Cleanse me from my sin, deep
within... Refiner's Fire
Advent 2C Malachi 3:1-4
John the Baptist
was a messenger sent by God to prepare people for the coming of
Christ. He said:
Prepare your hearts for the coming of Christ; cleanse
yourself from the sin that is deep within; and be washed in the
waters of baptism.
When my father was
growing up as a boy on a farm in the early 1900s in southwestern
Minnesota, his Saturdays were pretty much the same.
With his three brothers, he worked all day in the fields,
then in the barn taking care of the animals, then his weekly
Saturday night bath, then into the small town of Dunnell to shoot
pool. That’s what
happened every Saturday, and Dad became a pretty good pool shark.
At that time in American history, my father and his family
thought that one bath
a week was sufficient. Of
course, by Friday night, he and his brothers started to smell like
the animals, smell like the barn, smell a bit like the pigpen, but
that was not a problem. That’s
just the way it was. He
had not yet been exposed to the
American rituals of purification.
But within a
generation, we were all committed to the American rituals of purification.
You know them well.
You practice them slavishly
every day. You do them every
day, ritualistically, compulsively, and habitually.
Let me describe them and you will clearly recognize these
behaviors in your life.
To help me this
morning, you will notice I am carrying a small grocery basket in my
hand filled with items from our neighboring grocery story, the QFC.
At QFC and other grocery stores, there are shelves upon
shelves of bathing products that we
need for our American rituals of purification, and I have chosen
but a few. First, you
and I bath or shower every day, every morning and every night...with
some form of scented soap.
Yes, scented soap. You, of
course, as a consumer, have many choices; there is shelf after shelf
of scented soap for your choosing.
Here is Yardley’s ...You can smell like Oatmeal and Almond
or...Aloe Vera or...English Lavender or...Peach Blossom.
For myself personally, I prefer this green soap called
Original Irish Spring. Of
course, you can buy Ivory, but Ivory just...floats. That is all
Ivory does. Here is a bottle of Washington Huskie soap, which would
have been a best seller if we had gone to the Rose Bowl.
In the same section of scented soaps, were a few samples of
more serious soaps: Lava
with pumice which gets extra dirty hands real clean; Fels-Naptha
is a heavy duty laundry soap; and
Borax which looks like some kind of horse soap.
... Now, the second step in the American rituals of
purification, after you have bathed or showered with scented soap,
is to wash your hair. Once again, we have hundreds of options for shampoo.
I won’t demonstrate all the options here; I couldn’t
afford samples of all of them.
...Now, the third step in our rites of purification is some
underarm deodorant. We all use them; that’s just the way it is. We have unlimited choices.
Here is Mennen’s Speed Stick.
Your underarms can smell like...cool spice...or musk...or
fresh. Here is a
Lady’s Speed Stick, so the women too can do this rite quickly.
You can smell like a lemon, like a lime, like a lemon-lime,
like menthol and just regular... Now, the fourth and last step that
we all do as Americans is to use some form of cologne or perfume.
Here...you can smell like a Brut...or a Baron...like
leather...Russian ...or English ...or you can smell like the Old
Spices from your mother’s kitchen cupboards.
But its true: every single one of us go through these American rituals
of purification, daily, and we all believe that cleanliness is next
The Bible, too, is
concerned about cleanliness. Both
the Old Testament and New Testament have laws concerning clean and
unclean. Jesus said,
“Unless you are clean, you cannot be my disciple.”
But the Bible’s focus is not on the cleanliness of the skin but on the cleanliness of the inner heart; not on the cleanliness of the flesh but the cleanliness of the
inner spirit; not on
the cleanliness of the body
but of the inner soul; not
on the outer shell but on
the inner person. Jesus was enormously concerned about cleanliness, but his
focus was on the “inside”
of the cup and not the “outside. And John the Baptist, echoing the same theme, said:
“Prepare for the coming of Christ to the earth”...prepare for
the coming of Christ into your heart by
being cleansed of your sin which is deep within in order to prepare
for God to enter in. The Bible is very concerned about inner
John the Baptist
lived at a time when the culture around him was being corrupted,
corroded, contaminated, as it always is. His culture was infected
with spiritual cacogenics that polluted the cultural waters that he
drank and the cultural air that he breathed.
Everything in his
culture around him was infected by these spiritual cacogenics.
Their way of life.
Their ways of religion.
Everything was contaminated by life in the city. And so
were their inner hearts. John
the Baptist shouted: “Come
out to the wilderness; come into the desert; and cleanse yourself of
the sin which is deep within. May
your inner cup be washed clean.
May your inner heart be purified in order to prepare for the
Christ to come and live inside of you. Prepare.
May your heart be prepared to receive the Christ.”
In order to
understand John the Baptist more clearly, we will use the Old
Testament prophecy from Malachi for today which compares the Baptist
to “launders soap.” Launders
soap. That is an anemic
translation. In the
Revised Standard Version, it is called “fuller’s soap” which
was used to wash the filthy hands of blacksmiths.
