Fire and Soap


Authentic worship includes both adoration and confession.  We adore who God is; we confess that we are not all we could be.  And so we hope that God will use our worship--at least in part--for our benefit.  And over time--Sunday after Sunday, liturgical year by year-we might discover our true selves, the pure and pristine essence of the persons we really are.

Malachi shares this hope with us, but he uses such harsh imagery that it can be difficult to receive his words as anything approaching good news. "The Lord of hosts comes," thunders the prophet, "like a refiner's fire and like fuller's soap."  Fire burns.  We all know that.  And if we're scrubbed too hard, soap can sting.  Malachi's prophecy sounds just that--a bit too hard.  It sounds to us more threat than promise.

But maybe that's not giving him enough credit.  Malachi is more precise than that.  He says our redemption will come like fire, but he is not talking about just any fire.  Not a kitchen fire, not a forest fire.  Not a fire that scorches or consumes or destroys, but one that purifies.  This is a Refiner's Fire, a fire that melts away the dross to reveal something essential and precious and pure.  And he says our redemption will be like soap.  But not just any soap.  Not Ivory Soap, not Tide, not a soap that merely cleans surface stains or covers surface smell. This is Fuller's Soap--the kind of soap that scours and gets underneath each individual fiber of wool making them not just clean but pristine and strong. 

But within Malachi's harsh words, there is Good News.  He reminds us first who God is and then who we are.  God, says Malachi, is "the Refiner, the refiner who sits by his fire." You may not like hearing very much that God sits.  It may sound too passive to you.  But remember God does not just sit.  God sits as a Refiner.  A refiner may rarely act and when the refiner acts, it's a subtle intervention, a slight turning of the metal to the left or the right of the flame.  To make each turn correctly, though, the refiner must focus all his attention on the bar of metal before him.  He cannot turn away even for a moment from the oven door.  He must pull his chair close...close enough to feel the heat of the flames.

Many of us don't want a God like that.  We want a God who intervenes boldly and dramatically, who pulls the strings of the human heart, who moves the chess pieces of human history.  But according to Malachi, God does not control or manipulate.  God refines.  This means, I think, that God rarely intervenes, but when God does it is careful and precise.  And it's so subtle we may barely even notice.  It also means that God is not passive.  God is still.  And that's a different thing.  You see, it is in that eternal stillness that allows God to attend to each one of us. 

My friend Dorothy once shared with me something I found remarkable about our mutual friend, Bob, something he did for her when her husband was close to death.  Bob knew how worn out she was from giving him constant care.  "Dorothy," he said, "let me sit with him through the night.  You get some sleep."  When Bob arrived, she noticed that he pulled his chair quite close to the bed.  Dorothy excused herself, but she couldn't sleep.  So she tiptoed back down the hall and quietly watched Bob from a crack in the door.  She was amazed by what she saw.  "He didn't do anything," she said to me.  "He didn't read a magazine.  He didn't work a puzzle.  He didn't turn on the television.  He just sat there watching my husband.  He reminded me of a bird watcher in the field.  Perfectly still, yet completely attentive.  I sat there in the hallway watching him for over an hour.  I was enthralled.  I kept thinking how much, how much Bob must really love my husband.

That's who God is.  The Refiner God who remains still before us in love.

Malachi also says that God is a Fuller--a Fuller of wool.  Fulling is the process of shrinking a garment to size.  The wool goes through a series of hot and cold baths and is scrubbed with a special soap made of alkaline and lye.  It's stretched and pulled and in the process all the dirt and oils are washed away.  The wool fibers interlock tighter and tighter.  The result is a garment of fine tweed.  One-third its original size but also three times as strong.

Did John the Baptist have this in mind when he said to Jesus, "You must increase and I must decrease"?  Did he realize that true strength only comes when we allow ourselves to become small enough to be placed into his hands?  We're not the dross.  We're not the dirt.  However much of that nasty stuff covers our souls and crusts over our hearts, that's not who we really are. 

We are the antique chest--in need of a good stripping before refinishing can begin--but much too valuable in the eyes of our Creator to ever cast aside.  No essential part of us--for all eternity--will be discarded.   As harsh as he sounds, what Malachi wants us to see is that you and I are worth saving.  We are worth every ounce of energy and attention that it will require from God to repair, to restore, to redeem. 

