Lyricist Charles Jennens picked these words from the third chapter of Malachi. George Frederick Handel put them to music in the oratorio Messiah:
For he is like a refiner’s fire.
And he will purify the sons of Levi, that they may offer the Lord an offering in righteousness.
These words get to the core of discipleship.
The refiner is the master artisan who melts and shapes the metal into something useful and beautiful.
Dust and Dross
When the refiner’s fire makes contact with metal, the impurities in the metal become dust. With the dust or dross out of the way the precious metal is seen in its purest form. The master silversmith knows the process is complete when their reflection is clearly seen in the metal being refined.
Our prayer during this season of Advent is that the image of our creator and master refiner would be reflected in and through us.
Jennens and Handel composed their work in the long tradition of the New Testament writers who interpreted the words of the prophet Christologically.
All who desire this sort of refining and who bear witness to the Advent of Christ in their lives are effectively sons and daughters of Levi.
The Levitical priesthood prepared the way for the sudden coming of Our Lord and the purification offered by Christ leads us to live and work for the restoration of all things as they were at the beginning.
Jesus, the Second Adam, came to restore humanity to our rightful place as image bearers of God.
If we are made in the image of God, if we are redeemed by his blood, if we are cleansed by the waters of baptism then we are part of the priesthood. At the beginning, Adam and Eve were priests over God’s creation. This is the way it was in the beginning and this is how it will be at the end.
Adam and Eve were to tend to the earth, they were to be fruitful, they were to set aside a day for rest and our task is to live into this reality.
Who Needs Purification?
Purification is about us. It is about our response to God. We don’t get to decide how others choose to respond. But we can live in such a way that the reflection of the master is infectious.
So how do we live this way?
We pray that we and all who profess Christ might awake to the power of Christ at work in our lives. Writers John and Paula Sanford note the following, none of these is either as easy or as difficult as it might seem: Ask the Lord to be present to us during times of corporate worship regardless of whether there’s music or not.
Ask for the same during times of private devotion. I was recently asked by someone in our community how I sense the presence of God. I told him, that sometimes I feel warmth in my arms. I didn’t always, but I asked for some sort of sign and for the moment, this is what I’ve been given.
Prayers before we sleep, that God might somehow speak to us in our dreams. I recently had a dream about a person who I think might be more open to the faith than the person lets on. The following day, I jotted the person’s name in my notes and said a prayer for the person. A few days later, I was on a flight and noticed the person’s name on my note pad and prayed for the person again. When I got off the plane, the person for whom I prayed was there in the airport terminal. I’m convinced that my brief conversation with the person was not for him. It was for me. Just a bit of evidence that at least a little of the dross was gone in hopes that the image of God might shine a bit more.
To stay alert during the day, we pray that somehow our interactions with others and with creation might also bring inspiration from God. We can never discount how simple acts of acknowledgment usher us into the presence of the refiner’s fire.
Fresh Expressions of church often begin with a posture such as this. A simple act of asking for the refiner’s fire so that we might hear from God and put it into practice.
Gannon is the Director of Ministry Formation for Fresh Expressions US and leads the Fresh Expressions efforts of the Baptist General Association of Virginia. He earned the Bachelor of Arts Degree from Baylor University and the Master of Divinity degree from Duke University. Prior to entering seminary, Gannon worked as a legislative aide in the U.S. Senate and as a public affairs officer in the anti-human trafficking office at the U.S. State Department. He enjoys forging partnerships between followers of Jesus from different traditions and has served in various roles at several churches, Baptist, Presbyterian, and Anglican. Gannon is married to Carey, who also is a graduate of Duke Divinity School. Together they work to bring fresh expressions of church to the collegiate community at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.