The refiner’s fire
He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness... [Malachi 3.3 NIV]
Remove the dross from the silver, and a silversmith can produce a vessel. [Proverbs 25.4]
1. We are the stuff of God’s alchemy, the raw material out of which he wants to fashion pure gold, the pure gold of lives lived for him, in him, and through him.
2. But we know that our stuff – our raw material - is pretty messy, rough, flawed, impure, corrupt. And so God has to set his divine magic to work to refine us and make of us the beautiful things that he has always wanted, not make-up, make-believe or make-over, but re-creation, a new me, washed, purified, reworked. It is most mysterious, most magical, most wonderful, to think that God cares for us enough to want to create us all over again.
3. And that divine magic involves:
d. a reaction
4. I don’t want to say much about fire today, because that’s the subject of the next Sacred Space evening, on June 14th. But I did have a conversation with our Simeon Centre intern this week about refining. She’s a material scientist, and she told me that if you want to refine a piece of metal, the best way is to heat it slowly along the length of the metal bar, and the impurities are driven to one end and can be cut off. It’s a bit like refining and pruning come together. Heat the metal, drive out the dross and cut it off!
There’s something about the pain and cost of being refined by God’s alchemy here, and Paul puts it well in his Letter to the Romans: We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. [5.3-5] It’s the fire of God’s love that refines us, not the fire of anger!
5. And so to the next magical element, light. Paul again: Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14for everything that becomes visible is light.
If you’ve ever turned a large stone over in the garden, you will have seen ants, or beetles, or other strange creatures of the dark, run for cover. I think Paul has this in mind when he says, Turn the stone of your life over, and shine God’s light on it.
What does that look like in practice? Well, we are very good at wriggling and squirming out of facing the people we really are. We make excuses for our actions readily: I was tired. He started it. It’s the way my parents showed me. I was distracted.
And the magic of God’s alchemy says Step 1: bring the dross of our lives into the light, own it, confess that we have sinned, sometimes tell others, admit that we are at fault [when we are, of course], squirm and wriggle a bit. And then God and me together can do the business.
Step 2: the magic words: I am sorry. Or, on the other side, I forgive you.
Step 3: a reaction takes place. God has magic words of his own. Father forgive them; they do not know what they are doing. And later, after the resurrection, Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
6. It’s really all about change. Change hurts. Change is costly. Change is hard. But God has given us a chance for change, a choice to change, and a challenge to think about what might happen if we
a. chose to accept a bit of fire
b. chose to lift the lid on the secrets of our hearts
c. chose to utter the magic words
I will draw this together simply by quoting Corrie ten Boom, whom I return to over and over again when I want to make this point. I know of no one better to illustrate the magic of redeeming love, made possible in Christ.
[Betsie and I had been arrested for concealing Jews in our home during the Nazi occupation of Holland; this man had been a guard at Ravensbruck concentration camp where we were sent.]
“Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: ‘A fine message, Fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!’
“And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course—how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?
“But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. I was face-to-face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.
“ ‘You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,’ he was saying, ‘I was a guard there.’ No, he did not remember me.
“ ‘But since that time,’ he went on, ‘I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein,’ again the hand came out—’will you forgive me?’
“And I stood there—I whose sins had again and again to be forgiven—and could not forgive. Betsie had died in that place—could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?
“It could not have been many seconds that he stood there—hand held out—but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.
“For I had to do it—I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. ‘If you do not forgive men their trespasses,’ Jesus says, ‘neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.’
“I knew it not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience. Since the end of the war I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality. Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.
“And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘… Help!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’
“And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
“ ‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart!’
“For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then”