Sister Joanna preached for the first time at Evensong on the 17th of December. Here follows her sermon, which is based on the first reading from that night, Malachi 3 1-4; 4 .
In our first reading tonight, from the prophet Malachi, we hear a prophecy. See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. Part of the excitement of Advent, for me, is in hearing the Old Testament prophecies of Jesus’ coming. Our hymns and carols of this season often use the key lines of these prophecies; you may have recognised Malachi’s description of the ‘sun of righteousness’ rising with ‘healing in its wings’ from ‘Hark the herald angels sing’.
The familiarity of this passage initially made it hard to decide what to talk about tonight. Although Malachi is one of the prophets we know the least about – we are not certain that Malachi was even his real name – this passage contains many famous phrases. The words ‘sun of righteousness’ and ‘refiner’s fire’ trip off the tongue without thought. But what can we make of ‘fuller’s soap’? And how do encounter the day ‘burning like an oven’, when evildoers become stubble?
The process of Fulling, as many of you may know, is the process by which rough cloth – usually wool – is cleansed and thickened. To remove the dirt and the grease, the wool had to be beaten and stretched. Fuller’s soap was an alkaline substance made from the ashes of plants local to the area; this would have been used to scrub the wool. Being a fuller would have been a physically demanding job; if you have ever handwashed a heavy woollen jumper, you can begin to imagine how heavy and tiring it would have been. When I looked up the term ‘fuller’ in preparation for this talk, I discovered that the Welsh for a fullering mill is actually ‘Pandy’.
The thing that interested me about both similes Malachi offers us here is that this messenger, who we know to be Jesus, is not placed as the fuller or the refiner himself. In the other names for Jesus given to us by the Old Testament prophecies we are told what Jesus is, given job titles: King, Lord, Messiah. But the coming messenger will not be the refiner or the fuller, operating on us from a safe distance – he is to be the fire itself, the fuller’s soap. And when we think about this, it is strange. Why not describe Jesus as the refiner, or the fuller? Often when we talk about God we draw on images of him as a creator and an artist, and I think it was not without design that Jesus was born a carpenter’s son. But this image is different, and I think it is different for a clear purpose. So why the fire, why the fuller’s soap? A few points: firstly, each of these things is defined by their relationship to the artist. The fuller makes the soap, and the motion of their hands makes work. And without the refiner, the fire is useless. And both belong intimately to their creator, and are tamed into tools for a very specific purpose. It is the intimacy of this relationship which indicates to us that the prophecy concerns Jesus, rather than John or Elijah; this person to come is God in action.
This brings me to my second point. By comparing Jesus to the fuller’s soap, or the refiner’s fire, Malachi is telling us more than just Jesus’ identity: he’s telling us what that identity means for us as Christians. Let’s use fulling as our example. In the fullers’ mill, any material that touches the soap is scrubbed. Going through the mill changes that material; it can’t help but come out clean. Malachi is telling us that when we encounter Jesus we will be changed by the Lord, irretrievably, permanently. And we will come out of that encounter ‘leaping like calves from the stall’. Think of the infectious joy of a herd of cows released from their barn after winter. I think Malachi realised that the people he was writing for had lost sight of that joy. They’re being warned in the strictest terms to let go of their sin, but there’s a promise in there that after they’ve walked through the fire, there will be the greatest happiness imaginable.
There’s a gamble in all of this, for us, a challenge. To encounter Jesus in this way we must let ourselves be moulded. If Jesus is the refiner’s fire or the fuller’s soap, than we are the metal, or the wool, with all its impurities. And it takes confidence and trust to be able to place yourself in God’s hands as material, and say ‘shape me’. We talk about having been formed by God, but I think there is a tendency in many of us to imagine that at some point not long after that, work on us is finished. In this way, we are the only authors of our own lives, but we have to live with the sins and failings we create in ourselves. But here in the Bible is a challenge to believe in our own potential. It’s easy to only hear the words about sin and struggle in this passage, but remember that we are only refined, only brought to God because we are made from the most valuable material. Because this isn’t a message just about destroying sin; it’s also about drawing out love. So we can present the bits of ourselves we find hard to live with, the things we’re ashamed of, joyfully to God and trust that in the refiner’s fire we will become something wonderful. Malachi is reminding us that the absolution God offers is more than just removing sin; it’s the beginning of a new and better life.
So what I want to leave you with is the image of God as the fuller’s soap. Perhaps when you drive past Pandy, it will remind you of this; that God, through Jesus, touches every part of our being. Malachi doesn’t promise that it will be gentle, or comfortable. But at the end, we will go out leaping like calves emerging into the meadow, joyful in the light of the Son.