Origins, Prophecy, Fire, and Knowing Who We Are


A sermon on Luke 1:57-80 and Malachi 3:1-6

Today we celebrate the Feast Day of John the Baptist. (because I did NOT look at the readings ahead of time, and realize I might want to just do the normal readings for this week instead…). Actually, we are celebrating the NATIVITY of John the Baptist – that’s why the gospel we read was about his birth – rather than his ministry.

We had some chuckles in Worship & Music committee about John’s feast day not including any words from John, but this week I had a revelation that re-framed my perspective on this selection: It came not from my study of today’s specific texts, but from the book we are reading for our church book club this summer: Inspired, by Rachel Held Evans. The first chapter of the book reflects on the function of “origin stories” in the Bible. Evans writes:

we look to the stories of our origins to make sense of things, to remember who we are.” [1]

We see this identity-framing understanding of origins in the confusion that is described in today’s gospel reading. John is born, and on the eighth day, according to Jewish law, he is to be named. The people present all assume that he will be named after his father – because… our origins tell us who we are! When his mother Elizabeth says “no! He is to be named John” the people cannot understand – because no one in his family tree has been named John. This name is not linked to his origins.

But God frees Zechariah's tongue to speak after he affirms this name. Because the origins that matter for John don’t come from his biological family. They come from the work for which he was born, as declared by the angel who also gave John his name.

That work, is the work of prophecy.

Zechariah declares: “you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways…” (Luke 1: 76). That declaration, the declaration that John will be a prophet sent to prepare the way of the Lord – as well as the gospel of Mark’s opening statement about John the Baptist,[2] which references the same prophecy – is the reason why our first reading today is from Malachi 3.

These gospels clearly understand that John is a fulfillment of the prophecy in Malachi – either as the specific messenger proclaimed or as a prophet in this same tradition. The origin that matters for John’s identity is Malachi’s understanding of the prophetic role.

Which is why today's texts are hard to preach. Because Malachi asks the question, in regard to this prophet and the one he proclaims: “who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” Clearly – the prophetic role is bound up with painful challenge.

This is reinforced by the metaphor Malachi uses of refiner’s fire. Refining is the process by which impurities are removed from metals like gold or silver. That process depends on burning the impurities away, but it’s not just the impurities that burn. The metal is heated to the point that it loses its shape and becomes molten and moldable, even as the impurities are burned away.

It’s a process that reduces the metal to its essential nature - which is precious - and allows it to be formed into an object of great beauty and usefulness… but it’s not a process I want to go through. I don’t know about you, but I am conscious of a number of impurities in my own life and faith, and I would love to have them removed… but burning them out sounds a little extreme!

Burning makes me think of punishment. Of sermons from my fundamentalist youth about the fires of hell. And even though the text is clear that this refining is NOT about punishment – it’s about purification – it still doesn’t sound too pleasant. Or else why the warnings about “who can endure?”

I want to be purified, but I don’t want to be melted down. For the most part, I like the spiritual shape I’m in. I’ve been pretty active in forming it, and I think it works well enough to be getting along. It’s hard for me to believe that I really need the refiner’s fire in my life.

Is refining REALLY necessary?

According to Malachi, it is… because the kinds of impurities that pollute human lives interfere with our relationship with God. We can’t offer right worship, God can’t draw near to us, without us hearing God’s righteous judgment on the things that pollute our souls, the things that violate God’s will for us.

Our reading from Malachi offers some examples of those kinds of impurities, and I want to talk about them, but we need to be careful not to read this passage as a defined list of deadly sins. We can’t look at this list as say “well, I’m good on those issues, so I don’t have to worry.” Nor should we look at it and say “I know that’s in my soul – I have no hope.” Rather, these judgments speak to the breadth of impurities that can pollute our lives, and of which God wants to purify us.

They also represent different examples of the two basic categories of sin in both the Hebrew Bible’s Ten Commandments, and in Jesus’s summation of the law and the prophets: violations of our love for God and violations of our love for other people.

So let’s talk about them. Let's enter the refiner's fire:

  • Sorcery. In the ancient world, sorcery was linked to idolatrous temple worship, and specifically to efforts to seek the false gods’ direction and blessing in human endeavors. It represents idolatry.

And idolatry is alive and well in the 21st C. Anytime we put our trust in something that promises us security and guidance – whether that be tarot cards, or our bank account, or our favorite cable news source – we need to ask ourselves if we trust and follow that over God.