In the Jerusalem Bible, it is called
“fuller’s alkaline.” Not merely soap but alkaline.
I mean, super strong stuff.
You know, like some of this soap in my grocery basket:
Like Lava with pumice or Borax or Fels-Naptha.
It is the kind of soap which really digs in and gets the
grease and dirt out; none of this Yardley’s soft soap for
When I was a boy,
growing up, I used to work as a “grease-monkey,” greasing cars
and trucks. My hands
were permeated with grime, filthy grime that I couldn’t get out. I
still have vivid memories of going into shop bathroom. The shop
bathroom was as filthy dirty as my hands, and the bathroom had this
strong granular soap with which I used to wash my hands over and
over again. I tried to
get the grease that was deep within all my pores.
I scrubbed and scrubbed, even with a brush to get my hands
clean. Soft Yardley soap wouldn’t cut it.
Another example. In
preparation for our families’ wedding this summer, my wife said we
needed to have the carpets cleaned.
I asked “why?” since the carpets didn’t look bad to me.
No spots. No
obvious dirt. We had vacuumed regularly.
We had even washed them ourselves.
Why the need for a carpet cleaner?
She then took me over to the carpet near the entry, pulled
back the piling, and I was surprised to see what appeared to be sand
way deep at the bottom of the piling.
That dirt was in there all right, way down deep in the shag
of the carpet. We
needed a carpet cleaner to come in and get that deep dirt
And that’s what
John the Baptist is all about. John the Baptist reminds us that we
have this sin, which is deep within that needs to be washed clean in
order to prepare our hearts to receive Jesus Christ.
John the Baptist was like...fuller’s soap, like fuller’s
alkaline...to get at the sin that is deep...so very deep within us.
The second image or
word picture that is used by Malachi to describe John the Baptist is
that he is like a “refiner’s fire.”
His words and message are to be scorching hot, to burn off
the impurities in our lives. When
I think of a refiner’s fire, I think of my visits to my friend
Jack Lyon and his aluminum smelter.
His business had a large rotary furnace, sixteen feet in
diameter, rotating round and round, filled with molten aluminum,
boiling red hot aluminum, burning off all the impurities.
It was a rather intimidating sight to look into a furnace of
hot boiling lava of molten aluminum.
You knew that there was awesome and frightening power in that
burning and boiling molten lava.
And so it is with God’s word from the Baptist.
His word was to be like a refiner’s fire; his word from God
was to burn off the impurities in people’s lives; to burn
off the impurities ... deeply
imbedded ... in our
Think of a hot-dog
stick, of a wiener
roasting stick. We
have metal ones with red plastic handles that we take on all wiener
roasts. Now, imagine if you will, that you didn’t really clean
hot-dog sticks after the last time that you used them; that you
roasted marshmallows, wiped them off, and put them away a little
grungy. And now you are
going out for another hot-dog roast and you are ready to put your
wiener or marshmallow on your stick and your wiener stick is
still grungy dirty. What
do you do? Do you put
the wiener or marshmallow on? Of course not.
You know intuitively that you need to burn off the wiener
stick; you need to put it into the hot fire and burn it clean. Then
...and only then ... it is
ready to receive a new hot-dog or marshmallow.
And so it is with us. In
order to receive the purity of Christ within us, within our hearts,
we know that we need to be purified as we prepare to receive Christ
in our lives.
In our contemporary
worship service, we often sing one particular praise song entitled
“Refiner’s Fire.” The words come from the prophet Malachi for
today and they sound like this: “Purify my heart, cleanse me from my sin, deep within.
Refiner’s fire. My heart’s one desire, is to be, holy, set apart for you
Lord…ready to do your will.” Malachi is concerned about the sin
that is deep within.
From the children’s sermon today.
I had a lamp but the plug to the lamp was all corroded and
dirty. The plug was
covered with tape and grease and grit and grime and would the light
turn on? Of course not. I
asked the children what to do and they all knew the answer: “Clean the plug!!!”
In order for the light to shine, in order for the electricity
and energy to flow into the light bulb, they all shouted together,
“You have to clean the plug.”
So I cleaned the plug of the tape and grease and grit and
grime and sure enough, the light went on.
And so it is within our lives:
we need to clean the contact points or the light won’t
shine. ... We sometimes ask the question: “How come my life doesn’t shine?
How come there is no glow...no brightness...no lightness to
my Christian life?” Could
it be that there is some corrosion, some contamination, some
corroded contact that prevents the energy and electricity of God
from flowing into your life. That’s what John the Baptist is all about: he knows that
for the energy and electricity of God to flow into your life there
needs to be a cleaning....
So there are three
metaphors or word-pictures that help us to understand John the
soap, a refiner’s fire, a lamp with a corroded or dirty plug.
And all three of these word-pictures suggest the need for
cleansing...of my sin, deep within, in order for the purity of God
in Christ to enter into me...in order for the energy and power of
God to enter me.
Let me give you an
example of how this works itself out.
I would like to use a familiar Christmas story.
You know it well. Charles
Dickens, The Christmas Carol,
with Ebenezer??? _______
(“Scrooge” the congregation answers).
