Pic: “Refiner’s fire” by Gracia Wassink.
The Coming of God is not all Good News. In fact, first, it’s bad news.
As Malachi puts it: “Who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears?”
It’s a theme not associated in the popular mind with Christmas. Nevertheless, Advent is, of course, preparation not only for a remembrance of Christ’s first coming as a baby, but also for Christ’s second coming, in power and glory.
We live between the two.
Isn’t it amazing that we ( we Christians!) face the coming of Christ so calmly, whereas previously peoples trembled at the “Day of the Lord”? We have insulated ourselves by such an emphasis on the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the least shiver of fear that God is coming. We’ve become so blasé about the whole message, since we’ve carefully abstracted the “Happy Christmas” side of things and forgotten the serious side, that the God of the universe draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only Good News, but first of all scary news for everyone who has a conscience.
I would even say that I think that we have to feel something of that “scariness” before we can understand the kindness. God is coming into the very midst of evil, to judge the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, and comes to us with grace and love.
Who wants to stay dirty?
It is fitting to think about this today, at the very end of Advent. God is coming. God is coming as a baby in Bethlehem, but God is also coming again “in glory to judge the living and the dead,” as the Nicene Creed puts it.
So how do we respond? I remember a children’s story on this, which began: “Imagine if the Queen were visiting your house. Excitement, pride, mixed up with nervousness and trepidation.”
No, no: let’s try a different picture: imagine if a head social worker was visiting your house and if you failed to pass muster, he had the right to take your children away. Do you see the difference? We can exclude the nervousness factor in the first picture and concentrate on the excitement and pride, but in the second? Any reasonable person should feel at least some fear. Am I really up to the mark? Will I pass inspection?
The prophets make the same point in talking about “the day of the LORD.” Amos proclaims, “Alas for you who desire the day of the LORD! Why do you want the day of the LORD? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake” (Amos 5:18-19). Be careful what you wish for, in other words, because you may get more than you bargained for. The day of the LORD will be a day full of terror. How can it not be, as God “judges the evil in us and in the world”?
Malachi, for his part, also warns his hearers of the coming judgment: “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” (3:2). Like one who burns away the dross in order to refine gold, God will burn away all the evil within us. Like one who uses rough industrial soap to tackle those really stubborn stains, God will bleach out the stains that sin leaves in us. Refining gold and cleaning clothes are positive activities, but from the perspective of the gold and the clothing, the process holds the prospect of grinding pain.
Not worried yet? It’s a far far cry from “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” and the soothing tones of “Away in a Manger.”
In fact, more thn anything, Malachi reminds you of the tough no-nonsense preaching of John the Baptist. He’s quoted that way in Matthew 11:10; Mark 1:2; and Luke 7:27 and explicitly identified as an Elijah: “Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes” (Malachi 4:5; cf. Matthew 11:14; 17:11-13; Luke 1:17).
And this Elijah announces “the Lord whom you seek” who is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. It is he who will purify the people of the covenant. And, despite our feelings or fears about the matter, this is actually good news! Sin separates us from God. Sin clouds and distorts the good creation God made us to be. And since we are helpless to cleanse ourselves, the Refiner, the Cleaner comes to do His work!
It is not an easy process, of course. I remember the weekly bath that I had to endure as a small child, and my mother’s determination to scrub out the “muck of the week” as she charmingly put it.
There is always pain involved in coming clean! Who really wants to face up to the lies and half-truths in their own mind, to the bad thoughts and evil tendencies in a hundred conversations? Jesus calls us out to die to our old selves and rise to life in him. And there is pain involved in dying and rising.
But it is a process that is designed for our good, for our eternal well-being: God comes into our midst as Emmanuel. He comes to destroy evil in all its forms, both within us and within our world. He comes to break the chains of Satan’s hold on us, and to draw us out of death into real life. As the old carol goes:
O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny
From depths of Hell Thy people save
And give them victory o’er the grave
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.