Sunday, December 07, 2003

Malachi 3:1-7b - Separate the Clothes from the Dirt

Additional text: Luke 3:1-9,15-18
Second Sunday in Advent (Year C – LCMS Revised Readings)
Saturday, December 6, and Sunday, December 7, 2003

Today we’re going to look at the imagery that Malachi and John the Baptist use when talking about judgment and salvation, about Jesus coming to condemn sin, about the Lord coming to save His people. If you would, pull out the yellow insert in today’s bulletin. We’re going to compare 4 different ways of talking about judgment and salvation. By understanding this imagery, we’ll better understand God’s plan of salvation, God’s will for our lives, we’ll better understand Christmas and the Second Coming of Christ.

To begin then, Malachi 3 verse 2 says, “But who can endure the day of His coming? Who can stand when He appears? For He will be like a launderer’s soap.” In other words, He will be like a strong soap that gets out all of the stains. So looking at your worksheet, the tool here is soap, hence the little picture. The goal of using soap is to separate the clothes from the dirt, to get rid of the dirt so that you just have the clothes. With this image, the picture of God’s judgment is this: scrub away the dirt. God’s judgment comes to scrub away the dirt. The picture of salvation, then, is: clothes as white as snow.

Now after we look at all four images, we’re going to put all of this together, talk about what these images tell us about our spiritual lives, but just to give you a hint along the way, or maybe confirm what you’re already thinking: the dirt is sin, and forgiveness is being made clean. Each of these images shows how God condemns or judges or takes care of sin, so that God can save His people.

So soap separates the clothes from the dirt. Judgment is scrubbing away the dirt; salvation is having clothes as white as snow.

The next image comes from Malachi 3 verses 2-3, “For He will be like a refiner’s fire. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; He will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver.” The tool here is a refiner’s fire. You need fire to separate the gold or silver from the dross, the other metals mixed with the precious metal. By heating up the metal, you can separate the gold and silver and leave the dross behind. So the picture of judgment is to burn away the dross. The picture of salvation is pure gold, pure silver.

I hope that as we go here you’re starting to see the process that God takes us through, the process of continually burning away the dross in our lives, helping us to get rid of the sin that is a part of our lives, leaving us with more pure gold, more good works in His sight.

So the refiner’s fire separates the gold and silver from the dross. Judgment is burning away the dross; salvation is the pure gold, pure silver.

Now we turn to John the Baptist in the Gospel reading from Luke. John also uses imagery to talk about judgment and salvation. In verse 9, John says, “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” The tool is the ax. The ax is ready to go through the orchard and separate the fruitful trees from the unfruitful ones. This is the judgment: burn up those trees not producing fruit; those trees just become firewood, but then salvation looks like a tree that is filled with fruit.

God carrying His ax going through the orchard looking for those trees that aren’t producing fruit should remind us of Judgment Day, the day when Jesus will return and will judge those who do not believe, who don’t have faith which produces repentance, humility, and trust in God for salvation. But those who do have faith are the trees that are filled with fruits produced by the Holy Spirit working in our lives.

So the ax separates the fruitful trees from the unfruitful ones. Judgment burns up those unfruitful trees, but salvation is a tree filled with fruit.

John the Baptist has one other image to add to our list and that is verse 17, “His winnowing fork is in His hand to clear His threshing floor and to gather the wheat into His barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” The tool is the winnowing fork, and they used it to throw the gathered grain up into the air, helping to separate the wheat kernels from the light pieces of chaff, broken stems and dust and other things that are unwanted. So again it separates the wheat from the chaff. The picture of judgment is burning up the chaff; it isn’t good for anything but to be thrown into the fire. The picture of salvation is the wheat in the barn, to be gathered up, stored up, to be considered the precious harvest.

This image should remind us of how many people we know who do not have faith in Christ, who are chaff ready to be thrown into the fire, unless they find out about Jesus and will be saved and stored up in God’s wheat barn.

So the winnowing fork separates the wheat from the chaff. Judgment is burning up the chaff; salvation is the wheat in the barn.

On the one hand, these four images describe the First Advent of our Lord. That brings us to the next section of the worksheet. Advent means “coming” or “arrival.” The First Advent of our Lord is Christmas, the birth of Christ, when our Lord came into the world, took on flesh, to be our Savior. So if we take these images from Malachi and John the Baptist, what do they tell us about the First Advent?

Jesus came in the First Advent, came at Christmas, to separate the person from the sin. You are the clothes, the gold, the silver, the fruitful trees, the wheat, that Jesus wanted to separate from the dirt, the dross, the unfruitful trees, the chaff. Jesus came to separate you from the sin that entangles you, the dirt that clings to you, the stuff that would make you destined to be burned up in the fire of judgment. So in the First Advent, the picture of judgment is condemnation of sin, death, and the devil. Jesus dies on the cross to condemn the devil, to conquer sin and death—Jesus scrubs away that dirt, burns up the chaff. That gives us the picture of salvation: forgiveness and eternal life. Jesus makes us as white as snow, gathers us like precious wheat into His barn.

