December 9, 2012/Second Sunday of Advent
A few years ago I had to have some surgery done on my foot. It was this time of year, and I had been running around like a chicken with my head cut off trying to complete every Christmas task on my list before the holidays before the surgery, because I knew once that was done, I would be off my feet for several days.
The morning of the surgery my father came over to take the kids to school. It was a little before seven and when he walked in the door I was vacuuming. Surgery or not, I just couldn’t leave the house without vacuuming. Some of that was motivated by my nerves, but mainly it was because I wanted everything as neat as it could be before this happened. I wanted to be prepared.
You see, I have an inner neat freak. It doesn’t always show up in my office or my house, because my life gets so chaotic that I can’t keep up with everything. But it’s there. And it pops out at odd moments – like when I’m getting ready to go in for surgery. What’s really sad is that morning as they moved me into the operating room and had me move from my rolling bed onto the operating table, I reached over and straightened the rumpled sheet on the bed I’d just left.
You can probably guess then why this passage from Malachi appealed to me so much. Any passage that has to do with soap sounds good to me. But this isn’t a passage that I read very often, so I wasn’t familiar with Fuller’s soap. It took some research to understand what these verses are referring to.
First of all fulling was the act of cleaning and preparing wool for use. A fuller was the person who did the fulling. According to one source that I read, in the Old Testament there was a place outside of Jerusalem called Fuller’s field. It stands to reason, then, that this must have been the place where the wool went to be fulled. The fuller’s soap was the soap used by the fuller to clean the wool. It had to have been some pretty powerful soap. The wool sheared from a sheep would have been greasy and dirty. The soap used, along with a generous amount of hard scrubbing, would need to be able to remove the grease and grime that collected on the wool. Fuller’s soap would make the wool snow white. Fuller’s soap softened and relaxed the wool, so that it would be ready for whatever purpose it was put to. Whether it would be made into clothing, bedding or rugs, the Fuller’s soap prepared the wool. It made it ready.
So the messenger that Malachi refers to is someone who will act on the people like Fuller’s soap acts on wool. Because of this messenger the people will be made ready. They will be prepared. They will be washed clean.
“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.”
Christian tradition ties this messenger that Malachi speaks of to John the Baptist. We also read about him today in the gospel of Luke. It seems that the lectionary has us working backwards from the end to the beginning. Last week we read about the end times and the signs that accompany them. Next week we hear of John’s birth. But Luke 3:1-6, our verses today, begins the story of the adult John the Baptist. Luke is the only gospel where we hear about the birth of John. In Luke’s telling he is the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah. Elizabeth and Mary, the mother of Jesus, are cousins. This makes John and Jesus cousins as well. Now the word of the Lord has come to the grown up John in the wilderness, and he’s preaching all around the river Jordan, proclaiming, as verse 3 tells us, “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
John is the one who prepares the way for the One to come. John is the one who gives the message that Jesus is on the way. John is the one to offer baptism in water, but he knows very well that the One to come will baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit.
But the word of God has called John to be the voice of preparation. So that’s what he preaches. Prepare. “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.”
Prepare. Last week we were told to wait, to watch; to stay awake and to stay alert, because the coming of the Lord is like the coming of a thief in the night. Unless we’re awake and bright eyed and bushy tailed, we’ll miss it. We’ll be caught off guard. But this week we have other kinds of work to do. We have to prepare. According to Malachi, we need to be washed with Fuller’s soap. We need to be cleansed and brightened. And the messenger of the Lord is the one to do this. John the Baptist is like Fuller’s soap to our heart, mind and soul. Prepare.
But Malachi refers to more than just Fuller’s soap. Even before he speaks of soap, he writes of refiner’s fire. The messenger that Malachi talks of will not only wash us, he will refine us with fire. He will refine us as a silversmith refines his chosen metal. Our preparation is one of refining.
The descendants of Levi will be purified like silver or gold. They will be made clean and pure. And as I said before, John the Baptist understood that his water baptisms could not compare with the fire baptisms of the Holy Spirit that would happen with the coming of the Messiah.
But what does it mean that we will be refined and purified with fire? Does it mean that we must be burned before we can be pure? Is this literal or figurative or a little of both?
I once read a story about a women’s Bible Study. The women were studying this passage and other passages like it that spoke of being refined and purified like silver. None of the women could really visualize what it meant to be refined like silver. So one of the women decided to find out exactly what a silversmith did.
She looked through the phone book and on-line and found the name of a silversmith. She called him for an appointment and went to interview him.
After he had given her a tour of his workshop and shown her the tools of his trade, he demonstrated how he created his silver treasures. First of all he hammered the silver into the shape and style he wanted. Sometimes this included using a mold or a form to get the shape just right. Then, to prevent cracks in the metal, he used heat to soften and refine the silver. In the old days, a silversmith, such as Paul Revere, would have used a fired and bellows of some sort. But today’s silversmiths more often use blowtorches.
The silversmith heated an object to show the woman how it was refined. She was impressed with all of this, and asked him one final question. “How do you know when the silver is refined to the exact point that you want?”
He smiled at her and said, “That’s easy. I know it’s done when I can see my reflection in the metal.”
The messenger that God is sending is about preparation. That preparation includes cleaning, preparing and it also means refining. We will be refined with fire, the fire of the Holy Spirit, until we are pure. We will be refined with fire until God’s reflection can be seen in us.
I do a lot of preparing in this season. I make a lot of lists. I scramble around trying to make ready. But how much time do I really spend thinking about what I’m really preparing for? And do I give any time at all to the notion that I might be the one who needs preparing? I am the one who needs to be refined. Refined to the point that God can see God’s reflection in me.
I’m not there yet. There is still refining to be done. But I pray this Advent that I’m a little closer, I’m a little more prepared, I’m a little more refined. This Advent may soap and fire prepare and refine us all to be messengers of the good news, and reflections of God’s image to a hurting world. Let all God’s children say “Amen.”