Text: Malachi 3:1-4
It’s hardly the “silent night—peace on earth” kind of message that we expect to hear at “the most wonderful time of the year.” “For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap…” Many people, when they hear that phrase, “For he is like a refiner’s fire,” know not only the words but the tune. The melody to Handel’s Messiah comes unbidden, so deeply rooted in our minds and souls and tradition that it becomes almost impossible to hear these words any other way—to hear something different or new.
Malachi, who wrote those words, is the last of the twelve minor prophets making his writings the last book before the New Testament. The book is commonly attributed to the prophet by the name Malachi whose Hebrew meaning is simply “my messenger.” However, some scholars believe the name “Malachi” is not a proper noun but rather an abbreviation of “messenger of YHWH” while other scholars consider the book to be anonymous, with verse 1:1 being a later addition.
While the authorship of the book is in question, the purpose of the writer is clear. The Book of Malachi was written to correct the lax religious and social behavior of the Israelites—particularly the priests—in post-exilic Jerusalem. Although the prophets urged the people of Judah and Israel to see their exile as punishment for failing to uphold their covenant with Elohim, it was not long after they had been restored to the land and to the Temple worship that the people’s commitment to their God began, once again, to wane. It was in this context that the prophet delivered his prophecy.
Malachi was primarily concerned with four issues: reforms to help the poor, mixed marriages, keeping the Sabbath, and bringing one’s tithes and offerings faithfully. The theological message of the book can possibly be summed up in one sentence: God will come not only to judge the people but also to bless and restore them.
If we take a partial view of Malachi’s message, we might construe or form the impression of a God of arrogant legalism—overly concerned with insufficient tithes and blemished sheep and foreign marriages and divorce, willing to strike down the troublemakers or rebels who disobey. But what if tithes and offerings are not to satisfy the appetite of God but rather to feed the widows and the orphans? Then do tithes matter? Are they only about church discipline, or is justice at stake? And what if the unfaithfulness of the temple leaders has “caused many to stumble” and desert the path of “integrity and uprightness?” Then do worship practices matter? Are they only about legalities or are they about life? What if God sees a people whom he loves bringing upon themselves harm and destruction rather than the life and well-being that God so desperately longs to give them? Then does anger make sense? And what if, in this age, injustice does prevail? Does nothing matter then? Is anything fair game? Are we alone? Or will somehow, sometime God’s rule of justice and goodness be established? Will that not be good news for the faithful who have striven for good in the face of arrogant oppressors who always seem to come out on top? What if we read Malachi with this wider-eye perspective? And what might the prophets’ words mean to us today, especially in this season when we anticipate the coming of justice-love, if we take this wider perspective?
Amid the disappointments and cynicism of present reality, Malachi sees, longs for, hopes for, proclaims a world of goodness and purity, where justice and peace finally matters and integrity finally prevails. God is faithful, says Malachi, and will usher in such a world—even if it takes fire and soap to get us there. You see, for Malachi, the struggle is real, the refinement is necessary, the soap scrubbing is a part of the journey—a journey we are all called to make. The fire is not to burn us. The fire is to melt away all that keeps us from being who God created us to be. The soap is not to rub us raw—although it can—the soap is to brighten our light in this world. And those who have the courage to be refined by the fire and washed, scrubbed clean by the soap are the ones who know and follow the prince of peace. The refining and scrubbing doesn’t make us perfect or pure, but it prepares us to live with integrity and in faithfulness.
If Handel’s Messiah has imprinted the image of a refiner’s fire in our minds and on our hearts, maybe these prophetic words from another great man should be imprinted on our hearts and in our minds when it comes to understanding the refiner’s fire. On April 23, 1910, in Paris, France, Theodore Roosevelt delivered these words in a speech titled “Citizenship In A Republic.”
It is not the critic who counts; not the [one] who points out how the strong [one] stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the [one] who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself [herself] in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he [she] fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his [her] place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. Shame on the [one] of cultivated taste who permits refinement to develop into fastidiousness that unfits him [her] for doing the rough work of a workaday world.
The refiner’s fire and the fullers’ soap—images for this peace Sunday—are necessary to living a life of the spirit and to know the kind of peace that was born in a manger, the kind of peace that our world needs today. But as Malachi and Roosevelt have reminded us, if peace is to be, we must be the people actually in the arena, for it is there that we find God’s blessing and peace for our lives.