A sermon preached
Readings: Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 3:1-6
"He will be like a refiner's fire (Mal 3:2)
The time is the mid 5th Century BC –
the Israelites have returned from exile in Babylon and are again living in Jerusalem.
But things have not lived up to the hopes and expectations of those returning.
Crop failures and economic difficulties have gone alongside
moral decay and widespread civic corruption.
The priests are time servers who give no spiritual leadership.
The people neglect their religious observance.
All is despondency and disillusionment.
Enter Malachi, prophet of the Lord –
Malachi announces that the Lord will come and judge his wayward people –
and judge them with fire.
We too need to hear the message of Malachi.
We too stand under the judgement of God for our sins and
We are sinners – every bit as much if not more than the Israelites of the 5th C BC
Now there have been periods of
when any preacher worth it’s salt would reckon to terrify his hearers
by dangling them metaphorically over the fiery pit of hell –
indeed it used to be said in some revivalist chapels of old
that hearers could feel the heat of hell's fire warming their pews.
Should we be preaching that sort of fiery judgement today?
Well, God does come to judge with fire –
there is a real sense in which we are here in God’s house
and the forest fire is heading our way –
God is coming, and who shall stand before the fire of his judgment??
But – and it is a huge but – the image is not quite right -
The fire is not a forest fire but a refining fire –
the image is not of us being destroyed by a forest fire,
but of us as corrupt and tainted ore being purged in God’s fire,
so that we emerge as holy and purified precious metal.
This is judgment which awaits us –
the fire is searing and painful –
but it is creative judgment which brings
not death and destruction but new life in all its fullness.
So God’s judgement comes -
“no longer the last crushing word on the failed life,
but the first word in a new creation”
(Walter Wink, “Powers that Be” p. 163)
Car bumper stickers can sometimes
get to the heart of things –
I remember one which simply said
“The devil burns – God recycles”
Which really gets to the root of
our Lord comes like a refiners fire
to take the seeming rubbish of our former life
and recover from it the divine image in which we were all made.
Early Christian artists often
used the Phoenix as a symbol of new life –
the bird dies in the flames and then a new bird rises from the ashes.
It’s a powerful resurrection symbol,
speaking of dying to our old life and rising with Christ
from the ashes of our former existence into life in all its fullness
For some of the saints the funeral pyre is very literal.
Polycarp was early Christian
Bishop martyred around the year 155 AD.
Early Christian biographies are often unreliable historical documents,
but they can get to the heart of the significance of things
in a way that more prosaic documentary accounts may fail to do –
Thus the author of the Martyrdom
describes his being burnt at the stake:
“…The men in charge of the fire
lit it, and a great flame blazed up.
And we, to whom the vision was given, saw a great miracle…..
The fire made something like a
or the sail of a vessel filled with wind,
and surrounded the body of the martyr like a kind of wall.
Inside, it was not like burning flesh,
but like bread being baked, or gold and silver refined in the fire….”
And you recall Cranmer also led
to the stake 1400 years later,
placing first his hand in the fire,
the hand that had signed his false recantation and which must first be burned –
and then the old prelate was consumed with fire and died –
And in the ashes, so it was told, his heart was found unburnt.
Yes the fire may even kill the body but not the soul.
Every day of our life, and at the day of
there is the judgement
but always that judgement seeks the salvation
of the refined and purified heart
made at length acceptable in God’s sight.
This advent season we look for the coming of Christ into our lives.
How nice if we could look for a cheery slap on the back
and the “hail fellow well met” of the jovial Christmas office party.
But if you would meet the Christ and the Lord,
there is more to it than that – there is love mixed with pain.
Have you ever hurt someone deeply
and then discovered that they still love and accept you
in spite of the hurt you have caused them?
If so you know just something of
what it is to meet Christ on the cross
and hear him say,
“my child you have put me here and the nails still pull at my flesh -
and yet I love you still”
In that moment of horror and
shame we cry in anguish
“O Lord how can I live with myself – I did not know I did not see….
I did not see you naked and homeless and in prison…”
and yet in that very moment of burning shame and guilt
we know that through the fire of judgement
we will not be destroyed but saved.
We may not be called to the martyr’s pyre like Polycarp and
But we are called to the purging fire of judgment..
Once upon a time there were three dirty and charred saucepans.
They lay forgotten and discarded
in a royal outhouse,
having been burnt in the royal kitchen when the royal potatoes had boiled dry.
Each remembered being shiny and new and used every day.
The one day the King decided to
throw the biggest Christmas party ever.
He told the royal cook to get every piece of kitchen equipment in the palace ready.
The three saucepans realized that they would be needed again/
The first saucepan said –
“Good, the cook will be glad of any saucepan now –
he won’t mind me being filthy and charred –
he’ll just have to use any old filthy pan like me and make do.”
The second saucepan said
“Don’t you believe it – I’m going to hide –
the cook won’t just use us, he will scour & chip to get our insides clean again –
I’d rather stay hidden in the dark damp shed.”
The third saucepan said –
“yes we will be scoured – and that will be hard –
but if that is the only way back into the King’s service,
I am ready and waiting”
Once upon a time, there were three children.
They were wicked and they had
wronged their old father,
defrauded him, laughed at him, broken his heart.
One day, in spite of all this,
they received an invitation from their father to Christmas dinner.
Should they go?
The first child said –
“I’ll go if you like – but I’m not taking a present,
and I can’t be bothered to talk to silly old buffer –
but I’ll go if you want me to”
The second child said,
“No way – I’m not having him spoil my Christmas thank you very much.
It would wreck the party atmosphere – we’d all feel miserable –
Let’s not go.
The third child said,
“Yes, it would be hard,
I can’t think of anything more painful
than the look of hurt and love in my father’s eyes –
but nor can I think of anything I’d rather have for a Christmas present,
because however painful, I know he’d forgive us –
and it would make us a family again. Let’s go.
We have a father and King in heaven.
Who invites us to share in his royal feast and be part of his family.
Do we poor sinners dare come to his feasting table –
we who have hurt him so?
Dare we face the fire before which none can stand?
Well do you remember the words of John Donne, -
how, knowing his own tendency to shut himself away from God,
Donne asks God to use a battering ram –
Batter my heart, three person'd God….
…That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow mee, and bend
Your force, to breake, blow, burn and make me new.
This advent, every advent, Christ comes –
In a few moments we will meet him at this table -
a foretaste of the heavenly banquet.
Let us come humbly but joyfully and say:
· Lord break down the clay, remake the pot and fire me in the kiln,
· Lord, phoenix like remake me from the ashes of the funeral pyre,
· Lord purge me of the dross and make me pure silver and gold
· Lord enter my life, scour me, cleanse me and love me.
And then shall will meet Christ -
amidst the fire of judgement,
and know him as the humble child of Bethlehem
As Malachi walked the streets of
he would have seen the silversmiths at work.
Traditionally they would sit over the crucible of molten metal,
judging, adjusting, the heat of the furnace, skimming off the dross,
looking for that moment when the metal was quite pure –
it is said that the silversmith would know
when the silver was pure by a simple test –
he would at long last be able to look down into the molten metal
and see his face reflected.
So come Lord Jesus into our lives this advent tide,
come with the white heat of the furnace –
We shall not fear –
For though we know that much must be purged away,
we know that the refiner’s fire is the way of salvation.
So let the fire burn -
That in its blaze we shall at last reflect the glory of God
and the face of our maker.