But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire.
How Soon We Forget
Not much is certain about Malachi, the prophetic book that closes the Christian Old Testament. Working from a few slender references to past events, scholars place it roughly 250 years before the birth of Jesus. The Israelites have returned to their homeland after a 70-year exile in Babylon and reconstructed their nation. As they’ve prospered, they’ve grown lax in worship, giving, and daily commitment to the things of God. In fact, they’re so complacent, they’ve taken to grousing with Him about not working things in ways and in timeframes they prefer. Malachi reads something like a transcript of six discussions in which God takes His people to task for their vain ideas about who’s in charge, as well as their neglect of His house and those in need.
How soon we forget where God has brought us from and what He’s carried us through! Yes, it’s healthy for us to put past miseries behind us—but not to the point of discarding memories of the grace and mercy that soothed our doubts, calmed our fears, and restored our souls. When we’re engaged in great struggles, we plead for God’s intervention, often plying Him with big promises of ways we’ll repay Him for delivering us. These aren’t always idle or manipulative gestures, either. After He answers us, we start out strong. Over time, however, urgency fades from our promises. Conflicting interests arise and new issues surface. Losing all recall of God’s past provisions, we ask, “Where is He? Why doesn’t He do something already?” Demands of this sort became so common with Israel God finally responded through Malachi. The answer wasn’t pretty.
Chapter 3 begins with what sounds like a shiny promise: “Suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come.” But a “but” immediately follows. “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.” This surely surprised Israel. God told them He’d do as they asked. Yet, true to form, He’d do it in an unanticipated manner. “When your Redeemer arrives suddenly,” He says, “rather than fix the problem for you, He’ll to fix you for your problem.” The prophecy goes on to explain rectification would work top-down, beginning with the priests. “He will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness,” verse 3 says. Communication between God and His people had got so garbled with grumbling and chatter it needed cleaning up before anything else. Once Israel heard God’s voice clearly and approached Him in a more pleasing, humble fashion, the rest would fall in place.
One of my favorite spirituals is “Fix Me Jesus,” a plaintive, heart-melting appeal for Christ to do precisely what Malachi prophesied: refine me, clean me up, and purify me so I will stand righteously before You. The words are so basic they’re almost superfluous. The song’s meaning lives in its melody and tempo, which mysteriously pierce the mournful dirge of humble repentance with bright leaps of hope and faith. The whole of the refining process is there: sorrow for having forgotten God’s past goodness, shame in taking Him for granted, tremulousness while facing the discomforts of the refiner’s fire, and earnest desire to be cleansed. In its own way, “Fix Me Jesus” is as perfect as any Advent hymn can get by preparing us to submit to the purification that Christ’s coming brings.
Refinement and cleanliness are pretty. Refining and cleaning are not. They’re messy, laborious, and time-consuming. But we can’t bring God offerings of righteousness without passing through His refinery. We yield to harsh correction now to avoid far worse later. “So I will come near to you for judgment,” God tells Israel and lists offenses He will expel: sorcery, adultery, perjury, exploitative labor practices, oppression of the poor and homeless, and discrimination against outsiders. He ends this, saying, “Do not fear me.” The refiner’s fire is nothing to fear. The Refiner comes near to us to draw us nearer to Him.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: Fix Me Jesus
Postscript: Last Call
A few days ago, I suggested we collect our favorite holiday songs or recordings for a Straight-Friendly Christmas Album I compile and post as a kind of shared gift for us all. So far, though, we’ve not had many takers. Maybe everyone’s too busy to add his/her personal faves to the list. Or maybe it’s just a lousy idea to begin with—all that pointing and clicking! But I’m staying optimistic that we’ll have a last-minute surge of suggestions. As I said earlier, we’re a lively, eclectic, terrific crowd and I believe the variety of songs/recordings we assemble together will be equally lively, eclectic, and terrific. So this is Last Call. Post your selections (one or two) by Friday and I’ll turn it around over the weekend.