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. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years. Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts. For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished. – Malachi 3:1-6
As Christmas approaches, it is hard not to turn the pages of a newspaper or hear an advertisement on TV or radio for performances of Handel’s wonderful oratorio Messiah. Originally written in 1742 for performance around Easter, it has come to be an Advent standby, heard in large and small churches and concert halls. The first part is particularly suited to this time of year, and often scripture readings we read or hear in Advent start our minds hearing the performance of the particular piece which incorporates the phrase, verse or passage we are reading.
One of my particular favorites is the chorus “And he shall purify” which follows an aria usually sung by a bass that speaks of the messenger of God coming and acting like a refiner’s fire. Ores usually require great heat to melt them and separate the valuable metal from the impurities that become enmeshed with them. Malachi calls out the sons of the tribe of Levi for purification so that they can offer perfect sacrifices, but we can see a place for ourselves in that purification.
The passage lists four particular types of people who will be judged most particularly. These include those who are prevaricators who bear false witness, adulterers (which can be seen biblically as a property crime rather than merely a sexual one), those who do not respect, honor and obey God, and those who treat those who oppress the powerless: widows, orphans, workers paid substandard wages, and the aliens who live and work in the land. The privileges we take for granted mark us especially for the heat of those fires since our privilege often comes at someone else’s expense.
Repentance is one of the things we are encouraged to focus on during Advent. Where have we been oppressors, even unwittingly? Do we really believe in the refiner’s fire that Malachi brings to our attention or is it just part of a dynamic aria and chorus that we will hear once and then ignore again until this time next year?
Luckily for us, God is constant in God's love for us, even if that means we must undergo a bit of refining.