The next several judgments speak to sins against other people:

  • Adultery is a specific violation of relationship. A breaking of promises to someone who has placed deep trust in us.

But we don’t have to cheat on our spouse, or even be married, to pollute our lives with actions that break other’s trust in us, or violate our promises. We can betray each other many different ways.

One way is by…

  • Swearing falsely. That means embracing the power of lies over our duty to speak truth. False speech undermines trust in our conversations, and in our efforts to work together in building God’s kingdom.

And every time we click “share” on an inflammatory post without first checking out the source, or questioning whether it might be skewing the truth, we risk undermining truth in public dialogues that are already tough enough.

  • Then there’s Oppressing the poor. This is a clear caution to business owners, and to policy-makers who set budgets and determine the kinds of protections and assistance available to low-wage workers, single-moms, and vulnerable children…

But, none of us are exempt from criticism. I doubt I get through most days without using a product that was made in a sweat-shop, or without benefitting from economic policies that keep me comfortably in the middle class, while people who work a whole lot harder stay desperately poor.

  • And then there’s Thrusting aside the alien. This one hits hard in our current moment. I certainly think this is a direct challenge to our current national debate about who deserves to enter our country, and the treatment they deserve when they get here. I think it’s hard to argue that “zero tolerance” is anything but "thrusting aside the alien." If you want to make that argument I will listen, but I will also ask you to listen carefully to scripture's message on this issue.

At the same time, this judgment also applies to the many ways that we thrust aside those we feel entitled to view as “other.” There’s more than one way to treat someone like an alien – we can do it with the way we talk about people too, the names we call and the aspersions that we cast out of anger or fear – and while insults might not have deep traumatic impacts, at minimum they shape our hearts.

Whenever we dehumanize another child of God and treat them as unworthy of our compassion – we are thrusting them aside and treating them like an alien. And this hardens our hearts, which is the opposite of the refiner’s fire.

The final charge from Malachi brings us back to our relationship with God:

  • Not fearing God. It means forgetting that God has the right to claim our allegiance; it’s thinking that we can somehow still love God while we ignore the way God tells us to live. Not fearing God is the most pernicious kind of idolatry, because it’s the kind where we make ourselves our own God.

I seriously doubt that any of us can listen to the judgement of Malachi and find ourselves pure… without any imperfections mixed into our character or our patterns of daily life. I know I can’t. Who can stand before the prophet’s voice?

But there is good news for us here too! The PURPOSE of prophecy is NOT to condemn. It’s not to burn us to the ground and leave us there… the purpose of the refiner’s fire is to re-shape us! To making us moldable, so that we can be re-formed in the beautiful design God has for us - a design that makes us look more and more like the image of God.

The final verse of the Malachi reading proclaims, “I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished” (Malachi 3:6).

The truth that God doesn’t change is our source of HOPE! Because it means God isn’t going to get fed up with us and just start over. It means God isn’t like us! We DO change – sometimes for the bad, and sometimes for the good - but God will be constant:

Always intolerant of the things that violate right relationship to God and neighbor – because God knows these things pollute us and keep us from being formed more closely into God’s image-

But also always seeking to save us. Even if it takes refiner’s fire.

That’s why God sends prophets.

Zechariah’s song describes the way that John will serve as a prophet, as one who “prepares the way of the Lord” by “giving knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.” (Luke 1:76-77)

Not cheap forgiveness, of course. John’s call was to repentance. But also not judgment for judgment’s sake. NOT to fire that only burns, rather than refining. Repentance isn’t about feeling guilty; it’s about CHANGE. It’s about being formed anew - TRANSFORMED.

I started out by talking about prophecy as John’s origin story, but it’s ours as well. The Bible is precious in part because, as I quoted earlier, it’s “the story that makes sense of things and reminds us who we are”… that quote continues on to explain that “the role of origin stories… is to enlighten the present by recalling the past.” [3]

We can embrace the role of prophecy in our faith as a resource to enlighten our present, our continuing task of living out our faith in the world. This is a task of refining for the purpose of transformation. Because our God doesn’t change, and God wants to form us into something beautiful.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Rachel Held Evans, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible again, p. 9.

[2] Mark 1:2-3 introduces the preaching of John the Baptist with a quotation of the combined prophecies of Malachi and Isaiah.

[3] Rachel Held Evans, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible again, p. 9.

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