The Refiner’s Fire

© 2009 Eric GolubFlickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

Empowering Lives through Jesus Christ: The Refiner’s Fire
A sermon for the people of God
at Greenbelt Community Church, Greenbelt, Maryland
February 2, 2020

Our texts this morning bring a bold challenge to us…
namely that we are called to be more than what we are now…
more than we have done in the past.
And they hold a bold promise.
A promise that says we will be refined and purified,
but we will also be redeemed and restored.

Hang onto that promise…
because a lot of what I will share this morning have challenges we must overcome.
And I say that as the preacher, who had to pray these words onto the page…

If we take a hard look at our society today, we see a people who are in a state of anxiety and flux.
We have a collective memory of 9/11,
and for some of us who have existed a bit longer, Pearl Harbor.
Some of you experienced the realities of the Jim Crow era and segregation,
the riots and lynchings,
and the rest of us… were silent.
These are among the moments when fear invades our lives and assumptions and prejudices rule us.

We look back at the atrocities of the Holocaust and grieve and shake our heads…
We fear radical factions.
We do not want to hear any more “bad news.”

But as activist Marian Wright Edelman reminds us, we cannot close our ears and eyes to the issues in our nation.
“It is an ethically confused nation that has allowed truth-telling and moral example to become devalued commodities.”

Our children’s safety,
our planet’s safety,
our nation’s safety demand that we set aside our fears.
That our anxieties do not rule our faith.

A nation that lives in the place of anxiousness does not fall back on a faithful God. We don’t.
We instead rely on the tangible things we can do and see…
we cling to memories
and depend on nostalgia instead of facts…

Theologian Walter Brueggeman says that this anxious response is how we protect ourselves
by reacting through greed, exclusivism, divisiveness, violence and nostalgia,
instead of responding prophetically to the times we live in.

The time of the prophet Malachi was also preaching to God’s people in a time of heightened anxiety. In the post-exilic period, some of the people had returned to Jerusalem. We know from other Hebrew Scriptures like Nehemiah that they rebuilt the Wall surrounding the City and rebuilt the Temple,
and yet…
despite having some things restored, their hearts were not restored, too.
despite being a freed people, they were living under their memories
of captivity.
They were still enslaved to sin.
They were fearful of being conquered again.
And while they waited for the Messenger to return…
they were not ready to listen.

Let’s consider The Messenger, The Message, and The Result of the Refiner’s Fire…

THE MESSENGER

We can look at the text from Malachi with our “Easter eyes” and know that this Messenger is Jesus, the promised Messiah.
The messenger of the Covenant,
the Deliverer,
the Redeemer,
the Emancipator.
We know this. And yet…
We can get overwhelmed with the challenges and changes in our lives.
We get overwhelmed because
when things are going smoothly
and all of our plans are seemingly coming into being as we expect,
we get… complacent.
Over-confident. Self-reliant.
We bask in past achievements.

Then change comes.
A health challenge.
A relationship that fractures.
A financial crisis.
A political stand-off that deepens divides.

The Holy Spirit is our ever-present Messenger today,
calling, challenging,
RE-calling us to re-engage with the One
who would make us more like the Divine Image of God.

The Holy Spirit pokes.
Prods. And invites…

And when that Message is proclaimed and it is confrontational to our sense of status quo and comfort, it gets a little uncomfortable.

The Holy nudges are like sand in our shoes and grit in our spinach,
rubbing against the comfort of our preferences.

We hear a proclamation that basically says, “GET READY. IMMA GONNA CHANGE YOU.”

And… we don’t like it.

THE MESSAGE

The Messenger comes to refine and purify.
To get us back on track.
To change what we have been doing as our acts of
service and worship.
To hold up a standard of perfection – the Service of Jesus,
the Messiah.

As the writer of the Hebrews tells us, this work is to help us through the challenges and tests we face.

This is like pre-op instructions for surgery:
You will have to do this and this and this
and have this test
and take this pill
and do this therapy
…and it will be about six months to a year before you are back to normal.
And oh. By the way…
You will have to go through some pain and residual discomfort until
you are completely healed.

Ummmm… yeah. Not excited about that. Not even when we know it is for our good! For our longevity!

Yet this process of being refined to pure silver,
being washed until we are spotless –
it is for the purpose of making who we are and what we do a more pleasing offering to the God who made us.

We read words about being refined by fire, being scrubbed clean…
and it sounds like a painful process.
And, in part, it is.
Smelly, too. (Have any of you helped make lye soap? You know…)

But all this is not just to smite us (to use that powerful old term) but to prepare us.
To change us.
To teach us.
To remind us of God’s faithfulness even in the midst of new
challenges.

Church, as your pastor has expressed God’s call to leave, there will be some purifying and cleansing moments for you as a congregation.
It is hard for Pastor G to leave you because she loves being your pastor.
But it would be worse for her if she did not listen to God’s direction.
And for you.

You are now at a crossroads where you can take a deep breath and look to what God invites you to change and to bring to the future.
Yes, you have done amazing things in your community in the past.
Yes, you have brought up generations of kids and young people in the
knowledge and love of God.
Yes, you have studied the Bible and given willingly.

But — if you listen and listen hard, you will hear and know there are changes on the horizon.

The challenges we face,
the refining moments,
the painful recoveries – they are meant to get our attention.
To NOT go through these moments again unnecessarily.
What happens if we DON’T face these changes?

I can speak as someone who was pastoring a church that refused to “refine itself.” We spent over five years trying to rebuild and restart…
We cajoled. We lobbied.
We brainstormed creative ideas.
We prayed. We had projects and dinners and campaigns.

…But when a congregation puts on the brakes and says, “we’ve never done it that way before,” it is a death knell.

The church, Twinbrook Baptist, closed in 2019. And yes, blessings came from the way we closed the church.
But I have to believe, had God’s people been willing,
there could have been a different outcome.

Siblings in Christ — There are consequences for not birthing the new works that God has in front of us. Missed opportunities. Regrets.

And now…
And now…

God invites you into this journey of listening and change.
Of refinement and cleansing.

THE RESULT

I want to offer you encouragement.
The result of the refiner’s fire is not just pain.
o It is one of realignment and radical self-examination.
o It is to make you even more powerful of a force of light and love in this community.
o It invites you to ask the question: what can we do BETTER?
o It invites you to forge ahead on plans you’ve never made, never conceived, never known.
o It invites you to listen to God.

Your pastor, in taking you through the process of Church Growth with the Center for Progressive Renewal, has laid the groundwork for you to be faithful in this process.
It invites you to dream…
not of the good old days but the new beginnings,
the unimagined possibilities.
It frees you from the fear of church change
to birth a new vitality in your community.
It pushes your limits,
expects your commitment to rise to meet the challenges ahead – and
– yes, asks you to open your wallets!
(I’m not your pastor – I can say these truths!)

The promise God offers is that you will be more than ready to meet God’s challenges.
The promise God invites us to celebrate is a life or wholeness,
of redemption, of love.

When we remember the sacrifice of Christ is not only for our purification,
but also for our unconditional welcome,
we are more willing to walk this path of change.

As we prepare to celebrate Communion this morning,
Listen for the words of promise,
of power, of healing,
of freedom, of release.

The Holy One, the Refiner, invites us to gather at the Table and experience abounding Love in new and profound ways.
May it be for each of us…
Thanks be to God.

Please pray with me…

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