I’m in the hard, annoying, part of my dissertation.
In May, should everything go well, I’ll graduate with my doctorate from Emory University. I’m excited and working hard to wrap-up this last semester’s work. That work includes the annoying part of any writing project: editing and proofreading.
When I got back my last draft from my advisor, she noted that there were several quotation marks that didn’t match the font of the rest of the paper and created spacing issues. In fact, there were so many, that she stopped marking them and just suggested I go through the paper and find them.
This is a paper whose current word count is 15,063, comprising fifty pages. Imagine going through all that text to find errant quotation marks! I was not looking forward to that!
Thankfully, the solution to that issue was easy, but it belies a larger point: editing, proofreading, in other words refining, is never fun.
Any project we might undertake is exciting when we start and as we put together the pieces or get to work on it, we find joy in the project. But there comes the moment where we need to refine, where the changes are minute and require careful attention. And that’s the part that’s never quite fun; that’s the process of refining.
Refining is an arduous process. Refining isn’t fun. And those facts about refining hold true for our faith.
That’s the message from the prophet Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament. Let’s hear our scripture for today:
Refining is hard.
Malachi is a Hebrew word that means “messenger.” It’s an apt title for a prophet. He’s come to deliver a message to the people of Israel; a message delivered late in the Old Testament’s history. After Malachi, with the exception perhaps of Esther, scripture becomes silent for nearly five hundred years. That’s the time period between the end of the Old Testament’s writings and the earliest writing in the New Testament: 1 Thessalonians.
So this is a message that stays with the people for quite a while. This messenger, Malachi, is bringing a message that another messenger is coming. We know that messenger is first John the Baptist and then Jesus, but for the people at the time, they just know that God will come and send them a message.
Why is God sending them a message?
Because they’ve been making accusations against God and God is annoyed.
They’ve been asking God: “Where is the God of justice?” Rhetorically stating that he’s not to be found. And then they’ve been accusing God saying, “All who do evil are good in the sight of the LORD; and he delights in them.” They’re making accessions against God, saying that God is not living up to God’s promises. They feel that there is no justice, that God is rewarding evildoers, and they are very frustrated that God would do so. And in making these accusations, they’re praying with emotional honesty, just like I quite often recommend to you. They’re doing what we should do: tell God exactly how we feel.
But, when we do choose to pray that way, being emotionally honest with God, we must be mindful that we may not like the message we receive back; a message like this one:
Refining is hard.
That’s the message Malachi brings. And, indeed, it was the message eventually brought by John the Baptist and Jesus. The messenger is coming to deliver God’s word that a period of refinement is coming; a period of difficulty, challenge, and hardship. So, Malachi rightly asks, “who can stand his coming?” For who can stand when God comes and refines.
Note the examples Malachi uses: refining soap, which if you’ve ever seen it done is tremendously hard work and hard on the soap itself. Or the purification of metals in forges: full of fire, heat, that burns away imperfections. This is not a pleasant experience.
And yet, refinement is coming. And so the message remains: refinement is hard.
But not just for the people of God. Yes, they need to be refined for they are not in right relationship with God. This coming refinement will restore that right relationship, which is another way of saying righteousness.
But this will also be for all people. When God comes and refines, God will also render judgment against those who are cheating others: adulterers, those who swear falsely, those who do not fear God. But notice who else shows up in the list of receiving God’s judgment: those who oppress workers in their wages, those who thrust aside the foreigner or immigrant.
In other words, not only those who are lying or otherwise bearing false witness against God himself, but God will also render judgment against those who are cheating the least of these by withholding wages or refusing to treat as an equal the alien, which is a word that can be translated as foreigner or immigrant.
God will render judgment. That’s the word here. And that judgment will condemn some, like those who don’t pay a fair wage or those who oppress immigrants, but mostly it will refine, make more pure, bring back into right relationship, the people of God.
That’s a tough message. But that’s what God has to say in response to their accusations, their questions. God says, “you think I’m the problem. Really, it’s your failure to be in right relationship with me. It’s your failure to do justice. And so, because I am in convent relationship with you, instead of destroy you, I will refine you. Then, we will see justice and righteousness. Then, the world will be righted.”
God is rendering judgment over them. God says that such judgment will bring a period of refinement. Surely, this will not be a pleasant experience.
Refining is hard.
None of us want someone to render judgment over us. Even less so God, whose judgment is always correct. But, sometimes, rendering judgment brings about a necessary and good period of refinement.
Such was true at the start of my professional career. Having judgment rendered over me was exactly what I needed.
I came to Mercer, my first full-time job after going to graduate school, with a head full of answers, a know-it-all sensibility, and a desire to demonstrate my greatness. I was, to a fault, full of myself. My boss, the one who had hired me with great expectation, was very quickly disappointed. Eventually, that disappointment turned to disgust.
When I had the gall to come in and ask for a raise after only being on the job for five months, she lost it. I later learned this was a rare moment for her: she always kept her composure. But not that day. She let me have it. And in letting me have it, what she was really doing was reflecting back to me my egotism, my self-centeredness, my grandiosity, and calling it out.
She rendered judgment over me. And that was exactly what I needed.
I was sufficiently humbled. And I have not been the same since; in a good way. It started a process of refinement for me. It launched me on a journey of self-awareness. It made me, instead of ambitious for myself, ambitious for the mission; now the mission of building the Kingdom of God through the church.
