The prophet Malachi – whom we heard in our first lesson – could not be using more extreme language to prepare us for the coming Messiah. Our messenger comes “like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap.”
- A refiner’s fire is a metallurgy process dating back to antiquity. A refiner’s fire is a crucible for heating precious metal, like gold and silver, to a molten state, from which then the dross – the impurities – are skimmed off. It’s a searing process, at a precise temperature for a specific length of time, which produces the pure, precious metal.
- The fullers were the launderers. Fuller’s soap is a caustic cleansing agent, made from lye and other repugnant chemicals.[i] Fuller’s soap was used to purify fabric and make it white. The stench from this soap was so great that the fullers had to work outside the Jerusalem city walls as they stamped on garments with their feet or used wooden bats in tubs of this blanching soap.
Similes and metaphors are woven into the scriptures, from beginning to end. What these two similes – the refiner’s fire and fuller’s soap – have in common are their extremes.[ii] A refiner’s fire and fuller’s soap are the most, most, most extreme similes we will find in the scriptures. How do we come by them? We will be prepared, like by a refiner’s fire and like with fuller’s soap, to meet the Messiah, or to meet the Messiah again. Which would not be good news. Which would be appallingly-bad news… unless this is the state in which you already find yourself. Unless there is something going on in your life, beyond your choice or control, which may be very painful, very exposing, very humbling, very clarifying, freeing you of what is less than genuine in your life.
We don’t place ourselves into the refiner’s fire; we don’t plunge ourselves into a vat of fuller’s soap. This will be done to us, or for us, to prepare us to meet the Messiah. If life for you becomes a painful crucible; if life for you is exposing everything that is less than genuine, the word of hope is that we will meet God, or God will meet us, in this. This is the way; this may be the only way. That being the case, then what is so appallingly difficult, perhaps extremely painful in life, would not be bad. It would simply be extremely difficult and painful, but good. And, in the fullness of time, we would know it as a very severe mercy.[iii]
[i]Fuller’s soap was made from many different substances, among them lye, white clay, putrid urine, and the ashes from the burning of certain desert plants.
[ii]Another severe metaphor appears repeatedly in the scriptures: of God being the potter and we, the clay, e.g., Isaiah 29:16, 41:25, 45:9, 64:8; Jeremiah 18:1-12; Ecclesiasticus 33:13, 38:29; Romans 9:21.
[iii]A riff on Galatians 4:4-7: “In the fullness of time…”
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