A sermon on Malachi 3:1-4 & Luke 1:68-79 by Nathan Nettleton, 7th December 1997
Being saved can be painful, but its goal, becoming a purified people who can worship rightly without fear, is the ultimate reward.
At the beginning of each worship service here, we pray a prayer of invocation, a prayer that asks God to be present, to be with us, to come among us. This prayer is important because, of course, if God chose not to be here and not to listen to anything we say here, then much of what we do here would be a complete and utter waste of time. There is not much point in expressing your love and adoration or even your requests and petitions to someone who is not there. It would be a bit like me saying every half hour that I love my wife without ever going home and actually saying it in her presence.
This season of Advent is also about seeking the presence of the Lord among us, or more specifically about preparing ourselves for the Lords appearance among us. Now preparing to welcome the Lord among us is kind of easy if we focus on Christmas - anyone can celebrate the arrival of a baby. But the prophet Malachi cautions us to think twice before we too blithely say Come Lord Jesus.
Who will be able to endure the day when he comes? Who will be able to survive when he appears? He will be like strong soap, like a fire that refines metal. I dont know about you but I certainly find that rather less appealing than welcoming a little baby. Fire refines metal by burning away all the impurities. The core of what is good and precious is able to withstand the heat, but whatever is impure is burned away. The strong soap is, of course, a similar image, but perhaps a bit more close to home for those who dont work in the mining and smelting industries.
Who will be able to endure the day when he comes?
John the Baptiser, who we heard about in our Gospel reading also comes warning us that the day of the Lords appearing is both great and terrible. The crooked ways will be made straight and the rough ways made smooth. Sounds great if its happening in front of you on a long journey, but if its happening to you, its a bit more daunting.
But all three of our readings give us an indication as to what this refining is all about, and why its needed. The Canticle of Zechariah which we read together spelled it clearly. This Canticle, or hymn, sung at the birth of John the Baptiser, by his father Zechariah. It said that the reason God is calling us back to the covenant, refining us and restoring us to the condition we were meant to be in, is so that we might worship without fear and be holy and just all our days.
Malachi too says that the reason we are to be purified is so that we might bring to the Lord the right kind of offerings, offerings which are pleasing to God.
Bring the right kind of offerings; worship without fear; be holy and just all our days. Its all about our response to God, about our approach to God. When we truly experience the grace of God, the extravagant love and goodness of God, we find ourselves unable to respond any other way than in worship. That worship can be expressed in the way we live and behave - being holy and just all our days, and it can be expressed in personal or corporate expressions of praise, thanksgiving and adoration. Usually, if the experience has really knocked the scales from our eyes, it will be expressed in both.
And when worship comes from a deep, heartfelt sense of awe and wonder at Gods extravagant love for us, when worship is an unstoppable outpouring, it is like making love. It is the most passionate and intimate experience you will ever know. It overwhelms your senses, sets your heart singing and dancing within you, melts and merges you into a cosmic oneness with all that is life-filled and loving and beautiful in the universe.
If your idea of heaven is a fridge full of tinnies that never runs out, then I suspect youve never really made love and never experienced true worship (no matter how much sex youve had or how many church services youve been to). When the Biblical writers, especially John the writer of Revelation, described heaven as eternal worship of God, it was because they really knew worship, real worship, not because they hadnt discovered chocolate yet. They knew that not even Cosmopolitan magazines ultimate orgasm comes near the joy and fulfilment of real worship. Many of you know that better than I. Many of you have been on the way much longer than I have and have journeyed far more deeply into the mysteries of Gods grace. Others of you are only just starting out on that journey, having glimpsed the riches of Gods love and mercy, and responded to the first stirrings of gratitude in your hearts.
So, some of you might ask, if its so good whats all this about strong soap and refining fire. Well its like this. Those of you who have attempted any kind of deep love relationship will know that the biggest threat to such relationships is almost always the baggage you bring into it. The psychic garbage that you have been accumulating since your first bad potty training experience. The baggage has to go or the quality of the relationship will be shallow and mediocre at best and damaging and disastrous at worst.
It is no different with worship, with the heart of your relationship with Jesus Christ. The baggage has to go. In Malachis time the problem was taking on a quite specific outward form. When people came to bring animals from their flocks to offer to God in the temple, they were frequently bringing the duds. They were deliberately making second rate offerings. So when Malachi speaks of bringing offerings that are pleasing to God, it had a quite specific and concrete meaning. You bring the best you have, not the rejects.
But the problem does not become irrelevant with the demise of the sacrificial system. Paul urges us to offer our selves as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, for this is true worship. Well, when you offer yourself, what is the quality of your offering. When you come into this relationship, do you have what it takes? God wants the best, and will settle for nothing less, not only for Gods sake but for ours, because worship is a dialogue, it goes both ways, and we gain as much from true worship as God does and so for our sakes too, God wants it to be the best.
Fortunately God does not demand the best of us and then just leave it up to us to get it together. God takes responsibility for uncovering the baggage and providing the refining fire. We can decline the invitation, but we cant ever say we had no opportunity to be refined. All of our pretences, all our carefully cultivated neuroses, all our intricately painted masks, all our rehearsed psychological games, all our little ways of manipulating one another for our own gain - all this psycho-spiritual baggage in whatever unique form it may take in us, all of it must be burned away by Gods refining fire before we will plumb the full depths of ecstasy available in worship of Jesus Christ.
But as painful as having the blow torch applied can be, isnt that exactly what we are longing for deep inside? Because arent these things the exact same things that impede our closest relationships, paralyse our minds with anxieties, hold us back from becoming the people we know we could be and desperately want to become? Arent these exactly the same things that keep us doing what we dont want to do and render us powerless to unleash all the potential that we know God has created within us? Of course they are.
And they are exactly the things that Jesus came and died to save us from. From whatever comes between you and God, whatever holds down the image of God within you. And sure being saved from them can be painful. Being set free can be excruciating. It can be like breaking out of a prison through a hole thats not quite big enough. You have to go through naked and you lose a fair bit of skin on the way through, but hey, its worth it isnt it? Once youve drunk your fill of freedom, youd never go back.
As many of you can attest, once youve tasted the first fruits of true worship, of genuine deep relationship with Jesus Christ, you are so over whelmed with gratitude and love that you welcome the blow torch. You welcome anything that can strip away some more of the baggage so that you can drink even more deeply of that sweet wine. Like Paul you embrace hardships, deprivations, rejections, sufferings, anything as friends, for they all become part of the refining fire, part of the power of God to strip us of every impurity and open wider for us the gateway to depth of worship and fullness of life.
And the more you experience that, the more you will say, Come, Lord Jesus, Come. Come as strong soap, come as refining fire, come carrying a cross. But come. Send your messengers to prepare us, to make straight our crooked ways, to make smooth our rough ways, to make whole our brokenness. Lead us into holiness and justice and all that makes for true worship, and Come, Lord, Come.