“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare 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. 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. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the LORD. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years. (Malachi 3:1-4 ESV)
It is a sign of development in childhood when we are able to wash our hands before having a meal, bathe ourselves, and attend to personal hygiene by ourselves. Whether we are by nature fastidious about cleanliness or we are quite happy to be a type of Pig Pen from ‘Peanuts’, children, teenagers, adults would usually take exception to someone not just insisting that they clean up but actually taking them by the hand and cleaning them. We may have looked forward to getting old when young but I suspect that we don’t look forward to being bathed when we are old. To be cleaned is a sign of dependence and an inability to do the job properly ourselves.
We know the need for cleanliness in the face of disease and for social harmony. However there is general anecdotal evidence around to suggest that men may suffer from some sort of domestic blindness when cleaning bathrooms and the like and are only able to see dirt and germs that are several inches wide. The plethora of cleaning products and the advertising that promotes one cleaning method over another is also commonplace. It would seem that we’re not always in agreement on the standards and best practices of cleaning.
It is interesting that Malachi gives the people a message from God in which God says that his messenger is bringing the soap. It seemed that by the mid fifth century BC, the people of Judah had more or less given up on the God of Israel. They did not experience the expected prosperity on their return from Babylon and so lapsed into half-hearted worship and cynical morality. Malachi says that God, in an act of grace, will send his special messenger before he himself comes to purify the worship and cleanse the lives of the people. With this cleansing, the people will again be able to serve in righteousness. Christians see these words fulfilled in John the Baptist who prepared the way of the Lord by preaching and washing repentance and in Jesus Christ whose blood – as the detergent for sin – cleanses all humanity so that we all may live with God.
God’s action on the surface seems ok – he’s coming to clean, to rescue, to give life. That’s got a lot going for it – unless you wanted to be like God. Now that is the primal desire of all human beings whose nature is curved in on themselves – to replace God with self – sometimes removing God all together from the scene but more often than not just moving him to the side – giving an illusion of piety but really treating him as a product or thing to be used when needed. Sometimes people are so hurt, even polluted and defiled by the evil done to them, that they find it very difficult to trust God to help at all and resent his cleaning when so much of the mess they’re in is simply not their fault. To have God turn up with the soap – ready to wash everyone and not backing away from the task – as Peter found out when he protested at Jesus’ washing of his feet – confronts us with a truth about ourselves that is difficult to face.
We may be able to avoid certain sins, dodge this or that dirt so to speak, but we cannot avoid sin. Sin is not so much bad deeds or the absence of good ones which are more the fruit of a sin-tree but sin is a matter of being. The truth comes home to us at some point that sin is not what we do but who we are. And hence for the Christian there is a constant battle between the old nature and the new nature – given by the Spirit through the words of a cross and the waters of baptism (and there’s another
cleaning act again). The worst thing Christians can do says Luther is to think of themselves as healthy when they are very sick1 or we might say, clean when they are dirty.
This sort of thinking is not just doom and gloom, poor self image, and constant negativity. It is dealing with reality – which we sometimes prefer to ignore or excuse or blame others for. Now our lives would be doom and gloom, in fact eternal condemnation, if God had not rescued us. Because of Jesus, Christians learn that not only are they sinners but they are also saints (which doesn’t mean ‘good’ but ‘people rescued and linked to God’). Luther insisted that Christians are saints and sinners at the same time – sinners who constantly fail in their struggle with their sinful nature and thus reveal it and saints who have been accepted by God and declared innocent because of the death of Christ. Sinners who constantly need cleaning and saints who, in faith, believe that they are clean.
It is this truth that allows a Christian the ability to live – keeping sinner and saint in tension – not ignoring one or the other, not emphasising one over against the other. This is what Jesus’ death on the cross says to us personally. That’s what our baptism says to us each day. That is what we hear in God’s Word and that is what we declare as we commune – my sins bring me to your table Lord so that I may receive you and with you there is forgiveness of sins, salvation, and eternal life. Under the cross we can battle the sins that plague us day by day and not be fooled by pride or despair but instead rest confident in God’s love and work on our harmful behaviour.
Christian living is dynamic – confronting us with truths about ourselves that our pride rails against – you need to be cleaned, you cannot clean yourself. Cleansed because of Jesus – we face the world as a child of God, confident that our righteousness is not our own. The world may think Christians are mindless dependents who have no life but the truth is that we are empowered to face ourselves and each day squarely with God’s love and we empowered to use our gifts and talents, strengthens and weaknesses to live for others. Life can be hard and easy, pretty and ugly, relatively clean and terribly filthy and still we go on – living life to the fullest each moment – because who we know who we are and whose we are.
1 Cited by F Hebart (2000). One in the Gospel. Ch 7: 53
- Malachi 3:1 - 4