And Bob??? _________ (“Crotchet” the congregation
answers) and Tiny???
_______ (“Tim” the congregation answered).
As we all know Ebenezer Scrooge was the most
money-loving tightwad who
ever lived. The total preoccupation of his life was his work and his money.
Nothing else mattered to him....including Bob Crotchet who
worked in his office and the sadness of his crippled son, including
Tiny Tim and the poverty of that family. Ebenezer truly didn’t see
... any of this, for his
total focus was on his
work and counting his money. .... But it
twas the night before Christmas, and on that night, as you recall,
he was visited by three ghosts.
The ghost of Christmas past, the ghost of Christmas present,
and the ghost of Christmas future, and all three ghosts confronted
him with his sin that was deep
The first Christmas
ghost was the ghost of Christmas past, and the ghost reminded him of
a past love relationship that he had with a young woman.
The young woman had loved Ebenezer;
there had been the potential of tenderness, kindness, shared
intimacy and love with her. But Ebenezer?
He was so preoccupied
with the work of his
hands, the money in his
hands, the busyness of his
hands that he missed
the chance for love. He
was being confronted with his
sin that was deep within. Sadness
overwhelmed him. A
grand possibility had been lost.
And suddenly there was the
ghost of Christmas present and there Ebenezer saw Bob Crotchet trying to
provide for his family; he saw Tiny Tim with his cane; he saw the
poverty of the Crotchet family; and he saw the ridicule and the
disdain that they had for him as a human being.
Sadness overwhelmed him, all because of his
sin that was deep within. And
suddenly there was the ghost
of Christmas future,
and Ebenezer saw his grave
and the chains of his business partner Marley. He saw how no one
grieved his death. He saw that all his accumulations of wealth he
had worked so hard for were dissipating
away...and…and....and...Ebenezer woke up from this dream. He woke
up from this nightmare, threw open the windows and shouted out into
the street: “What day
is this? Is it Christmas Day? Have
I missed it? O, Thank
God, it is Christmas Day, and there is time for me to visit the
Crotchet’s and bring them the biggest turkey in town and hold Tiny
you and I begin to see that there was no Christmas morning
..... without the night before Christmas ..... without the ghosts of
Christmas that confront us and cleanse us from our sin which is deep
within. It is only as
we are freed from that sin which is deep within that we experience
the joy of Christmas morning.
sends us messengers like
John the Baptist to be like “fuller’s soap” or “refiner’s
fire.” For Ebenezer
Scrooge, the messenger came in the form of a dream that confronted
him with his sin that was deep within. For us, our divine messenger may be a pastor, a husband, a
wife, a parent, a grandparent, a child, a friend, a co-worker, a
counselor, a coach, and a teacher.
But be assured, God
always sends us messengers to
confront us with our sin that is deep within.
of God’s messengers to me was John Keller.
How I remember John Keller, my
fuller’s soap, my
refiner’s fire. I was
a young man, on internship at a hospital, in chaplaincy training, in
group therapy that was part of that chaplaincy training. At that
point in my life, I was struggling intensely with a sense of
inferiority and superiority; having both an inferiority complex and
therefore a need for a superiority complex.
Consequently, I felt I was better than Herb, another young
pastor in our group. For
me at that point in my life, Herb represented all which was beige
and boring; he was the
essence of beige and boring.
I had a need to be better than beige and boring because I was
afraid I was beige and boring.
And so I looked down my nose at Herb, thinking that I was
superior to him. Of
course, I tried to cover up these feelings of superiority, but Herb
knew, and I knew and God knew.
But worst of all, John Keller knew, and he was willing to be
my fuller’s soap and my
refiner’s fire. I was in need of much
refining. I can feel those conversations as if they were yesterday,
John persistently asking me about my inner self, my need for
self-surrender, my need to be cleansed of those debilitating inner
qualities. “I had a right to those qualities,” I said over and over
again. “It’s not my
fault that I am six years younger than my nearest sibling; it is not
my fault that I am sociologically like an only child; that I was
spoiled rotten. My parents put up with my self-centeredness and
still loved me. Why
couldn’t he?” But
John never let up with his persistent fuller’s alkaline soap,
gently telling me that I would never be happy with the shape of that
sin which was deep within me; that my life would never really light
up; that I wouldn’t be content until I was confronted and cleansed
of that sin that was deep within; that I needed to “let go and let
God” his favorite phrase. John
Keller was right. John
Keller has been one of God’s
many messengers to my life.
I don’t know the
shape of the sin that is deep within your
life. But be assured that God will always send you messengers...friends...family...someone...somewhere...God will
send you messengers for you
to confronted with your sin
which is deep within...in
order for you to be
cleansed, and purified and forgiven.
I would rather talk about the American rituals of
purification. They are
much more interesting, much more charming, and more pleasant.
Let’s see, here in my basket I have some Yardley’s soap.
You can smell like .........
You see, it is true. Cleanliness
is next to godliness here in America.
Or, in the Bible, you can say, cleanliness is the beginning of Godliness. Amen.