Commentary on Malachi 3:1-4
Both the readings from the Gospel of Luke and from Malachi today announce the need for white-hot and searing deliverance.
Two prophets declare the bankruptcy of God’s people. John proclaims the need for “a baptism of repentance” that will bring forgiveness. Malachi announces a messenger who brings purification.
In previous verses, Malachi lays out the reasons for this needed cleansing. The priests of Israel have desecrated the temple with disrespectful sacrifices. Judah has turned toward foreign gods by marrying outside of the covenant people. The people’s faithlessness has wearied the Lord. The problem is clear: The people have erred and need to be made clean.
Although the book of Malachi is deemed to refer to events in the years 515-445 B.C.E. — when the new temple was completed in the Restoration — the charges against the people pertain everywhere and in every century. We can say of ourselves, as well, that false prophets and priests among us do not uphold the righteousness of the temple, and that we fail to adhere to God’s commands, to fulfill our duty, and to build up our neighbors. Some who claim to speak for our faith do not urge us to work for justice or to care for those in need but rather endorse policies that privilege the already-privileged.
The poor among us lack enough food; we have not adequately cared for the sick and elderly. Earth’s health is shunted aside in the name of jobs. We sacrifice animals, plants, soil, water, and air for the sake of those who wield the most power. The word of the Lord, spoken by someone named Malachi, is a voice meant for all people. Malachi lays down what John the Baptist also tells us: the Lord is not pleased with your lives and your intentions — our lives, our intentions. Repent!
We are called to repent because we could, otherwise, not even endure the day when this one comes, let alone find ourselves rejoicing. Malachi rhetorically asks, “Who can stand when he appears?”
If we unquestionably assume that this coming one is the Incarnate God, it may seem odd to think Malachi is speaking of the same Lord. Why would we not stand when Jesus appears? We are, of course, set up to think of Malachi’s words tending in the direction we expect, because this is Advent and Christmas is only days away.
As twenty-first century Christians, we are given to think Malachi is referring to the one whose nativity is at hand. Christians have long used the messenger in Malachi as a foretelling of the coming of Jesus. When we hear “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6), we think of the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. Malachi 3:1-4 is also appointed in Years A, B, and C on the Presentation of Our Lord when Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple, encountering Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:22-40). That pairing suggests that the refiner’s fire is the one over whom these two old prophets rejoice.
But it is not spelled out for us in Malachi’s words of promise that the one he intends is the Lord we know. Jesus does not refine us as in a fire. Jesus used such imagery, but he did not himself enact it. He died and rose for us; he did not melt us down.
Yet, in the conjunction of these texts, the fire could be read as Jesus. We are given powerful conflicting images of the coming one bringing both harsh clarity (even desolation) and sure salvation for those who heed the word of the Lord.
The relationship between the promised one and the refining fire is not necessarily an appeasing image. Notice how brilliant it is that the lectionary gives us these puzzling and conflicting images. To be refined by fire is to be melted. Made molten. Made too intensely bright to gaze upon. Hot. Fluid. Become a soup that pours along with all the other melted ones who have been refined. What the fire does not mean to keep evaporates. “He is like a refiner’s fire…”
Impurities released by industrial refining in our time have, we know, often settled on forests and waterways, polluting what was pristine. The dross has been left to trouble and kill insects, mammals, reptiles, fish, plants, and people. We have called it acid rain and fallout.
What is important for us to know from Malachi is that the coming one is a refiner who is will purify and refine the people “like gold and silver.” When these metals are refined, they are separated so that each can be purely itself. We, too, are made purely ourselves. It is an image of much in us that will be expelled.
We might ask: Where will it fall? On what will it land? Who will clean it up? But these are questions that come to us out of our own work to purify this physical world. They are not questions that pertain to God’s refining of us.
God’s purification takes our impurities to a place we cannot name or can best name by pointing to the cross of Christ. Our offerings to the Lord come not out of obedience to the commands of God but out of God’s graciously changing us from creatures filled with impurities to those who have been released from them. Malachi gives notice: a radical change is afoot. We are refined by the fire of baptism: washed as by the workers, named “fullers,” who clean wool to ready the fibers for cloth.
Only in the coming one is there the power to refine us, to make clean what is unclean, and to ready us to offer what will be “pleasing to the Lord…” This refining and washing power is beyond our imaginings, and for that reason requires many images to disturb our preconceived — and perhaps too comfortable — notions. This power makes rough ways smooth. Advent is a time of deep thinking about ultimate things.