“He is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap…” Sermon preached by the Revd Dr Zachary Guiliano
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen
He is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap…
These words of Malachi the prophet, foretelling the sudden coming of the Lord to his temple, could very easily fill us with fear. They seem to presage the coming of one whose very presence will scorch us like fire, cleanse us like foul rags meeting a horrid-smelling bleach. This God, our God, the Lord of Hosts, will come and will not keep silent over our sins. “I will draw near to you for judgment,” he says.
I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.
Against, against, against, we hear. And so no wonder the text reads: “Who can endure the day of the Lord’s coming, and who can stand when he appears?” If this is what God is like, it seems we are all in trouble.
Contrast this fearful prophecy, however, with our Lord’s coming to the temple, borne on the arms of Mary and Joseph, to be presented to the Lord as firstborn sons of Israel had for so many generations. He was to most of those who saw him, another baby, still sleeping most of the day, still crying, still so very small and weak, still nourished at his mother’s breast, still needing his nappy changed, still hardly able to see out of his eyes.
At 40 days, children remain so nearsighted that they often can’t see their parents’ face, unless they are 9-12 inches away. Imagine: As Simeon took the infant Jesus into his arms, and recognized him as the Lord’s Christ, the Messiah, the Light of the World, what did the child Jesus see? Perhaps only Simeon. He saw an unknown, old face, perhaps kindly and warm, but also tired and relieved. “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace…”
How do we reconcile such different presentations of the Lord’s coming to his temple? We have Malachi’s vision of fire and fuller’s soap, of the judgment and purification of God’s people; and we have Luke’s scene of a gentle coming, one that brought release, consolation, and hope to those who had long awaited it. How can these two things be? How can these readings describe the same event?
To answer these questions, I believe, we must ask an age-old one, related to the very nature of Christianity: Why did the Son of God come as he did, incarnate, in the flesh, a baby before growing and becoming strong, before becoming the man — who would work miracles and teach with authority and rebuke his people, who would die on the cross and be raised and exalted on high?
The answer may quite simple and short to say, but it is also profound, in its meaning and the depths of love it reveals. The Son of God came in this way, he was born and lived and died this way, for our salvation, to address our needs, to deliver us from all that had taken us captive.
When we hear that God is against against against our sins, we must remember he is for for for us and our salvation. That is who God is: God for us.
Some words from the letter to the Hebrew speak directly to this point, this tension, this truth:
Since … the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage. For surely it is not with angels that he is concerned but with the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted. (Heb. 2:14-18)
It was for us that Jesus came in the way he did. The depth of our fear and sin could not simply be rebuked and purified by a messenger or prophet, however exalted. It would not have been enough simply to come and judge.
No, if God wanted to deliver us from the power of death, and make expiation for our sins, our Saviour had to become like us “his brethren in every respect.” And so he lived a full human life and was tested, in every way, yet without sin.
He was conceived and “he was born of a woman” in flesh and blood, partaking of our nature. He was named, like all of us are named. He was circumcised on the eighth day. He became subject to the law of Moses for our sake, a fact we see so beautifully and humbly displayed in our Gospel reading today. For He, the Only-Begotten Son of his Father, God from God, Light from Light, very God of very God, consented not only to be made man, but to be made subject to the Law in the form of a servant. Our Gospel reading began in this way: “when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.”
What humility! Who could have been less in need of purification than the Virgin Mary and our Lord Jesus Christ? And yet they went, humbly, fulfilling the law’s legal demand, fulfilling all righteousness, even as our Lord would do throughout his life, for our sake.
For our sake. Those are the words we must remember again and again when we read the Scripture, when we are puzzled by something in Jesus’ life. For our sake.
You see, for the Lord to come truly as Malachi described, for him to be truly “like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap,” he would have to refine and purify human nature deep down, undergoing all its temptations and travails in his own flesh and blood, in his own soul, in his own person.
Our Lord “sat as a refiner and purifier of silver,” and he purified “the sons of Levi and [refined] them like gold and silver,” making them to present offerings to the Lord – when he stooped low and took upon him our raw and crude nature, when he thrust that nature into the fiery crucible of his own divine love, living human life to the utmost and cleansing our nature from every impurity, as he endured the blows and hammerstrikes of his cross and passion. And in the end, as he was raised from the tomb on the third day, he presented our own flesh and blood again to us, new, re-newed, immortal, brilliant, refulgent, shining as gold and silver, a perfect offering to the Lord.
Once we realize this, the apparent tension between Malachi’s fiery vision and Luke’s gentle scene melts away. Indeed, the only way the Lord could come suddenly to his temple, to purify the offering, to make us acceptable again, was to come as Jesus did, living among us, suffering and being tempted among us, dying and rising among us – and for us. He underwent the fiery purification that was prophesied. And so we may purified in him, delivered from the fear of death and lifelong bondage. Hallelujah. Praise the Lord.
Since we have been purified at such cost — by the humility of our Great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ — let us now offer the pure offering that he desires from us. Guarding that purity and glory he has bestowed, let us return it to him, whole and intact. Let us offer him our selves, our souls and bodies, not only at this time, at this Eucharist, but in all the time he has allotted us. Let us give our all to him, even as he has granted all things to us. And as he has purified us in his own love and passion, let us offer all the love of our hearts to him.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.