Sunday, December 09, 2012


Mal. 3:1-4; Lk. 1:68-79[1]
Although we are surrounded by the refining industry, I don’t really know that much about it. I know that it involves a great deal of heat and sometimes pressure.  I have, however, seen the process of glass-blowing.  I think there are some similarities.  The glass is super-heated to remove any impurities and to make it moldable,  just like the refining of precious metals like gold and silver.  As other elements are added to gold to make it stronger, the process of glass-blowing actually adds elements not originally present for various reasons—especially to create colors.  The whole purpose is to make the end result a thing of beauty.  When I witnessed the process of glass-blowing, I was sitting at a safe distance from the furnace in some bleachers.  But even at that distance, I found the intense heat of the furnace somewhat disconcerting.  I couldn’t imagine actually being the glass-blower and constantly working so close to such intense heat.  And I certainly wouldn’t want to be the glass in the furnace!
That’s the image the Bible uses for the process God uses in each of our lives.  It’s called judgment, but I think that doesn’t really express the true intent of what God intends to do with us.  As our lesson from Malachi puts it, the image of refining comes much closer to reflecting what that’s about (Mal. 3:2).  The purpose is to remove any impurities that might weaken or disfigure what is being refined.  And the purpose is also to instill qualities that enhance the beauty of what is being refined.  I think that’s what God’s “judgment” is really about—refining us to remove whatever keeps us from being all that we were meant to be, and instilling qualities that shape us into the image of Christ.
One of the most important of those qualities is peace.  According to Zechariah’s song, John the Baptist’s mission was to prepare a people for the Lord to come.  His “preparation” for them was to lead them into the “way of peace” (Lk. 1:79).  And he was to do that by calling them to repentance.  Not just feeling sad or sorry for the fact that they may have said something they would later regret, but rather real, heartfelt, life-changing repentance.[2]  And he made it specific: those who had more than enough were to share with those who didn’t have enough.  And those who had power were not to abuse it.[3]  He was talking about the kind of change that is like purifying precious metals, or refining glass.
The “way of peace” is not an easy path.  It is a hard road that takes humility, the will to change, and the strength to persevere.  For there to be peace in any relationship, both parties have to humble themselves enough to acknowledge their contribution to the conflict.  Peace starts by our being willing to look at ourselves—to take a good hard long look at ourselves: our self-indulgence, our need to control others, and our aggressive behaviors toward others that really amounts to a kind of violence.  But the “way of peace” goes further than just recognizing our shortcomings; it also takes us to the point of being willing to do something about them.  We have to choose, in so far as it is humanly possible, to change and to return to the way of peace.  And then, in order to preserve peace, we have to put forth the effort—sometimes time and time again—to maintain peace.  The “way of peace” is not an easy road!
That’s why we need refining.  In a very real sense, what the Scriptures hold out to us as the ideal for how we are to live our lives simply doesn’t come naturally.  We have to have our bad habits purged— our selfish ways, our reluctance to humble ourselves enough to actually put peace into practice.  And we have to have new qualities instilled in us—qualities like the fruit of the Spirit:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).  Qualities that look like the character of Christ formed in us.  Then perhaps we can actually become the “peace-makers” God intends for us to be as as his sons and daughters.
Much of what the Bible has to say about a future return of Christ includes an aspect of judgment, of setting things right, of refining us. Some of these images can be frightening, just as I was a bit frightened from the intense heat of the glass-blower’s furnace.  But the glass-blower wasn’t afraid.  He was calmly, patiently shaping the glass into a beautiful work of art.  In the same way, so God calmly and patiently watches over us, working with us carefully to make us into a beautiful work of art. It seems to me that we have nothing to fear from the refining process that kind of God has in store for us. [4]  To some extent, we can see that the trials and tribulations of this life are already a part of that process, because the challenges that come our way refine us by removing what weakens us and instilling new qualities.  On the final day, when we all stand before our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, he will finish the task of refining us, removing our impurities and enhancing the beauty God created in each one of us.  I don’t think that’s something to fear, but rather something to welcome—being set free from all that keeps us from being the person God intended for us to be, and being transformed into the image of Christ. [5]

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/9/2012.
[2] Cf. R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreters Bible IX:86.  He says, “There is an integrity to the repentant. … Their way of life, their priorities, commitments, personal relationships, passion for peace and justice, and their unplanned acts of compassion all give evidence to their repentance.”
[3] Cf. Fred B. Craddock, Luke, 48, where he points out that the specifics of John’s demands relate to the “injustices and inequities” of that society.  Cf. Eileen M. Schuller, O. S. U., “The Book of Malachi,” New Interpreters Bible VII:868, where she points out that Mal. 3:5 puts the refining the prophet speaks of in a similar context.
[4] Cf. Elizabeth Achtemeier, Nahum-Malachi, 187, where she refers to Charles Spurgeon’s famous sermon “The Sitting of the Refiner” emphasizing this point.  She says, “such is the love of this God.”
[5] Cf. Alan Robinson, “God the Refiner of Silver,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 11 (1949): 11, where he says, “God will know that His work has been completed when he sees reflected in the Christian soul His own image”; cf. also Karl Barth, Dogmatics 4.4:56: He adds, “ it is not for nothing that Lk. 3:6 adds the end of the verse: kai opsesthai pasa sarx to soterion tou theou (and all flesh shall see the salvation of God).”

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