“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.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon on this second Sunday in Advent comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the third chapter of the prophet Malachi. Dear friends in Christ: the refiner’s task is purity. He seeks to make pure what is impure, to remove all corruption from iron, copper, gold, or silver. His tool is fire, incredible heat, used to melt the metal and to separate the pure from the impure, so that the waste can be removed and destroyed. He harnesses the fire, this mysterious, powerful force that consumes all if left to itself, but if controlled, cleanses and purifies. In the same way, the fuller’s task is purity. He seeks to make pure what is impure, to remove all corruption from cloth or garments. His tools are powerful soaps, the scorching rays of the sun, and his own feet. The Hebrew word for fuller literally means ‘to tread out,’ because the fuller’s task was to stamp the clothes until every impurity was removed. The clothing was then beaten with sticks, and left at the mercy of the sun to bleach it white. The result, worked by the power of fire and of soap, is purity: metal refined and cloth cleansed. Now both metal and garments can be used for their given purpose, to serve the king.
A man came from God; his name was John. His task was to prepare the way for the greatest Refiner and Fuller, the one who was coming to purify God’s people. John emerged in the desert calling for repentance. “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” John’s task is to point out your impurity, to declare that you are unrefined metal, you are dirty clothes, you have no purity. Your sin has made you unclean, it has stained you, it has corrupted what God first made pure. The iron is filled with waste, the cloth is covered with spots. You know the truth of John’s words—we have all committed sins that make us feel dirty, but what he teaches is that every sin makes impure. You and I are unclean, impure from birth and adding to that impurity with new stains every day. Neither metal nor cloth becomes clean on its own, but simply deteriorates, becoming more and more unclean. And that is a problem, for God is pure, He is clean, He is holy, and He cannot stand having impurity in His presence. He wants no part of offerings brought by impure people, as He declares earlier in Malachi: “Oh that there were one among you who would shut the doors, that you might not kindle fire on my altar in vain! I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord of hosts, and I will not accept an offering from your hand.” If the ones bringing offerings are not pure, it is better if the doors of His temple are shut! He holds only judgment for the impure and unclean, for He is pure and holy.
And John declares a frightening message: this God of judgment is coming. “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to His temple.” The clean and pure God, who cannot stand impurity, will come to His temple, taking on human flesh in the womb of Mary. The location of God’s presence in the Old Testament was the tabernacle and the temple; now the temple is Mary’s womb, the temple is the body of Jesus Christ, the one born clean and pure into the filth of this world. Purity is entering a world of impurity, and He is coming as the Refiner and the Fuller, He is coming to purify His people. The day when the Refiner and Fuller suddenly returns to His temple is a great day, it is an awesome day, it is the day that God’s people waited for. But on the other hand, it is a day of anguish for those who are impure. “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 fuller’s soap.” The Messiah will purify His people as a whole, and He will purify them as individuals, and this work will be difficult, it will be arduous, it will carry with it a great cost.
The refiner’s work isn’t quick, easy, or painless. Just ask the metal who is subjected to the heat of his fire, having its impurity extracted and burned away. The fuller’s work isn’t quick, easy, or painless. Just ask the garment that is tread upon, beaten, and left to the burning rays of the sun. To make something clean and pure requires a cost, a price to be paid. But the refiner or the fuller doesn’t pay it. Sure, he gives of his time and his labor, but his work doesn’t cost him in the way that it costs the metal or the garment. Here we find the greatest difference between every earthly refiner and fuller and the greatest Refiner and Fuller, the Lord who suddenly came into His temple, the Messiah Jesus Christ. Purifying man cost Him; it cost Him everything. To purify you, Jesus laid aside His glory, the glory that He had from eternity as the only-begotten Son of God, the second person of the Trinity. He emptied Himself of all that glory to become man and embark on that purifying work.
But that was only the beginning of the price He would pay. No refiner is put through the fire, no fuller is himself trod out and beaten, but to purify you, Jesus is. He Himself faces the fire of God’s wrath over our impurity, He Himself is beaten and bloodied by those He came to cleanse. The Refiner entered the fire so that the metal could be purified, the Fuller was tread out so that the dirty garments could be made white. The Refiner entered the fire in place of the metal, the Fuller was tread out in place of the garments. To purify humanity, to purify you and me, Jesus laid down His own life. His work of refining, cleansing, and making pure was to bear the cost in our place. God is holy, clean and pure, and the Son took that purity into this unclean world to substitute for your impurity, so that you are now declared clean.
Now our Refiner and Fuller goes to work on us. “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.” Purity flows from the cross to us; Jesus makes us clean because He is clean, and He faced the fire of God’s wrath in our place. But this purifying work comes with a cost as well. To purify you, your sinful nature must be put to death. More specifically, it must be drowned. The baptismal font is the refiner’s fire, the fuller’s soap, for there Jesus removes all of your impurities, cleansing you to stand before a holy God. You are clean! You are pure! The Refiner and Fuller has done this all for you! You uncleanness, your filth, has been taken away!
You are clean, and yet Christ is working to cleanse you. You have been declared clean, and you stand before God with Christ’s own purity. But your sinful nature doesn’t want to be cleansed, it struggles against this work of Christ. It must be drowned anew each and every day, as you return to your baptism in repentance, until it is completely destroyed and sin has been driven away forever. This is difficult work, but Christ is determined to see it through. He is working on you and in you with the fire and soap of His Word to purify you, to burn and scrub away the impurities of sin that still cling to your bones. You are literally put through the fire and scrubbed as you live your life as a Christian in this world. God uses the fires of suffering, the fires of persecution, and the all-consuming fire of His Word to rid you of our sin, to make you pure. This purifying work will not be completed in this life, but Christ will surely finish it, on the Day of His return, as Saint Paul says in our Epistle lesson: “I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ”
C.S. Lewis helps us to understand this by having us think of ourselves as a house. When we first become a Christian, Jesus is busy fixing leaky faucets and repainting walls. That doesn’t bother us too much—we knew those things needed work. But then He starts knocking down walls, tearing up carpet, and throwing away furniture, and we begin to protest. Just wait a minute—this work is too drastic, in fact, it’s quite painful! But Jesus isn’t interested in a nicer house, He is interested in a new house, and He won’t stop until the job is done, until He has completely renewed you on the Last Day.
Jesus puts so much work into cleansing you because He has great things to do with you. Those who are pure “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.” We were unable to bring right offerings to God because we were impure, but now that we are made pure by the work of our Refiner and Fuller, our offerings are pleasing to Him, they are His delight. These are the fruits of faith: thanksgiving, praise, worship, and good works. They do not make us pure, but they please God because they are done by His purified people. As Saint Paul tells Titus, “[Jesus Christ] gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession who are zealous for good works.”
This purifying work of our Refiner and Fuller is difficult, it is arduous, and it is often painful. It may seem that God is punishing us, or that He has abandoned us. But that is not the case; He is purifying, and His purifying work will not destroy us, as He promises in our text. “For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.” The purifying fires will not consume you, for God is faithful to His promise. He has declared you clean and pure through the work of the Refiner and Fuller, your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. You are clean and pure before God even now, like metal that has been refined, like garments that have been scrubbed, for you bear the purity of Christ, and now Jesus is working to free you from sin, to make you clean and pure like Himself. His work isn’t always pleasant, it isn’t always painless, but it is always for your good, so that He can present you to His Father on the Last Day, a clean and pure offering, pleasing to Him forever. In the name of our Refiner, our Fuller, who has declared us clean and is making us clean, Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.