Let’s take a moment to examine the message which seems to be a bit of a violent prophecy of the coming of the Messiah.
In an Advent sermon in 1928 the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer reflected:
“It is very remarkable that we face the thought that God is coming, so calmly, whereas previously peoples trembled at the day of God . . . . We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for every one who has a conscience.
“Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognise the incomparable kindness. God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love.1
The image of the refiner’s fire is a tough one, but the process of suffering, dying and rising is also not easy. The process of human maturity (therefore the process of Christian growth) is a process of refining as we are freed from the attachments and compulsions that constrain our freedom and therefore limit our happiness.
Most of us have experienced the desire to break free from a bad habit or an addiction. If we embark on this journey to freedom it is not an easy road and is easily likened to spending time in the refiner’s fire. But living this journey towards greater freedom is certainly much easier than remaining in our destructive captivity.
That’s the beauty of the Christian life. People often comment that it is a hard way to live, but in my experience it is much easier and brings much more joy than all the many other options that I have tried!
In today’s O Antiphon we pray “Emmanuel (God-with-us)…Saviour…come to save us.” If we are aware of our need for salvation we are ready for all that Christ the Saviour is bringing to us anew this Christmas.
Here’s Handel’s presentation of the refiner’s fire from Messiah.
Solo: But who may abide the day of His coming,
and who shall stand when He appeareth?
For He is like a refiner’s fire. (Malachi 3:2)
Chorus: And He shall purify the sons of Levi,
that they may offer unto the Lord
an offering of righteousness. (Malachi 3:3)
The final O Antiphon: 23 December
our King and lawgiver,
for whom the nations wait, their Saviour:
come to save us, Lord, our God.