He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver.
See, 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. But 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; 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, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years. Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts. For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished.
The season of Advent is a time of intriguing contrasts. During Advent, we look forward to something very happy: the birth of our Lord! And yet something about the season is also a bit dark. You see, transformation is a double-edged sword, and that is what we are really talking about when it comes to Christmas. Christmas is a time of new birth and rededication, but to really focus on those things we must also realize what our old life is and what it is we are doing. We must think of both the meaning behind the Lord’s birth and the conditions that existed when it occurred.
Malachi tells us that the one whom the Lord will send will be “like a refiner’s fire,” meaning one who seeks to rid us of impurity. Moreover, the text tells us that this refiner is going to go after a certain group of people, the Levites. The descendants of Levi are an interesting group: they are one of the twelve tribes of Israel, but unlike the others, they did not receive territory. Instead, they were given the care of the people of Israel. Their livelihood was based not in agriculture or mining, but in overseeing religious practice and caring for the sick.
But in both the prophets and the gospels, we hear that these people had become more devoted to worldly wealth and status than to God and their community. Prophets like Malachi were thus calling for change—not a great redistribution of wealth per se, but a purification of the priesthood. Our reading from Matthew goes one step farther by calling all those who believe to be purified and rededicated.
What John the Baptist was doing was not new, but it was different. The laws of Moses detail purification rituals involving baths, and bathing has, across the cultural board, long been used ritually as a sign for cleansing the soul. But John the Baptist added something: the idea that what the person was doing in the river at that moment was not the end of the process, for, he said, “one more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” John the Baptist altered the way in which God’s presence with the people was mediated. Normally a priest, who understood the law, checked to ensure that you had properly followed it so that you would be restored to participation in the covenant. In other words, purity meant following the covenant’s rules and laws.
John did not do what the other prophets had done, which was to say that the Levites would be reformed. After all, he was himself a Levite, and I think he knew what the track record was of that happening—not good, as of his day. Instead, he shifted the notion of purity from ritual purity to volitional purity through the descent of the Holy Spirit. He changed the source of a person’s purity from ritual practice to desire.
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Neither Malachi nor John is talking about nonbelievers. They are talking about people who know about and are dedicated to their faith; for Malachi it is the Levites, and for John it is all those people who have gone out of their way to come to him. Both of them are talking about going deeper than the ritual purity of the covenant.
On this second Sunday of Advent, which is generally understood as the Sunday of Peace, we do not celebrate the arrival of peace, but rather the promise of peace that comes through the birth and advent of our Lord. But, in reality, what do these readings for today mean to us? Many people use them as stories about how they are right and others are wrong. Some use them as stories proving that God can only come to those who are baptized. Others, meanwhile, look at them as historical proof that the Lord is the Christ, citing John the Baptist as the person that Malachi and Isaiah are referring to as preceding God’s new Messiah.
If we take the Bible to be the key to our life of faith, the story must deal more directly with us. We must ask the question, “Who are the ‘Levites’ about whom Malachi is talking?” In us, the priests represent the place where we meet God, the place in our hearts where we hold our affection for good and truth, which are the essentials of faith. We must then ask ourselves, “What does it mean to refine goodness and truth?”
I find it ironic that our tradition contains an extensive and elaborate corpus of theological writings based in Enlightenment philosophy, and yet Swedenborg’s final statement about good and truth is that they are simple. We can sit around discussing this and that theologically for hours and hours, but in the end, if you need spend time reasoning on it or explaining it, it is impure—not necessarily wrong, mind you, but impure.
Our lives get this way sometimes, don’t they? Our priorities and responsibilities cross. Our energies move in a different direction than what we feel is right. But our love for goodness and truth, our love for the Lord, has the power to clarify all of this and bring peace to our lives. The truth is that we cannot create anything out of nothing, for this would make us God. What we can do is build and construct things out of what the Lord has given us.
The Bible is full of journey stories. Adam and Eve, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and even Jesus have lives full of journeys, from birth to death, and none of them are easy.
Each of us has a journey to make, and this journey takes commitment. We have been called to bring love into this world in our own special ways. You may be pointing in the right direction on your journey, but what bit of complexity is holding you back? What are the impurities stopping you from bringing your love into this world?
Christmas is a time for new birth. It is a time when we focus on showing love and joy. It is also the harbinger of the new year, a time to rededicate ourselves to what really matters. With a little discipline and work, we can bring about a new spirit and renew our lives, thanks to the love of the Lord and the peace that comes with it.