Remember Jim Ryan? The famous Kansan? First high school student to run a sub 4 minute mile? Well, in 1968 summer Olympics in Mexico City, Jim Ryan was the world record holder in the 1500m. He was the favorite to win the gold. Mexico City’s altitude is over 7k feet (almost as high as Vail Colorado). That’s tough for distance runners.
Ryan was facing a man named Kip Keino from Kenya. Keino was actually running 3 distance events, which was highly ambitious. It meant running 6 races in 8 days. In the 10k, Keino was leading with 2 laps to go when he collapsed. Doctors diagnosed him with a gallbladder infection.
Which is horribly painful, especially when you take deep breath…sort of a necessary thing for distance running. They told Keino, “You’re Olympics are over. Go to bed.”
So, Kip Keino spent next 3 days in bed, until about an hour before the 1500m when he leapt out of bed & went straight to the stadium.
He started the race in last place, in obvious pain. Then he started passing people. By the 2nd lap he was in 3rd place. Then he took the lead. Ryan always ran from behind, because he had an amazing kick, so this was nothing new. He was thinking, at high altitude, with a gallbladder infection, this guy’s been in bed for 3 days, Keino’s gone out way too fast… he’s gonna fade at the end.
On the last lap Ryan starts to go. He was flying through the field, all the way to 2nd place. He came off the last curve expecting to see Keino withering on the front stretch, but he didn’t. Keino never slowed down. Ryan couldn’t catch him. Kip Keino won the gold going away. It was a huge upset.
It was also the beginning of a new era in which Kenyan runners have dominated the sport of distance running on the international level. And not just Kenyan runners, but runners from a small mountainous part of Western Kenya, and a tribal people called the Kalenjin. This one small tribe has produced an incredible number of champion distance runners.
For reference, only 5 American high school runners have ever broken the 4 min. mile. The first was Jim Ryan. One high school in Kenya had 4 sub four-min milers at the same time. 17 American men in history have run under 2:10 in the marathon. 32 Kalenjin men ran that fast in the month of October in 2011. It has been called the greatest concentration of elite athletic talent ever in any sport, anywhere in the world.
Tons of people have tried to figure out why they’re so good. Some thought it was that they ran everywhere, or their diet. Some thought it was that they lived at high altitude. Some thought it was their build, long legs, quite skinny, but tons of Africans live at that altitude & eat a similar diet have a similar build & run a lot, but don’t produce great distance runners. There had to be something else… this is what they think now:
All African tribal societies have initiation rites for their members, and they usually culminate in a ritual circumcision… at age 12-14… can I just say… glad to be born in America. It’s common in Africa, but what sets the Kalenjin apart is the degree of pain that is involved. It’s really indescribable what they do, so I’ll spare you details, except to say that it’s so severe that it’s become controversial for the Kalenjin because it borders on human rights violations. It takes weeks, sometimes months to recover from it.
For the Kalenjin, the ability to take pain literally made you a man.
One of the guys who writes about this is a sports journalist named John Manners. He grew up in this part of Kenya. He said his friends used to burn their arms and legs with hot coals when they were kids. They said they were training for initiation, because through it all they had to remain completely stoic. If you wince even once, would be branded a coward, and relegated to a kind of permanent internal banishment. Including the fact that you could never marry or have children.
So for two thousand years if you couldn’t take the pain, you couldn’t have a wife. If you couldn’t have a wife, you couldn’t have children. So, over time they selected out the people with low pain tolerance. There were similar rites for the female children as well, so that only those with high pain tolerance got to have families & children.
The net effect is that over the course of a 2 thousand years the Kalenjin produced a people who trained at high altitude, had the right build, diet, and incentive to run, plus this incredibly high pain tolerance. How crazy is that? (much of this story came from here.)
Well, there’s a sense in which this is what God did with the Jewish people over the course of thousands of years. God called a people out of the nations, and over time he formed them into his own image. Part of how God did this was that anytime his people encountered the natural pains of life (and in the ancient world, life was no picnic: wars, disease, violence, accidents, and plagues all the way down to the normal trials of life made life difficult.) God walked with his people so that the pain wouldn’t wreck them, but would make them stronger, more faithful, and ultimately to bear the image of God. This seems to be what Malachi has in mind in our passage for today. (Malachi 2:17-3:6).
The book of Malachi is the last book of the Old Testament, and it’s very short—only 55 verses. And in 55 verses there are 22 questions asked. It’s as though God is examining his people, and the people throw it right back at God. It’s an argument.
God says, “Haven’t I loved you?”
The people say, “How have you loved us? Look at us. We’re dying here!”
God says, “Why do you show contempt for my name?”
The people say, “How have we shown contempt…just asking a question here.”
It’s like watching a parent argue with a teenager—they fight their parents on every single point. Finally God says, “Why have you wearied me so?”
Of course they say, “How have we wearied you.”
God says, “Ok, here’s how you’ve wearied me. You accuse me of delighting in evil people. You think me an unjust God.”
