Refinement In A Gentle Fire
Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 3:1-6, Philippians 1:3-11
I had some homemade bread not long ago. It was 100% pure in that it contained no salt, no granulated sugar and no oil. It was delicious, and the person who shared it with me said that it was not hard to make. He said you can make pure bread like that rather easily.
I do not know much about chemistry and physics, but I get the impression that it is also reasonably easy to purify water and air. The process for refining cane sugar is well established, as is the process for refining crude oil.
The purification of physical substances is, in many cases, relatively simple. Moral and ethical purification is another matter, more complex by far.
There are religious filters which are useful in screening out moral and ethical impurities, but they have only limited effectiveness. The Ten Commandments is one of the best, but even those who try to use those ten filters most diligently discover to their chagrin that they have not succeeded and that impurities have crept into their lives. The civil and criminal codes of law have been put in operation to keep community and national life clean. Their inability to perform that function is so glaring that many people have concluded that "you cannot legislate morality."
Now, you can clean up a river when it has gotten polluted, but how do you clean up the life of an individual or an institution when it has been morally and ethically damaged? How do you purify a financial institution or industry which has become shot through with shady dealings?
And who among us is innocent? Using Isaiah's images of the righteous God who is coming to fill in valleys and level the hills to make a straight highway, is there anyone here who does not have crooked ways which need straightening? Is there anyone here who does not have holes of doubt and despondency which need filling? Is there anyone here who does not have mountains of stubbornness and insensitivity which need leveling?
Or to ask the question posed by Malachi, "Who will be able to present herself or himself as spotless and clean when the Refiner suddenly comes to his Temple?" The answer is, "No one." As Paul wrote in Romans 3, "None is righteous, no, not one."
How, then, can we move toward purity and righteousness? If the secular law can only manage to preserve a reasonable degree of order and the religious law basically reminds us how morally needy we really are, what can enable us to move ahead? Paul indicates one important answer in verses 9 and 10 of Philippians 1. "It is my prayer," he writes, "that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ."
The time of the completion of the purposes of God, "the day of Christ," is coming. That is what the season of Advent affirms. Advent is not preparation for Christmas. It is preparation for Christmas, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost and the completion of the process of world redemption which those events inaugurated. The time is coming when the will of God and the way of God as revealed in Christ will be established. And on that day our lives will be judged by their conformity or lack of conformity to God's way and will. To be refined, to be purified, is to be conformed to that way and will.
Love, along with knowledge and discernment, says Paul, contribute to refinement and purification.
How can I ever hope to improve my knowledge and discernment of myself unless there are people who will speak to me in love the truth about me as they see it? If I tend to be a person so intent upon getting a group of people to accomplish a task that I am insensitive to the feelings of people in the group, how am I ever going to know that, unless someone tells me that with the kind of loving spirit which makes it possible for me to accept that?
How can you grow in your knowledge and discernment of yourself unless you can be open to what I say to you in love? One promise which Presbyterian congregations make in covenants with preachers is to receive the preached word with openness. Too often, however, members of congregations filter out those words which touch them where they are sensitive. Someone once criticized me rather angrily after a sermon on Jesus' story of the Pharisee and the Publican. She said, "Why, you made it sound like we might be like the Pharisee!"
A Christian congregation is a group of people trying to keep the will of God and the ways of God before them and trying week by week and year by year to move together toward greater conformity and purity. We speak to one another in sermons and Sunday School talks and class discussions and in private, personal, words of counsel, caution and reproof to one another. We work to keep one another on a straight and upward road.
The reason so many bright, able and ambitious people get off on such crooked paths and into such unrighteous and impure ways is that they are not members of an ongoing community of persons who try to speak God's truth to one another in love, with knowledge and discernment.
If you hobnob all day, every day, with people in the business world who think only of business, you are going to become conformed to that world. If you want to keep the ways and will of God operative in your life, you have to be a continuing member of a faith community whose members try to keep on speaking God's truth to one another in love.
We all know, however, that when we have helped one another as much as we can we are still a long way short of purity. As individuals, we continue to do the things we know we should not do and we continue not to do the things we know we should. As a church, we find that in spite of our best efforts we are sometimes enthusiastic, sometimes lethargic; sometimes competent, sometimes not; sometimes full of good humor, sometimes out of sorts and critical; sometimes moving, sometimes spinning our wheels.
Well, if we cannot refine ourselves by law, and if we cannot refine one another even by speaking the truth in love, how can we be saved? It is the very question Jesus' disciples asked. And he answered, "What is impossible with men is possible with God."
If we believe and trust that God was in Christ reconciling us to himself, forgiving us and not counting our trespasses against us, a steady, gentle process of refinement is taking place in us day by day and year by year. Presbyterians have traditionally called it the process of "sanctification." It is like a tiny mustard seed, Jesus said, which sprouts and then grows larger and larger.
"I am sure," wrote Paul, "that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ."
When we eat together the bread of heaven and drink together the cup of salvation, we are not only looking back to the pure life lived and sacrificed on our behalf; we are looking ahead to the day when that life will be perfected in each of us. The little piece of bread and the tiny cup provide just a taste of the wonderful banquet toward which we are moving.
Advent is a sobering season in its emphasis upon the purity by which our lives are judged. It is a wonderfully encouraging season in its emphasis upon the gentle Refiner who does for us and in us what we cannot do for ourselves and for one another. In the words of Paul, Advent promises us that
What no eye has seen, nor earheard, nor the heart of man conceived, (is) what God has prepared for those who love him. (1 Cor 2:9)
J. Harold Mckeithen Hidenwood Presbyterian Church Newport News, VA