“The Refiner’s Fire” (Malachi 3:1-4 sermon)

Ruth Bell Graham was the wife of the famous evangelist Billy Graham. Billy had of course garnered so much world-wide attention, having been seen on tv, and having written so many books, and so on — but after some years, Ruth came out with her own book, called It’s My Turn. I love the book, because in it she shares honestly about a lot of the marriage and family struggles they had — and yes, even “great ministers” like Billy Graham have those struggles! (I figure Cheryl might come out with a book like that one of these days, perhaps she’ll call it, “It’s My Turn,” or maybe “She didn’t go down quietly,” or something like that!)  But in Ruth Graham’s book, she has a quote that many of us would do well to remember, especially in THESE days we are living through today:  

“There is no situation so chaotic that God cannot, from that situation, create something that is surpassingly good. He did it at the creation. He did it at the cross. He is doing it today.” (Bishop Moule, quoted in Ruth Bell Graham, It’s My Turn, p. 136)

And “today” means even TODAY — in 2020, in the United States of America, with the COVID-19 crisis going on. There is NO situation, no matter who chaotic it may appear to us, that God cannot make something surpassingly good come out of.  God is still about that business, and our passage from Malachi 3 today reminds us of what He is doing: 

“Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming,” says the Lord of hosts. 2 “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 He will sit as a smelter and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, so that they may present to the Lord offerings in righteousness.”

God prophesied specifically here about His “messenger,” John the Baptist, who would come to prepare the way of the Lord, and His Son Jesus, who would appear in His Temple. The people of Israel were saying, “We can’t wait for Him to appear!” But Malachi was saying to them here: Listen, His coming may not be the pleasant experience you think it’s going to be! You don’t realize what His purposes are. When He comes, He will come to refine, to purify, to cleanse His people, so that they can offer to Him righteous sacrifices, which they aren’t offering now, because of their sin.

This passage is still very insightful for us today, because it shows us what God’s purposes are in this world: God is preparing for Himself a holy people, who will worship Him in righteousness. This shows us the purposes God has for the events He allows in our lives today as well. What is God doing in this COVID-19 crisis? What is He doing through all the other events and circumstances in our lives? We don’t have to guess; we can see here and in other scriptures what His purposes are: God uses the events and circumstances of our lives to make us a more holy people, who will be able to worship Him more perfectly.

I.  GOD IS USING OUR CIRCUMSTANCES

Here in Malachi 3, the Lord is talking to His people about the events that were going to happen in their nation, in the days ahead: that a messenger would come who would prepare the way (that would be John the Baptist); that the Lord Himself was going to come into their very midst (that of course would be Jesus); and that this would happen in the Temple in Jerusalem. God says I am going to use these events that will happen, to bring about My purposes. God did that then, God has done that in events all throughout history, and God is STILL doing that today. He is USING the circumstances of our times, and the circumstances in our own personal lives, to accomplish His ultimate purposes. 

I shared last Sunday that the COVID-19 crisis did not catch God by surprise. He knew about this in advance, and He already had plans to use it. That is what He does. God uses everything that happens in our lives, for His ultimate plans and purposes. We see this taught all through scripture:

— Romans 8:28 says that God causes all things to work together for good, for those who love God, and who are called according to His purpose.

— Ephesians 1:11 says God works all things after the counsel of His will.

— We see an example of that here in Malachi 3, where God says He is going to use these future events for His purposes.

— We see it in the second half of Genesis, where Joseph’s brothers are envious, and sell him into slavery — but God uses even that for His purposes, to save their whole family, and advance His redemptive purposes for Israel, so that Joseph can say to his brothers at the end of that book, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, in order to bring about the present result, to preserve many people alive.” (Genesis 50:20). God used even Joseph’s brothers’ sin, for His ultimate purposes.

— Even what must be considered as THE single worst thing that ever happened, in all of human history — that we crucified the Son of God who came to us — as we saw last week, even this was “according to the predestined plan and foreknowledge of God,” as Peter proclaimed in Acts 2, that His death on the cross would pay for the sins of all mankind.  

So we see all through scripture that God uses the situations and circumstances of our lives — even (and especially) the difficult ones — for His plans and purposes. He is always using what look like “bad” things in our lives, for His ultimate “good” purposes.

