Submitting to the Work of the Refiner

By Erik Grayson

December 10, 2021

Photo by Josh Boot on Unsplash

So much of the Advent and Christmas seasons seem familiar. We pull out the heirloom Christmas tree ornaments, hang the customary family décor, and bake the dishes that have been cooked the same way for decades. I imagine you have favorite Christmas songs that you sing every year, movies that simply have to be watched, and traditions that you must observe. Much of this season is a harkening back to what is familiar, comfortable, and known.


But what if ‘familiar’ isn’t what this season is about at all?


Sometimes the familiar can be a distraction that lulls us into a false sense of security. What if our desire for customs, tunes, and ‘the way things were’ is actually leading us into a place of spiritual decay?


In the book of Malachi, the people of Israel had just started returning from their Babylonian exile. Imagine how good it was to finally return to the land of their ancestors, a land of promise, memories, and expectation. Yet this joyous occasion of homecoming wasn’t all it was cracked up to be as the people returned to more than a long-awaited place. They revived the customs of their ancestors that should have been forgotten long ago. The priests started offering second rate animals in sacrifice to God, they taught God’s word poorly, they judged unfairly, and they prioritized evil over good. And the people were no better. They were unfaithful to their marriage vows, they robbed God of what was rightfully His, and they forgot all that the Lord had done for them. The people had returned to their homeland, but they had also returned to all the sinful ways of their ancestors. The familiar is not always best.


One of the traditional readings in the Advent season comes from Malachi 3:1-4. A reading from this prophet can seem rather jarring in the midst of our Christmas preparations. We want to hear about tidings of great joy and imagine a silent night. We don’t want to picture God’s people falling into sin and apostasy. Yet a season of preparation needs a reminder of the dangers of slipping carelessly into old habits. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of where we are, whether that’s a return to the ancestral homeland or the familiar holiday season. But excitement, if not reinforced by a dose of reality, can cause us to veer into unintended places.


What unintended places does this holiday season tempt us toward? Spending and consumerism have become unfortunate hallmarks of the season. Family plans and reunions can sometimes bring up jealousies, gossip, hurt feelings, or reopen past wounds. Showy displays and decorations may foster a competitive nature. Busy calendars can crowd out any sense of worship, reflection, or rest. The approach of Christmas is meant to be a time of joyous anticipation, but this ‘most wonderful time of the year’ often becomes overwhelming, stressful, and spiritually depleting.


God does not intend this to be so. In Malachi 3:1-4 the Lord declares, “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me.” The coming of this messenger will be as a time of preparation, a visit of one who is “a refiner and purifier.” God isn’t content with our reverting to old, unholy ways. God intends to restore His people.


Thankfully, the Great Refiner has already come. We make ready to celebrate His birth year after year. The Advent season is a reminder that Christ the purifier has come, but it’s more than that. Ours is not simply a backward-looking faith that merely remembers events of long ago. We’re reminded that as Christ came into our world two millennia ago, Christ will come again. And the Refiner is still at work within us. The question is, will our Advent reflect the comfortable and familiar, or the work of the Refiner?


Over the last several months I’ve taken notice of a handful of friends who have adopted a trendy new diet plan. This diet plan seems intense. They’re eating predominantly vegetables and boiled chicken for weeks at a time, even with restrictions on what kinds of raw veggies they can include. Week by week the plan changes. Eventually they regain breads, cheeses, or tomatoes. They’re meal planning with enthusiasm and are oddly excited about their rotating list of exercises, with each rotation getting harder. I’ve marveled at the weight loss and fitness gains, but don’t make the mistake of calling it a diet and exercise plan. These friends are insistent they’re on a lifestyle change. And I believe them. Normal fad diets wear off, but what they’re doing is different. Many months have passed yet they’re committed to this lifestyle. They’re purifying their bodies and changing how they live, for what seems like the long term.


Advent is meant to be a time of refinement and purification. We’re not meant to sing a few extra Christmas songs or do a simple Advent devotional and call it quits. God wants us to live changed lives in response to what He’s done and in anticipation of what He’s going to do.


I wonder how your Advent practices might be more of a lifestyle change rather than a season. Can the intentionality of writing cards and sending greetings become a regular practice of sharing compassion? Can our humming of Christmas carols become a regular meditation on the songs of faith? Can our swapping of baked goods become a surprise practice of hospitality throughout the year? Can our newfound devotional fervor become an ongoing habit? I can only imagine how our Advent practices might be better suited as our regular Christian life. What if Advent were a time of preparation that extended all the yearlong?


This Advent season, ask the Great Refiner to kindle the refiner’s fire within you. May we not revert to unholy practices of a frantic nature, but rather be filled with a fiery passion to love others, to share the joy of the Lord, and to anticipate all of God’s good news in the days to come and all year round. May your holiday preparations be holy preparations.


The Rev. Erik Grayson is the pastor in charge at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in North Charleston, South Carolina.


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