I think many of us have had bosses or parents or mentors in our lives who have humbled us in the past. We have had others who have spoken truth into our lives that was hard to hear, but necessary to hear; a truth that allowed us to grow, to flourish, to become better; a truth that refined.
Refining is hard, indeed, but it is good.
And that’s the point Malachi wants us to hear today. It’s the point that John the Baptist was making from the wilderness as he “prepared the way for the Lord” and “made straight his paths.” It was a point Jesus made often. We can be full of religiosity, we can be full of right religious practice, we can be “saved,” but we all stand in need of refining.
We all stand in need of having our imperfections worked out. We all stand in need of having our rough edges hewn. We all stand in need of growing in our faith which, sometimes, comes because of refining work God is doing in our lives.
In the Methodist Church, we call that refining process sanctification. When we first enter relationship with Christ, we are saved from being condemned but we also start a process, a journey. That journey is the journey of growing our faith. It’s a journey of falling deeper in love with God. It’s a journey of becoming more and more a representative of God’s Kingdom on this earth; the peaceable kingdom that brings hope and justice to the world.
God refines us. But we have a choice of whether or not we will participate in that refinement. God will come to us, over and over again, because God has promised to always be with us. God does not change, and thus God will continue to come back to us over and over again out of God’s love for us, just like with the “children of Jacob.”
But, we have a choice of whether or not we will participate. And that choice is what’s wrapped up in the call to greater self-discipline with our spiritual practices this coming Lenten season. We grow in faith, submitting ourselves to the refining fires of God, by being with God daily, regularly, in reading our bibles or praying.
We can opt out of participation, but God will keep coming. And whether we opt to participate or not, the refining God brings will sometimes be like a fire: it will burn, it will be hard, like that day in my boss’s office. Sometimes, refining is very hard, indeed.
But refining is good.
When we are being refined, constantly and consistently growing in our faith, we are a people who bring justice and righteousness to the world. We are the people who can bear witness against wrongs and see them changed.
We are the people of God. And as the people of God, we bring righteousness and justice to the world when we are in right relationship with God.
A justice that condemns unfair labor practices. A justice that stands up for the widow and the orphan. A justice that ensures the foreigner and immigrant is treated with dignity. A justice that knows as we have treated the least of these, we have treated Christ himself.
A righteousness that makes us truth tellers, whether the truth is easy to hear or hard. A righteousness that expresses faithfulness, even if that faithfulness is costly. A righteousness that allows us to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.
That justice and righteousness, revealed by verse five, is what we can bring to the world if we will walk that journey of sanctification, willing to be refined.
Through our relationship with God, one that is constantly refining us, we can be a powerful force for justice and righteousness, for good, in this world. But we have to be willing to walk that journey of sanctification; we have to be willing to spend time daily with God; we have to be willing to be refined.
Refining is hard, but it is good.
And that’s why God brings that message of refinement. As much as the people have failed to live up to God’s standards, and then insulted God by blaming God for the condition of the world, God will not give up on them. They will, instead, be refined. They will be lovingly shaped back into right relationship. And that will happen so they can go and change the world in God’s name, acting for justice and righteousness.
That’s why, as I said last week, salvation matters more for this life than for the next. We offer God’s salvation to the world when we are agents of God’s justice and righteousness, bringing about the Kingdom of God.
For example, this week, through your generosity, we offered food to the vaccination volunteers. That’s bringing righteousness to the world by loving on the people who are providing hope and security for us.
Over the past several months, we have put food in the bellies of many across our community, whether through charitable donations or food drives. That’s bringing justice to the world by giving the hungry food; something Jesus explicitly called upon us to do.
And, in fact, we have as a church had something to do with labor practices, just like this scripture mentions. While the pandemic interrupted the program, we were partnering with the school system to expose local high school students to local good paying jobs. These are students whose background might lead them to think of their job prospects as extremely limited. Instead, we sought to provide hope that a better job, a job with a living wage, a job with dignity, was possible.
This is what we do. And in all those ways, we are offering salvation to our community; salvation from despair, salvation from hunger, salvation for hope and a future.
This is what we do. And we can do it if and when we are in right relationship with God. If and when we are regularly pursuing relationship with God. If and when we walk the journey of sanctification; when we submit to being refined.
God will refine us. God will remove imperfections. But only so that we can go and be better servants, better representatives of the Kingdom of God. Better able to offer justice and righteousness to the world.
Refining is hard, but it is good.
C.S. Lewis perhaps put it best in a bit of a lengthy quote. But he sums up the point here in a way that is both easy to hear and, yet, profound. So as we close out this sermon, hear these words, and let them be for you a call to action; a call to practice the spiritual disciplines daily, a call to submit to being refined.
Lewis says, “When a man turns to Christ and seems to be getting on pretty well (in the sense that some of his bad habits are now corrected) he often feels that it would be natural if things went fairly smoothly. When troubles come along—illnesses, money troubles, new kinds of temptation—he is disappointed. These things, he feels, might have been necessary to rouse him and make him repent in his bad old days; but why now? Because God is forcing him on, or up, to a higher level: putting him into disputations where he will have to be very much braver, or more patient, or more loving, than he ever dreamed of being before. It seems to us all unnecessary: but that is because we have not yet had the slightest notion of the tremendous things God means to make of us.”
The tremendous things God means to make of us. God will make of us something tremendous for God’s Kingdom if we will submit to being refined.
Go then, submit to being refined, and become the tremendous thing God means to make of you.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.