For example, going back to Ruth Graham’s book My Turn; she said that looking back, she felt like Billy made two decisions in his life that were not God’s will: the first was when he took a pastorate; the second was when he became a college president. She said they both knew that God had called him to be an evangelist, and he was not called to do either of those other things (She also said, in her best “I told you so” manner, that he did not consult her on either one of those two bad decisions!).  But she also said, that even though both of those proved to be “wrong” decisions, that God still USED both of them: his pastorate gave him a better understanding of the pastors he would work with in the Billy Graham ministry; and his time as a college president helped him relate to college students, and to be a better administrator of his ministry. So even though these were “bad” decisions; she said God USED both of them for His purposes in the long term. God uses all of our circumstances for His purposes.

So if God uses “all things” that happen, for His ultimate good purposes — as my old Sunday School teacher used to say, ‘all means ALL!” — then we know that He is using what is going on right now in our lives too.  So we know that He is using this COVID-19 shutdown. Despite how we may “feel” about it sometimes, this is not a “wasted” time. God is doing something, both in our world, and in our own personal lives, during this time.

Here is the thing— and this is something that many, many of us really need to hear today, and consciously adopt into our lives:  God does NOT just want us to “get out” of our current situation. And I say that because I can imagine many people are praying prayers like that: “God, just get us out of this situation; this COVID-19 lockdown is bad; get us out of it.” Or maybe it’s not the virus crisis, but maybe it’s some other situation in your life, about which you are praying: “God, please just get me OUT of this.” But what you’ve got to understand is that GOD DOES NOT JUST WANT YOU TO “GET OUT” OF THAT SITUATION. THERE IS SOMETHING HE WANTS YOU TO GET OUT OF IT. In God’s plan, this is not to be “wasted” time; He is doing something in this time; in you and in our world. There is something He wants you to GET out of this, that fits in His ultimate plan. 

So what is it? What does God want us to “GET” out of the situation(s) we are in? This is what we see in our next point, and it comes right out of our text this morning in Malachi 3: 

II.  GOD USES OUR CIRCUMSTANCES ESPECIALLY TO PURIFY US

We see several indications in this passage of how God’s purpose is to purify His people. It says it several different ways:

— At the end of :2 it says: “For He is like a refiner’s fire.”  Verse 3 goes on to say: “He will sit as a smelter and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi, and refine them like gold and silver.” Over and over there it tells us that God’s purpose is to REFINE His people. Most of us are familiar with this picture of the refining process: fire is used to melt down a metal, so that the impurities will rise to top and can be skimmed off, so that the metal will be pure.  Malachi says THAT is what God’s purpose is with His people:  it says He will be like “a refiner’s fire,” melting us down, so that the impurities in our lives can be skimmed off. That is not necessarily a comfortable process!  But that is God’s purpose: to purify us!  

— Verse 2 also says that He is “like fuller’s soap”.  This is literally, “the soap of the washers”.  A “fuller” was a person in ancient times who would clean cloth, sometimes by stomping on it with his feet, or by using different substances, to clean it. Wool, for example, would come off of the sheep very dirty, as you could imagine, and it had to be cleansed before it could be used. Many other kinds of cloth had to be cleansed as well. 

In the same way, Malachi said when the Lord comes, He will be like “fuller’s soap” — cleansing His people. He’s saying, you think it’s going to be pleasant when He comes, but He’s going to come into your life like “soap;” He’s going to come into your life like “bleach”, to clean you up!  When you pour disinfectant into a wound, it can sting. In the same way, when God “scrubs us down” with His “fuller’s soap,” it will most likely be an unpleasant process — but Malachi says THAT is what His purpose IS in your life: to purify you and clean you up! 

So Malachi says, you THINK you want God to come and work among us. You think “the day of the Lord” will be some sweet, pleasant time. But in reality, when God works, He works on you like a washerwoman scrubbing a dirty piece of laundry! He “melts us down” like a refiner does silver or gold, to skim off our impurities.   You can imagine, the circumstances that God uses in our lives to “scrub us” or “melt us down” are probably not going to be very pleasant:

— it might mean a sickness

— it could mean a financial crisis or the loss of a job

— it can involve a broken relationship

— it could even be an international pandemic …

But the point is, when God works on us, He often has to use unpleasant circumstances in order to “clean us up” and make us more like the people He wants us to be.  We see several specific examples in scripture of how God has actually done that in people’s lives:

— I think again of Joseph, in that story I mentioned a few minutes ago in Genesis.  At first, Joseph was very proud: he went around telling his whole family about his dream of how they were all going to bow down to him — but after he had been cast into the pit by his brothers, and sold into slavery, and thrown into prison, and all he experienced — by the time you get to the end of Genesis, Jospeh had a much more humble attitude. He was much more gracious to his brothers, and he gave glory to GOD whom He recognized had orchestrated everything that had happened, for His purposes. God used the difficult times Joseph endured, to purify his life. 

