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The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. (Malachi 3:1)
The message from God, through the prophet Malachi, to at least some of the priests of Israel was this: Not good enough. “When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not wrong? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not wrong? Try presenting that to your governor; will he be pleased with you or show you favor? says the Lord of Hosts.” Not good enough!” This is the fundamental shortcoming that Malachi is addressing. He is not calling for universal justice or peace. He is not pleading the cause of the poor. He says nothing about healing, forgiveness, or mercy. At issue is the way the priests have gone about the business of worshiping God, giving God honor, giving God glory. Not to say the priests haven’t done their job at all. It’s just not good enough – sending your second or your third-best won’t do. You bring your best for God, simply and only your best. Nothing else will do. Keep it up, Malachi warns, and see what happens. “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his Temple… but who can abide the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire!”
Now, as you may know, we have a lot of silver here at Saint Mark’s. Recently a silver missal stand – the thing on which the big book rests on the altar – this missal stand was damaged, and I brought it in to a shop, up above Fishtown, to have it repaired. Not only was the missal stand dented, it’s in need of a good cleaning, too. It’s covered in dark, tarnished blotches and its color is dull. It needs to have the lacquer stripped off, and to be polished and re-lacquered.
When I brought it to the shop and asked for this treatment, the owner – a craftsman who deals with a lot of silver – warned me that if it was only silver plate the silver would be stripped off in this process too. “Oh no, I said, it’s sterling. See, it’s hallmarked.”
“Well,” the man said, “I’ve seen hallmarks on things that aren’t really sterling before. And this is awfully heavy to be sterling. That would be a lot of silver,” he said hefting it up and down to demonstrate.
“Well,” I said, “we have quite a lot of silver at Saint Mark’s." And I may have sort of winked.
“Let’s see,” he said: still doubtful.
He took the missal stand to a polishing wheel and pressed the flat surface of its back against the wheel. Off came the varnish, and under the pressure of the wheel the metal underneath began to sparkle: sterling, for sure. The man was impressed. “So, maybe you have some more work for me?” he asked.
“Like I said,” I replied, “we’ve got quite a lot of silver.” And I may have sort of winked again.
For he is like a refiner’s fire. But who may abide the day of his coming, and who may stand when he appeareth?
It’s widely acknowledged that we live in an age when giving your best to God is considered a bridge too far. Not long ago, a great preoccupation of the church was to advertize that worshipers should “come as you are” to church. For all I know this is still going on in many places, though it flies in the face of most of the biblical attitudes about the way we should approach God in his holiness. Moses took off his shoes; Elijah covered his face with his mantle; the vestments of the high priest were prescribed in elaborate detail; the wedding guest was ejected because he lacked a wedding garment. Scripture seldom encourages anyone but children to come as you are into the presence of God. Though children do get a special pass, I think.
And yet… we also live in an age when many people, having concluded that religious leaders, like me, judge them to be not good enough, simply avoid God’s temple: steer clear of God’s holy presence. “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple,” but what will it matter if you are not there?
I suspect that part of the problem is that people simply do not know who they are, do not know that they belong in the presence of the living God, do not hear God calling them to approach, have no confidence that they might survive the refining fire of his presence. This is because – if I may borrow the image of my metalworking friend in Fishtown – many people are no longer sure that they are made of sterling silver, and are not even concerned with the question, since silver requires a lot of polishing, protection, and attention. Which is to say that we live in an age when much has grown tarnished and unrecognizable as the real thing. (I’m speaking literally and figuratively here, you understand.)
But here’s the thing: the refiners’ fire doesn’t so much worry you if you know you are made of sterling silver. But having forgotten who we are, what we are made of, we have felt free to wander away from the Temple of the Lord.
The prophet’s words are not meant to drive us away, they are meant to give us pause, and ask ourselves who we really are, what we are really made of, whether or not we belong near the refining fire of God’s sacred presence.
The suspicion is that because we know ourselves to be damaged, dented, and tarnished, we do not belong, we are not good enough, and have nothing good enough to offer God, and that getting near to the refining fire of God’s presence will only end badly, if indeed there is a God at all. But this is the wrong conclusion to reach.
Just a few lines after the well-known verses of Malachi that Handel set to music, comes this assertion:
“Bring full tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house; and thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.” There are few more charming images in all of Scripture than the picture of God throwing open the windows of heaven, leaning out, and pouring his blessing out upon his people from buckets, if only they will bring him their best.
Living in an age, as we do, in which people fail to know who they are, it has become so much harder for many people to bring their best to God. This may be why, in the graceful alchemy of God, the refiner’s fire of Malachi has been transformed into the candlelight of Simeon and Anna. The roaring, blue heat of refining flames has been contained, and has become the golden flicker of candlelight.
Simeon and Anna knew who they were; and their faithfulness – Simeon in being obedient to the call of the Holy Spirit, and Anna in her long waiting in the Temple – their faithfulness represents the best they can offer to God. Along comes Jesus, carried in the arms of his parents. The Lord whom you seek suddenly comes to his Temple. And a consuming fire does not ignite. Flames do not leap up to devour the impure and to define the narrow boundaries of God’s love. Rather, Simeon takes up the child and sings a song, inspired, no doubt, by the Holy Spirit. And Simeon’s song does not tell of a salvation that has come only to those who were purified in the refiner’s fire; it tells, rather, that the Lord who has suddenly come to his Temple will be a light to lighten the Gentiles – he brings salvation for all people.
The message from God through the prophet Malachi, to at least some of the priests of Israel was this: Not good enough. But the message from God through his prophets Simeon and Anna is different. It is more like this:
My dear, dented, damaged, tarnished friend: life is complicated and challenging, and sometimes it is very hard to remember who you are in this world, and what you are made of. But God knows who you are, and what you are made of. You are made of silver, my child - solid, sterling silver – and you bear the hallmark of the handiwork of God. Do not let the confusion of others confuse you, too. Do not be fooled by the doubts of this world. Do not worry that you are beyond repair, or that your color has faded never to be restored, or that you cannot stand up straight. And do not fear the refining fires of God’s love. Come to him; hear his Spirit calling you; wait for him if waiting is what he requires – this may be the best you can do for him, and God desires your best.
See how, in the presence of Jesus, God’s refining power becomes candlelight. See how it lights the way. See how you shine in his light! See how God has opened the windows of heaven and poured out his blessings. See how the light grows when we gather together like this. And see what an awful lot of silver we have here! Thanks be to God!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia