Clean as Mud, Malachi 3:1-7, Philippians 1:2-11, Second Sunday in Advent, December 9, 2018
The name Malachi means “my messenger”. His name could also serve as a summary of what he wrote, since he speaks about God’s coming messenger. Malachi says this Messenger “will suddenly come to his temple: and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold he is coming” (1) The Lord is called the “messenger of the covenant” because He would fulfill the ancient covenant and establish a new one, a New Testament.
This Messenger “is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap… and he will purify the sons of Levi”, (3) (not Levis, those hip-hugging blue jeans of the cowboys of yester year, or of the denim trousers of mall-marchers of today) but this Messenger is coming to purify the descendants of Levi, the Levites who were chosen by God to be His full-time servants.
By the time of Malachi, at the close of Old Testament history, sin had corrupted all Israel. God was most upset about the condition of His ministers. They needed purifying, sanitizing, and sterilizing. They needed a refining fire and strong fullers’ soap, the sort of cleanser that is made from strong lye, caustic stuff which gets clothes really white. Our equivalent is not soap but bleach.
This work of cleansing and purifying people through Holy Baptism and the preaching of the Gospel continues today. St. Paul talks about that in our Epistle Lesson. The apostle says to the entire church at Philippi, “for you are all partakers with me of grace” (7). All of us today, pastors, and people together, share a “partnership in the Gospel” (5). God works through Baptism, the Word, and the Lord’s Supper so that we “may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ” (10).
In that way, we are all Christian Levites. We, too, need purifying: God’s cleansing, purging of sin, and purifying of our souls. Malachi’s call of “fullers’ soap” to purify Levites is not a commercial for some high-powered laundry detergent, but a call to repentance and a spiritual renewal by the power of God’s grace in Christ Jesus. It’s a cry for witnessing, for reporting the truth of the Gospel to the whole world.
Some time ago in several countries of northern Europe there were huge posters advertising American-made Levis, blue jeans. These posters showed Michelangelo’s famed Sistine Chapel scene of God creating Adam. Only, as God’s fingers reach out to touch Adam with life, He hands him Levis, jeans, instead. I’m not sure what the company was trying to illustrate, but I do know that God has a way of purifying people, His people, not our jeans.
We need to bathe in Him to experience His love. His way of purification is effective because first it cleanses us within, then moves us to share that cleansing with others.
It begins with repentance, “coming clean” by confessing our sin. As the prophet Malachi surveyed God’s people in his time, and he was dismayed. Their offerings were encrusted with deception, with the filth of lies and the grime of indifference. Their faith lacked sincerity and conviction.
Come clean, begged the prophet. “Repent,” shouted the Baptizer. “Be filled with the fruit of righteousness,” encouraged St. Paul.
On our own, we cannot make any of those changes. Like pointing a finger in your face Malachi, John, and Paul each point to Jesus. In Him we come clean as we renounce our sin and are purified by His grace; only by sincere and earnest repentance.
There was once a youth who had embezzled money from his employer, and prison loomed. His mother pleaded with the employer, declaring how the sorrowful young man was changed, and would repay the stolen money. On that basis the employer phoned his attorney to stop the prosecution. But when the mother told the youth of his good fortune, the lad just laughed. There was no repentance, the only remorse was that he was caught and had to pay the money back. He wasn’t sorry for his sins at all.
That was true of Israel, too. Their repentance was a sham, as it often is for some of us.
Malachi announced the cleansing of the “refiner’s fire and the fullers’ soap”. John the Baptizer urged, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” (Lk3:4) Jesus Himself proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Mt 4:17). Paul preached repentance from Jerusalem to the uttermost parts of the Roman Empire. It is Scripture’s cry to us still today.
Think about your life. What do you need to be rid of? What is eating away like a cancer in your heart, old sins, old animosities, corrupting fantasies, failures? Like a refiner’s fire, like fullers’ soap, God removes the agonizing and aching sins by leading us to repentance and faith.
Repentance! That’s the first step.
The second step, remember daily God’s forgiveness in Baptism.
John not only told the people to repent; he urged them to be baptized. John said even the most religious of God’s chosen people needed to be cleansed. While many accepted John’s baptism, countless others refused it profusely.
The Sacrament of Baptism into Christ provides forgiveness. It washes us clean, year after year. Daily, Luther says, we are to drown the old Adam, that element inside us that disobeys God. We confess our sins and also put our trust in Christ’s forgiveness, granted with Baptism’s water.
It’s better than taking a bath. It’s His fullers’ soap that gets rid of the grime of each day’s sins. It’s discovering the joy of being cleansed anew. Malachi compares it to a detergent with powerful bleach. It not only cleanses; it brightens garments. Baptism clothes us in Christ’s own brilliant righteousness.
Come clean! Repent! Remember your Baptism!
Then, share the cleansing! Report to family and friends, fellow workers and neighbors, what God has done for you. Living in this spirit of joyous forgiveness brings our anxieties under control. Depression can be put in its place. All the negative stuff that confounds life and eats away at happiness can be diminished by the wondrous joy that comes from discovering a grace that forgives.
When the evils within are smacked by divine love, our focus switches. No longer are we content simply to look at ourselves. Now we begin to look at others. Spontaneously we share our inner joy with others. As Ms. Norma said, “It just makes us want to get up and dance!”
Leo Tolstoy is a Russian author who wrote many powerful stories about Christian faith. He told of a shoemaker who lived in a basement with one solitary window. The shoemaker could only see the feet of the people parading past.
The shoemaker was depressed and discouraged. An old man encouraged him to read the New Testament, which he did. At first he read only on holidays, but it delighted him so much that he began to read it daily. It renewed him and encouraged him. No longer did he spend time drinking brandy; the Word of God was intoxicating enough. No longer did he use profanity; he found a new way of expressing himself. His life became peaceful and joyful.
One night he had a dream. He heard his name. He was sure it was the Christ, the Savior. He trembled with great joy. The next morning, he lit the stove and put his breakfast gruel and noontime cabbage soup on. Then he prayed his morning prayer, and began working at his bench, while he waited for the Lord.
As he worked, he looked out the window and saw an old porter scraping snow from the sidewalk. He was an ailing man with insufficient strength for his work. “I will give him some tea,” thought the shoemaker. He tapped on the window, calling the old man to come in and rest.
“May Christ reward you for this! My bones ache,” said the aging man, warming his frozen flesh. The shoemaker told how he had read the Bible. He shared a miracle of Jesus, a parable, and how Jesus had suffered for us. Finally the guest reluctantly had to return to his duties.
Back at his shoemaker’s bench, he saw all kinds of feet passing by. He was startled to see a woman clad only in woolen stockings and old wooden shoes. She cradled an infant in her arms. The shoemaker called to the woman to come into his shop. She was apprehensive, but she was also freezing. He put bread, cheese, and hot tea out for her, and soupy warm gruel for her child.
In a trunk he found his wife’s old but usable winter coat for the woman and a blanket for the infant. Eventually she left, but not without hearing a little of what he had read in the Bible. He had such joy in sharing the words of Jesus with her that she caught its meaning. She smiled a warm thank you as she stepped out onto the street.
As he went back to work, another incident occurred outside the window. A woman dropped an apple from the heavy box she was carrying. A young lad picked it up and was ready to run when she caught him. The shoemaker tried to make peace between them. He sought the boy’s apology and urged her to forgive him. “God has commanded us to forgive, else we, too, may not be forgiven. All should be forgiven.”
When the day was over and he lit his candle, he was disappointed that he had not seen Christ. Then his eyes fell to the place in his Bible that read, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me… Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it for me” (Mt 25:35–36, 40). When you share the cleansing Christ has given you, you discover that it enriches the world with great joy!
How long has it been since you opened your Bible and lived out its encouragements? Isn’t today the time to share what the cleansing Christ has given you, with those around you hungering for truth?
Advent’s message cleanses us daily through baptismal remembrance. It beckons us to share our cleansing by rejoicing in the Good News. Repent! Come clean! Remember your baptism daily and share the cleansing! Amen.