Sermon for December 5, 2021

Refining Fire

Luke 3:1-6

Luke 3:1–6 (NRSV): 3 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius
Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler 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 region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
    “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
    ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.
    5Every valley shall be filled,
    and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
    and the crooked shall be made straight,
    and the rough ways made smooth;
    6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ ”

Luke introduces us to John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus.  Now Luke is making a connection within his own words and that must deal with something revealed by Malachi:

Malachi 3:1–4 (NRSV): 3 See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and
the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. 2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3 he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. 4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.

Now, during Lenten season, we tend to focus on the events that led up to Jesus’ birth.  But Luke points us towards the words of Malachi for the ministry of John the Baptist.  What does this have to do with Jesus?  Well, quite a lot.  The messenger, or more straight forward, John the Baptist according to Luke.  What is the messenger doing?  Preparing the way for Jesus, or more accurately and according to Malachi, preparing the way for the refiner’s fire. 

You see, the ways of men need refining.  Refining is an interesting process when you speak about precious metals.  When it comes to making gold and silver purer it means that they must be smelted, raised in temperature to their liquifying point.  When this is done, there is what is called slag or dross, impurities that rise to the surface.  A refiner takes a tool and removes all impurities and when this is done correctly, the refiner can investigate that liquified metal and see their reflection as if where a mirror.

John the Baptist, preparing the way of the Lord, is preaching repentance and baptism but the way Luke records it makes it appear less challenging than what is recorded in Malachi.  When we talk about Jesus coming to earth, we usually stick to the saying that it was a “joyous occasion”.  But the term “refiner’s fire can point towards judgement and anger.  What, anger in an advent reading.  Yes, anger.

Anger is often associated with fire.  Like he or she has a fiery temper.  Or he or she has a short fuse or can explode.  A refiner works in intense heat that purifies and makes things call “precious metals”. 

We are naturally suspicious of anger.  It is something that we often don’t talk about unless we are using biblical terms like “slow to anger” or state that a Christian “should not be ill tempered” but this is usually dealing with adventures of when anger is used wrong.  To say that anger can be done wrong must mean that anger can be done right and before we start celebrating anger, we must admit that our anger needs refining. 

Have you ever been angry?  What was it about?  Was there an offense of some sort?  Is it over some sort of injustice?  But along with you feeling angry, have you felt guilty of being angry because you are a Christian?  I think we need to understand that if the Bible says to “to be angry and sin not” (Eph. 4:26) that implies there must be a type of anger that is God ordained once refined.

We are naturally suspicious of anger.  Most of that is because of the cultures that we have been brought up.  The ancient Greeks believe anger was a feeling that needed to be overcome, it was subhuman.  This leads to a problem because Malachi is promoting an idea that is often not painted in with the first advent of Jesus.  Malachi is saying, “the refiner is coming, and he is ANGRY because we are not living as we should!”

You are seated right now and are now confronted the idea that Jesus was angry and there are times that his zealousness for his Father’s House is evident.  Sure, he flips over tables a couple of times and drives out livestock and people with a whip made from cords, but we often picture Jesus as peaceful or calm.

Every day of Jesus’ life, he saw how people treated each other.  He saw ignorance, he saw injustice, he saw that people were not taking care of one another.  He saw selfishness.  He saw a political system oppressing the people.  He saw a Temple that was doing the same.  He saw people starving in the streets.  Sick who could not find help.  He saw people just walking past one another without a care in the world.  These are just a few of the things that he saw, and these things made him angry.  My question is, why are we not angry about the same things?

Psalm 4:4 (NRSV): 4When you are disturbed, do not sin;
    ponder it on your beds, and be silent.

Therefore, I propose that at the birth of Jesus, there is “JOY TO THE WORLD” because of the hope he brings, but he is also bringing fire.  Why, he loves us enough to be angry and he loved us enough to come here to earth so that he could refine us with that fire so that we would get on the right path. 

I want you to read what Paul has to say and keep in mind the idea of “refining” while you read this:

Philippians 1:3–11 (NRSV): 3 I thank my God every time I remember you, 4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. 7 It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8 For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. 9 And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10 to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

Paul talks about a church that is in the process of refining.  Some may be upset that Paul, who helped plant their church, was now in prison, but Paul says to focus on the ways of Jesus.  When purifying precious metals, the slag and dross becoming less and less, it is now in its purest form. Indeed, if I use the word perfect, but as your mind is transformed into the mind of Jesus, the things he was upset with will upset you.

Jesus was literal when he told people what he was concerned about.  To name a few, the widow, the orphan, the hungry, the naked, the homeless, those in prison, those who are unjustly treated, these are the things that upset him.  These are the people that Jesus meets and gives them love, joy, peace, and comfort.  Insomuch, our anger needs refining.  Who is my neighbor?  Who is an alien?  Is there ever a reason that we should not be looking out for one another?  Are we angry when a sex, a race, a people, are being persecuted or unfairly treated?  We CAN BE ANGRY when the things that Jesus came for are still here and he left us here to make it better.  We need to refine our anger.

Instead of being incensed when our favorite sports team loses, maybe we should be angry about the things that matter?  John the Baptist cries out in the wilderness.  Yet he speaks to each of us to get into the wilderness, away from all the chaos of the world, to focus on God and God alone. 

The picture that Luke uses out of Malachi is quite apocalyptic and it is this.  You stopped going to God, so God is coming to you!  He is coming to refine the ways of mankind because the ideas of mankind are marginalizing people!  It is meant to be an end of one thing and a start of a new thing.

So why as Jesus followers are we so concerned of worship styles.  Why are concerned about the color of the carpet or the type seating that we are in.  Why do we complain about the festivities of worship and not be the least bit upset about the poverty, the hunger, the hurt that is outside the church walls?  Why do we not spend the time thinking about terms like “illegal” alien and see if we hold stances that dehumanizes a people due to country of origin.  When you look at your daughter or granddaughter, are you upset in the way they are viewed and treated?  Why are we not as angry as Jesus is about these things?

Our anger needs refined; it needs purified.  It needs to then be ignited in times of injustice.  Luke gives us the story of the beginning of this refining.  Jesus is the refiner.  His teachings reveal the fallenness of our ways.  If the world is ever going to see love, hope, joy, and peace, we need to allow God to do the refining within us, and then through us, to make our communities better.  You either believe that Jesus died for some people or all.  And since he died for all, then it is “all” that we are responsible to minister to. 

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