The Rev. Dr. James D. Kegel
GLORY TO THE FATHER AND TO THE SON
AND TO THE HOLY SPIRIT,
AS IT WAS IN THE BEGINNING,
IS NOW AND WILL BE FOREVER. AMEN.
I have three gold rings. One is my wedding ring which I’ve worn now for—Margit, I hope I got this right—thirty-one years, I think. One is my father’s wedding ring which I had sized down when he died. The third is from Concordia College in Moorhead. The ring is sort of a secret mark of a Cobber and we notice anyone wearing the distinction ruby and gold ring. It is my second Concordia ring—this one is 14 carat gold like my other rings; originally I had ordered a 10 carat ring. It cracked and I replaced it with 14 carat gold. Some of you may even have 18 or 19 carat jewelry. I had a friend who bought a wedding ring in Athens, Greece to get one at 19 carats.
The number deals with the purity of the gold. I remember visiting the Royal Canadian Mint in Winnipeg years ago and seeing a movie about the refining of gold; the impurities are burned away until 24 carat, pure gold, can be poured into bars. From these bars, gold coins are made. Only when the impurities are burned away, is the gold ready for use.
Our text from Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament, talks about being cleansed and refined and then being fit for service to God:
FOR GOD IS LIKE A REFINER’S FIRE
AND LIKE FULLERS’ SOAP;
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
This prophetic oracle is addressed to the priesthood. The priests must be purified and refined in order to offer pure sacrifice to the Lord. They have sinned and fallen short; they are not offering proper liturgical worship because they are jaded and their hearts hardened. They have honored God with their lips but their hearts are far from God.
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Very little is known about the prophet Malachi. His name means “My messenger,” and his message is addressed to those who lead worship. It is very important that the right liturgical forms be maintained and he calls for cultic renewal. Remember that the Tabernacle and Temple were designed by God. God chose the correct materials, the right designs; even the decorations were commanded by God. The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof but the Temple was the place where God promised to be found. The Temple was the house of the Lord where nothing unclean could enter. Even the high priest, when he entered the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, would wear bells on the bottom of his robes so that if the bells were silent, those outside knew that God’s Presence was so fearsome that the priest had died. He had a rope tied around his ankle, so that the body could be pulled out of the sanctuary without anyone entering it to defile it.
The priests were consecrated to the Lord from the tribe of Levi. Even today, Jews with the last name Cohn, Cohen, Kahane are those who are of the priesthood and if the temple were ever rebuilt these are the men who could become priests to sacrifice to the Lord. God is not mocked and God’s servants needed to be consecrated in heart and mind; not just those doing the right ritual but believing and loving God with all their mind, their heart, their soul, their strength.
In the New Testament, we find that Jesus foretold the destruction of the Temple and the priesthood. The stones would be pulled down and a new Temple arise in three days. He was referring to His own body. Christ is the great high priest, the priest forever. If we would come into the presence of God we do not go to a building in Jerusalem but to Jesus. Who are the priests who offer sacrifice? All Christians are priests. “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,” St Peter says. We are the one’s to be sanctified by repentance and faith so that we might offer the true sacrifice of our prayer, praise and thanksgiving. We are God’s priests, you and me.
A blacksmith who was known for his strong Christian faith became very ill with a terminal disease. He was asked by a non-believing friend why God would let him suffer so. The smith explained:
“I take a piece of iron, put it into the fire to bring it to a white heat.
Then I strike it once or twice to see if it will take temper.
I plunge it into water to change the temperature,
put it into the fire again,
and then I put it on the anvil and make a useful article of it.
If it will not take temper when I first strike it on the anvil,
I throw it into the scrap heap and sell it for a half-penny per pound.
I believe God has been testing me to see if I will take temper.
I have tried to bear it as patiently as I could,
and my daily prayer has been,
‘Lord, put me into the fire if Thou wilt;
put me into the water if thou thinkest I need it,
do anything Thou pleases, O Lord,
only do not throw me onto the scrap heap’.”
The writer of Hebrews says much the same:
“My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
or lose heart when you are punished by Him;
for the Lord disciplines those whom He loves,
and chastises every child whom He accepts.”
Proverbs is nearly the same:
“My child, do not despise the Lord’s discipline
or be weary of His reproof,
for the Lord reproves the one He loves,
as a father the son in whom he delights.”
We are children of God, son and daughters of a heavenly Father who is stern but just, holy and also loving. St. Peter reminds us:
“Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal
which comes upon you to prove you,
as though something strange were happening to you,
but rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings…”
There is no “if” here. There is no escaping the fiery ordeal, the test which will prove your faith, the chastisement which is designed to lead us all to repentance. God wants us to be perfect and acceptable, 24-carat people.
As silver and gold are purified, so too will be the people of God. It is not a sign of God’s disfavor but God’s love. As James writes:
“Count it all joy my brothers and sisters
when you meet various trials,
for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness
and let steadfastness have its full effect
that you may be perfect and complete
lacking in nothing.”
The testing is a sign that God is making us perfect and complete, acceptable and holy by a holy and righteous God.
This is not an easy text given us for St. John the Baptist Sunday. It is about a messenger who will come to prepare God’s people for the Lord’s coming. Jews believed that Moses or Elijah would come back before the Day of the Lord to make Israel ready—believing Jews still save a place for Elijah at the Seder meal and expect him to return. Christians see John the Baptist as fulfilling the role assigned for Elijah. John wears the same sort of clothes—camel’s hair and leather girdle; eats the same ascetic foods—locusts and wild honey; drinks plain water; and proclaims the message of repentance.
Martin Luther preached to his congregation in Wittenberg in 1527:
“When God wants to strength faith,
He first weakens it by feigning to break faith.
God thrusts the person into many tribulations
and makes the person so weary
that one seems drive to despair,
and yet at the same time,
God gives strength to be still and persevere.
Such quietness is patience
and patience produces experience
so that when God returns to the person
and lets the sun rise again and again,
and when the storm is over,
the person opens the eyes in amazement
and says, ‘The Lord God be praised,
that I have been delivered from evil.
God dwells here.
I did not think that all would end so well’.”
All will end so well. We have the promise of God never to leave us or forsake us. We will be tested and tried, refined, but all the while God is with us. These are periods to grow closer to God, to trust in the Lord rather than ourselves, to surrender to the power of God. We can see the difficulties as discipline given to children not punishment meted out to enemies. God is for us in Christ, nothing in this world or beyond the world can be against us. We know the end of the story which is not crucifixion but resurrection, not death but everlasting life. It is as we give up our own strength and power, that we receive the greater power which comes from God.
It is as we come to the end of our endurance that we cling to the power of Christ’s cross. As we suffer, we understand that we are being conformed to the image of God’s Son. By his stripes, we are healed; by our stripes, we imitate our Savior. In God’s eyes, all human powers fail, even our own power to be good and upright and wholesome, even our best earthly traits need to be refined so that we might be holy and acceptable and blameless before the Lord. All will end well—we will be the people God wants us to be. We are being tried and tested, washed and refined so that we will be 24 carat gold people. Amen.
Copyright 2009, James D. Kegel. Used by permission.