Familiar to many from its use in Handel's Messiah, this passage from Malachi speaks of purification and judgment,
themes not associated in the popular imagination with Christmas. Nevertheless, Advent is, of course, preparation not only for a remembrance of Christ's first coming as a baby, but also for Christ's second coming, in power and glory.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes of this theme of judgment in an Advent sermon he preached in 1928:
It is very remarkable that we face the thought that God is coming, so calmly, whereas previously peoples trembled at the day of God . . . . We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God's coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God's coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for every one who has a conscience.
Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness. God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love.1
It is an apt word to us in this Advent season. God is coming. God is coming as a baby in Bethlehem, but God is also coming again "in glory to judge the living and the dead," as the Nicene Creed puts it. And our response? Any reasonable person should feel at least some fear.
The prophets make the same point in talking about "the day of the LORD." Amos proclaims, "Alas for you who desire the day of the LORD! Why do you want the day of the LORD? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake" (Amos 5:18-19). Be careful what you wish for, in other words, because you may get more than you bargained for. The day of the LORD will be a day full of terror. How can it not be, as God "judges the evil in us and in the world"?
Malachi, for his part, also warns his hearers of the coming judgment: "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" (3:2). Like one who burns away the dross in order to refine gold, God will burn away all the evil within us. Like one who uses harsh soap to clean a garment, God will bleach out the stains that sin leaves in us. Refining gold and cleaning clothes are positive activities, but from the perspective of the gold and the clothing, the process holds the prospect of much pain. We would do well to feel some fear. In this Advent text, we are far from Bethlehem and the sweet strains of "Away in a Manger."
We are closer in this reading, in fact, to the banks of the Jordan, where John the Baptist preaches repentance. This Old Testament reading is paired in the lectionary with the song of Zechariah after the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:68-79) and the account of the beginning of John's ministry (Luke 3:1-6). The Gospel writers used Malachi 3:1 to speak about the role of John the Baptist (see Matthew 11:10; Mark 1:2; and Luke 7:27).
John the Baptist is the one God refers to as "my messenger" sent "to prepare the way before me" (Malachi 3:1). He is, as his father echoes, the one who will "go before the Lord to prepare his ways" (Luke 1:76). He is Elijah, the one Malachi foretells later in his book: "Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes" (Malachi 4:5; cf. Matthew 11:14; 17:11-13; Luke 1:17).
If "my messenger" in Malachi 3:1 is consistently identified with John the Baptist in early Christian interpretation, "the Lord whom you seek" and "the messenger of the covenant" are most often identified with Jesus himself. It is the Lord who is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap. It is he who will purify the people of the covenant. And, despite our feelings or fears about the matter, this is actually good news! Sin separates us from God. Sin clouds and distorts the good creation God made us to be. And we are helpless to clean ourselves. Enter the refiner of gold and the washer of clothes, to do the cleaning for us.
It is not an easy process, of course. There is pain involved in refining and cleansing. There is pain involved in dying and rising. But it is a process that is designed for our good, for our well-being, to prepare us for the coming of the Lord. God comes into our midst as Emmanuel, comes to destroy the evil in us and in the world, comes to draw us out of death into life. And though that is an alarming prospect, it is also one that should fill us with great joy.
1Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Ed. Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995) pp. 185-186. Thanks to Dr. Stephen L. Cook for drawing my attention to this quotation on his blog "Biblische Ausbildung" biblische.blogspot.com/2006/12/preaching-malachi-31-4-rcl-year-c.html.