But it goes even deeper than that.  Redemption is not just that we are made worthy in the eyes of God.  It is that we are cherished in God's sight.  God pulls a chair close enough to feel our pain; God refuses to turn away.  God works out our salvation with God's own hands.   That's how God loves us.

My friend Dan claims he can pinpoint the precise night that his wife first fell in love with him.  It was before they were married or even engaged.  But that night--even though they had only been dating a few months--he knew.  It was just before the lights of the theater dimmed.  She looked deeply into his face and she said, "Have you ever thought about trimming your eyebrows?  Sometimes I feel like I'm dating Andy Rooney."  And when the movie was over, she took his arm and she said, "Next time, why don't you wear your blue shirt?  It looks much better on you than this brown one."  That night Dan said he slept like a baby; he was certain of her love.  I tried to poke holes in his theory.  "I don't know," I said.  "She doesn't sound all that content to me!"  But Dan just shrugged and laughed.  "Don't you know anything?" he said.  "If she didn't love me, she wouldn't be nearly so determined to improve me!"

He was right of course. The prophecy of Malachi may sound harsh, but it's meant to reassure.  The very first words, after all, in the Book of Malachi are these, "I have loved you," says the Lord.  This prophecy, you see, is merely an extension of that central claim.  "I love you too much," says God the Refiner, God the Fuller, "to ever leave you as you are."

Fire burns and lye soap stings--that's true, but the thing to remember that it's not just fire and it's more than soap.  This is Refiner's fire.  This is Fuller's soap.  The possessive noun makes all the difference.  A thug's switchblade and a surgeon's scalpel are both knives.  The difference lies in the intent of the hand that grasps them--the purpose of the cut.

One of the best opening lines in young adult literature has to be from C. S. Lewis's book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.  "His name was Eustace Clarence Scrubb."  That's how the story begins, "Eustace Clarence Scrubb and he almost deserved that name."  Well, no little boy deserves a name like that, but Eustace did come pretty close.  He is selfish, he's spoiled, he's aloof , he's indifferent to everyone's feelings except his own.  And in the strange world of Narnia, poor Eustace takes on the form that matches his character.  He becomes a scaly, fire-breathing dragon, and nobody can stand to be near him.

But thanks to the Christ-like lion, Aslan, Eustace doesn't stay that way.  Aslan leads Eustace to a secret well with huge stone steps that lead down into a bath of water.  As soon as he sees it, Eustace longs to get into the water.  He senses somehow that it can heal him.

But he also knows that the healing water will do no good unless he can shed the thick, gnarly skin that covers him.  So he begins to scratch and to tear at his dragon skin.  But try as he might, it is no use.  The scales that cover him are too hard, too encrusted to peel away.

But then Aslan steps forward in the moonlight.  "You'll have to let me do that," he growled.  "I didn't much want him to," recalled Eustace.  "I was afraid of his claws.  But there was no other way.  So I lay down; I let him do his work.  The first tear was so deep I thought it had gone right to my heart.  And when Aslan began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything.  The only thing that made me able to bear it was the feeling of having that beastly stuff peel off of me...once and for all.

"And there I was lying on the grass, as smooth and as soft as a peeled switch.  Smaller than I had been before, but stronger too.  And then Aslan  caught hold of me and I didn't like that for I was very tender underneath all that skin.  He threw me into the water.  And it smarted like anything!  But only for a moment.  Then it became perfectly delicious.  I started swimming and splashing about.  All the pain had gone.  And then, I saw why.  The scales had fallen away.  I was no longer a dragon.  I had become myself again."

How we long to be healed like that!  To become our selves again.  To have those brittle, crusty layers--the ones we think protect us but only weigh us down--to have them peeled away.  And then to be tossed into the stinging waters of redemption. 

Malachi beckons us to place our lives in the hands of our Refiner, our Fuller, our Redeemer.  It's going to smart a little--refining, fulling, redeeming always do--but in the end it's worth it.  In God's hands, we become ourselves again.  As clean as a switch.  As pure as silver.  As taut as the finest tweed.  Amen.