Fuller and Refiner
A sermon for the 2nd Sunday in Advent
Today we have a reading from the prophet Malachi. It is not part of a sequence of readings taking us right through Malachi, but rather a message just for today. So, let’s put it in the context of the whole of Malachi. Like many another prophet, Malachi brings a message that reappears at regular intervals. It is a reminder of the covenant with God, that God shall be faithful to the covenant with God’s people and the people in turn should be faithful to God. However, this has not happened and so Malachi, and other prophets in their turn, have recalled the people to God’s covenant and to their commitment to faithfulness.
If the messenger of God appeared suddenly on your doorstep and said, The Lord is coming, you need to make some changes around here before he appears, what would you do?
Advent is our season of preparation. Malachi is indicating that the Lord will want to see things looking rather different from the current reality. Who can stand when he appears? This is an image of judgement and yet not one of condemnation for there is the possibility of change so that the people who stand accused are made right with God. If they cannot be righteous through their own efforts, God will enable this process.
I have read commentators who present this transformation as a painful, punishing process that is “for your own good” as the one being transformed through pain is made clean, made purer and more valuable. This may be a valid interpretation and yet the metaphors used do not necessarily speak of pain and punishment. The people are not changed through being beaten into shape or some similar depiction of suffering. Rather, God is willing to meet us where we are and bring us to a new reality.
There are many symbolic and figurative references to God in the Bible. God is depicted as king, judge, owner of a vineyard, source of largesse such as living water or bread from heaven. More humbly, God is seen as shepherd or potter, pregnant woman or mother hen. In today’s passage we have images of a fuller and a refiner. God is described as the fuller’s soap, the refiner’s fire, and also as the fuller and the refiner.
I don’t personally know any fullers or refiners so I did a little research.
The fullest description of a fuller, if you will excuse the pun, I found featured on Tony Robinson’s Worst Jobs in History. Fullers in medieval times had to stomp on woolen cloth for some hours with their bare feet to remove grease and dirt and to fluff up the fibres and felt them a bit so that the cloth was soft, thick and fluffy rather than greasy to the touch and thin enough to see through. I’m glad to hear Malachi talking about fullers’ soap but in medieval times they used . . . ?? [stale urine]. This worked well because of the high ammonia content. Soap may well have been a euphemism, as the fuller’s establishments were generally located outside the city. Either way it was a most unpleasant job but I believe it did make your feet very clean. You will notice that the cloth did not seem to suffer at all. It was moved around until it was cleaner, softer and more desirable in every way. Any suffering was endured by the fuller. So, the cleansing and softening of our hearts is likely more painful to God although not easy for us. We are the beneficiaries, not the victims. Like woolen cloth, we are transformed from rather grubby and thin to the fullness that brings the capability to offer comfort, warmth and protection.
What about refining? The refiner’s work is a hands-on process, just as the fuller’s is a feet-on process. The refiner had to sit with the precious metal through the process of removing a range of impurities. Those who worked with precious metals needed knowledge and skill. They needed to know the metals, the impurities and the process of purification. The metals were certainly subjected to heat but they were not damaged or destroyed. They were changed in order to assume a purer form, rather like ice melting to release trapped particles. The refiner, however, had to endure the heat and remain constantly vigilant, aware of each step of the process to achieve the desired result. Like precious silver and gold, we are transformed from impurity and weakness to purity, value and fitness for purpose.
The one who transforms takes on the exposure to imperfections and the hazards of the process. God transforms us, taking on our weaknesses and imperfections and helping us through the difficult process of transformation, loving us as we are and transforming us to what we can become.
As Malachi called people back to God and prepared them for transformation, so we hear in Luke’s Gospel that John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus, He called God’s people to repentance, showing them how to return to God’s ways. John’s preaching and baptism prepared them for the one who would transform their lives forever.
The letter to the Philippians is a joyful encouragement to the young church in Philippi. Paul and Timothy address all the saints with grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. This is reinforced as Paul says he longs for all of them with the compassion of Christ Jesus.
Paul does not just desire to be with them. He longs to see them brought to the fullness of Christ. If we look back to Malachi’s images of the fuller and refiner bringing material things to their full potential in beauty and usefulness, we can compare this with Paul’s words that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless. Here is an image of both hearts and minds transformed in Christ.
Paul further says that this transformation may be seen having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. Here is a further image of transformed lives that shine with the light of Christ.
May we place ourselves gladly in the hands of the living God, to be transformed, to more truly reflect the image of God, the body of Christ, the harvest of righteousness. May our lives shine with the light of Christ to the glory and praise of God. Amen