath of God. Not the wrath of the world. Not the wrath of the devil. Not the wrath of our flesh. Jesus has already taken that wrath upon Himself.
The fiery trials that afflict us will not consume us. Babies in the hospital. 7.0 earthquake in Alaska. Fires in California. Cancer, congestive heart failure, dementia or divorce. They are not the fire of God’s wrath. That was spent on Jesus Christ. The troubles of this world do not destroy us because they are not the punishment for our sins. Jesus took care of that with His death and resurrection. The struggles in this world are not a struggle against God. They are struggles with our flesh and with the devil. Those struggles try to get us to find peace and comfort in the pleasures and comforts of this world. Jesus uses those struggles to teach us that true peace and comfort are only found in Him.
This week in Catechism class, pairs of students were tasked with giving presentations on how they would speak to and comfort couples who struggle with infertility or who have suffered a miscarriage or have lost a child to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. All the students did fantastic.
One student stood in front of the class and shared his story about what he felt when his baby sister died shortly after birth. It took a lot of courage for him to stand there and tell the class how much it hurt. But he also told them that he knew God wasn’t punishing him. Now he is able to see that God used this tragedy to save his life and bring him and his family to faith.
He was in tears. The class was in tears. I took notes so I wouldn’t be in tears. He said what all the students needed to hear. He said what all of us need to hear.
“Forged in Fire” competitors have three hours to heat and shape their knives. Jesus takes a lifetime to forge and refine us. Jesus forges us in the fire of Law and Gospel, His blood and sacrifice, and the controlled burn of suffering. For in these, Jesus is making us into a people who are prepared for His coming. Amen.