I once heard the Gospel summed up in this phrase:
‘God loves us so much that he accepts us just the way we are, but he loves us too much to leave us there!”
The prophet Malachi, emphasises this second point – the need and possibility of change. In Biblical times, thousands of workers had to prepare the way before the king travelled anywhere. They fanned out across the countryside, removing debris from the road, sprucing up the public buildings along the way, and generally making sure everything would be at its very best for the king to see. ‘Preparing the way for the Lord’ is therefore a powerful prophetic theme reflected in Advent.
The image of preparation that Malachi uses is the image of ‘refining’ in Malachi 3:2-4. Malachi probably wrote these words after the Jewish exiles had returned from Babylonian captivity around 500 B.C.E. The Temple in Jerusalem had been repaired and daily worship was going on, but if you read all four chapters of Malachi – the last book of the Old Testament before the Apocrypha – you’ll see that he isn’t happy with the way things are going.
The priests are not living holy lives and they’re not putting their heart into the worship of God, and the people aren’t giving their best to God in sacrifices either – they’re giving the lambs that are so sick they would have died anyway. So Malachi speaks of the Lord coming to, ‘purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness’ (Malachi 3:3).
We might wonder what this has to do with us today. But we need to remember that due to the New Testament, or New Covenant of Jesus Christ, we no longer require a physical temple made of stone; rather, the people of the Way, the followers of Jesus are a living temple – as Paul says in his correspondence with the Christians in Corinth. We are a temple, a community where God lives and is worshipped. So for God to purify this temple means that God is at work among us to set right the things that are wrong. Paul also tells us in 1 Corinthians 6:19 that we are each of us ‘temples of the Holy Spirit’. It is the Holy Spirit who is at work ‘refining’ God’s people, both as a community and as individuals. Let’s think about this some more.
A refiner is attempting to purify molten metal from all its dross in order to create an object of beauty and strength – perhaps a silver cup. In Malachi’s time this would be accomplished by putting the unrefined metal into a pot or furnace and heating it up until all the dirt and impurities were burnt out of it. And there’s another lovely little detail here. A number of Bible scholars say that the refiner would know that the process was complete when the molten metal was so clear that the refiner could see their own face reflected in it.
I like that thought.
It reminds me that God loves us so much that he accepts us just as we are, weaknesses and all – but he loves us far too much to leave us there. When we listen to the Prophets, like Malachi, during Advent – we are reminded that God is inviting us into a process of being refined from all impurities until he can see the image of himself clearly reflected in us – and so that those around us can identify God’s Hallmarks too.
What do God’s Hallmarks look like?
Like no other. Not a crown, nor a lion, nor an anchor. But as Paul once said to a group of Christians in Galatia: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23)
Hallmarks of Holiness that enrich more than those who bear them. Precious gifts indeed.