“The Fire Before the Finish”
December 06, 2015
(Second Sunday of Advent)
By John Partridge
Scripture: Malachi 3:1-4 Philippians 1:3-11 Luke 3:1-6
This morning we are going to begin by filling in the missing words from some well known, and some lesser known, sayings.
1) When we suspect that something is wrong we have said, “Where there’s smoke there’s ______.”
2) The leader of the 21 gun salute said, “Ready, Aim, ________.”
3) The coach was disappointed by how his team was performing. He said that he needed to “Light a ______ under them.
4) The famous baseball player, Ty Cobb, once said, “I never could stand losing. Second place didn’t interest me. I had a ______ in my belly.”
5) Bernard Williams said, “Talent is a flame. Genius is a ______.”
6) Mae West said, “A man can be short and dumpy and getting bald but if he has ____, women will like him.”
7) Finally, President Richard Nixon once said, “The finest steel has to go through the hottest _____.
If it isn’t obvious by now, the answer to all of these was “fire.”
But on almost all of these, fire is the thing that happens at the beginning. Fire is the creator of smoke, the fire is what makes the gun go “boom,” fire is what motivates athletes, geniuses, and dumpy bald men. But President Nixon was in the right ballpark for today’s scripture because in Malachi 3:1-4, God warns his people that when the Messiah comes, things are going to get hot.
3:1 “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty.
2 But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, 4 and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years.
In a prophecy that describes the coming of the Messiah, we see that Jesus is the messenger that we desire, and Jesus is the rescuer and redeemer that we have been looking forward to seeing, but when he comes, not everyone will be happy about it. Malachi tells us that his coming will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will be the one who drives out the impurities but the process of refining silver or gold is to place them in a fire until they melt and keep them there until the impurities float to the top. For the people of God, the fire didn’t happen at the beginning of the story, it comes at the end. It is after we have been refined that God will find our offerings to be acceptable because it is then that righteous men and women will bring them.
And so, as we celebrate Advent, we remember that life isn’t always going to be easy. God isn’t always going to let things go our way. Sometimes, when we feel like we are in the fire, we are. And we are there because God intends to drive off some of our impurities.
Not surprisingly, we hear echoes of this in the Christmas story as well. Reading from Luke 3:1-6, we hear these words:
3:1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— 2 during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
5 Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
6 And all people will see God’s salvation.’”
I want to point out that God found John in the wilderness. God didn’t wait for John to be doing something important. God didn’t wait until John came to the Temple in Jerusalem to call him. God called John from where he was, at the moment that he was needed. And when God called, only then did John leave where he was and go into the countryside to preach.
From time to time, each of us may feel that we are in the wilderness. We may feel that we aren’t doing anything important or we might feel that we are far from home, or away from the hustle and bustle, or away from the places where important people gather. But Luke’s message is that when God is ready, he will find us no matter where we are.
The second point that we should take from this passage is that John’s entire mission was to prepare for the coming of the Messiah by proclaiming a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John was the one who was “preparing the way” for the arrival of Jesus.
Today, we are in John’s place.
Today, we have been given John’s mission.
As we celebrate Advent, we are reminded that today, we are called to prepare the way for the arrival of the Messiah, Jesus.
To do that, there is something that we must do. We must do as John preached; we must repent of our sins (and remember that ‘repent’ means to turn around, to change directions, and go another way) and we must prepare our hearts for the arrival of the Prince of Peace.
In Philippians 1:3-11, Paul reveals even more of this fundamental principle and why our season of preparation is important.
3 I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
7 It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. 8 God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.
9 And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.
Paul reminds the followers of Jesus that God has begun doing something amazing in their lives. God himself has begun doing something good in each of us and we, like Paul, are confident that if God has begun something, he will surely continue doing it until that thing is finished.
And so, let us remember these things:
Remember that life isn’t always easy, but it may well be that, in the hardest times, when we feel like we are in the furnace surrounded by fire, God is refining us so that we may be, in the end, purer and more beautiful than ever before.
Remember that Advent is the season of preparation. Let us repent of our sins and prepare our hearts for the coming of the Prince of Peace.
Remember that we have inherited the mission of John the Baptist and are called, from wherever we are, to proclaim the coming of the redeemer and rescuer of humanity.
And as we do these things, remember that God is working in each of us so that we might love more, know more, see more, understand more, so that we can make better choices and become more righteous. Paul’s desire, and ours, is to become pure and blameless on the Day of Judgment but, moreover, that we will become so much like Jesus, that we will live our lives like Jesus and pour out God’s love into the world around us.