In the ancient world they thought that if you were successful in business, it was because the gods favored you. If you won in battle the gods must take delight in you. So the Hebrew people are saying, “You reward evil people! They got it easy while we’re struggling. Where’s the justice in that?”
So God says: ok, ok…I’m coming for you; I’ll draw near to you, but there’s a sense in which you’re not going to like it when I do. My presence is going to expose all of the junk in your life that shouldn’t be there, and it’s going to cause you some pain… v.1
“1See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 2But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3 he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.”
So the Lord is promising to come to his people in a decisive way, but this creates a new problem: ”Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?”
Why is that a problem? We’re God’s children aren’t we? Why shouldn’t we be able to stand before God without fear? Well, Malichi is suggesting that God’s coming to us isn’t the problem. The problem is that when he shows up it’s going to expose a bunch of stuff that will need to go away.
Any parents with us today have a kid who can’t get away with anything because their face gives them away? They just have this guilty look. It’s that kind of a situation. Who can stand? When he draws near, he’s going to see everything.
When I was a senior in high school my parents went away for two nights, and they let me stay home by myself. They gave me strict orders—no friends could come over. I may or may not have had a few friends over…like a lot of friends. It was a pretty bad decision. This thing got out of hand. I did my best to clean up the house, but when my parents came back around I was pretty paranoid. I wasn’t typically nervous around my own parents, and they couldn’t figure out what was going on. Just their presence made me nervous, because I was hiding something.
That’s the people of God as the messenger of the kingdom draws near. Who can endure his coming? Who can stand when he appears?
And then we have these two images: The refining of metal, and washing with fuller’s soap. So, what’s with these things?
We intuitively understand the image of refining metal. You heat it up, the impurities float on the top, and then you scrape them off. Here it specifically mentions silver. You might expect the main example to be gold, which is more valuable, or the more durable & practical bronze. Why Silver? Some suggest that it stems from how they used to work with silver.
When artisans worked with silver by hand they would put a small amount of ore in a crucible, then put in in the furnace to melt it. They would pull the crucible out of the furnace and look their own reflection. If it was distorted, they could see to scrape off the dross. When the silversmith could see his or her perfect reflection in the surface of the molten silver, then the silver was pure & ready for casting. Until their face was perfectly clear, however, they had to keep heating and scraping.
This is how God works with us throughout our lives. God refines us until he can see his own image in us. The impurities blur the image of God in our lives. They also make the metal weaker. So, as the fire burns away what is corrupt, all that is left behind is strong & pure.
Perhaps this is why so many people really want nothing to do with God, and why it’s much easier to make Christmas just a sentimental holiday about shopping and family.
When God refines us, he removes the things that keep us from being all we’re meant to be… the things that keep us from being fully human. In the fire of God’s presence the impurities float to the surface of our lives, and in a painful moment of grace, God scrapes them off, refining us, leaving us stronger and purer, but it’s anything but easy, and is often quite painful.
And the refining is completed when God looks at the human soul & sees his own reflection… that’s the 1st metaphor Malachi uses.
The second metaphor is that: His coming is like Fuller’s soap.
The refiner’s fire is untouchable… it would burn you up. In the ancient world refining metal is a masculine image. But the fuller’s soap is up close & personal, touches your skin & your babies’ clothing. In the ancient world this was a feminine image, but a powerful one.
Fuller’s soap had two main uses, both in the creation of clothing & household items from sheep’s wool. If you take a bunch of raw wool, fresh off the sheep’s back & saturate it with fuller’s soap—harsh lye based soap—and rub or pound it together, eventually the wool fibers would cling together, like free-floating Velcro & you can beat it flat, into what we’d call “felt.”
They would use this for cheap rugs or donkey cloths. But it wasn’t very strong & wasn’t very valuable.
So often they could take that felt & pull the fibers slowly and spin it into a kind of yarn or thread, & weave fabric from it. This fabric would be the 2nd use of fuller’s soap. Once the fabric was woven together, they would saturate it with fuller’s soap again. They’d scrub, wash, and rinse it. While it was wet they’d stretch it tight in the sun to bleach it. When it dried, they’d repeat the process again and again. They’d saturate it with fuller’s soap, scrub it, rinse it, stretch, and bleach it.
Each time through this process, the fabric would change. Course fibers would break down and it would get softer. Impurities were removed and it would become whiter. The fabric became much stronger, because it would shrink into a much tighter weave. And, it became more beautiful.
The more times they did this process of washing with fuller’s soap—which took a lot of time, and a ton of work—it would make the fabric softer, whiter, stronger & more beautiful. Which meant that it was extremely valuable.
It’s a rich image. The wool right off the sheep’s back is smelly, dirty, and not very valuable. But with fuller’s soap and a lot of time and effort, the wool can be transformed into something of great value…something beautiful. This image is about making the most out of the raw materials of our lives.
These are the 2 images Malachi uses. The Refiner’s Fire that makes us pure, and strong, and all we are meant to be. Fuller’s Soap that brings out the beauty in us… beauty that is now only in rough form. This is what happens when the Lord draws near.
