the refiner’s fire

Reflection for Evensong 23 June – Rev’d Barb

The readings from Malachi and Philippians lead us into the Holy Day for the Birth of John the Baptist. According to Luke, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth was six months pregnant when the angel came to Mary saying “Surprise! Surprise!” Hence we have this birthday date for John the Baptist at the mid-point of the year. Being in the middle of time periods was part of the lonely role of John the Baptist, set down in history between the time in which Hebrew Scripture was written, and the time in which Jesus began his teaching described in the New Testament. So John the Baptist is the prophet of transition, of that liminal space in which a profound shift of viewpoint is beginning to emerge. In fact John the Baptist saw himself as the catalyst for that shift. John understood that his call was to be the messenger sent by God to prepare the way of the Lord as described in Isaiah chapter 40 and in the first verse of chapter 3 of the Book of Malachi, which directly precedes the New Testament in many of our Bibles.

OK enough Biblical background, what’s it matter to us? Well it seems to me that our age is an age of transition, from modern and post-modern views of life and meaning to something profoundly different, not yet fully revealed. It’s a lonely and unsettling time for people of faith, when traditional communities are diminishing, and we sense we need to change but we are not sure how. In many areas, religion and spirituality are undergoing a paradigm shift similar to that occurring in the sciences, and the direction of both seems drawn toward a mystical view of the mystery of the universe, and a contemplative view of the unity of everything. Perhaps the John the Baptist figures of our age are writers like Richard Rohr, Joan Chittister and Ken Wilbur, and in Australia, Leunig, David Tacy, and Val Webb, all catalysts toward a profound shift of understanding of ourselves and the divine. It’s a liminal time, a wilderness full of dangers, temptations and potential insight. There are prophetic voices like John the Baptist calling out to us to turn around and find new life, while the Satanic voices still urge us to focus on security, fame and power. Like Jesus driven out into the wilderness by the Spirit, we are hungry and thirsty to explore who we are and who God is, and where we go from here. As the psalms today say: “As a deer longs for the running brooks: so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul is thirsty for God, thirsty for the living God….”O send out your light and your truth, and let them lead me.”

What light or truth do we get from the readings that might lead us towards a more connected and wholesome life? The Malachi reading tells us of the symbolic importance of the refiner’s fire, which separates the dross from the precious metal. There is this need to be stripped back to the essentials, which the contemplatives call our True Self in God. To me this relates to Richard Rohr’s writing on how necessary suffering can bring us into the wisdom and humility of the second half of life, where we are stripped of our competitive ego needs, and opened up to non-dualistic thinking, with its greater inclusiveness and capacity for love. The reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians has a similar message: all that he once regarded as gains in his religious and cultural life, the exclusiveness of his status as a Hebrew and a Pharisee, he now regards as loss because of Christ. Paul says: “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” That knowing is not conceptual theology, although that may follow, but personal experience of a relationship with the incarnate God, which transforms us into what we are meant to be, just as Paul was so radically transformed from a persecutor of the church into its foremost evangelist to a multicultural world. The failure to be open to such transforming experience is what leads our society into the sort of selfish and exploitative behaviour which Malachi speaks out against on behalf of the Lord: “against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of Hosts.” What then of Australian policy to thrust aside the alien, in our treatment of boat people and refugees? What selfish, competitive and oppressive behaviour do we need to repent of in our society? John the Baptist fiercely called on people to turn from such behaviours and be washed clean, ready for the new life which the Messiah will bring. He fearlessly confronted even people in the highest places and lost his life for the sake of the integrity of his prophetic voice.

In conclusion, there are two challenging questions I ask us all to take away to reflect on: Do we as Christians have the courage to speak out as voices in the wilderness? Can we believe or hope that we might be messengers preparing the way of the Lord?