This is the time of year when we hear a lot about Belief.
Whether it’s through a Christmas movie, a song on the radio, or over the pulpit on a Sunday morning, the main message is simple and clear…Belief makes all the difference.
And that’s a nice Christmas message, isn’t it?
The world will change, things will work out for the best, our lives will be filled with rainbows and unicorns if we just believe the unbelievable (and then call it ‘faith’).
I guess what I’m saying is, both the North Pole and the Nativity both serve as quaint decorations at this time of year.
December is the month when “Belief” becomes hardest to take seriously because it gets all dressed up in plastic and tinsel no matter what manner of “belief” we’re talking about.
So it would seem that belief is easy and cheap. But Malachi seems to suggest it’s far more of a challenge than we maybe wish it was. Belief is easy; it’s far more difficult to take our ‘beliefs’ seriously…to ask of them the difficult questions that beliefs are meant to handle.
Malachi comes to us (in Chapter 3) and he gives us this picture of a God who comes with fire in one hand and soap in the other.
It’s an uncomfortable image to say the least, as we fill our time with cookies, tinsel, and pine.
Our nativity scenes are laid out nice and clean beside our plastic Santas, across the room from the Christmas tree standing watch over the presents we’ve bought for people we “believe” in.
This hardly seems the time for a message of fire and soap.
Yet that’s exactly what we’ve got. Fire for refining, and soap for cleansing.
We’ve heard this message before; we’ve all got dirty little secrets we try to hide. We need to be cleaned up; purified; refined; scrubbed clean in order to be found fit for service in the kingdom of God.
And I know that everything about that message is true; we do all have dirty secrets that we need to come clean of before a Holy and Righteous God.
It’s true, that the refining and the scrubbing; are painful processes to go through, such that they are meant to be endured, not enjoyed.
It’s true, that we all carry wounds.
We all carry grudges.
We all carry misunderstandings, wounded ways of living and relating to the other people in our lives, and we approach our family gatherings and company parties burdened with the gunk and grime that comes from living.
No matter how much gloss we put on the Christmas season, no matter how much tinsel we string up, our lives are still filled with junk.
The way Still needs to be prepared in the wilderness of our inner landscape. Our mountains of Pride need to be leveled. Our valleys of despair need to be filled.
And so God comes with fire and soap…just as God came with fire and soap.
But not just any fire or soap.
He comes with a refiner’s fire, and a fuller’s soap.
What’s interesting about this particular kind of fire, and this particular kind of soap, is that they both take skill to use properly.
They’re both tools of a skilled craftsman.
Someone who is skilled at the art of creation.
See, precious metals, like silver…when they’re mined, you might have a very little bit of silver, mixed in with a whole lot of dirt and grime and maybe lead, or iron, or other minerals that are of less value.
And it’s not just that those things need to be burned away; it’s that they have to be separated out from the silver in order to make the silver worth using.
The end result of the process is a lump. I think they actually call it a “pig” of metal.
(so I guess we could say God is turning us into a bunch of pigs!)
It’s not a useful object. It’s just a lump of material that’s finally ready to be worked with.
It’s the same way with this “fuller’s soap”.
It’s interesting, the process that’s being referred to here is more than just making something clean that has gotten dirty. It’s not like washing a pair of blue jeans.
It’s much, much different than that.
Fulling is actually the process that Wool goes through soon after it’s been sheared. It’s actually how cloth is made!
According to Wikipedia, fulling involved using certain chemicals to wash the wool and even bleach it white. Long ago, they used stale human urine (did you know urine was actually taxed because it was such a hot commodity for this process?). Something about the salts in urine helped to bleach the fibers as they scoured it.
Thankfully, in future years they learned how to do the same thing with a particular kind of clay that’s called “fuller’s earth”, and they eventually developed a really harsh lye-based soap that does the same thing.
This is part of the process that’s called scouring the wool. They would also “thicken” the wool as part of the ‘fulling’ process by pounding it together with their hands or feet, or maybe with a wooden paddle type thing.
The point I’m trying to make is that both the fire and the soap that Malachi talks about are tools that take skill to use. Not everyone can use them correctly.
At the end of the day with both processes, all you have to show for your work is something that’s just a step above raw material.
On their own, a bolt of cloth or a ‘pig’ of silver; both items are almost useless because they haven’t yet taken a useful form.
At the same time the potential within them is beyond measure! The mind of the Craftsman is the only limit to what they can become!
So even here in Malachi, we get a picture of a God who is fundamentally creative, even (and maybe especially) when he comes as a Judge!
The point of judgment is not punishment; it is redemption!
We can join with God in the act of Creation every single day!
Yes; our lives are filled with impurity and brokenness and even shame.
Yes; we are sinful people in need of redemption, and we war within ourselves with the forces of Good and Evil.
But in the hands of an always-creative and highly skilled God, we also have limitless potential. Our lives are so much more beautiful, useful, and full of meaning than mere flesh and blood suggest.
I read a book recently (Creating Space: The Case for Everyday Creativity by Ed Cyzewski) that suggested that exercising our own unique creativity is the antidote to cynicism.
The author basically says that we each have creative gifts, and the desire to create in some way (which makes sense to me since we’re created in the image of a creative God).
And so, he suggests that when we don’t create, we’re actually stifling that part of us, and it comes out then through cynicism towards the people who are being creative! I think of it as a kind of defense mechanism.
So if you’re up for a challenge this Advent season, I challenge you, with only three weeks left in 2012, to make creative space amid the hustle and bustle of Christmas. Carve out the time that you need to make something, even if it’s just 10 minutes a day, or even 10 minutes 3 times a week. Do it.
If you’re a writer, write. If you’re a baker, bake. If you run, or read, or Stamp or scrapbook or make music or make things out of wood; do it!
I have a hunch that when we fill our time creatively, God is delighting with us, and there’s that much less time that we’re focusing on the shortcomings, the failings, the myriad ways that the people closest to us let us down, or the hectic pace of the holiday season.
Creation is the fundamental act that unites us with the God who sees within us the limitless potential of a life Truly lived.
Now that’s a proclamation that can make me say with my whole heart “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord!”