Christmas is just ten days away. For many, the next few weeks will be filled with joyful celebrations, delicious sweets, and anticipated gifts. For believers, it is also a time to reflect on the wonderful gift of our Savior. Today’s passage in Malachi 3:1-3, which speaks about purification and judgment, isn’t typically associated with the “most wonderful time of the year”. But it’s an important reminder that while I celebrate Christ’s first coming as a baby, His second coming to establish His eternal throne on the earth is something I must prepare for and celebrate as well.
In 1928, theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached an Advent sermon that touched on the themes of judgment and purification in this passage:
It is very remarkable that we face the thought that God is coming, so calmly, whereas previously peoples trembled at the day of God . . . . We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.
Only when we have felt the terror of the matter can we recognize the incomparable kindness. God comes into the very midst of evil and of death and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love.
Malachi is warning Israel of God’s future 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.
Malachi 3:2, ESV
Just as Israel’s sin and disobedience separated them from a holy God, sin separates me as well. It distorts what God intended from before the dawn of time. But God also had a perfect plan to refine and purify all of creation. Purely from a human perspective, refining and purifying aren’t much fun because there is always pain involved, and the prospect of that pain induces fear. But this is the good news of salvation! Because I am helpless to purify myself, God was willing to send and sacrifice His own Son so that my sin would be cleansed forever. And, while I know that salvation doesn’t mean His refining will end, indeed it may seem even more painful, I know that I can trust a loving and gracious God and know that all purifying and refining are ultimately for my good and His glory.
During the holidays, it’s easy to look with wonder and love on the baby who came to be our Savior. But this Savior, who came as Emmanuel, demands holiness and justice, which often require painful purification and refining. This Christmas season, as we sing familiar carols like Away in a Manger, may we be thankful for both “the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay” and His refining and purifying in our lives so that we may be “fit for heaven to live with Thee there.”
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