Now these images can also describe the Second Advent, the Second Coming of our Lord. This season leading up to Christmas is called Advent, because we wait to celebrate the First Advent, wait to celebrate Christmas, but it is also a season that turns our attention toward the Second Coming, the Last Day, the Day of Judgment when Christ will return to save His people and judge the unbelievers.

Jesus will come in the Second Advent to separate the believers from the unbelievers. So in the Second Advent the picture of judgment is unbelievers suffering eternal wrath. Unbelievers will burn in God’s wrath like dross, like chaff, like trees that don’t produce fruit. The picture of salvation is believers receiving eternal life. Because of Jesus, believers will be made into pure gold, pure silver, will be trees that produce fruit, will be gathered into God’s barn.

Now that we know how these images of Malachi and John the Baptist describe judgment and salvation, listen to how this describes you, those who have received the gift of faith in Jesus. As you prepare to celebrate the First Advent, you can celebrate that Christ comes like a launderer’s soap, He comes to make you clean, to separate the clothes from the dirt. He comes to scrub away all of that sin, and He will make you as white as snow. Jesus came, was born a child, lived, died, and rose again, so that you can have forgiveness and eternal life, so that you can be clothes free of dirt, so that you can be clean and holy in God’s sight.

As you look to the Second Coming, as you wait for Jesus to return and bring this world to an end, you wait for His refiner’s fire that will separate the gold and silver from the dross. You wait until that day when Jesus will take His precious believers and separate them from the enemies of God, the unbelievers, those who attack the Church. Jesus will burn away the dross, will condemn His enemies to suffer eternal wrath, but look up, because on that Last Day when Jesus returns, He will see you as pure gold, as pure silver, He will see your faith in Him and will save you from the coming wrath and destruction.

As you continue to live each day, listen to the words of John the Baptist, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” As much as Jesus makes you clean, makes you to be pure gold in His sight, you continue to struggle between sinfulness and holy living. As you come to God in repentance, with sorrow for your sin and a desire to change, God works His Holy Spirit in you so that you become a tree that bears fruit. God works His Spirit in your heart, so that you will do good works, do things that show your faith. He prunes away the dead branches, burns up those things in your lives that are dead and don’t produce fruit. He tends to you like someone keeping an orchard, making sure that you grow to be strong, healthy, sanctified, made holy in His sight.

Finally, as you celebrate the First Advent, as you wait for the Second Coming, as you see God working to lead you to do good works, may you also call others to turn away from their sin. Jesus comes with that winnowing fork, separating the wheat and the chaff. Our mission as God’s people is to call others in, to call them into the barn, to tell them about Christ, so that they can be the precious wheat in His barn. Let us tell others so that they can be saved from the fire, so that aren’t thrown out like chaff. The only thing that makes us wheat is faith in Christ; the only thing that can save us from the fire of God’s wrath is by believing in Jesus Christ. May we gather in others, store them up like wheat in God’s barn, so that they can have eternal life.

So then as we go through this Advent season, as we approach Christmas, may these images remind us of God’s Word. The doctors keep saying the only way to really beat the flu and colds is too wash your hands frequently—and use soap. Each time you wash your hands the soap reminds you that you are clean, God’s made you clean, and given you the white robe of salvation. Yet, you need God to keep scrubbing, to get rid of the sin still in your life. And there are people around you who need to be washed by God, need the promise of forgiveness.

As you gather around the fireplace, “chestnuts roasting over an open fire,” the fire reminds you that you’ve been refined by God’s fire, made pure by His Holy Spirit. Yet, you need God to keep burning away the sin. And there are people around who need to be refined, need to be made holy and pure by God’s promise in Jesus.

If you have fire, you need firewood, cut with an ax. The ax reminds you that the dead limbs, the unfruitful have been cut away, leaving you holy in God’s sight. Yet, you need God to keep pruning away the sin, so that you can produce fruit, good works according to God’s Word. And there are people around you who need to be pruned, need the sin removed so that they can be fruitful, producing fruit in keeping with repentance.

Finally, as you prepare to do your holiday baking, when you pull out the flour, remember how that wheat was separated from the chaff, the parts of the plant that aren’t food. The flour reminds you that your soul has been separated from the chaff of sin. Your soul has been separated, ready to be in God’s big barn of eternal life. Yet, you need God to keep sifting away the sin that’s still there. And there are people around you who need sifting, who need the sin removed so that they too can be the wheat in God’s barn.

You are clean and white. You are pure and precious. You are fruitful and alive. You are a crop worth storing up. God has separated you, His people, separated you from your sin, so that on that Last Day, He will gather you into eternal life. This promise comes to you through Jesus Christ, who came as a child, who will come again. Today, through the eyes of Christ, we can look at the floor and the dirt where it has fallen away, the dross, the dead branches, the chaff, and then we can look at each other and see people, people of God, holy and pure and having the gift of eternal life. Look at each other and celebrate because of Christ.