“I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years. (Malachi 3:1-4)
This passage in Malachi speaks of two messengers. The second one is the Lord himself and is called the “messenger of the covenant,” because he is the covenant God makes with the people. It speaks of a desire fulfilled, but the question that then follows is a sobering one: Who can endure the day of his coming? Who will be left standing when he appears?
This is the solemn language of judgment, of sorting out what is good from what is evil, a sorting we must all eventually go through. It may not seem a cheery thought, but it is a necessary one. And it is for this judgment that Jesus the Messiah came into the world, to set everything right — and that does bring us hope.
It is also heartening that it is not we who do the sorting out but God. If it were left to us, we would get it all wrong, for it is we who are the problem. With us, judgment and mercy are two different things, and either one can be very destructive. But with God, judgment and mercy are the same thing and work toward the same purpose.
Now, note what Messiah is like on the “day of his coming.” He is like a refiner’s fire and a launderer’s soap. The purpose of the refiner’s fire is not to destroy the silver or gold but to purify it. And the launderer’s soap is not meant to destroy the garment but to cleanse it. Likewise, the judgment of God does not come to destroy us but to burn away the impurities in us and cleanse us — and that is a great mercy. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17).
The testimony of Scripture is that “God is a consuming fire” but also that “God is love.” Whatever God’s fire is, then, and whatever it burns away must always be for the sake of love. It burns away whatever is not love or does not come from love — which is to say, whatever does not come from God — and purifies in us what does come from love, from God: the divine image and likeness in which we were created.
Here is something important to understand about the season of Advent: It has just as much to do with the second coming of Jesus as with the first. The two complete each other, establishing in the earth the fullness of the promise of God. This passage in Malachi appears to indicate both. For the first messenger is John the Baptist, who heralded the kingdom of God and focused our attention on Jesus of Nazareth, the “lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” But then the “day of his coming” and the question of who can endure it sounds like the great day of Messiah’s return.
Yet, the first coming, when God became human and dwelt among us, was just as much a judgment as the second one will be. His light judged the darkness of the world. His love judged the fear that grips the world. His wholeness judged the brokenness of the world. His goodness judged the wickedness of the world. His cross judged sin and death and the devil, and his resurrection was the beginning of the new creation, the renewal of all things. The second coming, then, is the outworking of the first and will bring completion to it.
In between, there is the refiner’s fire, the ongoing process by which God is purifying the world and cleansing it. This refinement is not only the burning away of what does not belong but also about what is being instilled, a restoration of what is lacking in us. God does this by his own Spirit, the Holy Spirit, who comes to dwell in us and manifest the fruit of divine love and the life of Messiah in us. In the Advent lectionary, Malachi 3:1-14 is paired with Philippians 1:3-11, where Paul speaks of the continuing refinement God is doing in us, that we may be prepared for the day of Messiah’s return.
I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus ... And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ — to the glory and praise of God.
Let Earth Receive Her King
Advent, Christmas and the Kingdom of God
by Jeff Doles
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