The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Hot, Hot, Hot

The Refiner’s Fire

by Nanette Sawyer

Old Testament Reading: Malachi 3:1-4

For Sunday, December 2, 2012:  Year C—Advent 2

Untangling punishment from purification is a difficult task and an urgent one for the contemporary preacher. When I read or hear of God in the same breath as “fire,” or “burning like an oven,” I think of condemnatory preachers identifying the wicked people who need to be punished (and it’s never the preacher’s own self.)

Refining Refinement

Our text in chapter 3 talks about refining like gold the descendants of Levi “until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.” This reminds me of being told as a child that I was “going to go to church” until I “learned to love” my sisters. It wasn’t actually effective as a technique to generate love. Threat as a strategy has only ever generated fear and resentment in me. Not love. And not “righteousness.”

I do hope (and trust) that there will be real consequences for real wrong-doings, so if I read on past today’s portion into verse 5, I read things that seem reasonable. God will “bear witness” against people harming other people. Good!

Except that sometimes I harm other people, too…uh oh.

Those Who Do Not Fear God

Verse 5 ends with God bearing witness against those who “do not fear me.” I did a biblical word study once on “fear of God,” searching out all the times it occurs in the bible. In almost all cases this idea was invoked in relation to injustice. Fear of God seems to be used biblically as a strategy to try to get people to do the right thing. It’s almost like you’re going to fear me until you learn to do the right thing.

This strategy creates so many theological problems—but the implication is that people who really fear God do act with justice.

It’s Not My Fault, It’s Your Fault

The book of Malachi reads like a court case with defendants making counter-arguments about who is at fault, the people or God. In the verses right before today’s text the people deny that they’ve been wearisome to God, but the prophet points out how exhausting it is to God to hear the people say that evil-doers are good and that the God of Justice is not present (2:17).

The charge against God is either that God is not just, or that God is not present. But the charge back is that humans can’t tell the difference between right and wrong. God’s response? Just wait till your father gets home. “Then I will draw near to you for judgment” (3:5).

A Divine Test?

Yes, evil has consequences. But the theological problem is this: evil happens in and through every single human being. There’s no such being as “the righteous” or “the wicked,” even though God says that they, the evildoers, will be burned in an oven. (3:18-4:1)

It’s this sort of thing that caused Luther to leave the Catholic Church. He knew that he could never qualify as the righteous. He could never be good enough.  And neither can we.

I think this text might be a divine test, to see if we’ll start pointing fingers at “those people,” the evil ones, trying to say that we’re the good ones.

The Hardest Question

The hardest question I have to ask in reflection on this story is: Where are we called to look for evil? Over there? Or in here? And what about when we do see evil over there? What then?

How do you read?

Nanette Sawyer is the founding pastor of Grace Commons (formerly known as Wicker Park Grace), an emerging faith community that gathers in an art gallery on the west side of Chicago. Ordained in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), she has blogged at The Christian Century’s lectionary blog, the Emergent Village Blog at Patheos, and at She has a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School and an MDiv from McCormick Theological Studies, where she has also taught as adjunct faculty. She is the author of Hospitality: The Sacred Art.

How do you read?