— I mentioned a couple of weeks ago the infamous Babylonian Captivity of Israel. For generations, Israel had worshiped idols, despite God’s commandment not to worship any graven images. For hundreds of years, God had sent prophets to warn them that judgment was coming if they did not stop their idolatry, but they did not listen. So His judgment finally came; Babylon invaded and destroyed the Temple, and carried many of the Israelites off into captivity for a time before they were allowed to return. But historians tell us that from the time of that Babylonian Captivity, never again would Israel fall into idolatry. God used the “refiners fire” of that captivity to “skim the impurity” of idolatry from their lives. NEVER AGAIN has Israel worshiped idols — to this day!  God used that horrible experience, as a “refiner’s fire,” for His ultimate purposes.

— In my own daily Bible reading in II Corinthians 12 last week I read where God gave the Apostle Paul a revelation of Paradise and the highest heaven — but He also gave him what Paul called a “thorn in the flesh” — a physical ailment that He allowed to come and torment his life, and that He would not heal him of, for the specific purpose of making him humble and more dependent upon God. The situation of that “thorn” was like a “refiner’s fire;” it was like “a fuller’s soap,” cleansing and purifying Paul’s life from pride, making him even more the kind of person God could use.

We need to remember that this is the kind of thing God does with our circumstances. You NEVER just “happen” to have some thing happen in your life. There are no coincidences for Christians. GOD is orchestrating every situation, every circumstance, even (and especially!) the difficult ones, for His purposes, to “clean” you; to “refine” you; and to make you the person He wants you to be. So when we come into these times, as we said a minute ago, DON’T just ask God:  “Get me out of this,” but ask Him: “God, what do You want me to GET out of this?”  What lessons do You want me to learn? What sin needs to get out of my life? What new direction do You want to take me as a result of this?  

This is how many of us need to be thinking about this COVID-19 crisis. DO NOT just sit there at home, and wait for all this to all “get over with” so you can “get back to normal.” WE DON’T NEED TO GET BACK TO NORMAL! We need to “get” the things that God designed for us to get out of this situation. 

I’m grateful to see that there are a number of people who ARE thinking about making changes in their lives as a result of this. I have a friend in Louisiana who put up a post on Facebook asking her friends, what “good” things have they seen come out of this crisis time: and almost every one of them was saying something like: We are getting more family time; we need to keep this up; we have been too busy; WE NEED TO SLOW DOWN! I do think that “busy-ness” has been a characteristic of our generation: we think we have to fill up every minute — especially many churches — they almost measure whether they are a “successful” church or not, by whether they “fill up the calendar.”  And surely there ARE things we do need to plan and do; but we also need to learn that the kind of busy-ness that has characterized many of our lives is not from God!  We need to learn to just sit and “be still and know that He is God.” And make enough time to seek Him. And keep enough time to spend with family, and go for walks, and to just rest!  We don’t have to fill up every minute. There are undoubtedly some long-term changes that many of us need to make from what we have learned in this crisis. 

I also see a lot of “STRIPPING AWAY” that is happening in this crisis.  God has been stripping away things out of our lives that maybe we have relied on too much, or put too much emphasis on:

— our strong economy

— our particular job

— our retirement fund!  

— our personal health  

God may have allowed some of these things, and others, to be “stripped away” from our lives, maybe just for a time, to get us to STOP making “idols” of these things, and depend on HIM the way we should. 

This is exactly the kind of thing He does in these times. God uses our circumstances for the specific purpose of purifying our lives. So DON’T leave this time without asking God: “Lord, what do You want me to get out of this crisis? What sin needs to stop? What habit needs to change? What false trust do I need to give up, to depend on You more?  Be sure you are working WITH God in His purpose of purifying your life in this crisis. 

III.  GOD’S ULTIMATE PURPOSE IN REFINING IS WORSHP. 

At the end of :3, He says “He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, SO THAT they may present to the Lord offerings in righteousness.”  Did you see the “SO THAT” there?  “SO THAT” is what we call a “purpose clause.” Whenever you see that “SO THAT” it indicates the PURPOSE for the activity was being described. What is the purpose of the God’s activity that He has been describing in this passage; what is the purpose of all the melting and refining and purifying?  It is SO THAT — this is the purpose — “SO THAT they may present to the LORD offerings in righteousness.”  