Advent is the season when we prepare for the Lord to draw near. So, part of our task for the next 20 days is to try and put ourselves in a place where God can access us & do this work on our souls—a work of refining, a work like that of Fuller’s soap. This will take some courage, because both these images involve a bit of pain… a little heat & scrubbing.
I actually think this passage pushes us to place God always pushes us, which is to decide: Are we Christians…or are we just messing around? Do we want a sentimental baby Jesus who comes like a cherub, the little lord Jesus no crying he makes? Or are we going to let God come to us on his own terms, because if we let God come to us on his own terms, he will refine us until everything that’s killing us & keeping us from flourishing is burned away, and he can see his image in us. He will use the fuller’s soap, scrubbing the fibers of our life until we are pure and white and beautiful, and extremely, extremely valuable.
And the question Malachi asks, is the question we have to ask ourselves: Who can endure his coming? Who can stand when he appears?
Advent is a season of intentional refining. Some of us need to do some business with God before we’ll be able to approach Christmas Eve without a bunch of baggage on our backs. If you come into that night with a stockpile of issues on your back, it won’t work.
Advent involves a movement of intentional refining, and I want to suggest just three ways this can happen for us.
The first is to Decrescendo.
Our tradition at Redemption is to front load Christmas activity into early in the month & slow thing down as we approach Christmas Eve. Schedule down time & protect it. Be intentional about rest: get good sleep, don’t fill evenings full of activities. How many still have vacation days? Take one to get stuff done, and one to get away & be still, which brings us to the second way we can allow ourselves to be refined.
The second is to find a space for Silence & Solitude.
Much of what we would call refining is really about Self-reflection; learning to see ourselves more clearly; learning to tell the truth about our own lives. I want to challenge you to be intentional about this. Block off some time in your schedule for solitude. You might have to be creative: Take a long lunch by yourself. Schedule an offsite meeting & don’t invite anyone else. Get a sitter for kids, or trade off evenings with a spouse or friend, each of you taking a turn watching kids, and taking a whole evening for solitude.
When you do get some time alone, your task is to ask questions. I have a friend who once taught me, “It’s always the question that opens the door.” What door needs opened in your life? The way through nearly always involves a good question. Here are some questions for you to ask in the refining fire / fuller’s soap stream of thought.
- What’s keeping me from flourishing right now?
- Do I feel fully alive, fully human?
- What impurities in my life make me weaker?
- What is God trying to kill off, burn off, in my life?
- What am I refusing to know about my own life?
- What am I sick & tired of?
- What’s killing me and I don’t want to face it?
- What brings me life?
- Who do I love with all my heart? How can I let them know?
- What’s bringing me life and I’m not grateful, attentive to it?
- Who is chasing me? What am I running from?
- What most wants attention in my life right now?
- What stands between me & the things I care about most deeply?
- What’s missing in my life?
- Who do I need to forgive, or ask forgiveness?
- What do I need to relinquish control of?
Schedule alone time alone this advent, pick a few questions, and see what happens when you reflect on them.
The third is Community, or communal experiences with other Christians.
So much of God’s refinement of our lives will only happen in community. How do we learn to forgive if nobody ever hurts us? How do I see how selfish I am unless you guys tell me? How will I ever engage in mission without your help? We are doing three things as a church during the advent season that will help provide opportunities for us to serve as a community:
Worship: come be a part of each Sunday, and our services Christmas Eve. Nothing is more important for us as a church than intentional rhythms of worship where we gather around the scriptures to catch a glimpse of life as it ought to be.
Cookies for the neighborhood: We’re gathering tons of cookies in 2 weeks so we can package them and hand them out to the neighborhood. Don’t underestimate the power of a gesture like this. It’s a small thing that reminds people that we care deeply about our neighborhood. It’s not just a place to transition into a more affluent place to live. It’s a vibrant community.
Year End Gift: On Christmas Eve each year, we collect an offering that will fund our Compassion & Justice Ministries for the 2016. We keep the money off-budget so that only compassion will ever get to spend it. Over the past 18 months things have really exploded in this arena of Redemption Church.
Look at all that we’re doing as a church right now. Strengthening families is about to crank up again. ESL classes have doubled in size. Homeless ministry seeing some great progress, and we’re dreaming about what’s next. Via de Esperanza really needs us to be more of a partner. We’re engaging neighborhood youth after school a few days a week. Half the youth group consists of young Hispanic children. We’re dreaming about how to serve them, and engage their parents.
There’s been so much growth over the past few years that we really don’t have the budget to sustain it. So, the Year End Gift is essential. We can’t keep doing all this work without your help.
So those are 3 refining moves I want to challenge us with during the season of Advent: decrescendo, solitude, and the communal Missional activities of worship, cookies for neighbors, and the Year End Gift.
Our goal for the next 20 days isn’t just to get everything ready (shopping, decorating, cooking, cleaning planning), but to do all that stuff in a particular way… a decrescendo. Refining is such an essential part of Advent, all of it meant to take us into Xmas Eve with a sense of expectancy, ready to encounter Jesus in a fresh new way that night.