The “offerings in righteousness” he talks about there, is worship. We don’t offer sheep and goats as sacrifices any more; Hebrews 13:15 says it is the “sacrifice of PRAISE” that God really wants from us. So the end purpose of all of the refining and purifying that God is doing in our lives, is SO THAT we may WORSHIP Him in a higher, and better, and more perfect way.  

See, this is what God created us for in the beginning, was to worship Him. As C.S. Lewis wrote, God designed us run on Him the way a car is designed to run on gasoline.  But the problem is, our sin came in between us and the Lord.  When we chose to sin, it put a barrier between us and God, which kept us from worshiping Him. So we started worshiping all kinds of other things instead – this is where all the other gods and religions came in. And of course, one of the biggest “idols” we set up was ourselves!   But the point is, our sin separated us from the true worship of God.   But thankfully God didn’t leave it there. Here in the very last book of the Old Testament God says, I am not going to leave things as they are. I will come in Jesus Christ and cleanse you through His death on the cross. And God says I am going to do that SO THAT — for the purpose that — you may “offer up righteous sacrifices” — so that you can again worship Me the way I originally created you to. 

THAT is the end purpose of what God is doing. This is the #1 lesson God is try to get into people’s lives during this time: He wants us to come back to Him, to worship Him the way He designed us to. 

— It’s like the doctor in Italy I mentioned the other night in prayer meeting, who, working through this crisis, said “I WAS an atheist, but now I am returning to God.” This is the kind of thing God is doing in times of crisis. He may be doing that right now in the life of someone you know — be praying for people you know, who need to come to the Lord in this time. I am trusting that when we are able to reassemble in our churches again, we will see a lot of individuals and families that God has been working on during this crisis, who will get back in church, worshiping Him again!  That is one of His biggest purposes in times like these: to bring people back to worshiping Him. 

— But even among those of us who DO already know Him, God is using this time to purify us specifically so that we will worship Him better than we did before this crisis:  there will be some sins that we will have forsaken in this time, that will not be clouding our relationship with Him any longer, so our worship will be better, stronger, sweeter, as a result of all this.  God is working in the lives of His people in this crisis, preparing us to worship Him, better than we ever have before!  

This week I read about a man in Milwaukee whose little daughter was learning to play the clarinet in school, so it inspired him to dig out his old high school saxophone from the basement. He started to play it, but he said the sound was horrible. It was banged up; it was out of condition. So he took it to a music shop in Milwaukee, called Brass Bell. They said it was a good saxophone, it was made in the 1970’s when things were really constructed well, but it badly needed some repairs. So he had them fix it: they replaced all the worn pads, they had to straighten out some buttons that had been bent, and they shined it all up. And when they were finished, he did not just sit that saxophone up on the shelf: he took it home, and he PLAYED it!  THAT is what he went to all the trouble of having it fixed up for, that it might PLAY those notes that would be so pleasing to him!

And that is exactly what the Bible says that God is doing with US! Why has He gone to all this trouble to save us, and work all these things into our lives? Not just so that we can “sit on a shelf” — or even just “sit in a church”!  He saved us SO THAT we might praise Him and thank Him and SING that worship music that is so pleasing to Him: “THAT we might present to Him offerings in righteousness.”  That starting here on earth, and continuing in heaven forever, we will make music and worship Him, singing with all the saints of all time:  “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and riches and wisdom and might, and honor and glory and blessing!”  

CONCLUSION

This is what God is doing in this COVID-19 time. And it is what God is doing in EVERY time in our lives. So instead of just asking in these days: “when will this be over?”, and “How can we get ‘back to normal’?”, Let’s be asking: “What do I know from His word that God doing? And what specifically can I do to work WITH Him on what He is doing in my own life in particular?”

INVITATION:

— Some need to come back to God for the very first time … 

— Others need to THINK about what God is trying to do in your life in this time.  What false gods is He “stripping away”? What sin is He cleansing you from?  How you can learn to worship Him better in this time? (ARE you spending time with Him daily in worship?) 

— Remember, don’t just ask God, “Get me out of this,” but ask Him: “What specifically do You want me to GET out of this?”  

Talk to Him about those things right now …

About Shawn Thomas

My blog, shawnethomas.com, provides brief devotions from own personal daily Bible reading, as well as some of my sermons, book reviews, and family life experiences.
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